Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College in Cloquet appears to be a pretty lonely place this fall.

Before the semester began, the school administration announced students would take classes remotely because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and eventually the decision was made to continue the model through the spring semester as well.

While most students have stayed away from campus, a small community of students spent the semester living in the FDLTCC campus dormitory. The dorms normally house about 100 students, but was only opened to about one-third of its capacity.

“We decided to open up the dorms just because some of our students felt safer here,” FDLTCC student activities director Ariel Johnson said. “Some students really enjoy being and having more of a community dealing with their peers than being strictly virtual.”

Newsletter signup for email alerts

About 32 students signed up to live in the dorm. The small number allowed officials to spread the students out better than a typical scenario and even reserve two rooms for quarantine if a student was exposed or got sick — something that has yet to happen, according to Johnson.

Many of the students who chose to stay on campus aren’t from northeastern Minnesota and they don’t have space back home.

“If COVID gets out of hand and they send us home, some of us don’t have anything to go back to,” said Cedric Little, of Cleveland.

Others, like Jacques Jackson of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, said he felt safer living in Minnesota than his home state.

“Louisiana is very irresponsible,” Jackson said. “When it comes to health, they’re not taking anything seriously. After phase two, everybody was packed into bars.”

Jackson also noted that while FDLTCC has remained virus-free this semester, LSU in Baton Rouge had more than 1,500 cases at one point.

Without students on campus, many of the amenities usually enjoyed by students have not been available. The school’s kitchen has remained mostly closed and the gym has been unavailable.

Johnson said the students had passes to a local gym in Cloquet, but even that is unavailable after Gov. Tim Walz’s executive orders closed gyms and restaurants to in-person service for at least four weeks.

With most students staying away from campus for this academic year, Little described campus life with just one word: “Boring.”

The residents spend the vast majority of time in the dorms taking classes or studying. Some also have jobs on campus, but they rarely leave except to shop for groceries or other necessities.

“It’s hard to find things to do, especially if you don’t have transportation,” Jackson said.

What’s more, like college students all over the U.S., the FDLTCC residents are strapped for cash.

To help out with both problems, Johnson and other FDLTCC staff started weekly “meals on a budget” sessions and a food donation program to address food insecurity among the residents.

“With campus closing down, there’s fewer jobs for students,” Johnson said. “A lot of them don’t want to get an off-campus job either because of potential COVID exposure, so they don’t have a steady income.”

Jacques Jackson (left) shares a joke with Cedric Little during a weekly "meals on a budget" event at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College in Cloquet. The pair are two of about 25 students living on campus this year. (Jamey Malcomb / Pine Journal)
Jacques Jackson (left) shares a joke with Cedric Little during a weekly "meals on a budget" event at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College in Cloquet. The pair are two of about 25 students living on campus this year. (Jamey Malcomb / Pine Journal)

In the meals on a budget program, students prepare a meal from scratch each week. The benefits are two-fold: students learn how to cook a meal that is healthy and cost-effective, and they get the chance to socialize while they cook.

“We’re trying to ensure at least once a week they get a nice, home-cooked meal that is healthy and not just a frozen pizza,” Johnson said. “It also gives them some life skills like cooking and budgeting.”

Along with the recipe, the students fill out a worksheet that helps them learn the true cost of a meal per serving — as opposed to ordering take-out. The students have also started making requests for different meals they would like to learn how to make.

Last week, Johnson helped the group prepare a traditional Thanksgiving meal in the dorms and some of the requests have challenged Johnson to learn a little more about regional dishes the students might enjoy at home, like fish and grits. Johnson also plans to have events later in December to make Christmas ornaments and decorate the dorms.

The opportunity to gather and create a small community within the dorm benefits the students and FDLTCC staff who miss the larger community at the school.

“It gives them a chance to actually sit and chat,” Johnson said. “They’re all doing their classes and their homework in their dorm rooms, but this gives them a chance to see and communicate with each other. For me, too, it’s been a great experience to get to know them on a more personal level and it really creates that family dynamic within the dorms.”