Visions Across America exhibit ISU alumni’s diversity


Tiffany Herring/Iowa State Daily

The “Visions Across America” exhibit by Carole Gieseke and Jim Heemstra opened at Brunnier Art Museum on April 3. The pair worked to tell the story of more than 120 ISU alumni throughout the country through photos. Both alumni featured in the project and members of the Alumni Association were invited to attend the opening, and the exhibit will be on display and free to the public until Aug. 9.

Devin Wilmott

With support from the ISU Alumni Association, Carole Gieseke and Jim Heemstra have outdone themselves by completing one of the most monumental projects brought to Iowa State. The “Visions Across America: Iowa State University alumni from coast to coast” project tells a broader story of the university through the eyes of more than 120 alumni around the country. 

After three years of traveling with a $125,000 budget and generous donors, the project has finally come together in a 128-page issue of Visions magazine and an exhibition in the Brunnier Art Museum that is open and free to the public through Aug. 9.

Visions magazine is a quarterly magazine for members of the ISU Alumni Association. This spring’s issue showcases 51 ISU alumni from every state through a photograph by Heemstra, a Des Moines-based photographer, and personal narrative written by Gieseke. 

“We were looking for different ages, different ethnicities, a gender balance and people from all different colleges,” Gieseke said. “I tried to tell 51 unique stories.”

Gieseke is the editor for Visions magazine and coordinator for the entire project. Usually the magazine is only 48 pages but this issue is almost three time the size. 

“It’s always interesting to see the paths chosen by fellow alumni and to learn how each has used their degree for the betterment of the community in which they live. The reach of Iowa State on a national level is certainly impressive and speaks to the excellent academic foundation provided here,” said graduate Rebecca Houser after seeing the issue for the first time. Houser graduated in 1997 with a Bachelor of Science in sociology and she is currently a member of the Alumni Association.  

Houser, along with the 50,700 other Alumni Association members, were greeted with this expanded issue at their doorstep. 

The project initially started off as a small idea that sprang up in 2011 on Gieseke and Heemstra’s return from Chicago. The two laughed it off saying, “We couldn’t possibly do that, it’s too much work and money.” But despite the obstacles, Gieseke and Heemstra decided to pursue the idea and have brought Iowa State’s past to life in doing so.

“In all honesty, I was concerned about the costs and whether or not we could keep our regular work going as much as Carole needed to be out of the office,” said Jefferey Johnson, president and CEO of the Alumni Association. “I was faced with the question, ‘Would people think this was a waste of money or could these resources be used in another way?’ However, it was really so compelling that I decided rather than use our regular budget that we would go out and raise the money for it.”

The project was supported and funded from donations from various alumni donors, alumni association funds and institutional funds.

“The project itself is bigger than just a magazine or exhibit,” Johnson said. “It is an inside look on this university and wonderful way to tell a bigger story about Iowa State through the graduates, which is really the product of the university. We can do all the research and turn out all the incredible patents and licenses but what we really do is turn out people who make the world a better place.”

This project has inspired other institutions to start alumni projects of their own as well as inspired the people featured in the project to connect with other ISU alumni.

“I run into Iowa State alumni everywhere,” said Dawn Refsell, 2003 ISU graduate and field market development specialist for Valent USA Corp. “I think this project is something that we can all relate to and it makes me want to go to some of these states and visit these people.”

One of the common things found in a lot of interviewed alumni was the connection to Iowa State being considered a home, no matter how far they traveled after graduation.

“I am so honored to be a part of the project. You won’t recognize me in the exhibit though because I don’t look anything like my picture,” Refsell said. “Jim wanted me to dress like how I dress for work. I work in agriculture so usually I’m in T-shirts and jeans and my hair is pulled back in a pony tail.”

Under Gieseke’s discretion, Heemstra photographed 116 alumni. The array of backgrounds and messages communicated through the photographs in the magazine and exhibit showcase his natural talent of capturing the “perfect moment.”

With their tight schedule, the two only had a couple hours with each alumnus or alumna for both an interview and photograph. The photograph’s background and set were based on the personality of the individual with consideration of his or her career path and lifestyle. 

“My experience being photographed was the most humorous day of my life, and I’ve had a lot of humorous days,” said Shirley Whipple Koenen, former “guidette” for NBC Studios and receptionist who currently works for Jack Parr. “Pretty soon, Jim has me on a drum in the middle of the room and I have puppets in both my hands and he’s saying ‘Work it Shirley, work it.'”

Koenen received her master’s degree in counseling from Iowa State in 1989 and has set her life goal to counsel all ages using a sense of humor and puppets in her work. 

“I would like people to look at these pictures and know they were all here doing the same exact thing students are doing today,” Heemstra said. “They didn’t come here to learn a career, they came here to learn how to live a life. Above all, that’s what I’d like to share. There are a lot of possibilities out there and all of these people are just ordinary people doing extraordinary things. They all come from different environments and different experiences and went out and took what they learned.”

The reception for the “Visions Across America” exhibit, which opened April 3, will last throughout the week. Both alumni featured in the project and members of the Alumni Association were invited to attend and celebrate the impact that ISU alumni have across the nation. 

“The thing we found with a lot of alums is that they really had a passion for what they were doing and they found that passion here at Iowa State,” Gieseke said.

The Brunnier Art Museum is located in 295 Scheman Building in the Iowa State Center. Museum hours are 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. April 8 through 11 and 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. April 12 and 13. Although admission is free, there is a suggested $3 donation per visitor.

“Visions Across America: Iowa State University alumni from coast to coast” can be purchased from the Iowa State alumni center for $10.  

Gieseke and Heemstra will host an educational program at 2 p.m. June 8 in the Brunnier Art Museum to discuss their journey and share their experiences.

For more on the project, visit

To read about more ISU alumni affiliated with this project, visit the project’s blog at