NDSU students spend semester studying Wadena
More than three years after a tornado ripped through Wadena, a North Dakota State University sociology class spent last semester assessing the community.
"We were looking at Wadena as a model community for disaster recovery," said Gary Goreham, sociology professor.
Throughout the fall, Goreham's community assessment class - with 21 students from a variety of majors - looked at the city from an objective outsider's perspective, using census data, personal interviews and observation to identify the city's strengths and suggest ways it could improve. Students compiled their findings into a book, which they sent to the 16-member Wadena Advisory Committee, a group of elected officials and other community leaders who served as local experts on the project.
"We were looking at the assets of the community, the strengths and the resources and how those are to be leveraged for development projects," Goreham said.
The field of community assessment has shifted, he said, from focusing on deficits to capitalizing on strengths. "You can't fill potholes with problems."
In the past, NDSU classes have assessed Valley City, ND (a college town), Enderlin, ND (a farming town), Casselton, ND (a commuter town) and Pelican Rapids (a small town with a diverse population), among others.
Last semester's book breaks Wadena down into seven categories of "community capital": cultural, financial, human, social, political, natural and built. Groups of students wrote a chapter on each. They also devoted a chapter to Wadena's local governments and another that explored the community development organizations.
Besides sociology students, the community assessment class included landscape architecture, emergency management, economics and English majors. "I try to keep them as diverse as possible," Goreham said.
He said some students will likely go on to become city planners, administrators or development directors, but even if they follow different career paths, he hopes they all become good citizens - and perhaps run for local government. "My goal is they'll all be active participants in their community because they have the skills to do so."
A couple of class members were graduate students, including Kory Bonnell, a natural resources management doctoral candidate who helped write the "defining Wadena" introduction and natural capital chapter. She also edited the book before publication.
Bonnell said Wadena is a classic small town with great character that has done a great job making the most of the tornado tragedy, whether it be the new high school or the Maslowski Wellness and Research Center.
"They really looked ahead as opposed to being bogged down by the events that took place," she said. "I think that's a huge selling point for Wadena. They are going to find that to be a key asset."
One area where the town could improve, Bonnell said, is expand the number of people involved in community leadership. "If you are using the same people over and over again, you're going to exhaust your leadership abilities."
Her classmate Matt Ellingson, a landscape architecture student, helped write the political capital chapter. His group found Wadena could do a better job of empowering senior citizens and those with disabilities.
"There are definitely some issues with voice in the community," Ellingson said.
But he noted that Wadena does a better job than other communities of politically representing the economically disadvantaged.
While most of the NDSU students hadn't been to Wadena before, landscape architecture major Erica Miron was very familiar. The 2011 WDC graduate said the class gave her a new perspective on her hometown.
"The general consensus between my classmates was that Wadena was a dying town," Miron said. "When we learned about how everything works in Wadena, I realized they're doing everything they can to make Wadena a thriving community."
Goreham said he hopes identifying assets leads Wadena leaders to "take the document and the presentation and be able to use them in their own projects."
Students also want their work to live on beyond the semester.
"My hope is they will look at the report and see that they do have the foundations of what makes a well-balanced and well-structured rural community," Bonnell said.
WDC Superintendent Lee Westrum, an advisory group member, said whether or not the community uses specific recommendations, there's a value to an objective point of view. "It's kind of a debriefing for the community."
Having recently moved to town, Westrum said he learned a lot about Wadena throughout the process. "It was personally quite interesting and valuable for me."
City Administrator Brad Swenson, another advisory group member, said he hopes the book "is a useful tool."
Mayor Wayne Wolden praised the NDSU students' work.
"It's been interesting," said Wolden, an advisory group member. "There's been some really thoughtful ideas that have come out."