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Should I stay or should I go? Voices from rural Minnesota

Kelly Schoenfelder graduated from the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, then returned to her hometown of Grand Marais.
Courtesy of Kelly Schoenfelder
Kelly Schoenfelder graduated from the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, then returned to her hometown of Grand Marais.

Editor's note: In the coming months, "Rural Minnesota: A Generation at the Crossroads" will feature both traditional stories and ongoing interactions with young people throughout the state. The project will explore their lives, the decisions they face, and how their choices might shape Greater Minnesota in the years to come. We've created an interactive map you can access by clicking any of the highlighted town names. Today, Jeff Severns Guntzel collects some of the voices from rural Minnesota he's collected through interviews and correspondence.

Related: What we're doing in rural Minnesota (and how you can help)

Every conversation I've had with a young person in rural Minnesota eventually gets around to the question of staying or leaving – for college or forever. Here they are, in their own words, explaining their answer to what is sometimes a very complicated question.

Tasha Cary, 19, is in her first year at Hibbing Community College, where she's working toward a transfer to the North Dakota State University in Fargo to study radiology. She doesn't know whether she'll return to Hibbing, but she knows she feels more comfortable in a small community.

I like small town life. I just like that you don't have to really be going all the time. I like that it's easy to get around. Usually everybody is all in the same area. I went to the cities last weekend and it's a lot different. When you're going down the street all you see is buildings. Here you actually see the sky and trees.

But we're kind of stuck in time. I feel like we're kind of in our own little world here. When I go anywhere else it's kind of abstract to be – like when you go anywhere that's populated – I get anxious.

Matthew Sullivan, 19, says he's leaving Hibbing for good – he has Minneapolis in his sights.

I'm definitely not coming back. I like things going on. I like culture; I like theater; I like technology. There's definitely the Iron Ranger mentality with a lot of the older folks here. They grew up with mining; their parents were miners; they're gonna go be a miner. That's all they know – it's all they want to know – and they're stuck to that path. Those types of people don't often care about computers or technology.

Matthew Sullivan
Courtesy of Matthew Sullivan
Matthew Sullivan

I'm a computer programmer and I want to be around other people who do that kind of thing, and you're not going to find that around here.

Brooke Devine, 20, falls somewhere in the middle. Most of her friends who left for college right after high school are back already.

I would be content if I came back or if I didn't. It's a really nice place to raise kids. There's not a lot of crime. I'm glad I grew up here. In high school it stunk because I was so fed up with having nothing to do. I thought I hated Hibbing – I couldn't wait to graduate and get out of here. But then I graduated and I'm still here, and Hibbing's not bad anymore. It was just high school that was lame.

Brooke Devine
Courtesy of Brooke Devine
Brooke Devine

Stuart Lourey, 17, is a student at East Central High School in Finlayson.

I don't think I'll go to college nearby, but it's not the small community I'm trying to escape. I'm looking for new experiences, but I feel that I function best with a relatively small crowd. I like knowing everyone, and community is important to me. I hope to go to a small liberal-arts college.

I just visited a couple of colleges in Ohio and all the other students were worried about how tiny the college towns were. They were concerned that there would be nothing to do. These towns were much larger than Kerrick or even Sandstone!

My family will support me leaving, but it will be hard to leave them behind. My family is busy enough, and when I leave there will be one less person to help. But I have to go sometime. Any family crisis would bring me back. I value family.

Friends will pressure me to stay, but I think it is important for me to go out and meet new kinds of people elsewhere while still working to maintain the relationships I have here.

To be honest, I'm not sure if I'll return when college is over. In a way I can't imagine living anywhere else. Maybe this is because I haven't lived anywhere else. I plan to travel and live many different places and eventually learn that my hometown is in fact the best place on earth.

If I do return after college I see myself living near where I grew up. We have a lot of land here. I think I would build here and raise my kids in the country. I plan on becoming something important but who knows what. With the Internet and other forms of communication getting more advanced every day, it should not be hard to make a good living in the sticks.

Grand Marais
Kelly Schoenfelder, 21, just graduated from the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where she studied journalism. She returned to her hometown of Grand Marais and is still sorting out how it feels to be back. She splits her time between a job as a producer for the community radio station and a waitress at a restaurant in town.

I can live really well here and not pay anything – I mean, my health insurance is almost as much as my rent. That's a draw when you're just out of college and you have no cash whatsoever. But most of my close friends are still in school somewhere else so it's basically been just me. They’ll all be here this summer to work – up here there’s nothing like being in Grand Marais during the summer for jobs. The people I grew up with here, we all started working at 14. The minute we could start working we did because it was something to do. You could spend all summer outside in Cook County – canoeing, hiking, swimming, whatever – but most of us grew up doing that stuff working was something different to do.

Here, everybody knows you and everything about you whether you like it or not. That's good and bad. I like being anonymous. I like being able to walk down the street and nobody knows who you are.

I think this is the place to be once I’ve decided to settle a little bit. I don’t know what that means even, but it would be cool to travel around a little bit – get out of Minnesota.

Join the discussion! Email Jeff Severns Guntzel at

SATURDAY: A Somali college student bears out census findings: For him, rural Minnesota is home.

This project is made possible by a grant from the Otto Bremer Foundation. Join the conversation on Facebook's Live From Rural Minnesota page, and follow the project on Tumblr and Twitter.

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