Experiencing Indiana… For the First Time

Jim Amidon — I wasn’t born in Indiana, but I’ve spent most of my life as a Hoosier. And through my various travels with Wabash College, I always felt like I knew plenty about our home state. In fact, as the College’s PR guy, I’ve often “sold” prospective students and employees on the state of Indiana.

Thanks to a handful of students and a truly innovative program at Wabash, I’ve discovered how little I really do know about our state.

Several years ago, the college received a Lilly Endowment Inc. grant that would provide a range of opportunities for Wabash people to get to know Indiana. The idea behind the grant was that if more Wabash students (and later alumni) learned of the rich culture and history of Indiana, perhaps they’d stay in Indiana after graduation.

The Endowment has funded lots of initiatives to plug what it calls the “brain drain” — the loss of Indiana college graduates to other states. But the Wabash grant is very different from other similarly funded initiatives.

Broken into three parts — Experience Indiana, Know Indiana, and Present Indiana — the Wabash grant provides students and faculty the resources to develop programs, courses, and presentations that show off the Hoosier state.

A group of Wabash men have spent the summer on campus, but taking excursions across the state as they conduct research and interviews for the Present Indiana portion. Each man has earned a stipend to develop presentations they’ll make on- and off-campus in the coming year.

A few weeks ago, Journal Review intern (and Wabash student) Rob Fenoglio tagged along when the group — through Experience Indiana funding — traveled to West Baden and French Lick to see the transformation of that historic Indiana community.

One of the students in the Present Indiana program, Matt Goodrich, has since returned to French Lick to further develop his project. The result will be a multi-media presentation on both the history and restoration of Orange County as one of the state’s top tourist destinations.

Another student, Steve Egan, has spent much of his summer in my Parke County stomping grounds. He’s researching the expansive Amish community that has immigrated to West Central Indiana from Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Steve has talked with Amish community leaders, been to their homes and barns, and has built relationships that will become the backbone of his research project.

Other Present Indiana research agendas include Indiana’s growing wine and cheese making industries; the architecture of Columbus and Madison; backpacking and primitive camping sites; the Brown County artists’ community; the Battle of Tippecanoe; and the German churches of Southern Indiana.

Two students are also involved locally in the Know Indiana Cultural Internship Program. Gary James has been interning at the now-open Carnegie Museum and Tyler Williams is doing an internship as Project Coordinator at the Lew Wallace Study and Museum.

The grant’s scope is unique, to be sure. Discovering Indiana’s hidden treasures and best-kept secrets with a goal of opening the eyes and minds of people who might eventually call Indiana “home” is a wonderful idea.

Better, though, in my mind, is the impact these projects are having on the students who are researching them.

I try to carve out a few minutes every day to read the Present Indiana blog on the Wabash web site. The students doing the research are required to write about their progress from time to time over the summer.

What you’ll discover if you drop in for a quick read is how students’ own minds are changing; how their eyes are opening to arts, culture, people, and history they never knew existed — and in some cases in their own backyards.

Here’s a short example cut from Crown Point native Steve Egan’s blog entry after spending an afternoon with an Amish family in Parke County:

“Samuel, like all of the Amish I’ve run into, was happy to talk with me and made me feel rightfully awkward by not doing any work while I was there. He knew I was there just to observe, but to him I was a guest and therefore deserved all of his attention while in his barn. I wished it hadn’t been so; it only made my presence there just that more awkward.”

While Steve gives us a lot of information on the lives of the families he’s met, it’s the impact on him that is most interesting to me.

So, if you’re like me and you think you know a lot about Indiana, check out the blog on the Wabash web site. You’ll learn a lot from these talented and curious Wabash men. But you’ll also, I think, appreciate the impact our state is having on them.