If students didn't matter

Tuesday, March 26, 2002

The headline in the latest Buena Vista University "Tack" jumps out and grabs you where it counts, and then twists.

"BVU students mean nothing," it reads.

Grab. Twist.

Student editor Micah Chaplin follows that powerful headline with a personal account of the experience students felt while trying to speak out at a Storm Lake School Board meeting over the controversial proposal to add "sexual orientation" to the list of nondiscrimination protections in district policies.

As Chaplin writes, one individual suggested that the opinions of the BVU students should not matter as much as those of the people who are full-time residents of Storm Lake.

How would that make any of us feel? To be a young person just coming into a bloom of social and political ideals and the realization that one person can speak out and make a difference - just as someone tries to tell them their opinions should somehow count less.

"This revelation was very disheartening to me and I could feel the gap between the University and the town getting larger," the young editor writes.

Grab. Twist. That's a good piece of writing, and a good note of warning.

Students should not judge Storm Lake by one offhand comment at an emotional board meeting, but neither should Storm Lake discount the value of the collegiates to our community. They are in no way second-class citizens.

Students pour money into local businesses, and provide eager bodies for a community with a shortage of available workers.

They boost up our Census figures and help make Storm Lake one of Iowa's few growing small cities, and because certain important funding sources are based on those Census figures, they are vital.

They make it possible for Storm Lakers to attract the arts, collegiate sports events, political figures and nationally-known speakers in a way a city of 11,000 never could otherwise hope for.

They allow us beautiful landmarks and facilities this town would not possess without them. That including the Forum, where I happened to be sitting in the ballroom enjoying the St. Mary's Ball last weekend when the "Tack" column found its way into my hands. If not for BVU, it would probably be a little gathering in the school gym, I thought.

BVU students also represent a massive available volunteer force for community good - from environmental clean-up to working with our elementary school children.

We've hardly touched the surface in the potential for beneficial interaction. And we won't, ever, if many people don't think the students count as Storm Lakers. Or if the students truly believe they "mean nothing" to the community.

It is in the interests of the Storm Lake neighborhoods to get to know the young people of BVU much better than they do.

Still, half the responsibility rests with the students themselves.

They can't get discouraged about their welcome if they have only gone to one school meeting on one issue and tried to make an impact one time.

Don't be discouraged, Micah. Keep coming. Keep trying.

Every voice counts, and there is plenty of room in Storm Lake to hear from some younger ones for a change.

What a great resource the college students could be for the school board alone. They could speak volumes about how the curriculum and policies of the public school systems work - or don't - to prepare a kid for what he or she will encounter later.

For the chamber of commerce to help discover what goods and services young people need and want in their community.

For the city council to learn about how safety and cultural affairs impact a segment of the population that is too often overlooked because it is too often underheard.

For the arts council. For the parks board and the Lake Preservation Association.

And it's long past high time to give a re-birth to the Big Brothers and Big Sisters program in Storm Lake. Last count, there are about 1,300 potential "bigs" sitting around campus, many probably missing a little brother or sister left at home anyway.

So we've talked in detail about the economic importance of the students to Storm Lake.

But if that was all they were, a bunch of dollar signs in dormitories, they wouldn't matter so much, either.

Most importantly, they are our perpetual injection of vitality, an intangible that makes Storm Lake vastly more wonderful than any community without a college campus.

They keep us young, and on our toes. Bring us fresh ideas and energy and vision. They call us on it when we make a mistake.

And if the community has for one moment made its collegiates feel that they "mean nothing," we've made one that we need to fix right away.