UW–Madison students explore Polk County through UniverCity Year partnership

With her phone camera focused on the snow-covered fields lining either side of the highway, University of Wisconsin–Madison senior Minji Hong reflects on a day trip up to Polk County in northwestern Wisconsin. 

The trip was Hong’s first experience outside of the downtown campus area and into another part of Wisconsin. As an undergraduate and international student from South Korea, Hong said there have been few opportunities for her to interact with local elected officials during her academic career.

“This road trip on a big bus is a really precious experience for me,” said Hong, who is majoring in journalism and communication arts. “This is so new to me. I just want to write all of it down.” 

Hong and her School of Journalism and Mass Communication classmates boarded a coach bus early on March 23 to make the four-hour drive to the Polk County Government Center in Balsam Lake. Two days prior, their instructor, Evjue Centennial Professor Doug McLeod, advised them to “take in as much of Polk County as you can.” 

“The more we can understand by talking to (Polk County stakeholders) and asking smart questions, the easier that transition will be when we return,” McLeod. 

Their goal was to immerse themselves in some of the county’s communities and gather as much information as possible to inform strategic messaging tools – mission and vision statement, social media plans, external communication strategy, brand book, and logo – for Polk County. 

Polk County is partnering with McLeod’s Journalism 455 Creative Campaign Messages class 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 to work on community-identified challenges.  

Hong and her classmates are expanding on an in-depth analysis of the region’s demographics and economic opportunities conducted by Urban & Regional Planning 721 Methods of Planning Analysis taught by Carey McAndrews and rebranding tools created by Journalism & Mass Communication 411 Multimedia Design students taught by Professor Kathleen Bartzen Culver.   

“Visiting Polk County not only makes the project come to life for the students, it also facilitates two-way learning between the students and UCY’s partners in Polk County,” UCA Managing Director Gavin Luter said.  

Claire Johnson, communications and public information specialist for the county, said the experience was “extremely helpful” for Polk County staff and will be more “memorable” for the students than if the meeting had occurred over the phone or Zoom. 

“Not only did it allow us to establish a personal connection with the students, but it also gave us the opportunity to showcase our community and its unique features that words and photos can’t really do justice,” Johnson said. 

Claire Johnson, communications and public information specialist for Polk County, points to a map of the region during a visit with UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication students.
Claire Johnson, communications and public information specialist for Polk County, points to a map of the region during a visit with UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication students.

‘Valuable’ visit

Polk County is at a crossroads of emerging opportunity and vitality. It’s seeing increased suburbanization in some areas yet large parts of the county remain agricultural. The county is seeking a way to promote Polk County as a familiar and welcoming place for new, young workers. 

During the meeting, Johnson, county staff, and community partners discussed how Polk County is looking to attract and retain new businesses and workers, particularly those from the Twin Cities and surrounding areas. The students asked questions about current public transit options, public school systems, and the affordability of housing in the area. 

“This is a group of highly motivated and passionate professionals, and it definitely speaks to the quality of this partnership,” Johnson said. “The students showed a genuine interest in learning about Polk County, and their questions have helped us better understand their perspective and the priorities of young workers like themselves.” 

Paul Shafer, director of the Amery Economic Development Corporation, said he was “really impressed” by the conversations.

In Amery, Shafer said community discussions often lack the perspective of younger people, which is the demographic the city is hoping to attract. The discussions with UW–Madison students provided better insight into what might motivate a younger generation to move to Polk County. 

“It was eye opening for me,” Shafer said. 

UW-Madison students discussing a strategic messaging campaign with Polk County partners.

While Polk boasts outdoor recreation and beautiful natural scenery, leaders also want to promote the county’s strong manufacturing industry, substantial healthcare sector employment, affordable cost of living, and desirable school districts.

This is exactly the message that Terry Hauer, executive director of the Polk County Economic Development Corporation, wants to convey. 

“This isn’t just fishing, and hanging out at the cabins,” Terry Hauer said. “There’s industry here and there’s good opportunities here.”  

Getting a feel for Amery by walking along Keller Avenue, talking to a local business owner, meeting pedestrians outside of Wilke Glen and Cascade Falls, and witnessing the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway were “pivotal” steps for the students to take to “actually see, feel, touch Polk County, so they could get a feel for what it’s like here.” 

“Anyone could sit at their desk or in their dorm room philosophizing, but to actually come and visit was extremely valuable,” Hauer said. “I appreciate the time and effort that the program and the students took to do that.” 

Hauer said student experiences like those provided by UCY are important from the lens of growth and economic prosperity. 

“Programs like this are incredibly vital, not only to the university but to the surrounding communities, especially in this environment where our employers are looking for workers and they’re looking for workers that can step in and be productive from right out of the gate,” Hauer said.  

Wisconsin: ‘A special place’

Wilke Glen and Cascade Falls
UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication students check out Wilke Glen and Cascade Falls in Osceola.

For the students, it was especially important to meet with Polk County government staff and community partners in person and to visit Amery, St. Croix Falls, and Osceola.

After the trip, Hong said she felt more “official” and “motivated.” 

“My recent visit to Polk County made the research and analysis process more manageable,” Hong said. “The county’s serene environment and laid-back atmosphere made me feel relaxed and refreshed, enhancing my productivity.”

The experience gave senior Ally McNeive more confidence to move forward with materials that will resonate with Polk County residents. 

“It’s kind of hard to create marketing materials and promote people to come to this area if you’ve never been there yourself,” McNeive said.

Isabel Garlough-Shah, a senior, said the in-person discussion was helpful for gathering specific details about what Polk County wants to accomplish from the marketing campaigns. 

“Meeting in person helped us understand the personality of Polk and the important aspects to highlight throughout our campaign,” Garlough-Shah said. “(You) can see how much these important figures care about Polk County and its citizens.” 

McLeod said the impacts of the trip were “reflected in their energy” as they began working on the Polk County projects. 

“There is only so much you can get from looking at maps and pictures, and meeting with (Polk County partners) online,” McLeod said. “By immersing themselves in Polk County, the perceptions of (the community partners), the residents, and the environs of Polk County become more real, more three-dimensional, and more important to the students.”    

Many of McLeod’s students are not from Wisconsin, so his class is often the first time students have been outside of Dane County, much less Northern Wisconsin. Through these community-engaged learning opportunities, McLeod hopes that the entire state will leave a mark on his students. 

“For many UW-Madison students, Madison becomes a special place that they return to many times later in life, perhaps as a temporary escape from the reality of their own lives wherever they may reside,” McLeod said. “Visiting other parts of Wisconsin and conducting projects with communities outside Madison helps them to realize that the entire state of Wisconsin is itself a special place, a reality worthy of returning to again and again.”

—Abigail Becker