While most universities saw pandemic-related declines in student numbers this fall, the University of Minnesota Rochester was cutting against the grain: It is not only growing, but growing faster than projected.

This fall, the health care-focused college welcomed 954 students to its downtown campus, an 11 percent bump from the 859 students it served last year. The surge was fueled by a freshman class of 242 students, the biggest such class in the school's history. Last year's class was 198 students.

Still small compared to other universities -- U of M Duluth, for example, serves 10,000 students -- UMR was still the only Minnesota college or university to grow by more than 10 percent from 2019 to 2020.

Nathan Phan, 20, a sophomore at University of Minnesota Rochester, works on an organic chemistry problem for an upcoming quiz in the Student Lounge at 318 Commons Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020, on the UMR campus in downtown Rochester. (Joe Ahlquist / jahlquist@postbulletin.com)
Nathan Phan, 20, a sophomore at University of Minnesota Rochester, works on an organic chemistry problem for an upcoming quiz in the Student Lounge at 318 Commons Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020, on the UMR campus in downtown Rochester. (Joe Ahlquist / jahlquist@postbulletin.com)

UMR's fall enrollment outstripped its own more modest projections, which envisioned reaching a 1,000 students by 2025. Now that the school is nearing that benchmark ahead of schedule, the young university is facing growing pains. It needs space to grow, but plans to build its future campus in southwest Rochester have been paused due to COVID-19.

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Its strategic plan calls for phased growth in facilities when enrollment reaches benchmarks of 1,000, 1,500 and 2,500.

UMR Chancellor Lori Carrell credited the university's growth to its growing reputation. UMR serves an increasingly racially and ethnically diverse student body. Forty-two percent of this fall's incoming freshmen are students of color, officials say. The school has made headlines the last several years for its success in closing the achievement gap between white students and minority students.

"To teach in ways that work and to have students develop in ways that work, over time there is this momentum (that the school creates)," Carrell said.

The school is also drawing students who are interested in making their mark in health care, a field where jobs are plentiful, Carrell said.

"There is a gaping hole in the workforce, in the health care industry," Carrell said. "There is a need to develop talent right now. That need is attracting young people."

Freshman Melanie Lor, 18, said she heard about the school from teachers and classmates at Patrick Henry High School in Minneapolis.

For Lor, whose goal is to be physician assistant, one of the biggest draws was the school's proximity to Mayo Clinic.

"It's a more medically focused compared to the Twin Cities or the Duluth campus," Lor said. "And I really want to become somebody in the medical field."

Lor also represents a type of student that UMR has had success educating. She is a minority (Hmong), a first-generation college student, and comes from a low-income household. Lor said she enjoys going to a school with students she can relate to.

Sarah Jonas, 18, a freshman at University of Minneosta Rochester, studies in the Student Lounge at 318 Commons Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020, on the UMR campus in downtown Rochester. (Joe Ahlquist / jahlquist@postbulletin.com)
Sarah Jonas, 18, a freshman at University of Minneosta Rochester, studies in the Student Lounge at 318 Commons Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020, on the UMR campus in downtown Rochester. (Joe Ahlquist / jahlquist@postbulletin.com)

"I knew how diverse the school was, because I did a lot of research on it," Lor said. "It was a draw for me, because I love diversity. My high school was very diverse."

Right now, Lor is taking all her classes online because of the pandemic. Her visit to the campus one afternoon last week to talk with a reporter was only the second time she had been to the Galleria at University Square.

"I love working hands on, but ever since COVID hit, I've had to learn how to adjust," she said.

Cassie Lenneman, 22, and Brady Borowski, 25, both graduate students at University of Minnesota Rochester, study in the Student Lounge at 318 Commons Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020, on the UMR campus in downtown Rochester. (Joe Ahlquist / jahlquist@postbulletin.com)
Cassie Lenneman, 22, and Brady Borowski, 25, both graduate students at University of Minnesota Rochester, study in the Student Lounge at 318 Commons Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020, on the UMR campus in downtown Rochester. (Joe Ahlquist / jahlquist@postbulletin.com)