True grit – or is it ‘sisu’

New College of Education & Human Development endowment taps dean’s Finnish heritage

Cindy Juntunen

Cindy Juntunen, dean of the College of Education and Human Development, is securing funding for the Sisu Endowment. As a nod to Juntunen’s Finnish roots, the Sisu Endowment will help fund scholarships, programs and educational initiatives that support students from rural backgrounds and those who want to serve their communities. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

When Cindy Juntunen talks about her Finnish roots and growing up in northern North Dakota, the topic inevitably shifts to UND.

“Being part of UND is something my dad started talking about when I was three years old,” she said.

Juntunen, dean of the College of Education and Human Development (CEHD), in addition to earning her undergraduate degree from UND, has been a faculty member for almost 25 years. She recently earned the distinction of Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor in Counseling Psychology and Community Services.

Now she’s starting a fundraising initiative to bring the relationship full-circle.

The CEHD Sisu Endowment will fund scholarships, programs and educational initiatives to support both students from rural backgrounds and those looking to make a difference in the region.

Juntunen’s goal is to reach $100,000 in commitments by the end of this June. To get things started, she pledged $5,000 over the next five years and will match the first $10,000 donated.

The dean wants people around UND to get in touch with their sisu.

Cindy Juntunen

Juntunen’s Finnish heritage played a role in her creation of the Sisu Endowment. Sisu is a word that refers to grit and determination in the face of adversity, something Juntunen values in those who work through challenges to attend university. She hopes the endowment will recognize the hardships many face in earning an education. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

Finnish flavor

But what is sisu?

“It’s a Finnish word for grit and determination,” Juntunen explained, who grew up close to Rolla, N.D., where there’s a strong connection to the Nordic country. “Some people would say stubbornness or obstinacy, but I prefer the former,” she added with a laugh.

In Finnish culture, it’s more of a mindset than anything else.

“It’s thinking, okay, what do we have to do next,” she continued. “Even if obstacles come your way, it’s working hard and doing things not just for yourself but for other people, too. It serves a communal purpose.”

Juntunen and her family brandish their sisu with pride, which inspired the dean’s endowment initiative.

She wants the endowment to recognize that people meet their educational and research goals by “sticking to it and working through barriers.”

“I wanted to make an avenue available to support students and faculty in the college who want to reach out and make a difference,” she said.

Cindy Juntunen

The dean comes from a proud Finnish family based in northern North Dakota, near Rolla. Pictured are a few items from her home, including The Kalevala, one of Finland’s most significant works of literature. Juntunen says sisu was often referenced during her upbringing on the family farm, which inspired her to create the endowment for the College of Education and Human Development. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

Regional impact

The main aim of the Sisu Endowment involves students from rural backgrounds or those who need help accessing educational resources.

Despite the college’s excellent scholarships, there are still students missed along the way.

Also, programs designed to have an impact on the Grand Forks region sometimes have difficulty finding appropriate funding.

“Because of my position, I was able to ask where there might be some gaps in areas I’m concerned about,” Juntunen said, noting that she’s focused on under-served and under-resourced areas of education.

The endowment provides an opportunity to reach a broad swath of issues that are relevant to the region’s communities.

“We prepare teachers and school leaders, and we’re also training counselors, psychologists, rehabilitation counselors and public health educators,” Juntunen said. “We do things that focus on behavioral health, education, achievement and how those are connected to emotional well-being. Additional funding could provide a wide pathway to meet the needs where they exist.”

Leader in Action

Jay Erickson, the CEHD’s director of development, is dedicated to supporting the college through alumni connections and contributions at the UND Alumni Association Foundation.

He’s one of the few people involved in getting the Sisu Endowment up and running. He thinks what Juntunen is doing falls right in line with UND’s Strategic Plan of fostering alumni engagement.

“She provided a match opportunity as well, which I think attracts additional donors and investors to come to the table and invest in the college,” he said.

Erickson has been impressed by Juntunen’s leadership, considering her other responsibilities on campus.

“What makes this unique is you have a true leader in action with Dean Juntunen,” Erickson remarked. “Not only does she provide leadership for the college, she’s also investing her dollars into her own school in hopes of lifting it up and providing additional opportunities for students and programs.”

With fundraising under way, Juntunen wants to reach out to other groups with a focus on rural issues. In a way, the connection can show potential partners the kind of work the endowment will affect.

After such an extended relationship with UND, she’s happy about her shot to make a lasting impact.

“It’s rewarding to explore an idea of something that I care about,” Juntunen said. “Especially at an institution that I care about.”