North Dakota: The Little State That Could

July 28, 2011

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.