Posts Tagged: luther college

Q&A with Dr. Michael Osterholm

By Aryn Henning Nichols • Originally published in the Holiday + Winter 2020-21 Inspire(d)

Dr. Michael Osterholm / Photo courtesy Stuart Isett

Perhaps you’ve seen his name in the news: Dr. Michael Osterholm. The nationally renowned epidemiologist has been quoted or published in media outlets across the nation – from New York Times to Oprah – in regards to COVID-19 and other epidemics and disease-related news. He’s one of the many scientists who have been busy studying, researching, reporting facts, and trying to help the world deal with this outbreak.

And he happens to be from Northeast Iowa.

Dr. Osterholm is a Waukon native. He graduated from Waukon High School in 1971, and got a degree in biology – and a second in political science – from Luther College in Decorah in 1975. He then went on to earn two master’s degrees from the University of Minnesota and, finally, a doctorate in environmental health in 1980. After working at the Minnesota Department of Health as a graduate student, then as Minnesota’s state epidemiologist for 15 years, he eventually founded the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota in 2001, which he continues to lead.

But how does one follow that path from Northeast Iowa? Epidemiology isn’t a profession you see on a regular basis around here.

According to Dr. Osterholm, epidemiology is basically “medical detective work,” and it’s something that has intrigued him ever since junior high (you’ll hear more about that below). Despite his fame in the field, and now, in the nation, he’s maintained his Midwestern accent and mannerisms – he even thanked me for my time, when he was clearly the one with a tighter schedule. He only had 15 minutes to spare for this interview before Zooming in on at least three more talks that day.

Read on to see all the topics we crammed in to that quarter of an hour – Dr. Osterholm’s background, Zoom sessions, thoughts on COVID-19, and how he likes to keep in touch, even through a pandemic.

Q&A with Dr. Michael Osterholm:

Why did you decide to get into epidemiology?

What happened was I had a close relationship with the woman married to the owner of the Waukon Newspaper, Laverne Hull. She was a real renaissance of a woman. She worked at the newspaper – really, she was part owner too – was multi-lingual – spoke French and English – had a masters in journalism, and subscribed to the New Yorker. She was someone who had a major influence on my life. She would give me these New Yorkers when she was done reading. There was a series of articles in there called the “Annals of Medicine” by Berton Roueché. And Berton Roueché was someone who was a constant storyteller. He would take these outbreak investigations and write them up as kind of “who done it” stories. I loved reading these, even when I was in seventh and eighth grade. Whenever she would get done with a copy, I would quick run and get it. So I even knew back in junior high that I wanted to be a medical detective. So that’s what I pursued.

Has it been as exciting as you thought it would be in seventh and eighth grade?

I had no idea – it was one of those things. It’s like me asking you what your life’s going to be like when you’re 60. It’s just one turn after another. The thing that was most remarkable is that Berton Roueché actually wrote up an outbreak investigation that I led in Southwestern Minnesota back in the 1980s. A thing called thyrotoxicosis, and it was his very last story he wrote before he died. I was able to tell him how he influenced my life, and say “thank you” for all he did for me.

And now we have COVID-19, a type of virus you predicted would happen in our lifetime in your 2017 book, Deadliest Enemy: Our War Against Killer Germs. Realistically, how long do you think we’ve got to go before we can be together again, COVID-19 carefree?

We just don’t know yet – clearly it’s going to be challenging in the coming months because we don’t really understand yet how well vaccines will work, we don’t know when people will actually get a vaccine, and how durable the immunity is, meaning will it last for a certain period of time. We just don’t know yet.

What are some things we can all do in order to get there faster?

So, it’s all about distancing, which is a very hard thing to get across to people. You know, it’s basically sharing the air with someone, someone who could be putting the virus out into that air. When you’re indoors, it’s very difficult to distance. Outdoors is easier, but it’s still a challenge.

And masking?

Masking is something everyone should do. I think anything we can do right now to minimize the risk of transmission, we should consider. We still don’t know how well it works; it’s likely just a thing that’s another layer, in effect. Distancing is still by far the most important thing you can do, but also just being aware of being in crowds – in the sense that it’s not just how far away you are from someone, but if I go and spend three hours indoors and I’m more than six feet away from someone, that doesn’t mean that I’ll be safe there. We have many outbreaks right now – bars and restaurants, funerals, weddings, family reunions, school-based activities that are indoors. All of these have led to big outbreaks, right here in the Midwest.

Do you think any number is safe? Less than 25? Less than 10?

There’s nothing magical about 10. It’s more about who your bubble’s with. For example, my partner and I are very bubbled together. So, you know, we can do whatever we want. People who are living together in one building – they can get together pretty routinely if they don’t have outside contact.

You’ve said numerous times you prefer to say physical distancing instead of social distancing – because we still must remain social through COVID-19. We love that. What are your favorite physical distancing activities that still allow you to be social?

 I don’t think there’s been a time in my adult life when social closeness has been more important. So I make sure I see my kids on a weekly or bi-weekly basis and be with them outdoors. I’ll give them each a 30-second hug, then back away at that point, and maintain at least a 10-foot distance outdoors. I go out for walks with my partner frequently in a park near where I live, and feel very comfortable holding her hand as we walk around the park and just staying, you know, at least 10 feet away from everybody outside and I don’t have any concerns at all.

Along those lines, how do you keep in touch with your relatives who are far away? Do you Zoom with them?

I Zoom with them a lot. And for work, too. I work with more than 30 people with our center, and we have our routine Zoom calls. I will often spend eight to 10 hours a day on Zoom.

Whoa, that’s got to be exhausting.

Yeah, it is. I mean, I’m giving a talk here in just a few minutes, and this will be my third talk of the day. And I’ve got three more to go yet before I’m done.

Yeah, you are highly sought after, I imagine.

Well, I can’t say that (laughs). Everything is virtual for me now. I haven’t left Minneapolis since March, which is a big change for me. I’m usually a 200,000-mile-a-year flier, but I haven’t been on a plane since March.

Do you miss it?

Ah, you know… I don’t. I miss the contact with all my friends and family that I once had, but I think travel is something you realize – once you’re not doing it – what it feels like to get off the gerbil wheel.

The theme of this issue of Inspire(d) is “Look for the Bright Spots”. Have you found some bright spots to these past months? Any you could share?

You know, I do a weekly podcast, The Osterholm Update: COVID-19. And with that, we have many thousands of people who download it and listen to it each week. The response we’ve gotten from this podcast… the feedback has been nothing short of remarkable. And it’s been a really positive thing to see all the acts of kindness that people do and follow up on. So I have to say that has probably been one of the really special things. There have been so many people that have done so many kind things. I think that we must not forget that despite what’s going on with this virus right now, there’s a tremendous amount of good in the world.

Find the Osterholm Update: COVID-19 podcast at www.cidrap.umn.edu/covid-19/podcasts-webinars or on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Play or on YouTube.

Minding the Gap

By Kristine Jepsen • Originally published in the Spring 2020 Inspire(d)

“What are your plans after graduation?”

We’ve all asked this of a high schooler at some point. What we (often) mean is: “Where are you going to college?”

But what happens if your heart doesn’t thrill to the thought of lecture halls, dorm rooms, and unlimited soft-serve ice cream? Or if you’re not ready to invest in the cost? Or the move away from home? What happens when you have the feeling you haven’t seen – or done – enough in the world to recognize your truest career calling?

Enter the “gap year,” a year (or more…or less!) of independent living, travel, service work, or nontraditional schooling that can help folks get their bearings on the future and, ultimately, personal fulfillment. A number of people in Decorah have gone this route, and the movement has been growing internationally, with programming options as diverse as learning Native American herbalism in the Pacific Northwest to rock climbing in the Andes (see sidebar).

But “gappers” better be ready to explain it when people ask. Over and over. And over, again.

“The reflex response when you tell someone you’re taking a gap year after high school is, ‘Ohhhhhhhhh,’” says Decorah native and Decorah High graduate Maggie Schwarz. As she says this, she demonstrates a sideways, distancing look of bewilderment that accompanies the phrase “gap year,” followed by some awkward silence.

“Then imagine,” she continues, “when someone tries to recover the conversation by asking, ‘Oh! Where are you going?!’ and I say, ‘I’m not going anywhere. This place – the Driftless – and its natural history are super important to me. I’m staying here.’”

*Crickets

“Gap years” aren’t really that unheard of, according to the Center for Interim Programs of Princeton, New Jersey, which has been advising gappers since 1980. The issue is that popular culture generally assumes “success” requires an academic degree.

When 2017 Decorah High grad Indigo Fish went head-to-head with her mother, Tanya O’Connor, about not enrolling in college, the perceived implications snowballed. “All I could think was, ‘No way. College is going to suck. It’s going to be just like high school, and I’m not going to learn anything,” says Indigo, who has both attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and floundered in traditional classrooms if the instruction wasn’t hands-on.

Indigo Fish, pictured above, had a variety of experiences during her Gap Year. She got a job at Dragonfly Books in Decorah and participated in their Pride Parade float; traveled to Denmark with her best friend and rode skateboards everywhere; read a lot of books; and went canoeing and found magical things like a baby turtle. Photos courtesy Indigo Fish.

“I was fear-driven for different reasons,” Tanya explains, “afraid that if she didn’t take advantage of college enrollment and the scholarships available to first-year traditional students, she might miss out and college would become unaffordable. I was afraid that she would not have the opportunity to experience educators who would make her a fine critical thinker.”

The turning point, Tanya says, came in the fall of Indigo’s senior year, when her grades plummeted and her sunny demeanor vanished. “I finally realized she was internalizing all the expectations, all of the teachers, every adult asking, ‘Where are you going to college?’

“She just shut down, and that’s when I really started to listen, and listen to her, instead of my idea of her.”

Indi, as she’s known to friends and family, agreed to a “gap” year as a compromise. “I was ready to become a street performer,” combining her interests in acting, dance, and theater production, she explains with a laugh. “I just needed to deal with college and all that later.”

In her gap year, she got a full-time job at Dragonfly Books. She enrolled in ballet lessons, participated in community theater, and sought assistance from a life coach and vocational rehabilitation. She audited a theater class at Luther College, and traveled to Denmark with her best friend, Anna.

Most important, she says, she started cooking for herself (sometimes) and assumed responsibility for other hallmarks of independence, like laundry. When she enrolled as a theater major at Luther College in 2018, these accountability skills gave her confidence. “Time management is huge in college, and I’m horrendous at it,” she says with a laugh. “Taking a gap year helped me get used to making my own schedule.”

For Thomas Hendrickson, a 2019 Decorah High School graduate, it was his parents, Julie Strom and Karl Hendrickson, who suggested a gap year. “I was ready to go straight into college, but senior year of high school was really rough. I was passing some classes and failing others,” he says.

Top: Thomas Hendrickson took a Gap Year at the suggestion of his parents, and found he would earn how he wanted to learn. Photo by Kristine Jepsen Bottom: Thomas Hendrickson and his family at his Decorah High School graduation. Photo courtesy Thomas Hendrickson

“Kids think they have to keep up with their peers and go the same speed. I thought a gap year meant that I was losing my edge, or it was the beginning of the end, which is ridiculous,” he says, adding that he had always worked grades ahead in math.

“It got to the point where you were feeling you weren’t smart,” offers Julie, sitting next to Thomas. “That wasn’t ever the case. We just didn’t want to saddle you with college debt when your timing and preparation for it could be way better.”

Thomas, who also has ADHD and Asberger’s Syndrome, has been housesitting on his own in Decorah and learning to cook at home, when his family will let him. He was accepted to top colleges for engineering but decided instead to pursue a folk school in Norway in 2020-21.  “Without a gap year, I may not have learned that I had to learn how to study – and pursue work that isn’t about getting the grade, as the end product. Folk schools like this one don’t have assignments or tests. You get out of it what you put into it.”

Thomas illustrates the influence of a “typical” schooling experience for some people, smoothing out the edges ‘til you get to a square. Illustrations by Thomas Hendrickson

Gap years aren’t just for high school graduates, either. “As a girl in the 80s, it was always clear to me that I had to pursue engineering or medicine if I wanted to be ‘successful,’” says Rachel Sandhorst of Decorah. “But when I was waitlisted for med school – and ultimately wasn’t accepted – I had no Plan B. It threw me into a tailspin. Sure, I had many friends who retook their MCATs and reapplied to get in, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. That rejection was really hard, but it was necessary to go through it.”

With time suddenly stretching before her, Rachel applied to AmeriCorps, a US-based service program only in its second year of existence at the time. “Even finding out about it was miracle,” Rachel says with a chuckle, “because ‘back then’ there was no Internet to research. I had to get on mailing lists – MAILING LISTS! – to learn about alternatives.”

Her first National Civilian Conservation Corps (NCCC) placement was in South Carolina, where her service work, time for reflection, and people she met (along with the rigors of reporting for physical training every morning, in uniform, at 6 am) turned her on to education. One gap year became three, while she applied to graduate school in Colorado. “Instead of helping kids with their physical growth, I learned I wanted to help them with their cognitive and emotional growth,” she says. “And I needed a gap year to understand that about myself.”

Andrea Miller, a native of Austria, now resident of Decorah, adds that gap years can be natural transitions between career interests. Trained as a preschool teacher in Austria, she’s now considering a gap year with both her elementary-age daughters. “I feel like I’ve been taking gap years over and over again, learning about myself and what I can offer. Then my 9-year-old came to me with the idea, and I thought, ‘Wait a minute…are you old enough? What’s the age limit on gap years?’” Ultimately, she concluded, there isn’t one.

There’s also no time limit. Taking a gap “six months,” Maggie Schwarz traveled the U.S., worked locally to pay her rent and bills, established a healthy sleep/wake schedule, and cooked for herself. She and her partner, Dalton Brown (also a Decorah grad), bought a VW van they named Cosmo, and began rehabilitating it for long-term travel.

Maggie and her partner are rehabbing a vintage VW for long-term travel. At right are pressed flower artworks by Maggie from 2019. Photos courtesy Maggie Schwarz.

Now enrolled as a studio art major at Luther, Maggie considers her self-care routines her greatest assets for success in college, and the friendships she formed in Decorah – mostly with other professionals a decade or more older – remain important. “It’s sometimes hard to be the one ‘different’ person – in your class, in your family – but it’s empowering, too,” Maggie says. “You encourage people to think differently.”

She and Dalton are mid-project with the van, swapping out its motor for a more reliable Subaru model. “We’re working on the wiring right now,” she reports. “My dad [Luther arts professor Lane Schwarz] has been super helpful,” – and inspiring, she says. “I grew up hearing stories of how he packed a van full of friends and drove to Alaska a few times in college.”

After earning a degree, Maggie wants to create an arts program offering high-caliber studio training and building intentional community, like South Bear School for pottery and other studio arts, founded in the 1970s by her grandparents, Dean and Gerry Schwarz. “But I’m not naive about how far a bachelor’s degree in art will get me,” she says. “That dream will require collaboration, but I think we need that kind of space more than ever.”

Most of all, she says, she’s grateful for the opportunity to take ownership of her own interests and learning. “Dreaming and debt don’t go well together,” she concludes. “‘Finding yourself’ is really, really hindered by debt,” she says, especially the college kind.

Her advice? Save up a little cushion – to pay the deposit for a gap-year travel program, say, or to pay your living expenses while you learn new work skills, explore apprenticeships, or find mentors. But then, be brave.

If you get the chance to gap? Maggie is quick with her reply: “Do it.”


Kristine Jepsen is a grant/writer, editor, and business coach for her local Small Business Development Center (SBDC). Her (unwitting) gap year after an undergrad degree in English and journalism included riding the Great Divide Mountain Bike Trail and training sled dogs for a backcountry outfitter in Flathead National Forest in Montana. She’s been bridging unexpected careers and opportunities ever since.


Thinking about doing a gap?

Start here!

Center for Interim Programs | Gap Year Counseling Experts Since 1980

Gap Year Association | Nonprofit for advocacy and accreditation of gap programming

Gap-Inspired Schools and Service Opportunities:

AmeriCorps | Corporation for National & Community Service

Aprovecho Research Center | Intensive permaculture and green building program in Oregon

The Areta Project | Summer and gap year immersive programs in Alaska

Camphill Villages | International residential communities in service of disabled adults 

Classroom Alive! | An Open-Source Learning Model

Deep Springs College | Bishop, CA

EdVenture | A school for community enterprise in Frome, England

Expedition Education Institute | Gap travel to several bioregions on a bus with a small cohort of students

Foundation for Intentional Community | Locate communities for social connection, environmental responsibility, and economic equity 

Folk Schools in Norway, Sweden (and Norway again)

Global Citizen Year | International immersion gap-year program for leadership, service, and network-building

KAOSPILOT: 3-year program in Copenhagen, Denmark for “change-makers, leaders and social entrepreneurs”

Knowmads | Creative business program for self-development and entrepreneurialism in Amsterdam, Netherlands and Sevilla, Spain

LEAPNOW Program at Naropa University

Lost Valley Educational Center | Residency for sustainable living skills

Minerva Schools | Highly selective alternative college with study on four continents

Outer Coast College (Sitka, AK) 

PRAXIS | Competitive, one-year bootcamp combining liberal arts coursework with an internship

Rotary Exchange | International youth ambassador program for students age 15-19

School of All Relations | A Greek retreat program for interconnection: with self, others, and the Earth

School of Integrated Learning (SOIL) | Immersive off-grid sustainability programs

Team Academy | Business school for entrepreneurs in the Netherlands

Uncharted | Social impact accelerator program based in Denver, Colorado

Up With People | Performing arts service

Watson University | Boulder, CO

Weaving Earth | Nature-based education for action in Graton, California

Where There Be Dragons | Experiential learning, service, cultural immersion, and wilderness exploration

Wilderness Awareness School | Programs in ancient and modern ecological wisdom in Duvall, Washington

Woolman at Sierra Friends Center | Quaker program in the California Sierra Nevadas focused on social justice, peace, and sustainability

WWOOF | World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms

Year On | Gap-year programming combining service abroad, skills focusing in San Francisco, and career coaching

YIP | International Youth Initiative Program in social entrepreneurship in Järna, Sweden

Youth Initiative High School & Thoreau College | Viroqua, WI

October 2019 Calendar!

October 2019! The fall fun just keeps on coming! Start your planning with this handy-dandy October 2019 calendar (you can download the pdf here). Have a blast – here’s hoping we have a nice, long fall season! XO, Inspire(d)

LOOKING FOR MORE DETAILS ABOUT EVENTS ON THE CALENDARS?
Check out these great October 2019 activities! In chronological order, each event’s number coincides with its number on the calendar!

9. October 5: Visit the Seed Savers Exchange Heritage Farm for Harvest Festival. Activities and fun for all ages on the farm! Details: www.seedsavers.org/harvest-festival

10. October 11: Karen Savoca and Pete Heitzman live in concert at Lingonberry, 218 W Water St,  Decorah, 7:30pm. Tickets: Oneota Coop, or 563-419-2999. Sponsored by The Retreat on Maple and Rocket Dog Books.

11. October 12: Run the Driftless Half Marathon – Iowa’s Most Scenic Half Marathon in Lansing, IA. Takes place on Great River Road National Scenic Byway. Relay and 5k options. www.thedriftlesshalfmarathon.com

12. October 12: Mussels, snakes and beavers; each has a role! Families are invited to explore Mississippi River Animals, Decorah Public Library, 11am & 1pm www.decorah.lib.ia.us

13. October 12: Eagle Bluff Banquet on the Bluff Fundraiser. Fun games, auctions, & delicious food round out this festive evening. Proceeds support our outdoor environmental education programming. www.eagle-bluff.org

14. October 19: pertNear 20 Mountain Bike Race. Come ride pert’ near 20 miles of singletrack and county roads in beautiful Viroqua. Camping available at race site, families welcome, good times! Reg/Info: www.bluedogcycles.com

15.  October 26: Dance to the sounds of the Hunter Fuerste Vintage Big Band Orchestra at the Lakeside Ballroom in Guttenberg.  $20.adv/ $25. Door. 563-252-2095 (M-Sat., 9-5) for tickets.

16. October 26: Eagle Bluff Trick-or-Treetops. Trick or Treat 30 feet high as you traverse your way through wooden and wire elements that end with a zip line. www.eagle-bluff.org

17. October 29: Tattoo Talk – “Tattoos, Medievalism, and White Nationalism,” Lindsey Row-Heyveld, Luther College Prof. of English, 7:00 pm at Luther, with After Party at Vesterheim. www.vesterheim.org