A student crosses campus during a winter snowstorm

By Elizabeth Foy Larsen

 “[New students] see people running and skiing and enjoying themselves on Summit Avenue and the River Road. It can be inspirational.”
—Professor Daniel Trudeau

As he went through the rituals of freshman orientation in the fall of 2013, the furthest thing from the mind of Peace Madimutsa ’17 was that the late summer swelter would eventually give way to air so raw he’d be plotting his route to the Leonard Center with warm-up stops en route. The way he saw it, winter was no big deal. After all, he’d spent two years of high school in New Mexico, laughs the economics major from Zimbabwe. “I’d been in the mountains and seen snow. I thought I knew what it was like to be cold.”

But as anyone who, like Madimutsa, lived through the Polar Vortex of 2013-14 knows, cold is a relative concept when it comes to Minnesota winters. In fact, the Macalester newcomer was surprised to learn that his college education would extend well beyond discussions of Chinese currency valuations and Argentine inflation to include impromptu primers on the comparative merits of weatherproof boots and the best way to pack a snowball.  

With an average annual snowfall of 54 inches and temperatures that regularly dip into the single digits, St. Paul’s winter climate is not a fact that Macalester can brush aside as no big deal. Instead of viewing those frosty days as a liability, there’s a growing appreciation at Mac that a college with four distinct seasons is something to celebrate. In fact, informal and organized efforts across the college are proving that the cold months foster a sense of creativity and resilience unique to this time of year.    

“Students who study here are impressed that Minnesotans still make use of the outdoors, even though it might be the coldest weather they’ve ever experienced,” says geography professor Daniel Trudeau. “They see people running and skiing and enjoying themselves on Summit Avenue and the River Road. It can be inspirational.”

Warm-Weather Recruiting

That’s not to say St. Paul’s climate is always an easy sell with prospective students. “When we’re presenting at college fairs, weather does come up,” says admissions director Jeff Allen, who also represents the college in northern California. “Minnesota has a reputation of having a frigid climate with lots of snow.” That reputation—an undeniable fact—hasn’t hurt applications from Allen’s region, however: After Minnesota, the Golden State sends the largest number of students—195 in 2016—to the college.

Winter is probably a bigger hurdle for students coming from the Southeast, says Allen, which means that Philana Tenhoff, who represents the college in that region, must work doubly hard to get prospective students to even listen to her spiel on Macalester. “I’ve been at college fairs where people shiver as they walk by, and just keep moving,” she says, “without even stopping to have a conversation with me about who we are and what we offer.”

Having grown up in the South American nation of Guyana, Tenhoff can relate to their concerns. She had never seen snow until her freshman year at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn. Now she uses her own past experience as a winter newbie to engage with people about Macalester. “I talk about how winter forms communities in the dorms and the lounges that you don’t always get in places where people can stay outside all year,” she says. “Students are interested to hear about activities like broomball and ice fishing and ice skating.” Tenhoff also doesn’t shy away from logistics. “I make it clear that Minnesota is prepared for bad weather, because some Southern students come from states that get shut down by snowstorms.”

Furthermore, Tenhoff emphasizes, Macalester is a truly international community, with plenty of students hailing from countries that never see snow. Indeed, this year the majority of new international students came from countries with warm or temperate climates, including 27 from Africa and 175 from East Asia and Oceania.

And if those facts don’t get students interested? “I remind them that the cold might feel bad on your bones,” she says. “But it’s also a great way to experience something different.”

Cold Classrooms

Once at Macalester, students find that studying in a winter climate gives them opportunities to try something different in the classroom, as well. For environmental studies professor Louisa Bradtmiller, “spring” semester provides a chance for students in her Paleoclimate course—which explores the climate of Earth’s early periods—to create their own Paleoclimate record by taking core samples of lake floor sediment. Because the equipment is cumbersome—the tubes used for the coring can be nearly five feet long—it’s actually easier to walk out on the ice and drill a hole in it than it is to use a boat to get core samples in the summertime.

Bradtmiller values this activity for several reasons, including that it’s a hands-on look at the scientific process. But she also appreciates that the climate can be daunting. “Scientists must go to great lengths to collect their data,” she says. “Sometimes they are physically or emotionally afraid. This activity gives students a sense of the tough things people might face to work in this field.”

Likewise, biology professor Jerald Dosch asks his students to don snowshoes to perform fieldwork at the Katherine Ordway Natural History Study Area, where he’s director. “As an educator, one of my barely hidden goals is to teach students—many of whom grew up elsewhere—that winter is a time to be enjoyed,” he says. “I love the challenge of winter and the crispness and clarity of the air and how far sound travels. I love getting my students to do science outside and to experience the beauty of a season they may not know much about.” 

The logistics of outdoor classwork presented a particular challenge last year to environmental studies visiting professor Margot Higgins, who teaches Bicycling the Urban Landscape. Fresh from graduate school in Berkeley, Calif., Higgins had no previous experience with winter bicycling. So she retrofitted an inexpensive mountain bike with studded tires and introduced safety drills to a curriculum that focuses largely on issues of equity and race as they relate to transportation.

While last winter was milder than most, the class still faced some field trips with slippery terrain and bitterly cold air. “I was really impressed that they were so positive,” says Higgins, adding that not a single student opted out of the field trips, which included rides with an urban geographer.

Because it was held in Minneapolis, her students also got to attend the 2016 Winter Cycle Congress, an international gathering devoted to promoting the health and environmental benefits of year-round bicycling. This opportunity truly expanded her students’ concept of community, says Higgins, now a winter cycling convert. “Biking isn’t a fringe activity in the Twin Cities. It really allows for a lot of engagement with the world outside Macalester.”

Frigid Fashions

Back on campus, the geology department hosts an annual mid-winter Jökulhlaup, Icelandic for “glacial burst.” Held outdoors, the event includes a barbeque, a hammer throw, and a predict-the-temperature contest. The college also sponsors a yearly Winter Ball, held in November to kick off the season. It’s the largest off-campus event at Macalester, with more than 1,000 people attending. And then there’s the men’s intermural hockey team, which plays at least one game each season outside, similar in style to the wildly popular U.S. Pond Hockey Championships held each January in Minneapolis.

On the more practical side, each fall the International Student Programs office puts on a winter fashion show of “dos and don’ts.” “It’s funny, but we also want it to be helpful,” says Merrit Stueven ’17 of Munich, Germany. This year she strolled the catwalk as a “don’t,” complete with thin tights, no hat, and non-waterproofed boots and jacket. The show is followed by outings to malls, thrift shops, and a Goodwill store so first-year international students can get properly outfitted for the oncoming blizzards. 

That sartorial advice was a godsend for Peace Madimutsa, who now loves the feeling of gliding over snow and ice in his Rhino boots. Madimutsa has also come to enjoy the way campus is transformed by winter’s first snow dump, especially when his fellow students start building the pop-up snow caves and igloos that become informal hangouts. “You value your social interactions more in winter,” says Madismuta, adding that he believes the cold weather also helps him focus on schoolwork. Not that it’s all high-minded seriousness, of course. “When you’re walking across campus and people start throwing snowballs, it’s so much fun,” he says. “The cold helps people find new ways to be creative.”   

That positive attitude could come in handy for Madismuta this year. Federal forecasters are predicting a return of the near-Arctic conditions of the 2014 Polar Vortex that so surprised him as a freshman. 

December 19 2016

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