Dr. Amy Bergstrom: a tale of transformation
St. Scholastica’s chief diversity officer reflects on her identity and experiences as a higher education leader
A biracial lens
Amy Bergstrom never envisioned herself in higher education, let alone serving as the College’s Chief Diversity Officer.
So what happened?
Native traditions and Harvard University: an identity and an experience that changed the trajectory of her life, leading her down a path that eventually brought her to The College of St. Scholastica.
“I never thought in my wildest dreams I would be doing what I’m doing today,” she said. “It’s been an evolution to get here.”
The evolution began in Carlton, Minnesota, just outside the Fond du Lac Reservation where Bergstrom grew up as the youngest of seven children. Her dad, of Swedish and German descent, was born in Bemidji and her mom was born on the Red Lake Reservation. Bergstrom’s biracial identity shaped her perception of her community and of herself.
“I saw racism around me in my community, among my peers in school, with my own mother, and selfishly, I didn’t want to be a part of it. When you’re watching it happen, you don’t necessarily have the words to name it, you don’t know how to stand up against it.”
As a result, Bergstrom worked hard to fit in and “pass” as white; for her, it was a way to survive.
After high school, she enrolled at Bemidji State University but withdrew after one quarter. Growing up, college was rarely discussed, and she recalled how naive and unprepared she had felt for the actual experience. Bergstrom moved back home and took a gap year working various jobs.
The journey to Harvard
Along the way, she began to recognize the importance of education and the opportunities it would provide. These gap year reflections inspired her to pursue her associate’s degree from Itasca Community College before transferring to the University of Minnesota, Duluth. This time, she persevered.
Bergstrom earned her degree in English education, a journey she described as transformative. “Once I got into UMD, I really started to see the power of education,” she said. “I experienced how it transformed my opportunities, my relationships and how it expanded my community.”
She experienced an identity transformation, too. For the first time in her adult life, she began reclaiming and reconnecting with her Native culture and community. She knew she wanted to show up for young people just as educators had shown up for her. This passion led her to the Fond du Lac Ojibwe School where she taught for five years.
And then came Harvard.
When she began researching master of education programs, one of Bergstrom’s mentors at UMD had encouraged her to apply to Harvard. He had attended and thought she would be a great fit, but she wasn’t as confident.
When the decision letter from Harvard University arrived in the mail, she waited nearly two weeks before summoning the courage to open it.
“It sat in the back seat of my car,” she laughed. “Once I finally opened it and read the ‘congratulations’, panic struck because I had just wasted two weeks!”
Luckily she had not missed any important deadlines and had time to prepare for her departure from northeastern Minnesota to Massachusetts. Once again, Bergstrom was transformed.
“Harvard was a game changer. It put me in a world that I never knew existed and exposed me to new ideas, thoughts, people, language, food. I realized that the human condition existed outside of the bubble that I was raised in.”
Making an impact in the classroom
While she had never considered a career in higher education, her master’s studies at Harvard also inspired her to think differently about where she could make the most impact. After graduation, she returned to Duluth and was offered a position at her alma mater, teaching in UMD’s School of Education.
There, she spent thirteen years training Native teachers for elementary education classrooms and developing relationships with regional tribal colleges. The work of recruiting, retaining and graduating American Indian students who wanted to become teachers was incredibly fulfilling, and facilitated by a host of supportive mentors.
“I was blessed to have some extremely supportive mentors at UMD who saw things in me that I didn’t even see in myself at the time. When you allow that to happen, opportunities just present themselves to you in abundance.”
This time, the opportunity arose at St. Scholastica.
The College was seeking a program director for its newly-designed, 100% online master of education program. Bergstrom had just completed her doctoral degree in education from the University of Minnesota’s Twin Cities Campus and was ready for a new adventure.
She decided to go for it. And she got it.
Transforming the St. Scholastica community
From 2010-2020, Bergstrom oversaw the MEd program efforts, working with practicing teachers to help them meet the needs of their learners in a collaborative, cohort-based environment. Bergstrom saw it as yet another opportunity to make an impact by encouraging the educators in her classroom to think differently about inclusive teaching practices.
Under Bergstrom’s leadership, the program also earned recognition by US News and World Report as one of the best in the nation.
Even then, she could not have imagined stepping into the Chief Diversity Officer role, but the ground had begun to shift.
“I saw the direction the College was trying to take by committing itself to diversity efforts,” she said. “And that became really appealing to me. I started to think about how I could play a small part in the transformation of our campus and our community.”
In April 2021, Bergstrom was appointed to the position of Chief Diversity Officer, a stand-alone role that was created to embed equity, diversity and inclusion into the systems and culture of the College. During a year that was shaped by social justice movements, this work has never been as salient as it is for the Saints community. And Bergstrom knows it.
“Some days it feels like we need to move mountains,” she said. “It’s not easy work, but it’s been embraced by our campus community and I’m grateful for that.”
Under Amy’s leadership, the Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion developed a robust list of priorities with which to focus their efforts, including the updating of the Inclusive Excellence 2025 plan. She is especially proud of the work the office has done to prioritize and elevate work with Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) students: training in 14 new Multicultural Leadership Orientation mentors, creating an intentional BIPOC student communication plan, offering listening sessions specifically for BIPOC graduate students and encouraging members of the student body to attend the National Conference on Student Leadership Virtual Conference.
Campus-wide, faculty and staff were invited to participate in many virtual outreach events including the One Campus One Read book club, workshops on understanding bias and microaggressions, “Diversity Dish” sessions, EDI Conversations Across Campus and an Anti-Bias Search Advocate Program.
Bergstrom also facilitated a new initiative in collaboration with the Office of the President and the Alumni Engagement Team: Alumni of Color Listening Sessions.
“I learned a great deal from hearing the voices of our alumni and look forward to putting lessons learned from these sessions into action,” she said. “Ultimately, I am proud of the collaboration with alumni engagement, academic affairs, student affairs and human resources over this past year to elevate this work across our campus community.”
“All that we’ve accomplished over the past year is because of the power of the collective.”
The work is ever-evolving, but fortunately Bergstrom is well-versed in adapting to her circumstances and determining how she can create positive, lasting change; she’s spent a lifetime doing exactly that. And as for the position she never could have envisioned holding, she feels nothing but gratitude.
“Serving as Chief Diversity Officer is a privilege,” she said. “I am the lucky one.”