Polk County plans for the future with UW–Madison students through UniverCity Year

University of Wisconsin–Madison graduate student Candi Quandt is no stranger to Polk County and the surrounding region.

She completed an internship at the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, received her undergraduate degree at UW–River Falls (located in neighboring Pierce and St. Croix counties), and learned about this north-central pocket of the state from her boyfriend who grew up in Polk County.

During her first semester pursuing a master’s degree in urban and regional planning, Quandt grew more connected to Polk County while completing an in-depth analysis of the region for her Urban & Regional Planning 721 Methods of Planning Analysis course taught by Professor Carey McAndrews. 

A headshot of Candi Quandt
Candi Quandt

“I have spent a lot of time in Polk County,” Quandt said. “This project was very near and dear to my heart.”

Polk County connected with Department of Planning and Landscape Architecture graduate students through the three-year UniverCity Year (UCY) partnership. UCY is the hallmark program of UniverCity Alliance (UCA), which connects Wisconsin local governments with university resources – like McAndrews’ course – to work on community-identified challenges. 

While not all students were familiar with Polk County like Quandt, McAndrews said the partnership created a real connection to the community that wouldn’t have existed without the UCY partnership. 

“It’s wonderful to feel like we’re connected to places that are important to Wisconsin and to learn how communities are working and what matters to them,” McAndrews said. 

Like many communities, Polk County is in a state of transition. It’s seeing an aging population, regional in-migration toward amenities, economic changes related to growth in the neighboring Twin Cities, and remote work opportunities, according to the students’ analysis. 

Claire Johnson, communications and public information specialist for the county, said Polk is at a “really critical crossroads for emerging opportunities.”

“We know that it was an ideal time to engage with the UniverCity program to draft for us community visioning and goals in order to make sure that our future is a sustainable success here,” Johnson said.   

‘More opportunities for learning’

Over the Fall 2022 semester, the graduate students completed a Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats (SWOT) analysis and developed a community engagement methodology for a rebranding initiative. 

A headshot of Carey McAndrews
Carey McAndrews

McAndrews said the Polk County partnership best fit the course’s learning outcomes, which include quantitative and qualitative analysis methods of planning, engagement, demographic analysis, economic analysis, and sustainability. 

Not only is providing deliverables for a client like Polk County “motivating,” McAndrews said it also “creates more opportunities for learning.” 

“These community-based projects provide a variety of points of entry and that makes them accessible to more students,” McAndrews said. “From an instructor point of view, it was very helpful. This was the first year I taught this course, so it helped me make fixed, certain decisions about content and gave us direction. That was extremely, extremely helpful.”  

McAndrews also observed the passion of her students for the project throughout the semester and during their final recommendations to Polk County on Dec. 5.  

A headshot of Allyn Lottouzee, who is wearing a black, brimmed hat and a green patterned collared shirt.
Allyn Lottouzee

For Allyn Lottouzee, that passion stemmed from the experience of partnering with a real community. He said the chance to “enact impactful change” was more inspiring than creating additional academic work that would end up sitting on a shelf and not being used. 

“I’m sure many of my student colleagues would agree that this is one of the very few real hands-on experiences that I’ve had since returning to academia,” Lottouzee said. “It’s got to be one of the most valuable things that you can get from the university.”

Lottouzee decided to pursue the master’s degree in urban and regional after receiving undergraduate degrees in political science and conservation environmental science at UW–Milwaukee. He attended high school in rural Wisconsin with 32 other students in his graduating class and recalled his first job milking cows. 

“Working with Polk helped remind me of my roots, and the struggles they both face are incredibly similar,” Lottouzee said. “It was inspiring to work on a project that addressed what I experienced in my past.” 

Since Quandt was young and growing up on a wind farm in rural Minnesota, she has been motivated by sustainability. 

“I always wanted to do something where I could help the environment. Through undergrad, it just kind of came to me that I could make cities more sustainable, and I think that would be the best thing I could do,” Quandt said. 

So far, the course is informing Quandt’s future career. 

“I do like the idea of working at a county level because it’s a little bit bigger picture, but it’s not so big picture that you lose the detail. You don’t have to worry about losing the human focus as much,” Quandt said. “I’m an urban planning major, but I like the rural or ex-urban aspect of planning.” 

Uniting Polk County 

Polk County also received design tools, including new logos, slogans, social media branding, and website ideas, from students enrolled in Journalism & Mass Communication 411 Multimedia Design taught by Professor Kathleen Bartzen Culver. 

Culver said her students enjoyed the Polk County projects because they were tangible and the work was rewarding. Also, she said working with Polk County reinforced for the students how useful the skills that they’re learning, like brand personality, in the Journalism School are for their future careers. 

A headshot of Katy Culver
Kathleen Bartzen Culver

“It can make a real difference in the world and so to have to have students experience that usefulness firsthand makes them even more proud J-Schoolers,” Culver said. 

In the Spring 2023 semester, students in Journalism 455 Creative Campaign Messages class. will be developing strategic messaging tools for Polk County.  

Together, the research conducted by the graduate students and materials from the journalism students will give Polk County the tools to develop a unique identity and brand for the area.  Additionally, an engineering leadership course will put together methods for residents to offer input on public issues, including the rebranding effort. 

Johnson said she appreciates the multiple options informed by a number of voices. 

“You can always learn something from another person’s perspective, whether they’re 21 years old sitting in a classroom, or whether they’re 70 years old and just happen to walk through the government center one day,” Johnson said. “Partnering with an appropriate class like this of experts, young thinkers, and young minds, who are, in many cases, starry eyed, so willing to take on projects and get experience, I think that’s just a no brainer.” 

Ultimately, Johnson hopes that the work accomplished through the UCY partnership will lead toward a vision for the community that “brings about unity” within Polk County. 

“I hope that not only can we put forward an image and version of ourselves that is very attractive and very welcoming to new faces on our western side that’s seeing a lot of growth, but it’s also one that’s familiar to the folks over on the eastern side who maybe have felt a little bit scared or alienated about a lot of the changes that have been happening in their own backyard,” Johnson said. “That’s a big question that a lot of communities not only in Wisconsin, but in the country, are facing. I hope that we can be a success story for them.”