EVELETH – The steel industry was still booming when Logan Rozinka's brother graduated from high school. He got a car as a graduation present. She will not.
She was hoping for braces for her birthday in May. She would have liked to join the church youth group's trip to Colorado. She wanted a cute prom dress.
Of the three, she got the dress.
"My dad works at the mines and he got his hours cut," said Rozinka, cheerfully matter-of-fact about the reality of growing up in a place where a wobbling international steel market can affect where you end up going to college.
This June, she graduates into the worst economy the Iron Range has seen in a generation.
Half the mines on the Range sit idle. Thousands of people are out of work. High school milestones like buying a yearbook or picking out a prom dress or going off to college are higher hurdles than ever before.
Elsewhere in Minnesota, the economy is humming along. The state added 15,600 jobs in April, the biggest monthly jump in nearly three years. The unemployment rate remains well below the national average.
But after more than a century of iron mining, the fortunes of the Range still rise and fall with the mines. High school counselor Jessica Forsman estimates that a quarter to a third of the senior class at Eveleth-Gilbert come from homes where at least one parent is out of work.
Senior Mitchell Masters is working two jobs, six days a week, saving up to put himself through college while his family deals with layoffs and cutbacks at the mines.
Last summer, his father lost his job briefly when U.S. Steel idled its Minntac plant; he returned to work, but to fewer hours and a smaller paycheck. An uncle and cousin are still waiting for the callback to work at United Taconite.
He's hoping to become an engineer and plans to enroll in the new Iron Range Engineering program at Mesabi Range College. When it comes time to pay for it, he said, "I'm guessing that it's all going to be on me."
Students make do. They brown-bag their lunches, ride the bus, work after-school jobs and after-after-school jobs. They apply for scholarships and student loans and enroll in community college instead of heading straight to outstate universities.
When Rozinka's dad picked up extra shifts to pay for her prom dress, she hunted online until she found a bargain. She'll enroll at a local community college, Mesabi Range, hoping to transfer to a four-year university later to study social work.
"My parents already told me I have to pay for it all myself with scholarships and whatnot," she said. "I have applied for, like, 10 scholarships."
The school tries to make sure the economy doesn't overshadow the small joys of senior year.
"We try to be very mindful of finances when it comes to things like activity fees and field trips," Forsman said. "Most of the positive things you think of — getting your senior yearbook and going to prom — that can be a negative experience if [the student is worrying] 'How am I going to pay for this dress?' 'I can't pay for this yearbook.' "
"Friendly pockets" have donated funds to help cover some students' expenses and Forsman herself has chipped in to help students pay for treats like prom dresses.
The students' greatest source of support, she said, are other students.
"Students are so supportive of each other," Forsman said. "They're very empathetic. They're always trying to help each other out."
There's an entire underground network of classmates swapping dresses or sharing older siblings' tuxedos and prom dresses. Before prom, most of the girls did one another's hair and makeup. Those with their own vehicles offer the keys to classmates without.
"I think everyone just trusts each other," Masters said.
Students joke that they can count on one hand the number of girls who actually had to buy their own prom dresses this year.
"Everyone, obviously, knows what's going on," said senior Ethan Gregorich, whose father also works at Minntac. "It's just life. You accept it."
Home on the Range
The Iron Range has never been the easiest place to live or to make a living. But it is home, and a lot of the kids who grew up here want to stay.
"I think this senior class is especially connected to the Range," said Forsman, the school counselor. "I think it's painful for a lot of them to have that uncertainty of 'I really want to stay here, but can I make a living here?' "
These aren't the first students to ask that question. In the 1980s, the crash of the U.S. auto and steel industries almost dragged the Range under. More than 10,000 ironworkers lost their jobs. In some towns, the unemployment rate topped 50 percent. Kelsey Johnson watched it all from her classroom.
"You're a young kid in elementary school and the teacher is saying 'There's no way you're ever going to be able to find work here,' " Johnson said. "For a young kid to hear, 'We're not going to be able to make it,' 'You're not going to be able to live here,' 'You're not going to be able to find a job, so don't even bother'; for a young kid, that's scary."
Liz Biondich had three kids in college when the last downturn threw her husband out of work. They worked to make sure the kids stayed in school.
"We said, 'You are going to go to college. We are not going to let this deter what you want to do," Biondich said. "Did they have to get loans? Oh yes."
Now there's another downturn, another layoff. Her husband had been planning to retire after 40 years in the mines. She had been planning to retire as Eveleth-Gilbert's K-12 health and physical education teacher. But they've learned to roll with the downturns. She's still working and he's heading back to college, at age 61, to retrain as a carpenter.
"It's a cycle. We've been through it many times before," she said. "We will survive."
Beyond the mines
Despite her teacher's dire warnings, Johnson stayed on the Range and grew up to become president of the Iron Mining Association of Minnesota. The downturn she sees today seems even grimmer than the downturn in her childhood. Many of the mining operations have been down for more than a year, and some may not come back for years, if ever.
There are slivers of good news. Cliffs Natural Resources reopened its Northshore plant, returning 540 people to work. It hopes to reopen United Taconite in Eveleth sometime this year, although no return date has been set for the 420 workers who have been out of a job since last July.
More than 2,000 of the 4,000 people employed directly in the mining industry lost their jobs when the international steel market slumped last year. No one knows how many of them will be called back to work, or how many will answer that call when it comes.
The downturn is shaping students' immediate futures. Instead of heading out to dream colleges in Michigan, or the Twin Cities, or Alaska, they're sticking close to home, starting their freshman year at community colleges and saving up to transfer to a four-year university later, if they can.
When they come back — if they come back — most of them won't be looking to the mines for their future. Many parents don't want them to.
"My parents forbade me to work in the mines," Forsman said. "They said, 'You're going to use your mind, not your body. You are going to college.' "
But if not the mines, then what? The students hope the Range economy can be retooled into something sustainable, something renewable. Maybe they'll be the ones who figure out how.
"I'm kind of fearful that 30, 40 years down the line, there won't be anything here anymore," said senior Ethan Schechinger. "Iron's a finite resource. It's not going to regenerate. You can only mine for so long."