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State of the Union: mixed feelings about direction of the country

In preparation for America's 242nd birthday, Herald reporters canvassed the Grand Forks area, visiting a variety of locations to gain insight into citizens' feelings toward their country.

To get the conversation rolling, we started with the question, "How are things going for America?" and received a variety of responses, touching on topics ranging from immigration to gun control, the economy and education.

Many residents said that they and their friends and family have a good quality of life in the current economy.

Barb Ell, 55, a lifelong resident of Grand Forks, said overall she was pleased with the state of the country.

"Yeah I feel good about the economy. You know, unemployment's low. ... There's so many jobs out there that if you don't have a job, in specifically this state, something's wrong because there's plenty out there."

Politics, perhaps inevitably, came into the conversation. For many who spoke to the Herald, their answer was tied to the impression they had of President Donald Trump.

Ray Bjelde, 67, of Grand Forks, expressed approval of the president and his decisions.

"As long as they leave Trump alone he'll be just fine. He's not a politician, he's a businessman. So he's got the world going in the right direction."

But not everyone was so excited about the country and its leadership.

Things are "a mess," said 45-year-old Jayson McGuire.

"Since day one he's treated this like his own personal playground," he said.

Maia Bowman, a 15-year-old East Grand Forks high school student, was blunt.

"Our president shouldn't be racist," she said.

When asked about specific news stories or issues they were concerned about, many residents' first response was immigration. The ongoing controversy over the separation of families illegally crossing the border seemed to be on everyone's mind.

A 34-year-old mother from Munich, N.D., Beth Hansen said seeing immigrant families being separated on the news was hard.

"I just try to put myself in their situation," she said. "If I had to flee my country to keep my kids safe ... I would try anything for them. That one kind of pulled at the heart strings a little bit."

Scott Rosenberg, an 18-year-old Red River High School student, said, "I think the wall (on the border with Mexico) is a little bit too much, but letting people come into our state most of the time, well I think, I don't think we need more people in it."

Anisa Mohamed immigrated to the United States from Somalia when she was 10 to escape civil war there. Now a 28-year-old nursing student and mother, she said she was concerned about the rhetoric surrounding immigration, especially the "the way the president talks" about immigrants.

"I never thought America would be something like that. It's supposed to be a land of freedom."

"You'll see people who are adapting to new cultures and new immigrants and you'll see people that are being racist about it," Mohamed said of the Grand Forks community. "It goes both ways."

Gun control was also an issue that had struck a nerve with residents, especially after the June 28 newspaper shooting in Annapolis, Md., that killed five journalists.

Bernard Spirit, a 39-year-old UND student originally from Nigeria, said he felt Americans treated guns too casually.

"Look at how many people have lost their lives this year alone, and all these people are innocent people. In a warfront, you would know how to protect yourself. I have to be careful, a gunshot could come from anywhere."

Education and economic disparity were also cited as concerns.

Alma Helm, a retired educator, has seen much change in the United States in her 95 years. One of the changes Helm takes the most issue with is approaches to schooling.

"I'm worried about education. I hear there's so much problem with discipline in the schools now and the approach to teaching is so different," Helm said. She raised concerns about the use of technology in schools in place of teachers.

Austin Leclair, a 20-year-old commercial aviation student at UND, focused on the socioeconomics of the country.

"I can see more separation over the past few years, I would say, and more economically kind of a division in wage," he said.

When asked what would help, Leclair said, "I would say maybe better education. More opportunities for people that come from lesser backgrounds and more education."

In addition to hot button topics, many residents had strong feelings about a culture of divisive rhetoric. They perceived an increase in political dialogue, and while some saw it as an opportunity, others thought we needed to work harder to find understanding.

"I think something good that's come out of it is people are more open to talking about issues, because I feel like the issues are becoming more prevalent," said William Mann, a 19-year-old UND student. "I never really became interested in politics or followed any of that until Trump became president."

Seventeen-year-old J. Delorme of the Turtle Mountain Reservation said, "People sort of have an us-versus-them mentality when really we should be collective in our discussions."

"Social media—it's not seeing people for real," Delorme said. "It desensitizes us."

Though not all respondents were pleased with the current state of America, many looked to the future with hope.

"You've got to try to look at it half full, not half empty," Jayne Nesvig, a 37-year-old mother from Climax, Minn., said. "It could be worse."

J. Delorme, 17, from the Turtle Mountain Reservation

"I think that we're heading toward a sort of divided direction I guess. People sort of have an us-versus-them mentality when really we should be collective in our discussions. So yeah, basically we're sort of headed towards a divided populous but it's not beyond repair. We can easily fix it."

How should we fix it?

"I think people should just be taught how to go about civil discourse really when debating issues whether that's liberal or conservative."

How have we become more divided?

"A lack of in-person understanding. Social media, it's not seeing people for real."

Ray Bjelde, 67, from Grand Forks

"As long as they leave Trump alone he'll be just fine. He's not a politician. He's a businessman. So he's got the world going in the right direction."

What changes have you noticed since he took office that are good?

"Social Security and Medicare. Yeah, more money. Monthly payments have gone up. Medicare covers all my health. As long as the politicians leave him alone he'll be just fine."

Anisa Mohamed, 28, from Grand Forks

"It kind of sucks, especially the way the president talks and what they're doing to little kids and what we've been seeing on TV is ridiculous. I never thought America would be something like that. It's supposed to be a land of freedom but you're torturing innocent kids."

Did you immigrate to America?

"Yes, Somalia. I've been here since I was 10."

As an immigrant, do you feel the culture has changed regarding immigration?

"Yeah it used to be somewhere fun ... a place that you wished to go and to live and to raise your family, especially when you fled from war. But it totally changed."

Are you hopeful America could change?

"If we get a new president."