Strategic Plans, Local Dreams: Iowa State Interns Bring Change to Communities

Rising Star internship program engages students with ISU Extension and Outreach

April 4, 2023, 11:01 am | Kelly Snawerdt

AMES, Iowa – A strategic revitalization plan developed by Iowa State University Rising Star interns led to a new medical center in an Iowa small town. Local dreams for a garden project, with help from Rising Stars, became a full-fledged, 3-D rendering of a community park with educational displays about plants, horticulture and tips for home gardeners.

These projects and many others are the work of Iowa State students in ISU Extension and Outreach’s Rising Star Internship program. Twelve students have been hired for the summer 2023 experience. They start their year with orientation on campus on April 15.

Launched in 2014, the Rising Star internship program enlists Iowa State students to lead summer projects that benefit Iowa communities while they gain professional experience and skills as interns. It involves students in identifying and meeting local needs as part of ISU Extension and Outreach’s mission to bring the research, education and resources of the university to all Iowans.

During the paid internship, students receive housing in the region where they’ll be living and working together from mid-May to August. Organized into small teams, they tackle projects under the guidance of ISU Extension and Outreach regional directors and staff. While immersed in their communities, they collaborate to apply their academic knowledge and skills to meet the community’s needs. To achieve their goals, the students partner with nonprofits, local food systems, extension offices, and community and economic development organizations.

Fifteen Iowa State University students served as Rising Star interns across the state last summer, working on community projects ranging from managing kids’ clubs and planning community gardens, to collaborating on economic development initiatives, marketing and managing volunteers.

From strategic plan to brick and mortar

new clinic in Latimer.This experiential learning program reaps tangible results. A 2017 strategic plan created by Rising Star interns showed that the small town of Latimer, which had roughly 507 residents in the 2010 census, was projected to shrink by approximately 30 people over the next decade. The interns worked alongside the Latimer Development Corporation to reverse that trend, building on a revitalization plan created earlier that year by the ISU College of Business CyBIZ students.

Donovan Olson, the regional director working with the Rising Star interns at the time, said the students researched needed community services, how to use available land in an economically sound way to spike interest in the town, and ways to market the project.

“When we were done, we presented the strategic plan to local officials,” said Olson.
“Latimer happened to have a small medical clinic in the community that had potential to close, so the Latimer economic development group took the plan to the medical clinic and pitched an idea to build a new clinic. They were so impressed with the presentation and plan that they decided they were going to go for it.”

In early 2021, the Latimer Development Corporation constructed Franklin Medical Center in downtown Latimer to meet community healthcare needs.

A picturesque, learning garden

The new clinic is just one example of how Rising Star interns have helped solve real-world problems to build a strong Iowa. The summer 2022 interns continued the legacy with projects and extension experiences to shape Iowa communities.

building garden beds.Interns Jacob Guthrie, Iowa State senior, and Kaylee Kleitsch, junior, focused on a key project: a garden in Newton. Guthrie and Kleitsch spoke to ISU Extension and Outreach Master Gardeners to identify a process and possible constraints and then created concept maps for how the park might look.

“We created a design in Adobe Illustrator, and we presented that to [community partners] for critique,” said Guthrie. “Then we changed things up and I created a few 3D renderings and the whole park in general digitally. The park will be around an acre.”

Kleitsch mentioned that while the garden idea was not initially conceived by them, they were happy to jump in on the project. “They [Master Gardeners] really wanted a place for community members to be able to come and learn about plants and horticulture and maybe take away ideas for what they can do in their own backyards, too,” Kleitsch said.

The plan calls for educational signs in the park with information about plants, general gardening and tips for home gardens. The interns hosted a presentation for the plan at a Newton City Council meeting and met with various community members to make sure collaboration was a key part of the process. Community engagement is one of the most important pillars that drive the Rising Star internship program.

Healthy communities, one kid at a time

Rising Star interns in Woodbury County.Another Rising Star, Gabrielle Tammarine, sophomore, recounted that she was most excited for the community outreach aspect of the internship program. A horticulture major eager to share her knowledge was the ideal fit for projects such as the “Power of Produce” club, where she assisted in teaching elementary-aged kids at local farmer’s markets about the benefits of healthy eating and picking out produce. This activity was just one of many Tammarine and other interns led last summer.

“We had an activity called ‘Blender Bike,’” said Tammarine, referring to a stationary one-wheeler that powers a blender in front of its handlebars. “We had the kids create their own salsa on the blender bike to take home with them.”

The interns in northwest Iowa worked on mainly youth-focused programs and activities to foster a community-focused, healthy next generation. While working on the internship activities, the Rising Stars gained important professional experiences while forming new connections and learning how to effect change and strengthen communities.

“I learned a lot about team building through this internship. I feel like a lot of people forgot how that worked [during] COVID-19, so this was like the first year that we were all back in full swing,” said Tammarine. “We had to remember that it takes a team effort to make things happen.”

“It’s so sweet, knowing that I am making an impact in the community,” added Kleitsch. “It’s just a really cool feeling.”

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