Saturday, Jan. 26, 2013 | 2 a.m.
The gulf between Iowa City, Iowa, and Las Vegas spans culture, politics, education and about every demographic imaginable.
Just compare the Google Earth satellite images of the two. Iowa City is seated within the deep green of a virtual shire, surrounded by perfectly patchworked acres of farmland. Las Vegas is a light green surrounded by jagged mountain crests and the scorched-earth brown of a Mordor, J.R.R. Tolkien's fictional universe of Middle-earth.
And while Iowa ex-pats populate Las Vegas, they’ll tell you there’s little like our strip-club billboards, wanton imagery and all, decorating the rural routes and highways of the Hawkeye State.
Despite the differences, University of Iowa lecturer David Gould has created a course that links the two because of what’s happening in downtown Las Vegas; it might not look like anywhere in Iowa, but downtown’s community-oriented redevelopment is the perfect landscape for Gould’s class, Reimagining Downtown.
“It was the coolest sandbox I could imagine playing in,” he said of downtown Las Vegas.
The pilot class is designed so “students tackle real-world problems and learn how to make a difference, and we do it in a real place, not a fake interview or exercise,” Gould said.
Students applied to get into the class, which takes place this semester in Iowa City; 10 were chosen with four alternates.
Over the course, they will work to create “something that leaves a marker,” Gould said.
He wouldn’t say what it should be; he wants students to develop and own whatever it is they create. He gave examples: ”a festival maybe, a program for the disadvantatged or something that is socially entrepreneurial, a storefront to sell something.
“It’ll be any of those, but no matter how much profit you make, it’s got to be something that adds value to the community and is planned for sustainability and continuation.”
With students graduating these days with debt that Gould estimated is in the range of $30,000 or more, it might seem difficult to find students more bent on giving back instead of taking or earning loads of cash.
Gould said he’s sort of surprised, too, but as associate director for professional student development and a College of Liberal Arts and Sciences faculty member, he’s noticed a shift in the student mindset over the past five to seven years.
“They never come to my office anymore and say, ‘How do I do what I want to do and make lots of money?’” he said. “They want to do things that are meaningful to them. It’s a sea change that I see happening to them. In years past, I think students humored me but didn’t really believe me when I talked about doing things they were passionate about. That seems to have changed.”
He said it also fit with what’s going on downtown courtesy of Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh and the Downtown Project, which is supporting Gould’s class with a gift of $50,000.
Reimagining Downtown stems, in fact, from a meeting between Hsieh and Gould almost three years ago. Gould had begun a new class — focused on students using their education to figure out what their passions were — in which Hsieh's book “Delivering Happiness” was required reading.
Gould reached out and asked if Hsieh would do a talk over the Internet with his students. Instead, Hsieh, who was crisscrossing the country supporting the book, stopped by and talked directly to the class.
At the end of class, Hsieh asked if some students wanted to take a tour around Iowa City in his Delivering Happiness bus. Expecting five or six students, almost the entire class signed on. So for the next few hours, Hsieh and throngs of students walked around campus, took pictures and talked.
“It was a very magical moment and the start of my relationship with Tony and with Las Vegas,” Gould said.
A year or so later, he started thinking of a new course on following your life’s passion. Hsieh invited him to spend a week in Las Vegas. At week’s end, Hsieh turned to him.
“He just kind of looked at me and said, “What do you think?’” Gould, 53, said.
“What did I think?” he said. "I thought it was the boldest, gutsiest, inspiring thing I had ever seen. It was like jumping off of the high dive, and I knew it would be appealing to my students.
“I mean, it’s poetic in a way. You buy City Hall (Zappos is actually leasing it from another buyer). Then you say, 'All right, man, instead of turning it into a Google or Nike complex with gourmet meals for employees and all that implies, let’s instead invest around it and make it practical and intrinsic to employees and the community.'”
Hsieh’s downtown project has become so widely known, he could have partnered with almost any university, including his alma mater, Harvard. Gould said Hsieh's working with the University of Iowa, which is nestled in a community of about 60,000 people, “speaks for the kind of person he is.”
“But it’s like the people he hires,” Gould said. “They aren’t Ivy League with super-duper resumes. They are people within whom he sees something that resonates. … Tony’s very bright, but what made him successful are characteristics that aren’t measured by a degree or the institution you graduated from: perseverance, hard work, willingness to take a risk and feeling a connection to something larger than yourself.”
For his part, Hsieh said he thought Gould’s class “would be a fun, challenging way to expose his students to what was going on in downtown Vegas and to get some of them to visit, as well.
“I remember when I was in college; a trip to anywhere was fun and exciting, so I wanted to offer it to his students.”
Gould’s students will work on their project for the next 50 days, visit Las Vegas over spring break, then hone a single idea and plan before putting it into action this summer.
So begins an unlikely Iowa-Las Vegas connection.