Hixson Opportunity Award Recipient Running for Iowa Senate

Amber Gustafson is a democratic candidate campaigning for a senate seat from Iowa District 19. She wants to increase higher-education funding. 

Lindsey Settle

It’s not by chance that a former Iowa State Hixson scholar wants to take on the Senate race. Her life experiences and time at Iowa State influenced her decision to run for office. 

Amber Gustafson was awarded a Hixson Opportunity Award in 1996 and is now using her education and wants to return the favor of being given the chance to attend college by running for office as a Democratic candidate from Iowa District 19.

Born in the 1980s in Leon, Iowa, both of Gustafson’s parents were Republicans and her father was a farmer. During the Iowa farm crisis, the family lost their farm. However, in 1986 they were able to purchase another farm in Orient, Iowa.

Gustafson was 13 when her father passed away and had two older siblings who were already out of the house. After, Gustafson and her mother, Janet Ehlers, relied on each other. It was also Gustafson’s mother who encouraged her to pursue a degree.

Ehlers told Gustafson to “Stick to it. Get your degree. No one can take it away from you.”

Ehlers, whose education extended only as far as secretarial school, wanted more for her daughter. Unfortunately, those dreams were far off because of their financial strain. Besides their farm, the family had no assets. 

“We had nothing saved for college, nothing to live off of,” Gustafson said.

Despite their challenges growing up, Gustafson said her mother was a “steel magnolia,” or a woman with the strength of steel. Ehlers signed Gustafson up for every social program for which she was eligible.

Gustafson is a 1995 graduate of Orient-Macksburg School District. But despite her strong work ethic, she had little means of affording a college education.

It took a major financial gift to make her dreams of attending college possible.

Hixson Opportunity Award

Gustafson was a recipient of a Hixson Opportunity Award in 1996, which was the first year of the award’s existence. The award provides 100 incoming undergraduates with a half-tuition scholarship. The program is made possible by Christina Hixson, who like Gustafson’s mother, never earned a college degree and instead attended secretarial school.

According to the Hixson Opportunity Awards website, Hixson said her motivation for creating the program was because “for many of the great, great successes of the world, the background they came from was their great challenge.”

Hixson’s gift made it possible for Gustafson to attend Iowa State. 

When Gustafson was a student, she never believed she would run for office. She said she lacked female role models in politics at the time. However, Gustafson said it was Hixson who inspired her to run.

Recently, Gustafson called Hixson to tell her she was in the senate race. Still sharp as a tack and in her 90s, Hixson wasn’t all too impressed.

“[Hixson] doesn’t really have time for politicians. The only thing that impresses her is education,” Gustafson said.


Hixson was one of multiple mentors to leave a mark on Gustafson’s life.

During her time at Iowa State, Gustafson formed close bonds with a woman by the name of Barbara Mack.

As Gustafson’s adviser and a professor at the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication, Mack was always looking for people to invest in.

“She was six feet two inches and 225 pounds of pure sass. She was amazing,” Gustafson said. “She taught me that you don’t have to take anybody’s crap. She taught me that you can be powerful and compassionate at the same time.”

When Mack passed away in 2012, it was hard for Gustafson to keep her composure while speaking of the woman who made her feel as if she belonged.

“[Mack] said you’re as smart as anybody else. You’ve got what it takes. Having someone that powerful and that respected to believe in you is so powerful,” Gustafson said.

When she was a student at Iowa State, Gustafson considered herself a Republican. She said a teaching assistant in her sociology 101 class cracked her perception of what liberals were like.

“He was totally the opposite political side than me, but he didn’t care. He really saw me as a person. He was really compassionate to me,” she said.

A Political Turning Point

Gustafson is now a mother to three children, including a son on the autism spectrum.

Gustafson said her political views changed from Republican to Democrat when her son was diagnosed with autism and ADHD.

“I began to see the world through the eyes of a person with a disability,” Gustafson said. “And I began to see that the world treats different people differently, and it’s not a made up thing.”

Gustafson was hit deeply by the events that took place on Dec. 14, 2012.

The Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting emotionally moved Gustafson not only because she imagined one of her own children, a third grader at the time, being hurt in a school shooting, but also because the shooter, Adam Lanza, was diagnosed as having Asperger’s Syndrome, a condition on the autism spectrum.

Gustafson wasn’t going to stand for her son being misunderstood or feared.

“No one is going to characterize my son as evil,” Gustafson said.

It was a few months after that tragic event that Gustafson started the beginning of her political journey.

She became a state chapter leader of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. Gustafson used her role as a mom to be a moral voice on the issue of gun reform.

“The majority of people want the same thing, to be safe,” she said.

Gustafson uses her experience as a mother and someone who has been on both sides of the political spectrum to act as a voice of reason, and she’s already looking to the future.

Investing in People

Gustafson places importance on giving back and building up future generations.

Gustafson is running in Iowa District 19, which includes Ankeny, Saylorville and Alleman. She said Ankeny has historically had trouble finding Democrats to run in past elections, and she wants that to change.

“I’m always looking for people that I can invest in and help…people to come after me,” she said. 

Meeting people and door knocking is a large part of her campaign. Her team has knocked on over 3,400 doors during this campaign.

“Gracious and tenacious is a really good combo. She is incredibly persistent and won’t take no for an answer…Iowa nice is a good way to put it,” said Rishi Bharwani, Gustafson’s campaign manager.

Gustafson hopes for a blue wave this coming election. 

“If she doesn’t win this election, she will still be advocating for change in her community,” Bharwani said.