An inspiration from the Minnesota prairie

December 8, 2016

I haven't shared an interview in a while, so I'm absolutely delighted to share this inspiring one of my dear friend, Sandy Olson-Loy.


I had the great fortune to meet and work with Sandy at the University of Minnesota Morris campus, a small, undergraduate liberal arts college in west central MN that is part of the large U of MN system. Sandy is the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs; her full bio is here; she started out as the Assistant Director of Student Activities, and I met her when she was the Director when I came on board as a counselor in the Student Counseling Center.


Here's our conversation, and some lovely pictures from her homestead near Starbuck, MN.




I had never lived in a rural community before, and I remember from the start being so impressed with how you built community, focused on sustainability before it became fashionable, and also your deliberateness with balance and self-care and creative outlet before those things became ‘things’ in recent years.  You and your husband both grew up in MN with roots in farming, and my hunch is that has been a guiding force in your life. Farm life relies on community and being good stewards of the land.


Doug grew up in the small town of Benson where his dad was the optometrist, and his mom directed the Developmental Achievement Center. While his parents both had college degrees, his dad grew up on a farm and loved being out in the country. Doug's family had a big garden and chickens at a friend's farm and they camped a lot. Doug spent a lot of time on farms with friends, hunted and fished, worked on farms, etc., a farm kid at heart with a definite appreciation for the land and a love of being outdoors.




I grew up on a small (then mid-sized) family farm. Yes, it was very foundational for me. My father was on the Soil and Water Conservation District Board for a long time. He modeled good stewardship of the land; respect, connection and care for animals; and taking time to see and share the beauty all around us.


It wasn't until I was in my late twenties that I came to recognize and appreciate that many of my values and my understandings about how the world worked were not universally shared and were rooted in farm kid life -- i.e. Interdependence and value of teamwork - everyone's contributions are needed and matter; understanding literally and conceptually that "you reap what you sow", "to everything there is a season", the need to "make hay while the sun shines"; the gift of rain; economics and how what a country values and devalues makes a difference for people; how stereotypes and devaluing of people/experiences (like country = hicks and an absence of culture) misses all that people know and couldn't account for my family's passion for learning and truth, love of diverse music, and so on.



Another foundational piece: my parents were both the children of immigrants. My father's parents came to MN from Sweden as kids in the 1880s when times were hard in Sweden for country people. My mother's parents came to MN from Germany in 1922 as a married couple with 7 of their 12 kids. We grew up in a community filled with similar stories. My parents were both the charmed youngest children of large families, #12 of 12 for my mom and #13 of 13 for my dad. Our family had a fundamental appreciation for the hope of America and of a participatory democracy. We also saw and heard stories growing up of the impact of significant bigotry and egocentrism in the communities around us based on nationality, race and religion.


How did you get interested in higher education as a calling?


I've always had an interest in education and learning and majored in elementary education and early childhood education when I went to college. As a first generation college student I didn't know student affairs jobs existed. In college my resident assistant and orientation group leader connected me with residential life programs and student activities within my first few weeks on campus. I was part of the crew for a Dan Fogelberg concert, worked in the student union, was a resident assistant, and chaired a committee of the activities council. I learned a lot through those experiences, applied the things I was learning in my classes, and had great mentors who happened to be national leaders in student affairs who coordinated exceptional learning experiences for all of us.



Spring semester of my junior year of college I changed my major from elementary education to an individualized major focusing on college student development and learning. I was drawn to the longer attention spans of college students (v. 7 minutes for little kids! [and now it's more like 7 seconds!]), was happy to skip lesson plans and student teaching, loved the human development focus, and appreciated the interdependence, learning, collaborations and real work inherent in the educational experiences afforded through student affairs. College, all of the learning, and the incredible student life experiences were life changing and transformative for me.  


The opportunity to engage others in that kind of learning and transformation is a privilege and a gift.


What drew you to UMM?


We were looking to move from SE Kansas to a state with four seasons-- MN, WI and CO were on the list.  And I was hoping to find a campus whose mission and culture aligned with my values and passions.  I knew and respected the person who was leaving a student activities job at Morris from a professional association connection. She and others had great things to say about Morris as a public liberal arts college and a magical little college on the prairie.



What interested you in taking on the role of Vice Chancellor?


I loved my work in student activities and didn't think I would enjoy the more administrative and sometimes painful work of the vice chancellor's role. I had the opportunity to try on the role in an interim appointment during a time of transition on campus. I knew I would learn a lot working with Sam Schuman, the interim chancellor, who gave me the opportunity, and thought I could survive just about anything for a year so I said yes and gave it a whirl. As it turned out, some of my skills (like analytical thinking, problem solving, and strategic planning) aligned pretty well with the work. I have appreciated the chance to work with colleagues on strategic initiatives to deepen the student learning experience at this college I love and to help the campus become more true to our public liberal arts mission and vision.


You and your husband have a lovely property out in the country. If I recall, you were pretty deliberate in building the house with sustainability in mind way before that became a household word as it is now. How did your beliefs and values in sustainability come about?



Growing up in the country and on our farm we raised nearly all of our food and worked to live in a way hat wasn't wasteful and that respected the soil, the land, the animals and the people around us. From my father's work with the Soil and Water Conservation District board, my mother's conservation and reuse practices, to my uncle's work with the Minnesota Conservation Department where he served as commissioner, sustainability was part of our family ethos.


Morris has been green since before it was hip to be a sustainably focused campus. I learned from the people in student activities like Sara Haugen who taught me the very detailed reuse and recycling protocols for paper, aluminum, etc. in 1985. Friends like Sara and her husband, Bill, who built their geodesic dome home out of nearly all reclaimed or recycled materials, and gardened like crazy with their community, and Tom Mahoney and Maddy Maxeiner who also gardened and managed a sustainable farming operation -- all in addition to their work on campus -- were inspiring models for living the good life in a sustainable way.



Doug and I actually had a horrific gardening experience in Kansas in our first jobs after college. Our sense of the growing season and timing for planting didn't translate well from MN to SE KS! We couldn't get our heads around planting lettuce in February until we experienced the 100 degree temps in June. We didn't garden for years after that until Sara convinced us to plant a few tomatoes after we moved back to Minnesota.


Other influences:  Authors like Wendell Berry, Thoreau, and Rachel Carson were foundational as well.


The UMM campus is now a model of sustainability, with wind turbines that provide for a lot of its energy, ​some very progressive green student housing, among other items. What's it been like to be one of the driving forces in that process and what sorts of obstacles did you and the campus have to overcome to see these big initiatives realized?


Yes, on some days the turbines provide all of our electricity and we are off the grid. They provide more than 70% of our annual electricity overall. One of the great things about Morris is the campus embraces and encourages individuals and teams to make a difference and to turn their great ideas for advancing the campus into reality.


I've had the chance to help establish the Pride of the Prairie local foods initiative, Morris Healthy Eating, and the Green Prairie Community eco friendly residence hall with UMM's first edible landscapes and rain gardens.



As a modestly sized campus our budgets are fairly constrained. It has sometimes taken awhile to make the finances for a project work at our scale and to capture the long term payoffs and benefits v. the short term costs. While we work to dream big, we also work to model sustainable  choices for a modestly resourced and sized community.


Your position is very demanding, lots of long hours, lots of travel, it's very public facing, and you deal with a lot of student crises of every nature. How do you manage your time to get it all done, and how do you manage the stress that I know comes with all of that?


You can't get it all done. It is never ending. We have a great team to work with who do great work, have big hearts, collaborate well, and have good senses of humor. Picking the priorities and knowing where there is flexibility is key. We work to stay centered in our core mission, vision, and values; live and work with integrity and authenticity; do the hard and good work; 'make hay when the sun shines'; plant seeds for the future; and enjoy each day.



Living in the country is helpful. Being out in the quiet, on the land, with the wind blowing through the apple trees, watching the birds migrate through, seeing what is in bloom in the summer is all very peaceful for me. The 1/2 hour drive to and from work is a great transition time.


I try not to work on Sundays generally and to squeeze in long weekends periodically either away or at home. I block out 'no work' weekends on my calendar after periods that require lots of nights and weekends.


Where do you get the inspiration and energy for it all?


The students, the college mission, and the transformational experience a college like Morris offers. We have great students, faculty and staff. The campus is a living laboratory where we are working to build and model sustainable, diverse, inclusive and equitable community. It's great to be part of University of Minnesota - a great public land grant and research university with talented and dedicated people and a commitment to excellence in service to the people of Minnesota, the nation and the world.



Music. Books - I tend to read books that dwell in hope. Cooking good food at home. Being connected with people and places I love. On Being podcasts.

I'm on a mission to be more active -- I love my Fitbit and Yoga 101 Morris Wellness class.


You also have a very creative side, and I was so impressed with your weaving! How did that come about and what about it is restorative, energizing, etc. for you?​


I saw someone from the Minnesota Weavers Guild weaving at the Minnesota State Fair and thought it was so cool to create something that didn't exist before. I've always liked hand woven rugs. And I love Swedish rep weave - particularly the work of Kelly Marshall. I'm drawn to it in ways I can't explain. Maybe one of my Swedish ancestors was a weaver? I was intimidated by the whole process at first. After a sad week of attending too many funerals and visitations for people who were too young I was reminded that life was short and we should do the things we want to do. I signed up for a weekend weaving workshop at the Textile Center in Minneapolis and also ordered some concert tickets. I've done 4 weekend workshops - most in Minneapolis, met new friends who've invited me into their weaving communities, and spent a week at the Vavstuga - a wonderful Swedish weaving workshop in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts. I have a 4 harness Schacht floor loom and a rigid heddle loom.


I like the creative process.  The math and graph paper of planning a project. The selection of beautiful colors. (I would buy more handwoven things but I don't usually find people using the colors I am drawn to.) The actual weaving once the warp is on the loom = flow. And the finished product - a thing of beauty if all goes well.


You also are a great cook, always have a huge, beautiful vegetable garden, and stay very active in your community of friends and neighbors. It seems that is a necessity in rural communities, and I found it very compelling, coming from the city myself. I always loved the gatherings at your house, and you always were so welcoming and inclusive. Was this a way of life for you growing up, and what was it like growing up on a farm?


Small, human sized communities are places where our interdependence is more obvious and our interconnections are more easily cultivated. In places like Morris, where we all have all the room we need, people are opportunities rather than obstacles to navigate around. Visitors to Morris note that people hold doors open for them on campus and say hello when their paths cross -- all behaviors we need to modify when we visit urban areas lest people think us odd.



(Note, I love that Sandy responded in poetic form:)

Growing up on a farm = Lots of work.

The physical kind.

Everyone doing their part.

Beautiful land. Blue skies. Birds.  Agates. Shooting stars.

Life and death and life.

Extended family stopping by.

Morning coffee. Breakfast. Dinner. Afternoon coffee. Supper.

Timely rain. A gift. A day off. A trip to town.

Cattle, calves, pigs, baby pigs, a dog, cats.

Garden planted in June after the corn is in.

Apple trees.

Good food. Shitty prices. Economics. Farm policy.

Agribusiness = makes money.  Farmers = same prices as decades earlier.

Picking rocks. Stacking hay. Cutting wood.

Tangible work completed.

Independence. Interdependence.

Loading out the neighbors' chicken and turkey barns.

Riding bikes to the neighbors. Riding bikes to town.

Swimming at Cedar Lake.

Piano. Albums. Music. Concerts.

Weiner roasts. Cousins visiting from Wisconsin.

Swanville carnival. County fair. State fair.


What is ahead for you career and artistry-wise? What new things have you been exploring?


Career - student affairs/student life. I've had the opportunity to work with colleagues to craft successful applications for external grant funding of our core work at Morris - including US Department of Education Trio Student Support Services and Native American Serving Non-Tribal Institutions grants.


Weaving -- again. Soon. (I’ve been on a hiatus due to time demands.)


Exploring -- yoga - the peaceful zen kind.


We've been spending more time on the north shore of Lake Superior at our family cabin. I've picked up north shore and Minnesota hiking guides and have plans to get my hiking boots out more regularly.


What are your top three recommendations for living the most balanced and inspired, and fulfilling life possible?​

  1. Be true to who you are -- Practice authenticity. Live with integrity.

  2. Plan some balance into your life and calendar -- In the day. In the week. In the month. In the season. (Some days and weeks will require balance in the long view...grab the near-term balance when possible.)

  3. Don't postpone joy. Life is short.



This is a wonderful interview with a wonderful person. I love your approach to life, Sandy, and am so glad to hear how it has influenced a great institution. I also have fond memories of gatherings and delicious food at your home. Thanks for featuring this Lauren!
By: Sarah Bell on December 9, 2016
Loved the article sad that we have lost track of our Minnesota family although I did get to become reacquainted with Doug's two aunts (Ray's sisters, Jean and Kathy in September. Sandy would enjoy a visit with Kathy as she weaves a lot. Enjoyed hearing of all Sandy's accomplishments- love ❤️ them both!,
By: Marilyn Loy on December 11, 2016
Sandy we miss you in Kansas!!! Great article!!! make hay when the sun shines'; plant seeds for the future; and enjoy each day.
By: Sue Buckley on December 12, 2016

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