North Dakota: The Little State That Could

Minnesota is the perfect blend of scenic outdoor treasures and cosmopolitan city life, with close-knit towns sprinkled from Hallock in the northwest to Caledonia in the southeast. We have good schools, a high standard of living and four under-performing professional sports teams. We’re easily the best spot on the map between Chicago and the Pacific.

But a recent article in the Wall Street Journal reminded me that North Dakota, our oft-maligned neighbor, is full of some treasures of its own. Stay with me here…I know, I know. Everybody scoffs. People tend to think of bad accents, blizzards and unsalted, icy roads. And you betcha, they’re not wrong. But look a little deeper and you’ll see one of the best little states in the Union.

In full disclosure, I am a North Dakota State University alum and proud of it. I spent nearly five (yes, five) years in Fargo, a booming little city that, despite its abundant strip malls and chain restaurants, was a fantastic place to go to college. And yes, I did on occasion have to plug my car in overnight to keep the engine warm.

NDSU's Thundering Herd logo. NDSU is easily the best higher education institution in the state (bias acknowledged).

I graduated in 1996. Back then, NDSU announced each year it had broken its own enrollment record (somewhere around 10,000 undergrads). Fast-forward 15 years and the number is closing in on 15,000 annually. Meaning 15,000 people are attending my alma mater…the same school that once closed for a day due to the -100 wind chill.

Incredibly, 45 percent of all North Dakota higher ed students are from outside the state. Indeed, thousands of people in their teens and twenties are choosing to move there. The university’s strong architecture and engineering programs have always lured international students, but as the WSJ article points out — and what I find very surprising — nearly 200 have ditched the beaches and sun of Florida for the wind-whipped plains of NoDak. Good decision, kids!

NDSU’s Minard Hall, my second home in the mid-90s. Yes, that is green grass.

Because while North Dakota has a few obvious drawbacks — cold winters and no pro sports teams chief among them — it also touts some significant wins: an oil boom that’s left state coffers overflowing, one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country and a gradually reversing population decline. Not to mention the fact that a traffic jam in Fargo is more like a midday slowdown in Minneapolis. Life is good in the Peace Garden State.

As you can tell, I am a strong advocate for North Dakota. Did my eyes freeze open one January morning in 1995? Yes they did. But like my heart, they thawed, leaving me with a love for a state that is all-too-often forgotten or misjudged. If you’ve never been to “Legendary” North Dakota, go! If you’re like me and once called it home, you should be its ambassador. If you’re a high school student looking for a great education at an affordable price, consider it. And if you’re a current Bison…or even a member of the Fighting Sioux…I have two thoughts:

  • Good luck in your post-college career…the work ethic you’ve likely gained while in the Peace Garden State will serve you well, and the world is lucky to have you.
  • And if you don’t hit the road in search of skyscrapers, sandy beaches or, for God’s sake, a tan line, thanks for staying and making North Dakota the respectable, successful, amazing place it is and deserves to be.
Rendering of the world-famous Fargodome, where I first saw Guns ‘N Roses in 1993.
  • Mike Billeter

    As a current Sioux Falls, SD resident and former Fargo, ND resident (my dad was actually the men’s basketball coach at NDSU from 92-96), I enjoyed this post quite a bit. Although I often make fun of South Dakota’s northern counterpart for being cold and barren, the truth is I know better and also know from experience that it’s actually a great community.

    I also appreciate your encouragement of current/former NDSU students to promote the many positive aspects of that area. NDSU’s brochures and website may not be able to feature sandy beaches or stunning skyscrapers, but I’d gladly skip sandy beaches for some of the positives it does offer, and it’s up to NDSU folks like yourself to get the word out about it. It’d be fun to see what a REALLY “big idea” campaign or two could do for the Bison as far as telling the world about the wonders of Fargo. Maybe they’re already doing them and I just don’t realize it, but either way, stuff like this post doesn’t hurt.

    Good stuff, indeed. Thanks for throwing it out there.


  • badlands4

    Bad accents in ND, not MN? That had me actually laughing out loud. Remember the movie Fargo wasn’t actually about Fargo, rather Minnesoooota…lol

    I am a California native who moved to North Dakota twelve years ago. I lived in Grand Forks for five years and traveled to the children’s hospital in the twin cities every month for most of those years. Eastern North Dakota has the little sister accent to Minnesota. Minnesota has a huge “Fargo” accent, but it is a great state. 

    I have lived in the western North Dakota Badlands for the rest of the time, and unless you are from eastern ND or MN, the accent of the locals here is that flat western MT, WY, CO accent, or lack of an accent.

    Otherwise, I really enjoyed your article. Thank you for being so kind. It is a rarity when it comes to someone writing about North Dakota. I don’t know why there is such a strong North Dakota derangement syndrome, particularly from people who have never been here, but thank you for not adding to it.

    BTW, I learned the very first winter I was here, that wet hair will indeed freeze!