If Niagara Falls was in one’s background, would they ever go to its visitor center?

Most people who have important tourism, educational or natural resources in their immediate vicinity rarely use it. It’s a “curse of the common.” Things that are familiar seem somehow second-tier.

Southwest Minnesota State University (SMSU) in Marshall is not often looked at by local graduates as their first choice for education. Recent numbers show that sentiment might be worth reconsidering.

A study conducted in mid-2019 by Best Value Schools, an online ranking tool that leverages education versus affordability, ranked SMSU as the seventh best school in the United States to attend for a bachelor’s degree.

“As college costs continue to rise, many budget-conscious students consider affordability a major factor in choosing a school,” writes Best Value Schools on its Web site. “The rankings include some of the best schools offering a full range of programs that fit your needs, along with reasonable tuition and financial aid opportunities.” “

This study looked at many areas of the students’ education, including job placement,” said Kumara Jayasuriya, SMSU president. “Over 99 percent of our recent graduates find jobs or enroll in grad school, and they aren’t burdened with overwhelming student debt. We were the only Minnesota school to crack the top 25 on that list.”

As an administrator, Jayasuriya has taken a personal touch to the way he handles his work.

“I can think of only two students from the last class of our graduates who have not reported that they have found employment,” said Jayasuriya.

He shared a few other details about those students, demonstrating that he has a genuine care for them and their future, even if they’ve moved on from their collegiate years.

“We at SMSU want to make a difference in Marshall but also in communities like Redwood Falls,” he said.

Jayasuriya mentioned he has had the privilege of meeting with high-school administrators, local civic groups and other clubs in order to talk about the benefits SMSU students have access to.

“Many of these people had never received…a visit from the president,” he added.

Jayasuriya is very keen to engage the next crop of students. One might call it aggressive, but in a Minnesota Nice sort of way.

Besides actively promoting and campaigning to students and other groups, SMSU is adding new programs and extra-curricular activities that will make prospective students take notice.

In cooperation with the Red Baron Arena, SMSU will launch a Division 2 ACHA Men’s hockey club.

It has also added an Esports program to launch in 2020’s fall semester. SMSU’s Esports team will compete in games such as “League of Legends,” “Overwatch,” “Fortnite,” “CSGO,” “Starcraft” and more, which will be determined based on student interest. SMSU will compete in the National Association of Collegiate Esports (NACE).

“This is the next big wave in college interests, and we want to be in front of it,” said Jayasuriya, who also talks about the upcoming trap shooting team. “The next closest school with a trap league is in Bemidji.”

In addition to all of the student activities, education is still a priority. The 2020-21 year will see 10 new, online degree programs that can be earned entirely from home.

SMSU is one of only three schools in the country that provides a culinology degree (a degree which combines food science with culinary arts), and it has partnerships with other schools, including Ridgewater College in Willmar, that offer SMSU programs at those remote sites.

SMSU offers 55 undergrad majors and four graduate programs.

For those who have doubts about college readiness or whose high-school grades don’t reflect the traditional expectations, SMSU also offers something called the Mustang Pathway.

“It’s a path to education that includes room and board; it is offered to help students succeed here, even if they struggled in school. Grades and test scores do not always reflect a student’s potential,” Jayasuriya said.

This is a totally free, six-week, residential alternate entry program, and it guarantees enrollment acceptance upon completion.

Current students and adults desiring to add to their education portfolio are encouraged to consider the offerings at SMSU.

Marshall might be the closest option, but that does not necessarily mean local students will miss out on assumed “college experiences” by enrolling in local programming.

- Photo courtesy of Southwest Minnesota State University