Beyond the Classroom: HECUA at 50

Our Beginning: Crisis Colony

Black and white photo of Crisis Colony students sitting on front porch.

As we look to our future, we look back on where we have been. In this series of HECUA at 50, we will be featuring alumni, consortium members and other community members whose stories weave together to tell the story of who we are, where we’ve been, and where we are going. In this post, we’re highlighting alumni from HECUA’s first program: Crisis Colony. 

“Crisis Colony meant a lot to me. It was an amazing program. Some of it I remember like it was yesterday.”  — Tonia Papke, Crisis Colony ’71.

In 1971, the Higher Education Consortium for Urban Affairs (HECUA) was incorporated as a 501c3. As we look to HECUA’s future, we look back on the five decades of experiential education that have brought us to this moment.

We spoke with three alumni from Crisis Colony—who have stayed in touch through the years— to hear about their experiences. Crisis Colony was our first program which became the Metro Urban Studies Term (MUST) and evolved into our current Inequality in America program.

Deborah Jean Templin, Dan Paris and Tonia Papke all participated in Crisis Colony, 1971. There were 20 students — including Deborah, Dan and Tonia — who lived in a converted four-plex at the intersection of Chicago Avenue and 26th Street in South Minneapolis. They were the first cohort under the newly formed 501(c) nonprofit, HECUA. 

Shared community living was a unique aspect of HECUA’s first urban semester program. Today, most HECUA students in our Twin Cities programs reside in dormitories on their respective campuses. Deborah, Dan and Tonia all spoke about the significance of communal living as part of their experiences.

“It really taught me how to see things from other people’s perspectives,” Dan shared.

“Crisis Colony was all about living together,” Tonia reflected. “It was hard sometimes – you were learning to be a community of twenty people. It could be stressful, but we were a group. We were a family. That kind of experience was just as important as getting a job, or being of service to the tenant’s union.” (Tonia interned with a tenant’s union during the program.)

Though the program itself was “loosely structured,” Dan recalls volunteering with various community organizations, including health centers and methadone clinics. He often accompanied nursing home residents for errands such as grocery shopping. 

Inside the commune on Chicago Ave and 26th Street, all three alumni remembered having passionate discussions about the Women’s Movement, feminism and the Vietnam War. Guest speakers regularly came to deliver lectures and facilitate discussion. Among these guest speakers were local non-profit leaders, city council members, state representatives, and social justice activists. The idea of learning from non-academic sources was a relatively new concept in alternative education at the time. 

As part of their coursework, students were encouraged to keep a daily journal of their experiences. Fifty years later, Deborah still has her journal. She shared some of her notes and recollections with us.

“We spoke a lot about the role of women in society,” Deborah recalled. “Someone in the house had a sticker that said ‘This exploits women.’ When someone said something bad, she would pat them on the back or right on their forehead with the sticker. The men quickly learned that we [women]weren’t going to do all the cooking.”

Dan remembers cooking for everyone in the house, which he says “gave me the opportunity to explore my joy of cooking,” a hobby that he has continued throughout his life.

Deborah, Dan and Tonia all fondly recalled the non-human member of the community, a pig named Pigasus. Deborah informed us that the pig’s namesake was Pigasus of the Chicago 1968 riots at the DNC National Convention. Eventually, Pigasus of Crisis Colony was relocated to a local farm, which was deemed a more suitable environment.

While these three HECUA alumni have all followed different paths in life, they each emphasized the impact that Crisis Colony had on their lives.

“What I got out of the program was learning to listen to people about what they need, not being afraid to talk to people living in poverty, human-to-human. I learned how to listen to what they need and figure out what I could possibly do to help. You learn to take people as they are. That’s not a small thing. It’s something that has stayed with me all my life,” Tonia reflected.

At a time when experiential education was considered experimental and “alternative” in higher education, we are grateful to these early alumni who chose to take a chance on an emerging organization called HECUA.

Where are they now? 

Deborah Jean Templin is a professional actor/singer/playwright. She lives in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Tonia Papke also resides in New York. She has worked at the intersection of international development, finance and business in government, private and non-profit sectors. Dan Paris lives in Palm Springs, California. He is a food writer and General Contractor specializing in hand scribed log homes, ICF (Insulated Concrete Forms) net zero energy homes. 

Many thanks to Deborah, Dan and Tonia for taking the time to speak with us about their experiences in Crisis Colony.

If you are an alum of HECUA, we want to hear your story! Send us an email at to get in touch.

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