For Katya Koubek, the key to understanding is to be found within the beauty of common language, and multicultural Storm Lake is a perfect place to search for that key.
The Buena Vista University assistant professor of education is becoming a national leader in the campaign to win cultural gaps through language teaching. Along the way, she is involving Storm Lake's Latino immigrant population and their perceptions of their new country.
When Koubek speaks of the immigrant experience, it is with the passion of someone who has lived it.
"I came here from Moscow," she says. "I've been 11 years in the U.S. and four at BVU, where I was brought in to develop a program to teach language aquisition. It's been so exciting, because nothing like that existed before. We have been able to create it from scratch."
Far from any traditional ports of call, BVU has been quietly working to build a population of international students, and is currently focusing on recruiting from places like Taiwan and Vietnam - not just to educate people from other countries, but because a multicultural environment is a positive learning environment is a positive learning experience even for students who grew up entirely in Iowa.
With the help of a a student assistant, Koubek gathered opinions from local Latinos at various businesses around Storm Lake.
"A lot of what we discovered about their attitudes on immigration and illegal immigrants was surprising even to us. We would like to do more work in depth on this. One thing that I thought was interesting is that we have people in Storm Lake who earned master's-level degrees in Mexico and they are working as meatpackers in our Tyson plant."
Koubek finds that some of the Latino students she works with are "enraged" about their treatment growing up in America.
"ESL students say they have experienced discrimination even from their own teachers. They have been picked on because they didn't speak English well, and it breaks my heart to hear that. In some cases, this is why they are going into ESL as a profession - to try to stop that."
Lorena Pedroza, a Mexican student, has been invaluable as an assistant in Koubek's efforts, and may follow her into the field of English as a Second Language education.
"The majority of the Latinos in Storm Lake are really not comfortable in English. They just get by. We invited them to a conference here in Storm Lake, but none of them came because it was in English," Koubek said.
That event was the 2008 Mid-America Teachers to Speakers of Other Languages conference hosted by Buena Vista University recently.
This was the first time for MIDTESOL to be held in the region - and a first for Koubek, who was selected to chair the event.
"I experienced a breadth of emotions raging from being apprehensive to ecstatic. The preparation for this conference started two years ago when I was chosen to lead this conference. Being either naïve or determined, I agreed to serve this role," she says.
Advertising, promoting attendance and participation, securing hotel rooms, and inviting keynote speakers consumed a full year.
"I personally talked to exhibitors at three language conferences I attended this year inviting them to bring their exhibits to Storm Lake," she said.
"Despite the hectic work in the last days before the conference, I could not wait for the conference to begin.
Stu Jorgensen, a student of mine, made sure our keynote and invited speakers had everything working in the Anderson Auditorium. Academic assistants Olivia Van Zante and Tiffaney Miller helped to organize the program.
Speaker Helene Grossman is Iowa's State Director for Adult Literacy for the Iowa Department of Education. She worked for Des Moines Public Schools and Heartland AEA as the ESL Consultant. In addition, she coordinated the Iowa Culture and Language Conference for 22 years and built the conference from less than 100 participants to 1000. Her presentation was "Bright Futures for Our State, Our Communities, and Our Students" and she talked about Iowa educators having a key role in molding the future of our state and our educational delivery system as we strive to adapt to changing needs while maintaining the integrity of our programs.
On Saturday, October 18, the keynote speaker, Dr. Diane Larsen-Freeman presented her speech "Thinking Anew" where she talked about teaching as an exhilarating profession. By the same token, the profession can lead to burnout, she noted.
"One way that she has found of avoiding burnout as a teacher is to challenge her thinking by being open to new ideas. In her talk, Dr. Larsen-Freeman shared some new ideas that she has found fascinating. She has drawn her inspiration for these ideas from chaos/complexity theory, which encourages a much more complex, dynamic, and nonlinear view of language and its learning," Koubek said.
Dr. Larsen-Freeman has been a conference speaker in over 60 countries and is considered a pioneer in English as a Second Language education.
Over 120 participants from five states attended the 2008 MIDTESOL conference in Storm Lake.
Koubek is sought after on the ESL issues, presenting at a national convention in New York recently, and gearing up for another at the national TESOL convention this year in Denver.
Much attention has been focused on immigration issues by the presidential campaign, but Koubek doesn't feel either candidate offers a complete solution. "We hear a lot of plans for economics, but not so much about immigration. There is nothing concrete," she says.
"I am for illegal immigration, probably because I am a legal immigrant. I don't think putting up a barrier solves the probems. As former Mexico President Fox said when he visited Storm Lake this past year, we should be building bridges instead of fences." Koubek reflects that raids like the one at Postville are more damaging than helpful, and believes that there should be some path to citizenship for the immigrants in Storm Lake who are willing to work for it, regardless of their status.
"They are doing work for us that white Americans don't want to do. We will either have to raise wages tremendously so Americans will want those jobs, or find a way to bring in people from outside who do want them."
The solution isn't political, Koubek feels, but one of understanding.
"It can be hard in America, where people traditionally speak only one language. In Europe, it is their nature to speak three or four languages. But we need to know more than the words, but something deeper about the cultures - how people live, their cycle of life, their routines. When students come into Storm Lake from other countries for college, they have entirely different routines. In some countries they are taught that it is impolite to express an opinion, so it can be hard for them to adapt."
Teachers especially need to know something about the cultures from which students come.
Storm Lake is making strides, she feels. In fact, local educators Lori Porsch and Colleen Last volunteered to present their experiences in Storm Lake at the MIDTESOL conference here, titling their presentation "We are the World: Storm Lake."
Koubek had gone to each school before the event, and a Newell-Fonda teacher also agreed to attend.
Koubek's students Lorena Pedroza and Iris Hernandez also gave presentations to the educators gathered from around the midwest.
"Their heart and soul is ESL. It is so exciting to work with the Latino students, because there is so much you can learn from them and what they have experienced. Working with young people like that, you can build studies that are going to work."
Koubek and Pedroza hope to adapt their studies into a journal article in order to reach more educators in K-12, college and adult education around the world.