This is a story about a high school senior and the former United States senator who changed her life.
The senior and the former senator did not know each other. Their introduction would come later, when the senior was a first-year student at Simpson College, and the former senator was visiting the center named in his honor.
On that day, at the John C. Culver Public Policy Center, Kiley Murray could finally tell John Culver thank you.
“I would not be at Simpson College if it wasn’t for the Culver Center,” Kiley Murray says, “I would not have been able to come here if it wasn’t for what Senator Culver has set up.”
At Simpson, Murray discovered more than a community of like-minded students who care about issues as much as she does. She also found friends who would help guide her through one of the most difficult stages of her life.
“There’s no better place,” she says.
It was perfect.
Kiley Murray lived in Evergreen, Colo., but she wanted to attend college in Iowa, because that is the state that hosts the first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses and because Murray was interested in political science.
She decided to visit Drake University in Des Moines, “but I kept getting emails from Simpson, so I decided to go look, and I fell in love with it.
“I loved the campus. I loved the people. I did an overnight visit with students from the Pi Beta Phi house, and I loved everything about it.”
Her choice was clear: Simpson College.
There was just one problem: Finances.
“My Dad was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer when I was in ninth grade,” Murray explains. “We had to pay for chemotherapy and other medical treatments. We didn’t have a lot of extra money for college.”
That’s when Murray’s mother, Kathy, discovered the John C. Culver Public Policy Center at Simpson College, which offers scholarships to students interested in public service.
The Center, along with the Iowa History Center, the Emerge start-up business incubator and the speech and debate team, is one of the attractions that sets Simpson apart from other colleges and universities.
The Murrays learned that the Center had been established in 2010 to honor the service of John Culver, who represented Iowa for 16 years in the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate.
The Center’s goal is to inspire young people to pursue careers in public service and to become engaged citizens.
This sounds like it was created for you, Kathy Murray told her daughter. You should apply.
Indeed, Kiley Murray has been fascinated with politics since fifth grade. Members of her extended family have been involved in politics; a cousin dropped out of college temporarily to work on one of Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns.
It surprised no one in her family that Kiley would decide to study in Iowa simply because of that state’s role in the presidential selection process.
“I like the idea that individual people can make a big difference in other people’s lives,” she says. “Government gives order to our everyday lives and is involved in every single aspect of our everyday lives.”
On a visit to the Simpson campus, Murray met with Mary Sheka, then the executive director of the Culver Center, who interviewed her for one of the five fellowships that are awarded each year to first-year students.
Murray didn’t say it, but this was her one chance: If she didn’t get the scholarship that comes with being a Culver Fellow, she simply would not be able to attend Simpson.
Her father’s condition had worsened. He eventually had to stop working and the family would have to rely solely on her mother’s job for income.
Murray returned home to finish her senior year of high school and waited.
One day in late March or early April, she received an email from Anne Fattig, a Simpson admissions counselor, and it contained the news she had been praying for: When Simpson classes began in the fall of 2013, Kiley Murray would be a Culver Fellow.
“I jumped up and down in my kitchen and then ran outside to tell my Mom as soon as she got home, and I cried,” she said. “It was just overwhelming. My Dad was so excited for me, we all cried together. It was grand.”
It was joyous news in a family that desperately needed some. While her mother worked that summer, Murray stayed home, caring for her ill father, who would pass away in July.
Less than two months later, she would be starting classes on a campus far from home, where she knew almost no one.
Murray’s hometown, Evergreen, Colo., is a community of about 9,000 people, 15 miles west of Denver.
“It’s a pretty small town, and I became the kid with the dead Dad,” she says. “That was not a good experience, because I felt like it became the defining factor of who I was, and I didn’t want it to be the defining factor.
“It’s hard to explain, but it’s like even though this has happened to you, it’s not who you are. It’s part of what made you who you are.”
Should she share that aspect of her life with her new Simpson classmates? Would they look at her with the same sad expressions that people back home did?
She would worry about that later. In the meantime, Murray vowed to embrace every aspect of the Simpson Experience that she could.
She joined the speech and debate club, even though she had never done it before. She joined the Delta Delta Delta sorority. She got involved with the Where’s the Fun Club. And she participated in every program the Culver Center offered.
When Ray Walton, who took over for Sheka as director of the Culver Center, offered to take her to Des Moines to watch Gov. Terry Branstad’s Condition of the State speech, she quickly agreed.
“My whole mindset coming here was that I’ve been given so many scholarships and opportunities, a lot of what I’m doing now is making sure I’m worthy of those,” she says. “I want to prove Simpson College did not mess up by giving me this opportunity. I need to prove it to everyone, that’s how I feel.
“I learned during all of that time caring for my Dad to take each day as it comes and realize the gifts that you have.”
First-year students at Simpson are required to take a class called the Simpson Colloquium, taught by the student’s advisor.
Murray’s advisor, Jim Palmieri, a professor of economics, asked his class to write a personal narrative about loss.
“I thought, ‘Well, OK, that will be easy,’” Murray said. “And that’s when Professor Palmieri learned about my Dad. We talked about it.”
He became part of her Simpson support network. So did sophomore Jacy Gomez, a star member of the debate team, whose mother had passed away before she started her first year at Simpson.
“She’s been very helpful,” Murray says. “She understands and can relate.”
Darcie Sprouse, the director of Student Support Services, also joined Murray’s team.
“I think the transition would have been so much harder at a larger school because I wouldn’t have the close support system from the faculty, the staff and all of my peers,” Murray says.
“I love Simpson,” she adds. “The people are all really great and the professors really care and I’ve gotten involved in a number of different activities that I didn’t think I would ever be involved in.
“My Mom got a little frustrated over Christmas because I kept referring to Simpson as my home.”
Murray’s goal has changed.
She was going to run for political office someday. Then she took her first economics course.
“I fell in love with it,” she says. “I’ve now decided I want to be chairperson of the Federal Reserve.” She laughs. “We’ll see how that goes.”
Being a Culver Fellow, she says, has introduced her to a wide array of notable people. She has met Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey and former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson.
“Two of my best friends on campus are also Culver Fellows,” she says. “It’s great, because we’re all interested in the same things, and then we all hang out at the Culver House. There’s no better place for politics than Simpson.
“I haven’t been here for a presidential caucus yet, but oh, am I excited.”
It’s called “Pizza and Politics,” an event in which the Culver Center invites a distinguished guest to discuss the issues of the day with students.
One of the guests last fall was John Culver himself.
“He was awesome,” Murray says. “Almost like a grandfather figure. I just wanted to sit and hear him tell stories all day. All of his stories are fantastic.”
Murray was able to tell Culver thank you, but only briefly, and she wonders if he truly realizes the impact he and the Center have had on her life.
She’d like to tell him this:
“Without the scholarship, I would not be at Simpson. The Culver Center has opened so many doors for me and the other Fellows. At this point my life would be so different without the fellowship that I can’t even imagine it.