by Jessie Veeder

When it comes to telling the story of the constant growth and change occurring in western North Dakota it seems all eyes are on the community leaders. The result often leads to a snapshot of a community told in numbers, facts, figures and results.

But among those facts and figures are the town’s youth, some who have lived here their entire lives, watching new storefronts pop up and new kids flood in from all corners of the world. But even more have experienced being “the new kid” trying to find their place in a town that’s searching for an identity itself.

How does it feel to come to an unfamiliar place during you most vulnerable time as an adolescent? How do you make friends and succeed?

What does it mean to be a teenager on the brink of adulthood in a boomtown?

Listening to our youth helps us understand the story of our community beyond the facts and figures. Because the heart of a community is in the families that live here, the families who are busy raising the next generation of community leaders.

Emily SengeriI wanted to know what’s on the minds of the next generation of leaders, so I sat down with Emily Segneri, who moved here with her family from Illinois when she was in ninth grade.

Emily’s guidance counselor said this about the well adjusted, outgoing student.

“Emily is a natural leader involved in volleyball speech and choir. Usually she is one of the students who goes to state or as part of an all-state team. She works at the hospital in the emergency department as an aid and is accumulating service hours to go towards her medical requirements to be a doctor. She will be going to Ball State next year to pursue a medical degree and is graduating this year at the top of her class.”

Here, in her own words, Emily tells us how she adjusted and came to understand and even love her new home in Watford City.

Where are you originally from?
I came here from DeKalb, Illinois and I’ve been here since the second semester of my freshman year in high school.

Why did your family come to Western North Dakota?

My dad was working by himself as a radon inspector, but that wasn’t working out so well. So he found a job up here at the school. He’s head of maintenance. My mom is a school bus driver and the secretary of school transportation. So both my parents work in the school district.

Did your family find housing right away?
We lived in a trailer house for freshman and sophomore year. Then my sophomore summer my family bought a house north of town. Finding housing is very hard here.

What were some of the fears and challenges that came with moving to a community like this?
The town I grew up in was Malta, Illinois and it was not very big. It was smaller than Watford. But DeKalb was fairly large. It was a college town. And moving to Watford was very different. In DeKalb I had everything right there at my fingertips. But here in Watford you had to travel three hours to Bismarck or two hours to Minot just to go to Walmart.

Were you worried about fitting in to a new school?
Oh yeah, because I was doing my first year here as a freshman. And I skipped 8th grade, so I went from 7th grade to a freshman. So that was already different. And it’s like, oh, I’m already doing one huge transition, let’s just throw another huge one in there to make me more socially awkward.

How did you handle it?
Well I hung around my family for a long time. Since my brother (Josh) is in the same grade, I would talk to him in the hallway. But then I met people that were like me, and everyone here is just so genuinely friendly, it’s easy. They helped with the transition.

What do you think the common misconceptions are about what’s happening in this community right now?
I feel like everybody thinks that oil people are out to get you. I used to work at Meyers (a clothing store in town) and a lot of oil workers came in and they were very nice. They respected everyone. They called me ma’am and I was only sixteen (laughs). Some of them are crazy but you can’t judge them all based on that.

This is a different sort of community with a big melting pot of students and people in general. Do you see any unique challenges for teenagers here?
I feel like the people who have been in Watford all their life kind of have a hard time accepting everybody, but the people coming in just want to fit in. They’re like, ‘I just want one friend because I’m leaving everything behind and moving so far away.’

So you’re working at the McKenzie County Hospital through the school’s VOE program at a time when the hospital is really busy as the community grows. Tell me about the VOE program and how your job fits into your schedule.
When you’re a senior you can take VOE as a class, which takes up the last two periods of the day. And for those two periods you go to your job that’s in a business field where you get paid and learn the ropes of the business. It’s hard sometimes because you feel like you need the time to do homework or study for a final but you need to go to work.
And since I’m working at the hospital and I want to be a doctor I know this experience will help me somehow.

Tell me about a typical afternoon in the hospital.
I’ll get there at 1:30 and normally stay until 4:00. There are some afternoons it’s very slow. Then there are days when it’s really busy and I want to sit down and just can’t.
I’m a nurse aid. I clean the ER rooms and when patients come in I help take their vitals. So it’s cool to learn how to take their blood pressure, pulse, respirations and temperature.

What had you heard about North Dakota before you moved up here?
Nothing. Absolutely nothing. I knew it was a state and I knew the capitol, but that was just something I had learned. Like I’ve never been to Russia, but I know it exists! (laughs)

What do you think about it now?
Oh, I’m so glad we moved here. I have met my best friends. I don’t know how I would have survived without them. They are so supportive of what I do. Everyone in this community is always looking on the bright side of everything.

There’s always going to be the people who complain and want it to go back to how it was, but, you know, if it wasn’t like this, I would not be here and I would have never met my best friends.

What do you think some of the biggest challenges teenage girls face growing up today?
I think teenage girls worry a lot about fitting in – they want everyone around them to like them and then they lose themselves and create this big huge mask. It becomes part of them but it’s really nothing like them. Fitting in is hard, but learning to be yourself is probably the best way you can fit in.

It seems it would be more challenging in this environment. Do you think that’s true?
Fitting in is a big thing about being here. If you grew up in the same area your whole life, you’re still going to try to fit in as much as you can. But being brand new, not knowing how people act, dress or talk, it’s like “Oh, I have to change everything.” But really you don’t. You just have to go say hi.

What do you and your friends do for fun out here?
We go to the park, play ultimate Frisbee on Sundays. We go out to eat and chat. There’s not much to do day to day. But in the summer there becomes all this new stuff to do. Homefest and Ribfest and the street dances are fun.

How is your family doing here? Do you think they are going to stay?
I think they like it. I hope they like it because I really like it here and I would love to come back and visit.

What keeps you motivated?
I’m totally not sure if I’m supposed be a doctor. I have to remember that God has it. I’m just going to go this way and put my trust in Him. I just have to start and something will click.

Jessie Veeder is a singer, writer and photographer who lives and works on her family’s cattle ranch in Western ND with her husband, Chad.