by Joyce Helens, President, St. Cloud Technical & Community College
September 26, 2015
The St. Cloud area’s foreign-born population is 9.1 percent. That tells us about population movement, but it is the migration stories that relate true understanding of our collective human condition.
Immigration is not a recent event in Minnesota.
In the mid-1850s, foreign-born settlers arrived from European and Scandinavian countries, and by the 1890s the immigrant population reached 40 percent in Minnesota, with election instructions issued in nine languages. At that time, the rest of the United States was only at 15 percent foreign-born.
According to the American Community Survey one-year estimates, reported Sept. 17 by the Times, the St. Cloud area’s foreign-born population is now 9.1 percent.
These statistics tell us about population movement, but it is the migration stories behind the numbers that give us a personal glimpse of the emigration experience. This is where true understanding of our collective human condition begins.
We can begin with our own migration narrative to understand the experience of leaving one’s country to plant roots in another.
My grandparents emigrated from Poland and Lithuania to the United States around 1910 to escape the “Russification” of their homelands, conflict and lack of economic opportunity. Some in my family came by freighter, some died on the way. Some had education, others were illiterate. All spoke several languages. None, however, spoke English. They had skills but no jobs upon arriving and very little money. But what they all came with was a vision for a better life for their children through education. And they were proud to be “Americans.”
Eventually members of my immigrant family opened and ran successful businesses. Their grandchildren, like me, went to college and became professionally employed. None of it was easy. They worked hard, held several jobs when necessary, and sent money to relatives still living in the “old country.”
They lived in neighborhoods that reflected their ethnic identity, but by the time the next generation came along and grew up, English was the primary language spoken, and my family was assimilated into their new culture.
How different is my family’s experience from others who were brave enough to leave their own country behind to travel to a place that was so different because of the promise of a better life? I think the similarities probably outweigh the differences.
I reconnected not long ago with a former St. Cloud Technical & Community College student, Hudda Ibrahim, who is from Somalia.
Hudda, as you might imagine, also has a migration story. Her family was forced to flee Somalia when war broke out. Hudda lost her mother and family members, experienced refugee camp living and multiple flights to escape death and destruction. Eventually she and some family immigrated to Minnesota. She remembers her grandfather and mother’s emphasis on getting an education, so Hudda enrolled at SCTCC in 2007.
Hudda worked hard on her English proficiency and her classes. She became active in student government and in her community. After Hudda left SCTCC in 2010, she went on to attain a baccalaureate degree from the College of St Benedict and a master’s degree in International Peace Studies from Notre Dame University.
Today Hudda teaches at SCTCC and works in admissions, advising our foreign-born students and assisting them to successfully navigate the higher education landscape. She understands the stories our foreign-born students carry; she understands the dreams they have for a better life through education and she is proud to be an American.
I connect with Hudda on several levels.
First, I understand how difficult it can be for a family to be looked at as “different” when all they want is to be is accepted. Second, I understand the thirst for knowledge and desire for an education. Third, I understand the need to “give back” to my community to help them move forward in attaining their dreams.
From my own family’s migration story, I can connect with others like Hudda, to find appreciation for our differences because our similarities form the foundation for understanding that working together makes us individually and collectively better citizens and Americans.
This is the opinion of St. Cloud Technical & Community College President Joyce Helens. To A Higher Degree is published the fourth Sunday of the month and rotates among the presidents of the four largest Central Minnesota higher education institutions.