Project introduces Storm Lake to the world

STORM LAKE, Iowa (AP) – While attending Buena Vista University, Andrew Offenburger couldn’t have told you much about Storm Lake other than that it was the location of the college he attended.

He was unaware of the changes the city was going through as immigrants moved there to work in the meatpacking plants.

“I had no idea about this as a student,” said the 1998 Buena Vista graduate. “I wasn’t aware of the global dynamics in my backyard.”

After graduating from Yale and after learning how issues such as industrial agriculture, race, and immigration affected rural Africa, Offenburger realized that Midwestern cities and towns like Storm Lake faced many of these issues. He also realized that Storm Lake’s response to these challenges had been right under his nose as a student, and he never knew it.

He makes up for the missed opportunity and takes a renewed interest in a city where the majority of residents are non-white and hail from dozens of countries.

“I really think it’s one of the most fascinating places to study in the United States,” said Offenburger, who is from Johnston, Iowa, and is now an associate professor of history at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

The Sioux City Journal reports that “Small Town, Big World,” a community project involving students from Miami and Buena Vista, aims to empower Storm Lake residents — some immigrants, some who have lived here for generations — of the world and show what has helped the city become an effective melting pot of different cultures.

Looking for ideas for a final project for his history class students in the Midwest, Offenburger called Superintendent Stacey Cole at Storm Lake Community Schools. She suggested the features about local residents, thinking the stories could improve social relationships.

Offenburger loved the idea, but there was a problem: How do you meet and interview people with your students hundreds of miles from Storm Lake? He sought the help of Andrea Frantz, a digital media professor at Buena Vista whom he knew when he was a student, to band together.

It fit with Frantz’s goal of getting students off campus and interacting with the residents of the community.

“I thought it would be a great opportunity,” Frantz said. “Anytime you can tell the stories of the people who share a community, it expands the community and moves us forward.”

After Storm Lake residents submitted profile suggestions, students from the two schools joined forces, with Miami students conducting the interviews via Zoom while Buena Vista students sat with residents recording interviews and taking photos. The profiles touched on issues like race, integration and immigration — all issues that can be a little touchy but are something Storm Lakers need to address as they continue to welcome new faces to town.

“That’s the day-to-day reality that the Storm Lakers live with,” Offenburger said.

A reality that current Buena Vista students, just like Offenburgers in the ’90s, are not always aware of.

“I thought it was very impressive to try something like this,” recalled Blake McMillan, a senior digital media major from Philadelphia, Mississippi, when a project was proposed to his class. Transferred to Buena Vista, McMillan said he hadn’t gotten out much in the community but knew a little more about it than he realized when he described it to Miami students.

“It was interesting because they were trying to tell a few stories about a city they had never been to,” McMillan said.

McMillan was working on a profile of Katie Lindgren, who grew up in Storm Lake and now lives near Newell, about the changes she witnessed in Storm Lake. McMillan also interviewed an immigrant from South Sudan and her daughter about the challenges they faced moving here.

Working on her stories helped McMillan see what immigrants must go through to get to Storm Lake and how longtime residents are adapting to the changes. McMillan said he realized Storm Lake is a special place that has worked hard to integrate newcomers, a discovery he could share with the Miami students.

“It’s a lot more fun showing non-local people what it’s like,” McMillan said.

Twenty profiles were completed this spring and published on March 8 on the Small Town, Big World website at The Miami students created written profiles, and the Buena Vista students used the interview recordings to create accompanying audio stories.

Students are collaborating on 20 more profiles this spring.

The project taught Offenburger things about Storm Lake that he wished he had learned as a student at Buena Vista. But through his students, he’s learned about the city and how its citizens, from dozens of backgrounds, have built a community despite the challenges that come with it.

“Some beautiful things are happening at Storm Lake and I think that’s how the US can move forward. It wasn’t always like this,” says Offenburger, who is working on a book about Storm Lake and the region.

He might not have known it when he lived here, but he’s making sure that as many people as possible now know what makes Storm Lake so special.

About Stephanie McGehee

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