I was supposed to go to Paris this semester. I applied, was accepted, signed up for a host family, ordered a Metro pass, and bought a beret.
Then the terrorist attacks of Nov. 13 happened. That night, as the news broke, I knew immediately in my heart that even if I decided to stay with the program, my parents were not letting me get on that plane. They’d call it a joint decision, but Paris simply wasn’t going to happen.
But even as I quietly resigned myself to my non-Paris fate, I was the slightest bit relieved. The options, now, had multiplied. I quickly ruled out staying at Wesleyan—this semester was one for an adventure, after all—and it was too late to go somewhere else abroad.
So in much of the same way that I decide most things in my life, I came to a decision based on superstition and a pseudo-masochistic desire to make things as hard for myself as possible. When I found that the University of Iowa had the option of enrolling as a visiting student, and that its application system was included on a website called ISIS, the Iowa Student Information System, it was a done deal.
You see, I’ve always had a weird thing for Iowa, stemming from my “Little House on the Prairie” days. And so I sprang into action–submitting an application, signing up for classes, figuring out financial details, and rushing to get transfer credits approved.
I think what was so appealing about Iowa—and the middle of the country in general—is that I’ve lived in extreme environments for my whole life: an elite private school on the Upper East Side since fifth grade, a peace and justice focused farm school for a semester in high school, and now Wesleyan. My friends are from the East Coast, the West Coast, and Chicago. I don’t know anything about what it means to be from mainstream middle America.
On an off-campus housing message board, I contacted two potential groups of housemates. I Skyped with the first group on a Saturday morning. I nervously pressed the “call” button and five nearly identical faces appeared seated around a curved couch. Blonde, white, and sweatshirt-clad, they stared at me, unsmiling.
“Are you all from Iowa?” I asked, sweating, trying to break the ice.
They all nodded solemnly.
“What do you do on campus?”
“We don’t party,” said Linda*, the main girl. She described the work that all five of them did with the local ministry, including spending most of their weekends volunteering at nursing homes and soup kitchens.
“Sometimes we watch T.V.,” Brenda* supplied.
It pretty much went downhill from there.
As I ended the call, I lay facedown on my bed and silently accepted the fact that the next four months would be, if nothing else, cultural immersion. This isn’t supposed to be fun, I reminded myself, envisioning myself donning a polyester uniform and spending Saturday night after Saturday night playing bingo with the residents of the local nursing home (although who are we kidding—that would probably be really fun for me). It’s supposed to be material, I told myself, preparing to accept their offer to live with them.
But before I got a chance to officially join the ministry, the other group I’d contacted texted me asking to set up a Skype meeting. We Skyped that very night, and I immediately knew that this was the better fit. One of my future roommates is a tour guide with a passion for all things Hawkeye sports (in the days before sports games, she said, in lieu of a more traditional “hello,” University of Iowa students greet each other with a spirited, “Go Hawks!”).
“What sport will it be when I’m there?” I asked, trying to remember the noises that come out of my dad’s Sony Walkman in the cold months.
Her answer was basketball. Okay, I thought to myself. I can handle that; at least basketball, unlike football, is interesting to watch. In my mind’s eye, I traded the polyester nursing home uniform for a bright yellow dress (Iowa’s colors are yellow and black) and a big black hat.
Yes, this might be suitable after all.
When I reported all of this to my mother, she said, “You know, Jen”—here she lowered her voice confidentially—“there’s probably going to be alcohol.”
I just laughed.
What I know: Iowa is a Midwestern state that borders Nebraska, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Missouri. The city that hosts the University of Iowa, Iowa City, is the only City of Literature in North America. Iowa City is one of Iowa’s more liberal cities, the university was the first public university to admit men and women equally, and also the first to recognize the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Allied Union. The town has at least one vegan restaurant, which I will be frequenting daily, probably.
Iowa itself is 92.1 white, 3.4 percent black, 2.2 percent Asian, 5.6 percent Hispanic or Latino, 1.7 percent multiracial, and 0.5 percent American Indian or Alaska Native. It vacillates between choosing Republican and Democratic candidates during national elections. Tornadoes are not unheard of.
Why Iowa: As I mentioned, I’ve always had a thing for the state. Buddy Holly, the best musician of all time, died in Clear Lake, Iowa, in 1959, and I’m making it my ultimate goal of the semester to get someone to drive me the three hours to see the memorial (a huge sculpture of his iconic glasses). I did toy with the idea of doing something REALLY different—Brigham Young University, the Mormon college in Utah where they don’t even serve caffeinated soda in campus vending machines; the United States Naval Academy; the University of Mississippi. But at the end of the day, I need coffee and to occasionally show my elbows in public, who are we kidding with the Naval Academy, and even as a white person, I’m way too scared to spend a semester at the University of Mississippi or the like.
A note on stereotypes: My going to Iowa is part sociology study, part cultural immersion, and part personal exploration. The last thing I want to do is attach myself to stereotypes about the state and its people; it’s frankly boring and often unhelpful to deal in tropes. But as of now—before my plane lands in Cedar Rapids—all I know is what I’ve heard and absorbed from cultural experiences.
That said, the Northeast is typically considered a more “privileged” place to live than the Midwest: society deems it more civilized or something. The stereotypes about us—as being pushy, unfriendly, snobbish—are kind of laughable compared to those about people in places like Iowa—uneducated, hickish, mayonnaise and jello obsessed. So I’m going to try to take everything I’ve heard with a grain of salt.
A note on privilege: I probably could not do this if I were not white and cisgender. Or maybe I could, but I’d certainly have a different experience, to say the least, in everything from finding roommates to walking around campus. For the most part, my whiteness and apparent cisgender identity mean that I can go about my life in the Midwest without experiencing—except for my style of dress, which will probably different from Iowans’, as I don’t plan to be caught dead in anything Hawkeye-themed—blatant discrimination.
*Name changed to protect the truly innocent.