Luther Alumni Magazine

Senior Stories

Dan Gibson / Maggie Steinberg / Hanna Jensen / Evan Obert / James Odegaard / Marley Crossland / Marlon Henriquez / Thando May

Dan Gibson: Biology major nurtures love of plants, “that lightbulb moment”

Dan Gibson
Dan Gibson

Dan Gibson, a biology major from Urbandale, Iowa, was homeschooled through the eighth grade. He took advantage of the flexible schedule to help a neighbor with her two-lot garden, which germinated a lifelong interest in plants.

At Luther, he participated in required first-year community service by joining a buckthorn blitz. “Whole floors of first-years would go out with herbicide and hands and attack a hillside to clear the buckthorn,” he recalls. He ended up working two hours past the required time, and so began his love of land stewardship. Sophomore year he started working as a land stewardship intern on campus.

The summer after his junior year, Gibson raised his involvement a notch, securing a research experience for undergraduates (REU) at the Blandy Experimental Farm at the University of Virginia. He set up aquatic microcosms of different insects in large plastic bins and then calculated predation rates and noted who ate whom.

“It wasn’t the most glamorous REU ... but my experience was phenomenal. It’s a gorgeous, public space, so you’re sharing it with tourists and dog walkers every morning. The faculty offices are in the same building as our dorm—which is in the same building as the gift shop and dining area. So rather than being in this secluded area with just researchers, you’re doing all these interactive things. And you maybe have to explain what you’re doing to some random passerby. It’s a lot more educational and interesting.”

Gibson gets excited about whatever he’s working on at the moment. When he was taking microscopy, it was microscopy. Same for restoration, botany, entomology, and ornithology. So when it came time to consider post-college plans, he was stymied.

“I knew I wanted to do something with conservation and ecological restoration, but I didn’t really know where I wanted to go with it. Lo and behold, [professor of biology] Kirk Larsen sent me an email one day about a project in entomology that was looking at using beneficial insects and plants for a cropping system.” Reading through the abstract, he said, “It was this amazing mesh of the things I was looking for.”

This fall, Gibson started his graduate program—which generally accepts one student per year—with the Landis Lab at Michigan State University. He’s part of a team investigating which native plant species can facilitate native insect pollination and pest control for which crops.

Gibson loves the applied-science aspect of the program, but he also loves the outreach, educating farmers and land managers about how they might solve the pest and pollination problems while limiting pesticides and labor-intensive strategies. “I love to teach people and help them to get to that lightbulb moment,” he says. “I find that extremely satisfying.”

­—Kate Frentzel

Maggie Steinberg: Peace Scholar finds way to further social justice dialogue

When it came time for college, says Maggie Steinberg of Damascus, Ore., “I could go anywhere I wanted as long as it was Luther.” Her parents, Mary (Edwards) ’76 and Rich Steinberg ’74, are Luther grads, and all three of her siblings attended. Joking aside, she thought it would be a good place for academic exploration. And while she explored broadly, the milestones of Steinberg’s academic life trace a definite arc, describing a young woman passionate about social justice.

Maggie Steinberg
Maggie Steinberg

Steinberg calls the Peace Scholars program, which she attended in 2013, a monumental experience. “I was all of the sudden thrust into this whole field of peace studies and conflict resolution and dialogue studies, and I had never been immersed in that as an academic form,” she says.

As her Peace Scholars group engaged with Bosnian and Serbian students, “I found myself in conversation with people who had witnessed genocide, people who had witnessed war, people who loved the U.S. and hated the U.S. That was my first role as an international student,” she says.

During a J-term in 2014 studying peace and reconciliation in South Africa 20 years after apartheid, Steinberg heard the same complaints about race and racism that she encounters in the U.S. That was my parents’ generation. Racism is over. I have black/white friends. Can’t we just move on?

“It was a little chilling to hear,” she says. “It’s been a hundred years for the U.S., and we’re still not over it. Since we’ve had this transition from slavery to equality, there are still problems we’re not addressing because we refuse to see them.

“During my first three years at Luther,” she says, “I really shied away from identifying myself as a person of color, because I come from an all-white family [Steinberg is adopted], an all-white town, an all-white school. But I have Scandinavian heritage through my father, and I’ve been to Norway, so it was a good way to fit in. Still, I began to notice more and more how unhappy it was making me. I didn’t feel like my whole self.”

As stories like Ferguson hit the news, Steinberg grew frustrated. “Almost all of my peers were completely silent,” she says. “There was no discussion, no willingness to engage, no protest for or against—whatever the debate was. I’m very into current events, and I honestly just wanted to talk about it.”

Steinberg got her wish when she joined the committee overseeing the Don’t Shoot discussion and events series at Luther. “It was a journey of discovery for myself,” she says, “for understanding racism today and the structural nature of it, because I hadn’t studied the theories and connected the dots the way some other people had. It gave me a lot of empathy to have just gone through this learning process. I understood how difficult that process and that conversation was and how it messes with you emotionally in a lot of ways.” Steinberg put her years of peace dialogue studies to work moderating a community-wide conversation for the series last spring.

This fall, Steinberg joined the Lutheran Volunteer Corps, working to protect the dignity and human rights of immigrants in detention centers along the U.S. border and also with refugees who are survivors of torture.

­—Kate Frentzel

Hanna Jensen: Ultimate player discovers how to use game as bridge to peace

Hanna Jensen
Hanna Jensen

Hanna Jensen is an Ultimate Frisbee evangelist. To be on Luther’s UF team, you sort of have to be. It’s a yearlong sport that practices four or five days a week and participates in eight or nine tournaments per year. There are no coaches and few resources, so players have to be invested enough to build the program themselves. But what Jensen, team captain for the past two years, loves best about the sport is that it’s self-refereed, governed by something called “spirit of the game.” Players call their own fouls and discuss each foul with the other team, which makes it a trust-based game, unlike any other sport.

It also makes for a perfect bridge between sparring cultures, as Jensen learned while volunteering for Ultimate Peace, an Ultimate Frisbee nonprofit, while studying in Israel in spring 2014.

Jensen, daughter of Kari (Hermeier) ’83 and Dave Jensen ’83, had previously studied abroad in Jordan, where she volunteered in a Palestinian refugee camp amid squalid conditions. “I’d never experienced poverty like that,” she says. “I was just taking it in that this is a lot of people’s lifelong reality.”

Feeling upset afterward, Jensen realized that “if I was ever going to be a respectable, empathetic sort of person, I had to understand the other side of things.” So the econ/international studies double major enrolled in the study-away program in Tel Aviv, Israel.

Her first day with Ultimate Peace, Jensen says, “I got in a car with a bunch of strangers my age who were Frisbee players from all over the world, and we drove about two hours to an old Arab village in northern Israel.” Every Saturday, Palestinian, Israeli Arab, and Israeli Jewish kids are bused into this village and others throughout the country to play Frisbee together.

“A lot of them don’t go to the same schools or have the same first language, and some are physically segregated by being in the West Bank and not really allowed to leave without this sort of program,” Jensen says. “There are so many things that should separate them, but there are also just these moments when you see kids having successes and having conversations and trusting one another on the field—kids that without this program would never have reason to trust each other. But when a kid throws a great throw into the end zone, and the friend who’s on their team but from a different life catches the disk, and they hug, there’s that moment, and you know that no matter what happens, they’ll always have had that friend who was on the other side, so to speak. No matter how heated things get—which happens a lot in Israel—it’s a lot harder to villainize a group of people when you have friends within that group.”

Jensen, who would love to work in policy or Middle East relations, believes that grassroots efforts like Ultimate Peace have the power to effect great change: “It’s kind of the bottom-up approach in terms of solving conflicts, but I’m a big believer that the masses have to want change for it to be real and lasting.”

­—Kate Frentzel

Evan Obert: Hard work brings success in class, on the mat

Two-time All American. Three-time Academic All American. Team MVP. Hardest-Working Norse Wrestler.

Evan Obert graduated from Luther with plenty of wrestling accolades, which came through a healthy dose of determination and whole lot of hard work. “I was horrible,” he candidly recalls of his first days competing in the sport as a third grader in Genoa, Wis. “But my parents encouraged me to stick with it, and I wanted to be the best.”

Evan Obert
Evan Obert

Obert’s diligence paid off, and before long, he was succeeding on the mat beyond even his own (high) expectations. As a DeSoto (Wis.) High School student, he set the record for career wins (154) en route to three appearances at the state meet. Obert captured the state title at 103 pounds in 2010.

“Wrestling taught me work ethic and self-discipline,” he says. “I knew that if I didn’t put in the hours, it would come out on the mat—and I learned that’s true in most every aspect of life.”

Obert carried that winning attitude with him to Luther, where he says he appreciated the professors’ dedication and the small class sizes. Entering Luther with an interest in political science, he ultimately declared a philosophy major after taking a class with Holly Moore, assistant professor of philosophy, his second semester on campus. “Philosophy really taught me how to think,” Obert says. “It pushed me to examine the question and not just search for the answer.”

He had just finished his first year at Luther when perhaps his biggest supporter—his mother, Lori—died of breast cancer. Her death was devastating to Obert, the oldest of five children, but, much as he had done so many times in competition, he pushed through the pain. “Instead of dwelling on our loss, I just kept my head up and thought of what she would want me to do on and off the mat,” he says. “I knew she would have wanted me to lead by example.”

In May Obert began work as a business support specialist with Allsteel in Muscatine, Iowa. He hopes one day to assume a managerial role within the company—known for its functional office furnishings—and to coach wrestling at the high school level.

 “Anyone can achieve their goals if they put their mind to it,” he says. “I always have believed that and hope I always will.”

­—Sara Friedl-Putnam

James Odegaard: Nordic president makes his mark through leadership, philanthropy

 “Love at first sight,” James Odegaard says when asked to describe his first impression of Luther.
Many on campus return the compliment.

James Odegaard
James Odegaard

“James’s dedication to Luther is evident in all he does,” says Kate (Trigger) Duffert ’11, Luther assistant director of annual giving. “He’s quick to share the impact Luther has had on his life and the motivation he has to give back to the Luther community after graduation.”

In truth, Odegaard began giving back well before he graduated with a music major and management minor in May. Within months of setting foot on campus, he had signed on with the Student Philanthropy Council (SPC), an organization that connects students with potential alumni donors. Through SPC, he spent many hours raising funds for the college through Phonathon, the Senior Giving Campaign, and, really, every opportunity that presented itself.

“I have deep gratitude for the alumni and friends who make it possible for current students to afford Luther and find their callings by exploring the liberal arts,” he says. “That’s what drives me to give back my time and energy to the college.”

This high-energy Hiawatha, Iowa, native has a history of making the most of his waking hours. As a student at Kennedy High School, Odegaard earned top grades while participating in drama, show and jazz choir, tennis, and student council. “I was running from seven in the morning until nine at night,” he says. “I thrive on stress—it exhilarates and energizes me.”

That was certainly true at Luther, where, in addition to his SPC involvement, he served as a resident assistant and as assistant hall director in Brandt Hall his junior year, and sang in Nordic Choir, the Undeclared a cappella group, and the Jubilus chamber ensemble. His senior year he also served as Nordic Choir president.

The position—in which he served as a liaison between director Allen Hightower and his fellow choir members—helped him hone valuable networking, management, and leadership skills. “It could involve some interesting diplomacy,” says Odegaard, a tenor. “But I learned a lot in the position and really enjoyed it.”

It also helped him pinpoint the path he hopes to take away from the college. “I love music but don’t want to pursue performance as a career,” he says. “Luther helped me discover that my strengths lie in relationship building and administration—my dream is to put those strengths to work as a talent or band manager one day.”

Over the summer, Odegaard accepted the position of student engagement coordinator, working in Luther’s Development Office.

—Sara Friedl-Putnam

Marley Crossland: Diversity advocate helps smooth way for LGBTQ students

Marley Crossland has been a pioneering force on a campus that, like most, is seeing an increase in students who don’t perceive gender in two distinct and opposing categories—male or female—but that doesn’t necessarily have the infrastructure to support them fully.

Marley Crossland
Marley Crossland

Seeing a need for more housing options, the Holmen, Wis., native helped write a proposal for coed units in Baker Village. Crossland also designed an internship with the Diversity Center to better train allies of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) students and establish more safe zones on campus.

“I don’t think it’s that the administration doesn’t want to be well equipped to handle LGBTQ students, but they don’t always know how,” Crossland says. “I want to lay the groundwork for them so that they can get there.”

A key member of the student group PRIDE, Crossland aims to spread understanding: “One important thing for PRIDE has been pairing with other groups on campus, like Philosophy Society, SAC Cinema, Active Minds—that’s been really helpful in reaching out to people who might not come to PRIDE and helping them learn about us.”

Crossland attended the Midwest Bisexual Lesbian Gay Transgender Ally College Conference (MBLGTACC, or “Mumbletack” among attendees). “Mumbletack gave me the opportunity to learn academically about my own community,” Crossland says. “To be surrounded by that many people, you finally get to see people like you in real life, and you’ve maybe never met someone like you before.”

As a women and gender studies major and English minor, Crossland tries to dispel this sense of isolation through writing. In a senior project, a work of creative nonfiction, Crossland gathered the narratives of more than two dozen LGBTQ students at primarily small, Midwestern liberal arts colleges.

“Giving queer narrative a place to exist and be heard is so powerful,” the author says. “It’s really easy to think that Luther is this paradise, but that’s not everyone’s experience. And that’s not to say that we don’t do some things right, but sometimes when people think it’s a paradise, they don’t bother to really listen. And saying, ‘I don’t care if you’re gay’ is a lot different than saying, ‘That’s a part of you I lack, and I want to listen.’”

Intertwining personal narrative through the project has been important to Crossland. “If I’m going to make all these other people vulnerable, I have to be willing to put myself on that same line and be as vulnerable about things that were hard for me or that that I’m ashamed of. It allows me to risk something, and that’s when you have a lot to gain in terms of letting people in and letting them hear your stories. You’re giving them a chance to say, ‘You’re a human being, and I can relate to what you’ve gone through.’”­

—Kate Frentzel

Marlon Henriquez: First-generation student paying forward his DREAMer experience, education

El Salvador native Marlon Henriquez had no idea what kind of turnout to expect when he volunteered to help organize and take part in a panel discussion on immigration in spring 2014.

Marlon Henriquez
Marlon Henriquez

“I didn’t know if we would draw 20 people or 200, but we ended up packing the CFL Recital Hall,” he says. “My professors showed up, my Admissions Office and Diversity Center coworkers showed up, my classmates showed up, and my friends showed up—it was an incredible experience.”

For Henriquez, the panel provided the opportunity to put a personal spin on a very public issue—the struggle of “DREAMers” to access higher education. DREAMers are young immigrants brought to the United States as children, named for the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act. “My experience is rare,” he says. “Like all DREAMers, I don’t qualify for federal financial aid, but unlike most, I was able to attend college because of Luther’s creativity in putting together an aid package, including a McElroy grant, and the generosity of donors who value education and understood my financial situation.”

Henriquez was just three when he immigrated to the United States in 1996. He and his family—mom Rosa, dad Jovy, and younger siblings Blake and Karen—settled in Postville, Iowa, before moving to Decorah in 2006. “I was amazed by all the opportunities in Decorah,” says Henriquez, who participated in speech, played trumpet, and competed in soccer and football at Decorah High School. “My parents never even had the chance to attend high schooI in El Salvador.”

Upon graduation, Henriquez applied to (and was accepted at) several colleges, but soon learned he could not afford to attend them. “I never even thought about applying to Luther because I knew what the tuition was,” he says. “As it turned out, my future was in my own backyard.”

Even as Henriquez pursued that future, he never forgot his past. While at Luther, he regularly joined other members of the student group HOLA-Enlaces to teach English as a second language some 20 miles down the road in Postville. “As an immigrant myself, I understood firsthand the struggle of others acclimating to a new country,” he says of his involvement in those efforts.

This fall Henriquez begins work at Gage Elementary School in Rochester, Minn., teaching kindergarten students enrolled in a Spanish immersion program. “I’m going to be a teacher,” he says with obvious pride. “What better way for me to pay forward the opportunities that were given to me than to pass on the knowledge I have gained?”

­—Sara Friedl-Putnam

Thando May: South Africa native steps out of her element to explore the world

It’s perhaps not the best time for Thandokazimay “Thando” May to be interviewed—she is, after all, in the midst of touring Cape Town, South Africa—but one would never guess that by the bubbly tone of her voice.
“No worries,” she says upon answering her cell. “I’ll just step away from the group for a bit.”

Thando May
Thando May

South Africa may be May’s native country, but family isn’t what brought her home last March. Instead, the stop was one of 14 she made as a passenger aboard the Semester at Sea cruise ship World Odyssey. “I applied for the Semester at Sea program because I felt too comfortable in my surroundings,” says May, a biology major. “There was a whole world out there waiting for me to explore it.”

She describes the experience in superlatives—“amazing,” “enriching,” “life-changing”—and says it forced her to take a long, hard look at where she came from and, perhaps more importantly, where she’s headed. “This experience really shook me out of my privilege,” she says. “It made me realize the many advantages I’ve had thus far in life.”

Those advantages include living abroad for six years, two as a student at the United World College in Swaziland (where she first heard about Luther) and another four in Decorah. “My first year on campus was daunting,” she allows. “It took me a while to acclimate, but being in completely unfamiliar surroundings also forced me to immerse myself in college life.”

Indeed, May was a familiar and friendly face about campus—in Preus Library, where she worked in technical services and chaired the African Book Club; in the Diversity Center, where she served as president of the International Student and Allies Association; and in Sampson Hoffland Laboratories, where she conducted research on gray fox population genetics and took most of her classes.

“We’re constantly discovering something we didn’t know about life,” she says of her longtime interest in the life sciences. “It’s fascinating just to think about how much more we have yet to learn.”

Upon graduating last spring, May returned to South Africa, where she plans to spend the next year reconnecting with family and friends and applying to doctoral programs in biology. To the surprise of no one who knows her, this inquisitive world traveler has set her long-term goals even higher.

“I hope to continue to develop my country,” May says. “My dream is to open a hospital for rural South African people so that they have better access to health care.”

—Sara Friedl-Putnam

About the photographer

Evan Sowder ’15 created six of the portrait photographs in this collection. The art major says his passion for photography began at Luther with an interest in capturing macro images of bugs. Ten thousand insect images later, he tried his hand at portraits for a class assignment. Recipient of the 2015 Daryl and Audrey Erdman Prize for Entrepreneurship, Sowder launched his freelance photography business based in the Twin Cities, shooting weddings, headshots, portraits, and more. Sowder credits his Luther work-study and internship experiences, as well as mentoring and support from Luther faculty, staff, fellow students, and alumni, as instrumental to his career. Some of his work is slated to appear in the 2015 Fall/Winter Wyoming issue of Rocky Mountain Bride magazine.