1. PrincessSofia
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    PrincessSofia Active Member

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    Small college town in Iowa ?

    Discussion in 'Research' started by PrincessSofia, Jul 18, 2015.

    Hi :) I'm currently writing a novel and my main character is a 20 year old girl who is a sophmore in university.
    I decided to set it in Iowa, I'm not from the US, but I have a friend who is from Iowa, so I have a little knowledge about this state, from what she told me, but not a lot, the rest is from research online.

    From what I gather, it's a rather rural state ? lots of agriculture , and not that much big cities ?

    If you are from Iowa, or know about it could you please help me by telling me if this could be realistic:

    My character is supposed to be from DesMoines, and she's rich and sophisticated ( designer clothes, travels a lot, goes a lot to spas, beauty salons etc..), her father is a powerful man, who either works in insurance or finance, doesnt know what job seems more realistic in this city?

    Also, my character goes ( and lives ) to a small university ( like no more 4000 students) about a 40 min drive from DesMoines, in a small college town, of about 10 000 inhabitants. I don't know about students in Iowa, but in my mind because it is a rural state, it would mean not many out of state students would come to study in a small university in Iowa? or would they ? Because the people my main character is going to meet are : a girl from Atlanta, Gerogia who goes to Iowa because she was offered a sport scholarship, a posh girl from New England ( don't know what state yet) who wanted to go to a prestigious university but doesnt have good enough grades so she goes to Iowa, a guy who is from a bigger city in Iowa, or in a state near and who comes to this university so he can be noticed ( because it's so small compared to where he lives), and lastly a guy who is from DesMoines too and who looks like the " typical preppy joke".

    Does these kind of backgrounds/ personalities look realistic in a small college town in Iowa?

    Also, what do college students do for fun on campus / in small colleg towns ? My friend told me she and her friends have game nights, or they go to football games, or have a drink etc.. Are there any other typical american college students things on certain days of the week? ( For example in France the nightclubs organize "students nights" every thurdsay night, or there's also students nights in bars). Or even other daily stuff, it doesnt have to be at night ,like for instance across my uni there's a bar called" university bar" and a lot of student go hang out there to play billard or just hang out between classes.

    Also, I'm trying to create my own small town, by looking at a landscapes book from Iowa my friend gave me, as well as looking at websites from universities and google map etc.. I don't have issues with the descriptions, the thing I'm lacking is the "ambiance", are these kind of campus/town friendly, close-knit community etc ?? or gossipy etc?

    Thanks a lot for reading :D I have been doing a tons of research but these are the main points I can't really "research".
     
  2. Lea`Brooks
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    Lea`Brooks Contributing Member Contributor

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    Okay!! Lemme see how I can help. I was born and raised in Illinois, which is just southeast of Iowa. I've never been to Iowa, but I'm going to assume the cultures are pretty similar until someone contradicts me.

    1) First important part. In the US, many people don't call it University. It's typically just "college." It's either, "I'm in college" or, "I have to go to school/class," or, "I attend Such and Such University." But rarely, "I'm in University."

    2) I'd say finance would be a better career path than insurance. I don't know about other people, but I've never met a single powerful person in insurance.. I mean, my cousin sells insurance. He's a great guy, he's well known, cared about.. But he's far from powerful.

    3) My biggest issue with your character is this: If the college only has 4,000 people, how on earth did those folks from other towns hear about it? You should be very, very careful with this. In order to make this really believable that people would come out of state to come to this college, the school should be very well known. And to account for it's small population, it would have to be very selective in who it admits. (I myself was from a small area, and even with several colleges to choose from, we had over 10,000 students in every college.) But, if you make the college this way, then it would be much harder for the posh girl from New England to get in there. So you should either change her or change the population of your school.

    Or! I just thought of this... You could have a larger university, much more well known in the same area, taking up all the other students. I started researching for you to figure out why a school would be so small. I live in Richmond, Virginia currently, and the University of Richmond has around 4,000 students. And that's because Virginia Commonwealth University is miles away, and has over 31,000 students. So that's another way you could make the college believable. The posh girl wanted to go to the Big Fancy School, but got denied. But she had her heard set on being in that town, so she settles for the smaller college. That would make more sense to me.

    4) Moving on. The characters seem realistic, but again, be careful. There has to be something special about the college to bring people from all over the country to attend it. There are thousands of colleges in the US. So all of your characters are going to need a really good reason to choose this school instead of one closer to them.

    5) At my old college, we had a group called Student Activities. They would plan all the fun things to do on campus. We had Springfest (which would have live music, free food, games, etc) and similarly, Fall Fest. They would periodically have live bands in the courtyard. We would do Halloween Costume Contests. We'd have ice cream days, popsicle days, free hot dog days, poetry readings, plays, musicals, etc. Sooo much to do at school!

    6) As for what they do in small towns, it really depends on what kind of town you want to create. If you want it to be more country, they'd go mudding, cow-tipping, have bonfires (while getting drunk, of course), go joyriding, hunting, play music, sports, or just go to a bar. If you want it to be more city life, it's bars, dance clubs, shopping, eating out at fancy restaurants, fraternities, sororities, etc. Or you could also do a mixture of both. But, what me and my friends did was... There's a country bar in a neighboring town (about 30 minutes away) where we'd go line-dancing every Friday night (they also had $1 beer bottles, so it was a pretty popular place to go). We'd have movie/game night every Sunday. We'd either watch one movie and play one board game, or we'd watch two movies, or we'd just sit in my friends living room and play drinking games. We'd occasionally go out to the bar (though we weren't really the type). We'd also go to a small restaurant called Steak n' Shake at least once a week at around 10pm and just eat and hang out and catch up. There was also regular trivia nights at some local bars and a pool hall that we would frequent (because the food was UH-mazing!).

    7) The only typical college thing I know of is "Thirsty Thursday." It's Thursday. Thirsty also starts with "th." And they turned it into an excuse to get drunk.

    8) Again, it depends on the town. My grandparents live in a much smaller town than I do, and everyone there is incredibly friendly. Everyone knows each other, so if something happens, it'll spread fast. But it's not so much "gossip" as just "sharing is caring." Other towns may be much more shut off from the outside world though. They could view strangers in a negative way and won't want to include them in anything. This is really your call. It can go either way.


    Whew... Hope that helps. :p
     
  3. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    I went to Luther College in Decorah. Not sure what the numbers were way back then, but they currently have about 2400 students - and they do, indeed, come from all over the world. Many probably have no idea exactly where Decorah is, but they do know about Luther. Waldorf (Luther's 'rival') is in a similar situation.

    One thing you will definitely notice in a small rural "college town" - the divide between 'townies' and students. I was lucky, because my small group of friends were all from small rural towns, and we were able to bridge that gap. But mostly, townies dislike mixing with students - understandably, considering students are looking to blow off steam and there aren't a lot of ways to do that (at least, not that more 'urban' students would appreciates :D). That means a bit of trouble now and then. Not to mention that the colleges of this repute tend to be expensive - and so you have the relatively well-to-do students tending to look down on the farming community locals (even though some of those folks are probably richer than the student's families!). So there's "friendly" and there's "socializing" - two different things.
     
  4. Jack Asher
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    Jack Asher Wildly experimental Contributor

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    This is because in America a University has a doctorate program, and a college does not. A tiny town college is very unlikely to have a grad program, so that's out. But I've also never heard a grad student from The States say "uni".
     
  5. Lea`Brooks
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    Lea`Brooks Contributing Member Contributor

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    [Ignore this. :)]
     
    Last edited: Jul 18, 2015
  6. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    It's one of the things I noticed right away when I came to the UK ...everybody here says "Uni" or "University." College is actually a different term altogether. It either refers to a particular unit within a University, or, if you say "I'm in college" it usually means you're attending a tech school of some kind, learning a trade. I've had people here get quite snooty with me when I ask if they're in college, or how 'college' is going. I'm NOT in college! I'm at University.

    In the USA we often used to refer to any kind of education as 'school.' In the sense that you can ask a person who is midway through a degree course when they plan to finish school, and they'll just tell you. Here, if you ask them that, they'll tell you they already have!

    In the USA, if you quote the name of the institution, such as Central Michigan University, then you'd use the word University. But a student there would refer to himself as 'I'm at college just now.' So 'college' is a colloquial term in the USA for anybody in higher education—at either a university or a college—really.

    The actual technical differences between colleges and universities in the USA is something you'll need to research. I certainly can't say for sure what they are. The value of the degree you get, however, has a lot has to do with the reputation of the place, rather than whether or not it's called a 'college' or a 'university.' Some colleges are very difficult to get into, and some universities basically require a fog on a mirror. What you do while you're there does matter, but in the end, the institution's reputation matters even more.

    If you are constructing a small college with a worldwide reputation, perhaps focus on what the degree will offer the graduate and what subjects are particular specialties. Also, if it's a very reputable place, it will gather the best instructors, and probably pay them a lot more than 'normal' institutions would. It's also likely that the students will have had to fight off quite a bit of competition to be awarded a place, so they won't be slackers.

    I attended a small community college for my first two years of 'college,' and received a 2-year Associate of Arts degree. I then transferred my credits to a 4-year state university, where I got my BA. However, I attended the smaller school at first because it was in my home town and it allowed me to stay at home for the first two years, and saved me a lot of money.

    My experiences there were actually more formative than the big university was. I made more friends there, who are still my friends today, than I did at the larger university. The fact that the school was small meant you got to know lots of people. The one big student lounge was the place everybody gathered between classes to 'hang out,' sometimes for hours, depending on schedules. I loved it there, and my instructors were great. The school was noted for being the only one at the time that offered an Associate degree in Concrete Technology, so lots of architecture-bent students came from all over the world to attend for that reason. (No, that wasn't me! I was an English major, Art minor!)

    When you're constructing your small school, try to give a lot of thought as to what it offers the students that no other school would do—to attract students from around the world. I wouldn't focus too much on farming/husbandry stuff, just because it's in Iowa. Many MANY other universities have that as a reknown specialty (including Michigan State University, which started out as an agricultural college) so it probably wouldn't stand out, really. And also, a small place is unlikely to have the kinds of facilities any school that focuses on applied science needs to have. So maybe something else? It could even be a college that specialises in creative writing! :)
     
    Last edited: Jul 18, 2015
  7. PrincessSofia
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    PrincessSofia Active Member

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    Thanks for all of your replies, it's very helpful =D.

     
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  8. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    I'm just replying off the top of my head here, but I'd say if a school is 'exclusive' in that it's hard to get into, that means its standards are high. Perhaps it's more expensive than others as well. This kind of school is unlikely to tolerate lazy students, or even accept them in the first place. Somebody who skips classes and doesn't keep up their grades (or had bad grades in high school) will either not be accepted at all, or be turfed out when their grades drop, in order to make room for more dedicated students.

    However, that's all subjective to a certain extent. I'd say if you want students to come from all over the world, I'd focus on offering a curriculum that almost nobody else does. (Like the Concrete Technology programme I mentioned at my old school.) My old school didn't require particularly high grades and wasn't hard to get accepted into, and certainly had its share of lazy students who didn't do well. But it had a curriculum that was unique. However, 'unique' means it wasn't something that attracted very many people. Only people interested in learning to build things out of concrete. (Lots of students came from Middle Eastern countries like Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, etc ...because this kind of building material suited desert conditions.)

    So give the topic of what your fictional college offers (and how they set their standards for admission and graduation) some more thought.

    If what you're after is a typical American campus on a miniature scale, with a variety of student attitudes and abilities in play, then you'll need to make entrance requirements fairly easy. However, if you want a range of students ranging from good to bad, it will also mean their degree won't be worth much on a general market, because the school has fairly lax standards. And if the school is situated in the back of beyond in a remote part of the Midwest, it might make the school even less attractive than some with similar standards that are located in more urban places.

    So why would a rich, sophisticated city-girl student choose to go there? A girl like your main character?

    And there won't be any real reason for foreign students to choose it either. If they're going to pay the kind of money they need to pay in order to study overseas, they are very unlikely to pick some podunk university in the back of beyond that doesn't offer much in the way of reputation. That's not to say there won't be any foreign students, but it won't be a particular target for them.

    None of these things means your story can't work, but it might push you to come up with an unusual angle. I'd start with why a rich, sophisticated young woman would choose to go to a place like this. Maybe she has a boyfriend who goes there, and didn't want to be separated from him? And her father is angry at her choice, and it causes family battles? Or maybe it's where her father got his original education, and as a Daddy's Girl she would like to emulate him? Or maybe her high school grades were so bad she couldn't get in anywhere else? I'd start thinking of reasons why a rich girl would choose to attend an obscure college that doesn't really offer much. That's where your story can get a grip, on you and your readers.
     
    Last edited: Jul 18, 2015
  9. PrincessSofia
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    PrincessSofia Active Member

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    You raised a lot of importants points and now I have a lot of choices to make to have a realistic setting, it was really helpful, thanks =D !
     
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  10. Commandante Lemming
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    Commandante Lemming Contributing Member Contributor

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    Most of the other people who've commented have made some really good points about how the US university system works. However, I can point out a good way to make your concept work. The way you get people to a school in a place where they don't seem to belong is to make sure the school has some special function or program that causes it to function as a magnet for people with certain needs or in certain fields. I point out up front that this first off means that you're likely at a private liberal arts college, not a state university.

    Now. I work in conservative political movement in Washington, DC and we see a TON of people from a tiny place in Indiana called Hillsdale College - and I think Hillsdale could be a good model. The school is small, but it teaches a "classics based" educational model based on primary source documents such as the Greek classics, the US founding documents, British political philosophers, etc. This makes the place a magnet for conservative students from around the country who value that sort of old-school educational model. There are a couple of other conservative/classics magnet colleges - Patrick Henry College in Virginia and Franciscan University of Stubenville in Ohio are two others.

    I'm not saying your school has to be a conservative magnet school - those are just the examples I know of. College of the Ozarks in Arkansas is a bit of a magnet based on it's tuition model, for instance.

    But definitely look at those models - they give you student bodies that do not match their surroundings and draw a national rather than local base.

    Another option is a small state school that's really good at one thing - that will draw a more diverse group from WITHIN THE STATE. My sister ended up at a school in a small town in rural Colorado where most of the student body was rural - the reason being that we are from Colorado, and for some reason that school had built the state's best art program, and hence the only one that offered an animation degree for in-state tuition. Which is another important point - state schools charge lower rates for students from within their states because they are funded at the state level, not national.
     
  11. Darkkin
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    Darkkin Reflection of a nobody Contributor

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    My older sister attended Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. She is now a large animal vet.
     
  12. PrincessSofia
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    PrincessSofia Active Member

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    Thanks for your replies :D , I think I've found a way to make it work.
     
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  13. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    That brings up another point - a lot of these small but "prestigious" schools are perfect for "pre" studies - pre-law, for example. Graduate schools love to get students from these types of colleges, mainly because there's a better chance they didn't get a "cookie-cutter" education.
     

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