The power of a passport

Friday, March 29, 2019
Select students from Alta-Aurelia, St. Mary’s and Sioux Central schools were invited to hear a speech from Christie Vilsack, former First Lady of Iowa and literacy advocate, at Roxy Theatre on Wednesday. There, she told the story of her five passports and how international travel can change your life. / Photos by Elijah Decious

“I’m here to tell you to leave your home town, leave your state, leave your country,” former First Lady of Iowa and literacy advocate Christie Vilsack said to students Wednesday—not so they never come back, but so that they can appreciate their small towns even more when they do. “You’ll all be better off if you do.”

With five passports in her life, one of them a special diplomatic passport, Vilsack has travelled to dozens of countries pioneering access to education, diplomacy and childhood literacy across the world.

After living in large East-coast cities, she found out she was a small-town girl, after all, and has advocated to bring opportunity to the small towns of Iowa that ensure they can continue to thrive and allow young people to find opportunity in them.

“I’m an Iowan by birth. I’m an Iowan by choice,” said the Mount Pleasant native. “My goal in life is to ensure people can continue to live in small places and enjoy the sense of community that holds them together.”

On Wednesday, the speaker encouraged students from Alta-Aurelia, St. Mary’s and Sioux Central school districts to spark their “wander lust,” something that she says will change their life.

“All these experiences will prepare you for the rate of change you’ll experience in the future, making you a better Iowan and a better American,” said Vilsack to the selected audience of about 80 students in Alta’s Roxy Theatre.

It all started for her when, as a school-age girl, she won a scholarship to participate as an exchange student in Chile, a decision that affected the rest of her life.

“I discovered the confidence I needed to take strategic chances, and learned what it means to be an American,” she said.

After that, she decided to go as far away from Mount Pleasant as possible, choosing Kirkland College in New York to continue her education.

With nothing but a Volkswagen Beetle, she crossed the Mississippi River and traveled east until she found New York. Upon her departure, her father gave her advice. “Tell them the land in Iowa is the richest farm land in the world,” he said.

That’s not something Vilsack ever thought she would repeat.

It wasn’t until much later in life that she realized what that meant. Her father was trying to tell her that she did not, as a small town girl, have to take a back seat to anyone.

Now, she says it all the time.

Together, Christie and Governor Tom Vilsack were the first Governor and First Lady of Iowa to visit India, she said, forging collaborative opportunities for state universities and farmers here.

Iowa was the first state to have a sister state relationship with a country like Japan. After a hurricane wiped out the hog population of Yamanashi, Iowa airlifted hogs to replenish their supply. Every hog there to this day is a descendant of Iowa hogs.

In honor of this relationship, Vilsack raised the money to get the book “Sweet Corn and Sushi” to every kindergartener in Japanese and English here and there.

After a lost bid for the 4th District’s Congressional seat in 2012, she was invited to join the Obama Administration by President Obama.

“My husband had been serving in his cabinet for four years as Secretary of Agriculture,” she said, But [President Obama] wasn’t calling for my husband, he was calling for me.”

There, she worked at the U.S. Agency for International Development to continue her passion for education advocacy, particularly for girls, and literacy for 250 million children in over 20 countries.

“I was able to change the world because I was ready, because I was open to the opportunity long before I ever left this country,” said Vilsack.

The first key, she says, is getting a passport, even before you need it. “It’s a promise to yourself that you are going to leave when the time comes,” she said.

But if you can’t afford it, get a library card instead. “Your public library is the best tour director,” the former librarian and teacher said.

Other ways you can get abroad include mission trips and the military.

“Think globally, act locally,” Vilsack told students. “The biggest barrier we have to growth is fear.”