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The Student News Site of Prospect High School


The Student News Site of Prospect High School



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Distinguished alum returns gift of education

By Andrew Revord
Prospect graduate and distinguished alumnus Nancy Rajanen.  Photo by Ian Magnuson.
Prospect graduate and distinguished alumnus Nancy Rajanen. Photo by Ian Magnuson.

News Editor
Education is something that many take for granted. Prospect distinguished alumnus and class of ’73 grad Nancy Rajanen knows better than to make this mistake, however.
Rajanen, a district superintendent in Waconia, Minn., has dedicated her life to bringing education to those who otherwise might not have received it.
Her interest in expanding education was first kindled the summer of her freshman year, when she volunteered at Countryside Center for the Handicapped, located off of Rand Road.  Countryside was an outreach and activities center for developmentally disabled children, many of whom were about Rajanen’s age.
This fact didn’t bother Rajanen, though she admits “some of my friends were uncomfortable.”
Rajanen said that the mentally handicapped children there lacked the same emotional “filter” that others have.  This means that their emotions were more childlike, which is something that Rajanen found “delightful.”
Her experiences with the mentally handicapped inspired her to go into a career in special education.
Rajanen would go on to teach special education for eight years, beginning one of the first early intervention programs in Minnesota for infants born with disabilities.
During this time, she also worked as an administrator in special education, overseeing a number of activities.  Most notable among these activities was the time she spent coordinating the largest re-integration project in Minnesota from 1987-91.  The program returned developmentally disabled students to their local public schools.
The reason for this integration was because of a 1975 federal mandate that public schools have a special education program.
Up until that point in time, mentally handicapped students had been segregated into separate schools from the public schools.
“People had crazy ideas about bringing kids with special education to regular schools,” she said.
Among other concerns, Rajanen pointed out that since special education students might not be as in control of their actions as regular students, parents worried that their children would be hurt.
“We all get more afraid of things we just don’t know,” Rajanen said.
After her special education career, Rajanen moved to human resources.
She said that both her special education and her human resources career were jobs where “you need to to have good people skills.
In the case of her human resources stint, this was particularly useful because of the fact that one of her tasks included negotiating with the various unions in her school and the district when issues arose.
For example, when the teachers complained that they shouldn’t have to supervise students in the hallway during passing periods, Rajanen sat down with them and found out why they felt this way.
As it turned out, the time teachers spent in the hallways meant they didn’t have enough time to plan their lessons.
In the end, the teachers were given more time set aside to plan during the day.
Her current position as superintendent has given her a chance to see the broadness of the education process and its effects on the lives of students.

“As a superintendent, I get to see the whole picture,” Rajanen said.
Perhaps the biggest indication of how much Rajanen values education, a lack of which, she says, “destroys a whole society,” is the time she has spent as a dean in the Global Language Villages program of Concordia University.

She has worked with this program over the course of six summers, starting in 1999.  During this time, she has visited Tanzania and China to educate children, with a particular focus on teaching English.
“When you’re living in a country [like China] with 1.2 billion people, you’ve got to find a way to stand out,” Rajanen said.  Leaning English helps them do that.

The reason that these countries need education so desperately is largely because of poverty and culture.
On top of a history of poverty, Tanzania’s tribal culture believes that girls don’t need to be educated.  Only within the past 10 years has the Tanzania had any education program for girls.
China is an emerging nation, but two-fifths of the population are peasant farmers with little access to modern schools.  Also, despite communist efforts to eradicate much of the old Chinese culture, men are still favored above women in terms of education.
This grave inequality has struck Rajanen hard.
“It’s hard to see when you believe in education,” Rajanen said.
Despite the hardships, she has noticed major changes in China in the past 10 years.
When she first arrived in 1999, the rural Chinese were completely unfamiliar with Americans.
“They would come up to you, touch your skin, touch your face, they had never experienced westerners before,” she said.
An instance of this unfamiliarity was when a student asked her, “Nancy, when will you become fat?”
Rajanen asked why he thought she would, to which he replied, “my father said that all Americans get fat.”
Since then, the Chinese have become more accustomed to Americans, and have even adapted to their culture.

Whether at home or abroad, Nancy Rajanen has been advancing the cause of education, and hopes that one day, more people will value it as much as she has.
In a press release, she made this clear to Prospect students.

“You have been given [a] phenomenal opportunity to receive some of the finest education in the world.  Use it for good,” she said.  “Recognize your responsibility to the rest of the world, and give back some of what you have been given.”
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