Megan Schott (Master of Arts, Urban and Regional Planning, 2020) grew up in Des Moines but her family’s roots in rural Iowa span generations. Centuries of farm work and hardship narratives have informed her traditional perspective of Iowa’s small-town life.

That perspective shifted during the spring 2019 semester—and opened a professional pathway to new possibilities—when Schott saw a fresh side of Iowa’s cultural landscape. 

Schott was one of nine students in the course Community Development in the Upper Midwest. The course, taught by Charles Connerly, professor and director of the School of Urban and Regional Planning, partnered with Columbus Junction, Iowa as part of the Iowa Initiative for Sustainable Communities (IISC).

The IISC partners faculty, staff and students with urban and rural communities to complete projects that enhance the sustainability of Iowa's communities, while transforming teaching and learning at the university.

Throughout the semester, Schott and her peers worked with Latinx teens in Columbus Junction’s Upward Bound program to produce videos and books helping to tell the 150-year story of their community through interviews and historical artifacts.

The video project helped identify a new and changing identity for the community, which involved immigrants and the Latinx population, a stark contrast to the identity of small-town Iowa which Schott grew up with.

After the course, Schott's now eyeing justice-oriented positions or municipal jobs in local government.

“Seeing the diversity of Iowa communities was eye-opening," Schott said.

"When people originally asked me what I wanted to do after graduate school, I would’ve said I want to be in a really diverse, urban environment because I feel like that’s a place where I can make a serious impact," Schott said. "But I discounted the diversity of our home state in certain cases."

"Some [Iowa] communities are incredibly diverse, with unmet needs for community building and engagement,” Schott said.

The IISC's integration of a real-world project into the course significantly impacted the students’ learning of the material.

“Our interactions in the community informed our reading and our class discussions; and I think our class discussions and our reading informed the questions that we asked in our interviews [with the community] and the way that we approached those conversations, in a respectful, open-minded way," Schott said. "I think the readings and experiences in the community informed each other. They were both really critical to the learning process.”

Schott’s knowledge of Iowa’s agricultural background brought a unique perspective to their study of the Midwest, and helped highlight and identify how small-town identity has changed over the years, while shifting her perspective on diversity in Iowa.