Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.

MinnPost's education reporting is made possible by a grant from the Bush Foundation.

Higher ed at the Fair: From Tommie Totes to the U’s Gridlock Buster

Minnesota’s colleges and universities connect with the public and reconnect with their alumni.

The University of St. Thomas' purple Tommie Tote-Bags are so popular the university actually posts a schedule for giving them out.
MinnPost photo by Joe Kimball

Never mind the Stratosphere swing, the River Raft ride or the pigs, possibly viral and possibly just piggy, you know what’s going great at the Great Minnesota Get Together? Higher ed’s efforts to connect with the public.

Your Humble Blogger had little idea back in the days before she was asked to bone up on Minnesota’s colleges and universities that the various education booths and buildings at the State Fair were more than a place to walk off that poutine. This was, as the kids say, my bad. Very, very bad.

It seems our loyalties to our alma maters run as deep as our conviction that one is superior, corn dogs or Pronto Pups. We want our schools to show up and represent, and when they don’t, well, we don’t feel the get-together has been had.

Case in point: The University of St. Thomas’ purple Tommie Tote-Bags (if you click, be sure to scroll down to see the bag sighting photos from around the world). Do you know about these? They’re so popular the university — whose faux-arch framed booth is the Education Building real-estate equivalent of landing on Boardwalk — actually posts a schedule for giving them out.

Article continues after advertisement

This year the bags are being given away 625 at a time, for a total run of 30,000. Lots of people collect them, so the stakes are high.

So far this year people are lining up 45 minutes to an hour in advance of the four posted daily giveaways, said Joanne Pauley, who is formally known as St. Thomas’ associate director of marketing and communications, sometimes referred to as “The Bag Lady” and a quick enough wit to suggest that the “Fair Lady” makes her happier.

New this year is St. Catherine University, which applied for and was granted a permit to set up shop in the Education Building after it learned it was the second-most-missed institution listed on fairgoer comment cards.

Alums reconnecting

St. Kate’s brass planned a “cozy” booth, figuring they might have trouble rounding up the 160 volunteers they’d need to staff it with one faculty member, one alum and one current student for the fair’s duration. They put a note on their website weeks ago and got more than 200 requests to participate.

Those volunteers are hopping, too. In the first four days this year, 800 alums have filled out cards updating their contact info, getting back on the magazine mailing list or otherwise reconnecting, according to Annual Fund Director Stacy Rooney.

While they’re there, they’ve been asking questions, swapping stories and telling their kids about the good old days. Every completed card has been exchanged for a luggage tag, “So St. Kate’s can be with them everywhere they journey,” said Rooney.

“We host events and invite people to come back to campus, but nothing compares to this,” she added. “They’re already there with their families. It’s fun to see the love.”

U offers ‘something for everyone’

On the other end of the scale, the University of Minnesota occupies eight different fairground locations, from which it hosts a seemingly endless series of events designed to engage an even broader audience: Taxpayers, voters and others who need reminding that its benefit to the state’s economy is an eye-popping $8.6 billion, according to Jason Rohloff, special assistant to the president for government and community relations.

“There is really something for everyone at the University of Minnesota booths on campus,” he continued. “If you’re interested in science, you can check out the really innovative pollination research that’s happening and better understand bee pollination. If you want to know more about the solar system, there’s an ability to engage with some of our experts in that area. If you’re interested in medicine, we have on-site dieticians who could help you better understand the benefits of eating healthy.”

Article continues after advertisement

UMN 2012 State Fair booth
MinnPost photo by Joe KimballThe University of Minnesota occupies eight different fairground locations.

Rohloff was just getting going: “If you have a suspicious mole on your body that you would like to have checked out, we’ll have personnel there to be able to help determine whether or not you need some additional consultation with some more physicians. We will have a peek into different types of surgery that actually happen at our Academic Health Center.

From renewable energy to the Distraction Dodger

“If you’re interested in engineering, we’ll have some projects related to renewable energy… the University of Minnesota Morris campus is a great example of some of this work. If you’re interested in transportation, we will have our Center for Transportation Studies experts on hand, [with] a game called Distraction Dodger or Gridlock Buster to better familiarize Minnesotans with the effects of playing with your cell phone in your car or trying to text. … You have an opportunity to talk with individuals who are familiar with equipment that is placed in the Gulf of Mexico to monitor water quality from the 2010 Deep Water Horizon oil spill.”

Phew. He could go on, or you could spare my fingers and check out the exhaustive schedule for yourself.  

Not convinced yet? Booth visitors can use iPads to look up the U of M’s impact on their very own neighborhood.

“We are really there to be able to show what’s unique about the state’s only research university and how we impact people’s lives on a daily basis,” said Rohloff.“Approximately 17 percent of our operating budget comes from the state of Minnesota. And for every dollar that the state invests, we generate back $13.20.”

No, there are no bags, but they do have fans. The sticks are all the same, but visitors can choose the mascot attached to theirs from any of the U of M’s coordinate campuses.