North Dakota native Joel Hektner ’90 comes east, then finds his way home again

Joel Hektner ’90 says the best part of moving back to his home state is seeing his sons get to know their grandparents and other relatives.
Joel Hektner ’90 says the best part of moving back to his home state is seeing his sons get to know their grandparents and other relatives.
Dan Koeck

When Joel Hektner ’90 met his classmates freshman year, many said the same thing to him: “You’re the first person I’ve ever met from North Dakota.”

Hektner grew up in Wahpeton, population 7,000, and hadn’t thought about going to college outside the region until he started getting mailings from out-of-state schools. Princeton was “a bit of a culture shock,” he says, but he loved being there and often told classmates, “I didn’t know where I’d end up after college, but it wouldn’t be North Dakota.”

But in 2000, a faculty position at North Dakota State University in Fargo lured him back. He and his wife, Kristin, along with their sons, who are 10 and 12, are happy living there, although the winters — when the temperature can dip to 25 below zero — are tough. 

The best feature of moving back to his home state is seeing his boys get to know their grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, he says. Hektner’s 89-year-old mother just moved to an assisted-living community two miles away, and he is grateful for the flexibility of a professor’s schedule (he teaches human development and family science) that allows him to take her to doctors’ appointments and to be in the stands for his sons’ basketball and baseball games.

Hektner is glad he did not end up becoming one of the many educated people who permanently leave the state: “It’s nice to feel you’re giving something back to the place where you were raised.”