Staying indoors

The winter has had a lot of native Minnesotans complaining and international SMSU students have had to adjust to sub-zero conditions as well

Photo by Jim Muchlinski Three Southwest Minnesota State University students from Ethiopia display their national flag, one of many that are permanently featured on the second floor of the student center. Pictured (from left) are Biruk Ayalew, Ansar Kassim and Tesfatsion Desta.


It’s a long way from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to southwestern Minnesota; and the two places have vastly different sets of yearly weather conditions.

The difference was especially great in 2019 for three Southwest Minnesota State University freshman computer science majors.

They arrived in Minneapolis in early January, during the onset of cold temperatures and higher than normal snowfall that lasted until the past week. Their first evening in Marshall, when they unloaded belongings into Sweetland Hall, proved to be a precursor for day after day of a winter with none of the usual thaws.

As snow piled up outside, they kept busy with a combination of academic work and activities such as reading, hanging out with classmates, and game nights.

“We found ways to stay busy,” said Ethiopian student Ansar Kassim. “The winter meant some obstacles. Mostly we just concentrated on our goals for education.”

All three said they quickly appreciated SMSU’s campus design. Its fully interconnected academic buildings, library, student center and conference center are spaced closely together, with a set of large parking lots on the east edge of campus next to Minnesota Highway 23.

The outdoor Central Courtyard qualifies as a “concrete hotspot” by being surrounded by brick campus buildings, and thereby supports perennial garden plants usually found in warmer garden zones. The campus wildlife area, which totals 22 acres, comes to life each spring with prairie plants, wetlands and wildlife.

In the middle of winter, both have a solitude most comfortably experienced from an indoor vantage point.

“Most days the only times I’ve been outside are when I go to and from the dorm,” said student Biruk Ayalew. “We don’t have to go outside during the day. That’s the best thing.”

Student Tesfatsion Desta, an enthusiastic runner, adjusted to indoor running in much the same way that America’s professional football and baseball players learn the differences between outdoor stadiums and those enclosed by a dome.

“I’ve always ran and played soccer outdoors,” Desta said. “Both are different inside. At first it was more difficult.”

Temperatures in Addis Ababa rarely come close to freezing. It sees warm to hot weather for about 10 months out of the year.

They’ve seen snow before, but they said it’s not like real snow compared to what they’ve witnessed in Minnesota. When it appears at all in Addis Ababa, it’s just a combination of snow and ice when temperatures drop to their lowest of the year (about 40 degrees Fahrenheit). Periods of visible snow usually last for 20 minutes or less.

All three of them are looking forward to the last half of spring semester. Besides warmer weather, they’ll enjoy activities such as the upcoming International Food Festival in April and the chance to compete regionally in an academic contest involving SMSU’s Enactus Club.

The contest allows teams to develop proposals that could help communities in multiple ways. Their SMSU team is working with the idea of recycling plastic by manufacturing cases for mobile devices. They’re exploring both environmental and economic factors that could make the idea useful.

They plan to remain at SMSU for their four-year process of earning computer science degrees. They chose the degree because of its career potential, which includes the possibility of taking their knowledge back to Ethiopia in a way that expands public access to worldwide information.

“The United States is a pioneering country with computers,” Ayalew said. “Ethiopia is lacking in both Internet and networking. It’s too costly for most people. Also it’s not well distributed to places outside of Addis Ababa” (which has a population of almost 3 million).

They’re using computer applications as SMSU students in order to stay informed about what’s happening back home. It’s included keeping up on the latest news about this week’s plane crash involving Ethiopia’s airline, which is one of Africa’s major carriers. They also get information from the New York Times and from long distance conversations with family members and friends.

SMSU International Student Services specialist Jamie Leonard said all of the university’s international students withstood the 2018-19 winter rather than going home just because of the harsh weather conditions. One student is taking a spring break vacation to see her family in Bermuda, but plans to return before classes resume.

“Winter, especially one like we’ve had this year, is a little bit of a shock to those who’ve never experienced it,” Leonard said. “The cold is usually more of an adjustment than snow. It’s a shock to the system at first. We tell them that it always gets better, that they’ll like the weather conditions we have in May.”

Leonard’s family is originally from the Walnut Grove area. She moved back to the region with her parents when her father took over a family farm operation in Anne Township, Cottonwood County between Walnut Grove and Westbrook.

As a college student, she studied abroad at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom. The experience helped to make her interested in working with students from many different countries on a daily basis.

“Every day is rewarding,” she said. “It’s right up my alley. I’ve always enjoyed interacting with people from other parts of the world and learning about their cultures.”