The first time I walked through the doors of Des Moines Area Community College's Ankeny Campus I couldn't have been more nervous. I was about to interview for Goldman Sach's 10,000 Small Business Program and honestly wasn't even sure what it was- were they handing out $10,000 cash? Providing $10,000 worth of business training? Whatever it was, I wanted it, and I also kind of wanted to throw up.
If you've been to the campus, you realize that it doesn't fit any preconceived notion of what a community college looks like. I could almost feel my brain re-configuring to make room for DMACC in it's "community college" category. It's huge and innovative and full of amenities I had come to expect from only four year schools.
Despite not having a clue what I was interviewing for, I made it into the program. The first day of orientation DMACC president Rob Denson welcomed us saying, "When we sat down years ago to talk about our mission statement, I told everyone we were there for one thing and one thing only: World Domination."
The words were music to my ears.
Because despite popular opinion, it's not always easy dreaming big dreams, walking around with your head in the clouds all day. All too often we're told to come back down to reality, that it's somehow a safer place to reside. We're told to scale back our dreams so that we won't be disappointed. That if we lower our aim, it won't hurt so bad if we don't succeed.
It's a mentality that I've found to be especially prevalent in our rural communities, a theme that plays out over and over again in conversation after conversation.
That won't work here. We're too small. We don't have enough people. We've tried that before. We're too isolated, too far away from a major city. Sounds risky. What happens if we fail?
It's even a common theme in Hollywood. How many movies focus on the main character going off to the big city to pursue their dreams only to fail and find themselves back home and settled into a quiet, safe little life? I am all about the small town life, but why can't we have both?
What is it about today's rural landscape- the exact same landscape viewed by thousands of immigrants as the ultimate land of opportunity years ago- that now makes us believe we can't live our biggest dreams here?
Last year I had the honor of listening to a fireside chat with former Cubs player Larry Biitner, a graduate of Pocahontas High School. The moderator asked the question that seems to be inevitable in every conversation with someone who has made it "big",
"When you were growing up in small town Iowa did you ever imagine that you would end up with such a successful career in the major league?"
Larry looked directly at the moderator: "Of course I did, if I hadn't dreamed it, it would have never happened." He then turned to the audience and zeroed in on the forty or so elementary school softball and baseball players in the crowd and said, "Don't ever let anyone tell you that you can't do something just because of where you are from. Dream big."
The thing is, playing it safe doesn't protect us from disappointment or failure. It simply means that we've accepted disappointment as the outcome long before we even decided to try. And too many rural communities have accepted that disappointment as our status quo.
Luckily, recent trends are showing a change in perception.
A 2018 Gallup Poll found that Americans would prefer to live in rural areas over any other place. Improvements in connectivity and flexible career options mean that more of us can make rural life a reality than ever before. And communities are dreaming big to create previously unheard of opportunities in our small towns.
Jefferson, Iowa partnered with tech company Pillar Technology and recently opened The Forge, the first rural tech site to take students from high school straight into high paying coding and STEM positions. Silicon Valley took notice of the project and Senator Ro Khanna is encouraging further partnerships between Iowa communities and the high tech industries he represents.
In Pocahontas County, Cody and Jess Bunda built 90Ten Athletics, a state of the art training facility for student athletes on their family farm. Families travel from across the state for coaching programs that include one on one lessons, mindset training, and high tech feedback systems. If you build it, they will come.
And in Northwest Iowa Josh Zigrang, a police officer by trade and writer at heart, is about to launch Iowa Independent News, a fully online news source providing readers with free local news and rural businesses a space to expand their online marketing impact.
From what I can tell, Rob and his incredible team at DMACC aren't completely ruling the world quite yet. But when you visit their campus and see what has been created in the pursuit of world domination, I think you'll agree that it's worth the try.
And it's worth the try right here in rural America.