M State student John Runningen, of Fergus Falls, was elected president of LeadMN in December and has since been busily meeting with Minnesota lawmakers to advocate for college students and ensure their voices are heard during the legislative process.
LeadMN is an influential political advocacy organization that represents 100,000 two-year college students from across Minnesota.
As president, Runningen is the boots-on-the-ground spokesperson of the organization. In his first two months, he has already: Drafted a letter to legislators in support of a $1 billion increase in higher education funding; traveled to the State Capitol to attend Governor Walz’s signing of a student debt relief bill; shared testimony with the House Elections Committee on a bill pertaining to teens and voter pre-registration; and testified in front of the Senate Higher Education Committee about the need for policymakers to listen to students during the biennial budget process.
He’ll continue to advocate at the state level through February, and in March will travel to Washington, D.C. to advocate at the national level.
“My main goals are to make sure college is affordable and equitable for anyone pursuing higher education in our state,” Runningen said. “Every student should have the ability to go to college.”
He added that, “As president, I help uplift student voices. My job is to find the right voices, and the right stories, to make sure our voice is shared at the legislative level. I find those voices by sharing my own story and then encouraging other students to share theirs.”
A first-generation college student with limited financial resources, Runningen said there have been times he’s had to choose between buying textbooks or paying his bills.
“I want to make sure other students don’t have to face that same struggle,” he said. “I know a lot of students have an even harder path than I did, so I’m raising these issues, with LeadMN and at M State, to create change.”
Runningen is a 2019 graduate of Fergus Falls High School and is in his final year at M State, studying history and political science. He is president of the M State Fergus Falls Student Government Association (SGA) and is an active member of the college’s Hunger Free Council, which worked to establish campus food pantries and led M State to its designation in 2020 as a Hunger Free Campus.
“John is a responsible, thoughtfu, and involved student leader, so I’m not surprised he was elected President of LeadMN,” said Lauren Proels, advisor to the M State Fergus Falls SGA and the campus’s assistant director of Campus Life and Housing. “Through his leadership, the SGA is able to generate innovative strategies for recruiting new student senators, provide feedback on campus issues, and help reinvigorate student events.”
Runningen’s involvement with LeadMN began in 2020 and he was quickly elevated up the ranks of organizational leadership, serving as both a Platform Committee Student-At-Large and Presidents’ Group Chair prior to his role as president today.
LeadMN was founded over 50 years ago by a small group of community college students. The organization’s mission is to break down systemic barriers to success by empowering students to become strong and engaged leaders.
“The motto is, ‘College students connecting for change,’” Runningen said of LeadMN. “It’s such an influential organization.”
Runningen’s term will end in July. His future plans include transferring to a Minnesota State four-year university to obtain a bachelor’s degree in teaching. He hopes to one day become a high school social studies teacher, or perhaps an instructor at M State.
“M State has been a home for me and I feel very happy to be here, experiencing the great faculty and staff and working with other student leaders to make sure our campus is one of the best that students can go to,” he said. “It’ll be great to go to a university, and obviously I can’t stay here forever, but if I could, I would.”
A member of the Minnesota State system of colleges and universities, M State serves more than 6,500 students in credit courses each year in over 70 career and liberal arts programs online and in-person at its campuses in Detroit Lakes, Fergus Falls, Moorhead and Wadena. The college also partners with communities to provide workforce development services and other responsive training programs.