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Minnesota State University, Mankato
Minnesota State University, Mankato

Stimulating Scholarship

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Stimulating Scholarship

A Look at Several Well–Regarded Minnesota State Mankato Programs and the Innovative Learning Environments They Create for Both Students and Faculty

by Joe Tougas ’86

Stimulating ScholarshipIn some circles, it's called baptism by fire. In others, it's called project–based learning. In several of Minnesota State University, Mankato's programs, it's called business as usual. And dividends of that business include national reputations, exhilarated students and grateful alumni.

The expertise and experience of the faculty at Minnesota State Mankato have resulted in several "signature" programs that not only attract top students but also keep them engaged and active during their academic careers. The innovative learning environments that such faculty create help stimulate creativity and encourage scholarly success. They also encourage even undergraduate students to develop a taste for research and the rewards it can bring.

Center Stage

Things took a dramatic turn for Minnesota State Mankato's theatre program in the 1960s, when Ted Paul – the plain–spoken, lanky director reminiscent of John Huston – steered the program away from esoteric productions and into more diverse offerings. It was a philosophy that stuck, and one that current department chair Paul Hustoles says is dedicated to preparing students for the real world of theatre – a world in which they need to be ready for both dark, intense drama and the ol' razzle dazzle.

"I want our students to be able to get work at the Guthrie and the Chanhassen Dinner Theater," says Hustoles, now in his 20th year as chair of the Department of Theatre and Dance.

Before arriving in Mankato, Hustoles, who received his Ph.D. from Texas Tech, was already hiring grads whose resumes included work in Minnesota State Mankato's Highland Summer Theatre. He had become familiar with HST and its quality work from its actors – he just wasn’t aware it was associated with the University.

"I had hired people from Mankato without knowing there was a Mankato," Hustoles says.

With six mainstage productions per year, plus the four seasonal Highland Summer Theatre productions, Minnesota State Mankato’s theatrical offerings surpass in tone and quantity any other college programming in the region. What starts as basic training for young actors can produce, beginning next year, three year Master's of Fine Arts graduates.

Actress and writer Greta Grosh moved to New York City after graduating in 1989. There, she met actors who were schooled at elite conservatories but who did not step on stage until their third year. "From my freshman year on, I was in shows," says Grosh, a stage actress now living and working in St. Paul. "By the time I graduated I had an impressive resume".

Grosh says she received such a well rounded education from Hustoles and other faculty that she probably hasn't even utilized all of the skills she learned. "Hustoles teaches the craft of theatre," she says. "You have this huge bag of tools that gets you ready. If you want to get into the business of theatre, it is a business and you have to be prepared".

Second–year theatre grad student Randy Wyatt enjoyed a number of firsts in 2005. His play, "Synonymy," was the first original play of a student's to be performed in the Andreas Black Box Theatre and the first at Minnesota State Mankato in more than ten years. His stage debut also took place as the lead, no less, in "Galileo".

Wyatt visited Minnesota State Mankato for one show and "was blown away," he says. "I checked it out and thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this program is tailor–made for me’", says Wyatt, who will earn his master's degree in directing in 2006. "My resume has doubled while I have been here." "When our kids get through the system", Hustoles says as he snaps his fingers, "they're all–American".

Good Counsel

For Minnesota State Mankato’s Counseling and Student Personnel program, the key to success has been a faculty that not only keeps up with innovations in counseling but helps set the pace nationally as well.

The University's counseling program received accreditation in 1986, making it the first nationally accredited program in the five–state region.

Students come from as far away as California and New York, even though the primary recruiting tool remains word of mouth. "We don't do much recruiting," says Professor and Chair Anne Blackhurst. "The alumni are out there doing it for us".

Active faculty help bring increased visibility to the program. The Los Angeles School District recently ordered 1,000 copies of Walter Roberts' book Bullying From Both Sides. Several other CSP faculty are conducting innovative research on the uses of on–line videoconferencing in the supervision of counselors–in–training.

Even if the students aren't initially aware of its reputation, they're convinced shortly after arriving in Mankato. "Once the students get here, they begin to understand what it's like to take classes from nationally recognized professionals", Blackhurst says. "Their degree is really going to mean something when they're out there".

It meant plenty to Lisa Mueller, who graduated in 1999 and is now the assistant director of Multicultural Services at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. "The counseling courses and the emphasis on multiculturalism and diversity were probably what I found to be the most beneficial in my career", Mueller says. "The counseling emphasis provided a solid foundation on which to address the ever–changing and diverse needs of students".

In each of the department's three areas – Professional School Counseling, Professional Community Counseling or College Student Affairs – staying ahead of the game in research and theory is an important priority. "[Research] ought to inform your teaching", Blackhurst says. "It means you can't just stay complacent".

Mueller was drawn to the program's emphasis on practice and the enthusiasm of both faculty and students. She was attracted to what she saw as a challenging curriculum with an excellent reputation. "It was a tough program", she adds, "but when I entered my first full–time position I realized just how well the curriculum and practical experiences prepared me".

Intense Casual

Two of Minnesota State Mankato's signature programs have a decidedly casual look to their central offices, evidence of a camaraderie among students and faculty. "That really did hit me when I came to visit, the interaction between students and instructors", says first–year Industrial/Organizational Psychology student Janette Donovan. "The faculty's doors were open and students were hanging in the lobby. I caught a glimpse of the daily activities, which I think is really cool".

The success of the I/O program has as much to do with those student–teacher relationships as it does with an insistence that the students become immersed in the real business world by working as consultants to local and regional businesses through the Organizational Effectiveness Research Group, a consulting group housed within the I/O Psychology program.

"Lots of people can be practitioners", says Dan Sachau, I/O graduate program coordinator. "It's a different thing, though, than being an academic, and they need different skills in order to do that. We want our graduates to be able to talk to managers rather than just journal editors".

The applied nature of the Urban and Regional Studies Institute is likewise what makes it work so well. "Everything we do gets the students out in the community", says Department Chair Anthony Filipovitch. "There are all these balls we have to keep in the air, but there's one we can't drop, and that's the student".

Every level of coursework in URSI involves some sort of applied work or participation in the field. Seniors in the program work withnsurrounding governments to develop plans for everything from public relations to traffic studies. "They, in effect, serve as consultants", Filipovitch says.

Craig Waldron, a 1973 URSI graduate and city administrator in Oakdale, Minn., says the faculty's insistence on real experience has served him well. "I went into urban studies as opposed to going to law school, and it was the best decision I ever made", Waldron says. "I love what I do in the public sector, and URSI set me on the road to my career".

Still Green

In the early 1970s, Jasper Hunt was in one of the first graduating classes of The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., an experimental school where students contract with instructors and pursue projects that incorporate a variety of disciplines. That campus continues to thrive; project–based learning continues to grow among charter schools; and Hunt remains committed to and inspired by that approach as he enters his 23rd year in experiential education at Minnesota State Mankato.

"The magic of this program lies in its structure", he says. "We basically have a mini Evergreen State College in this school".

The goal is to turn out graduates who are as different from each other as their studies are from standard academic lines. "If you look at most graduate programs around the country, you emerge at the end of it looking identical to the person sitting next to you", Hunt says.

Between twenty and thirty new graduate students are drawn to the program each year. Each arrives with a unique quest, such as the history teacher who arranged an internship with Little Bighorn Battlefield National Park and ultimately developed a curriculum on the Battle of the Little Bighorn for his school district.

The role of instructors is to encourage and help mold the experiences into academic credit. "One of the things we're very careful about is the action/reflection dynamic", Hunt says. "It would be an abysmal failure from our perspective if people wanted to go out and get credit just for doing stuff".

Joe Tougas is a freelance writer and editor in Mankato. He is a regular contributor to TOMORROW and TODAY, the magazine for Minnesota State Mankato.