As VCC reopens, welcome back

by Tom Coombe
Echo editor
All across the nation a familiar scene is playing out this weekend and next.
College students, some venturing off for the first time and others entering their second year of school or beyond, are packing up their belongings and loading tote crates into vehicles.
Often accompanied by parents and sometimes alone, they’re traveling to college towns, about to embark on nine months of education and life in another community.
Take a look around the next couple of days and there’s a good chance of noticing how this is playing out even in Ely.
It’s move-in weekend at Vermilion Community College, where classes begin this week and students are back on campus for the first time since March and the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
The town will be abuzz with new and returning VCC students and more than a few parents, some experiencing Ely for the first time.
They’ll fill up at our gas stations, stay in our lodging establishments, eat in our restaurants and perhaps check out our lakes and a few attractions.
There’s a good chance most will make a few return trips and many will plan an Ely vacations.
We’re not Duluth or St. Cloud, which welcome thousands of students every year, and we fall far short of Bemidji or Winona, Marshall or Morris.
But make no mistake about it, Ely is a college town and the campus on the hill has an impact that reaches far beyond the corner of 17th and Camp.
It’s sure to be noticeable this fall, when there are far fewer students living on campus and fewer students overall walking the hallways - largely because of the pandemic.
As one well-placed higher-up in the state college system explained, it’s a relatively simple proposition: more students equate to more business.
It’s no different inside the walls of VCC, where enrollment challenges emerged even prior to COVID-19.
Now it’s doubly tough, not only at Vermilion but on campuses across the state trying to navigate a return to normal after going dark for months.
Online learning is clearly no answer for Vermilion, which thrives because of the hands-on experiences and unique degree programs it provides. Ely’s natural surroundings also make Vermilion a perfect destination for any student who loves to fish or hunt, paddle or ski, snowmobile or ice fish.
Whether it’s your neighborhood or circle of acquaintances, there’s a good chance you’ll find somebody who has a connection to the campus.
The jobs, with generous salaries and state benefit packages, are the type that city officials and economic development gurus want to attract and keep in Ely.
Some VCC students come to Ely in search of a two-year degree but stay for a lifetime, or eventually return for jobs and to raise their families.
Odds are you may know somebody who came to Vermilion to go to school or for a job, with thoughts of Ely being a temporary stop. Yet instead they remain here two, three, four or even five decades later, making Ely their home and establishing their own roots in town. A college provost, a county commissioner, at least a couple of prominent hospital employees and a former mayor all fit that description, and there are many others.
A smaller Vermilion means fewer stories like that, not to mention fewer students, fewer parents visiting and staying, and ultimately fewer jobs on campus and a ripple effect across Ely. Take it a step farther and Vermilion is, without questions, an asset the community can’t afford to lose
As Vermilion weathers what’s hopefully a temporary storm, it’s best to remember what has made it successful, and what has allowed it to survive as a small college in a small town.
Ely may live on tourism, but a few hundred extended-stay tourists are arriving in town this weekend. They’re here for nine months and mean as much or more as those who stay for a weekend or a week.
They won’t be hard to spot as Ely suddenly expands with an army, albeit a smaller one this year, of 18-to-20-year-olds and some excited and curious yet nervous parents.
Let’s welcome them into our community and our businesses, encourage the students to venture off campus to explore our area, and urge their parents to be frequent visitors.
As the name says, it’s a “community” college and our community now has many new members.