I have been to many special places in Minnesota.
I’ve sat in the bed of my friend’s pickup, looking up at the eternal glow of the midnight stars, as he hurtled the little Ford around S-shaped Northern Minnesotan roads. I’ve watched a man propose to his girlfriend in the observation deck of the Prospect Park Witch’s Hat Tower, a beautiful foreground to the orange sun, setting over the grey flour mills of Minneapolis. However, there is something that makes the University of Minnesota distinctive to these special places of mine: it is where the future of Minnesota begins.
Unlike these other memories, its exceptionalism is ever present. I never miss it as I may miss the sunset. The distinctive exceptionalism of the University of Minnesota is ever unfolding: a better future for all Minnesotans, continuously worked at by men and women who spend their days researching, solving, and conjecturing under fluorescent lights. A beautiful sun always setting.
This future begins with the students who inhabit the University. Minnesotan teenagers of the plains, northern woods, and towering concrete high-rises leave the ideologically comfortable spaces of their homes to create new lives in the buzzing city. Joining them are international and out-of-state students, who see opportunity in the Minnesotan way of life. These new Gophers have started their own companies, fled their home country as refugees, and accumulated national championships.
The environment at the University of Minnesota is a perpetual, blossoming spring because of these students. There is constant cultural exchange — cross pollination, if you may. A Hmong girl from St. Paul is going to be in a study group with a boy from St. Peter, Minnesota. The rural will meet the urban. Students learn that succeeding means working with people different from them. Excellence requires students to put aside their differences and work together.
This cultural exchange thrives in the social atmosphere at the University. The opinion sections of this newspaper and other campus papers are brimming with ideas and new modes of thought. Roy Wilkins, Bob Dylan and countless notable others once anxiously walked across Northrop Mall with a sagging backpack and an armful of books, just like you and me. They spoke and sang passionately about the issues of their time. I can’t tell you exactly what you individually must do to change things, but you must do something. Change could be a protest down University Avenue or picketing a Board of Regents meeting. You know your talents best. Someday, as a result of our experiences at the University, maybe one of us will bring a lawsuit to the Minnesota Supreme Court or run an insurgent campaign for government office.
It can be stressful under this shadow of expectations and history. It certainly is for me. Reading our alumni list is encouraging when I think about whether or not I made the right choice going here, but it is daunting to think of the people before you, who had to make do with less and still achieved more. I have to remind myself everyday that I am good where I am.
Garrison Keillor certainly didn’t know what he was doing the minute he stepped into Coffman, but he knew there was something exceptional happening up on the Mississippi river bluffs. The future of Minnesota is unfolding here, and you and I can be a part of that by exploring and creating our own futures.