HECUA at 50

Hamline University and HECUA: Decades of Partnership

Yasmin Hirsi smiling with colleagues

As we celebrate HECUA’s 50 years as an organization, we are highlighting the institutions who were part of our founding, and who remain integral to our mission to this day. Throughout the next year, we will be featuring these founding institutions that created the Higher Education Consortium for Urban Affairs (HECUA) and who continue to serve as consortium members today. In this post, we are featuring Hamline University.

Since 1969, when Hamline students Carol Miller and Barb Berquist took part in an experiment in community-based service learning called the “Crisis Colony” in Minneapolis, more than 270 Hamline students have participated in one or more programs provided by the Higher Education Consortium for Urban Affairs, officially founded 50 years ago.

Hamline faculty were among the founding directors of HECUA; Hamline has long served as the institution of record for the academic credit that students earn through HECUA courses; for a time, HECUA’s program office was located on the Hamline campus–across from the old President’s House on Hewitt. The half century of organizational and personal collaboration between Hamline faculty and students and HECUA staff, teachers, and alumni, both in the field and on campus, has nourished Hamline’s social justice mission, and provided avenues for learning in, and from, communities beyond classroom walls. 

Don Irish, a Hamline Sociology professor, was one of HECUA’s founding members. Don had a well-developed professional interest in what he called “experiential sociology,” as well as a deep commitment to racial equality and social justice. Don served as the Secretary of HECUA in its formative years and later as President of the Board of Directors. At Hamline, he also launched an Urban Studies program, designed to make a laboratory of the seven county metropolitan area of the Twin Cities. The program combined academic coursework with field visits to metropolitan agencies serving various community needs, attendance at official meetings of city and suburban government bodies, with individual research carried out in community.  

“Urban Affairs” provided the focus for HECUA’s first programs. Augsburg’s Ewald Bash explained the program he directed as follows:

What we’re trying to do is to experience the crisis of American society – – Race and poverty. The idea is to let the community teach us. That’s why it’s important for us to be right here on the North side (of Minneapolis).

Following the initial “Crisis Colony”, Hamline students participated in successor HECUA programs, such as Inequality in America, starting in 1972; Community Internships in Latin America in the 1990s. City Arts, now called Art for Social Change in 2012, also attracted a lot of Hamline students over the years, as did the Scandinavian Urban Studies Term, and Democracy & Social Change in Northern Ireland, now Conflict, Peace and Transition. More recently, Hamline students have been drawn to HECUA’s Environmental programs, both in Minnesota, as well as in New Zealand and Italy.

Hamline’s current representative on HECUA’s Board of Directors, history professor Kate Bjork, recently spoke with Hamline alumni about their experiences with HECUA. Here’s what they still find impactful about their experiences through HECUA when they were Hamline students:

Katie Marshall ‘04

Katie Marshall, who is Executive Director of the MacRostie Art Center in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, credits HECUA with helping her contextualize her education and “connect the dots” between her Liberal Arts education and “how I wanted to show up in the world,” as she put it in a phone interview earlier this year.

Before graduating from Hamline in 2004, Katie participated in two HECUA programs: Democracy and Social Change in Northern Ireland (now Conflict, Peace and Transition) and Environmental Sustainability (now Environmental Justice). What drew her to the programs, she reflected, was a desire she had to engage in more applied education and a commitment to social justice. There was a certain amount of serendipity involved, as well. Katie, who began her college career as a Biology major, was in the process of reworking her whole academic program. She learned about the Northern Ireland program in Professor Earl Schwartz’s Social Justice class. 

“I’m not usually an intuitive person,” Katie said, but she felt strongly this was something that she wanted to do. “It was an incredible program,” Katie said, citing the cohort model, and combination of home stay and time spent at the University as factors that contributed to a broad learning experience. She also did an internship with a political party. “I loved the experience,” she said.

The integrated education model left Katie looking for more opportunities for hands-on learning. “It was hard for me to imagine going back to regular classes on campus,” she remembered.

Once back in Minnesota, Katie enrolled in HECUA’s Environmental Sustainability program for the following fall. She also built on her study of social movements in Northern Ireland to write an Honors thesis on movements for Women’s Rights in Ireland. She noted similarities in how civil rights movements in the U.S. and Ireland were built and sustained.

“The Environmental Studies program in particular,” Katie said, “led me to think a lot about a sense of place and how that was something that was really important to me.” She noted that this had an impact on her decision to move back to northern Minnesota, and the importance that playing a role in her community had for her. “HECUA helped me think a lot about my future.”

Trung Le Nguyen, ‘12

For artist and author Trung Le Nguyen, participating in City Arts (now Art for Social Change) provided an introduction to thinking about the social spaces art occupies and how art relates to community. At Hamline, Trung’s artistic ability was well recognized by peers and professors alike. He majored in Art, and graduated in 2012. As the son of immigrants and a first generation college student, Trung noted that he was “very career-oriented” about his education. He reflected that his HECUA experience helped him to recognize art as existing “within a sphere that is not just professional but also personal.” Trung added that the experiences he had with HECUA also helped him to understand art as a medium that creates communication and connection between people who don’t share the same cultural “vernacular,” which is also a theme of his acclaimed graphic novel, The Magic Fish, which was published by Random House last year. 

In the book, fairy tales provide a medium for connection and expression of love between the protagonist Tien and his mother, as each confronts challenges of intergenerational communication, exile and questions of identity, belonging, and in Tien’s case, the question of how to tell his parents that he is gay; fairy tales offer the discursive language for that, too. In an author’s note, Trung writes, “I wanted to explore how stories can serve both as an escape and as an anchor for us in our real lives, and maybe, for at least one story, decenter the gravity of marginalization to tell a story about one of the little pieces that orbit around it.”

Trung’s book is a testament to the power of stories to connect us to one another, to the past, and to share visions of a better shared future.

Yasmin Hirsi ‘21

Hamline alum Yasmin Hirsi ’21 participated in HECUA’s program Conflict, Peace and Transition in Northern Ireland in spring 2020. Although the program was disrupted halfway through due to the COVID-19 outbreak, Yasmin still completed the program with new insights into conflict transformation and peace-building. She recounts learning from a guest speaker who had been both a perpetrator and victim of violence.

“He shared his personal story of what it means to cross the line of once being an impacted individual versus seeking to cause harm in the name of justice,” Yasmin recalls. “This was impactful for me because I had to question the notion of justice and how that looks. It is still something that I am grappling with, especially after the summer 2020 uprisings in Minneapolis after the lynching of George Floyd.

This program influenced the way that I approach talking about conflicts and the historical implications of oppression. For many, the past stays as such while others continue to live out its consequences. I was very appreciative of the personal stories the people of Northern Ireland shared with us. Coming into this program and reading articles about The Troubles, it’s easy to make assumptions, however when you meet the folks who have been personally impacted, you are met with raw depictions and many different realities.”

For generations of Hamline students, HECUA programs have provided the space in which to hear and share stories about what it means to learn in community, and to discover, in Katie’s words, how they want to show up in the world. 


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