Luther Alumni Magazine

Imagine Fellowships

If you had $5,000 to design a learning experience for yourself anywhere in the world, what would you do?

Illustrations by Mark Marturello
Illustrations by Mark Marturello

This is the question posed to the 10 students that Luther selects as Imagine Fellows each year. The Imagine Fellowship comes with few restrictions, giving students great latitude to envision what kind of experience will have the most impact for them, the biggest caveat being that the experience has to happen off-campus. Terry Sparkes, associate dean, says, “It offers the opportunity to explore beyond the confines of courses or campus, to engage in something meaningful that helps them just a little further—or a lot further!—down the road of discovering how to match their gifts and skills with a sense of direction.”

While the fellowships are merit-based, they offer an opportunity to students who might not otherwise be able to study abroad. JD Davis ’15, who used his fellowship to study Norway’s prisons, says, “At all the college fairs, they talked about the great study-abroad opportunities that Luther has, but I knew that financially that was something I would never be able to do, so when I learned about the Imagine Fellowship, I knew it could be my one opportunity to get out of the country and discover a new culture and a new place.”

In some cases, the fellowship is a factor in college selection. Karin Hecht ’16 says, “I don’t want to overemphasize it, but the Imagine Fellowship was one of the big reasons I decided to come to Luther. Nowhere else would have given me an opportunity to design my own experience, especially one that would take me abroad.”

"Imagine Fellowships are unique to Luther College in the creativity, freedom, and entrepreneurialism they encourage in students' pursuit of learning. Fellowships are funded by donors who are enthused by the vibrant vision of the fellows."

—Ann Sponberg Peterson, director of development, principal gifts

The fellows profiled here used their funds to volunteer, test career goals, grow their craft, explore their spirituality, and deepen their sense of social justice. They had to learn to navigate and make decisions. They had to be flexible and open-minded to adapt to new situations. They had to think creatively when things didn’t always go according to plan. But that’s what the fellows valued most about their experiences. Cole Puffer ’15 says, “I grew in some intangible and inexplicable ways, and that was a very important part of this fellowship for me.”

Davis says, “My Imagine Fellowship really challenged the way I thought about the world. I like to think in black and white—that there’s the right and the wrong and the good and the bad—but this was a great opportunity for me to realize that there’s a lot of gray out there.”

Shayla De Jong ’16, who explored the pipe organ tradition in Europe and plans to study the instrument in graduate school next fall, says, “I like to think of my Imagine Fellowship as an experience that stems off in many directions in my life. It connects my past to my present to my future, to where I’m going next.”

To explore giving opportunities at Luther, visit

Discovering the cradle of organ music

Shayla De Jong
Shayla De Jong

Shayla De Jong ’16, a music major and German minor, spent her fellowship in Germany and The Netherlands researching the North German organ tradition, which holds tremendous influence over organ culture. She focused on the instruments of Arp Schnitger, a prolific craftsman who built more than 160 organs. She met with a number of professional organists, saw dozens of organ performances, took an organ master class, and was even able to play a few European organs. De Jong has been accepted into three pipe organ master’s programs; she will start one next fall.

A hotbed of organists in Iowa

De Jong grew up outside of New Sharon, Iowa, a town of about 1,300 that remarkably boasted several pipe organists. She started learning the instrument in high school, and by the time she got to college, she was interested in connecting with the wider world of organ music. “I knew my own story, but it was very serendipitous,” she says. “But Europe is where it all began, and so many students in the educational system there are flourishing under famous organists.”

So De Jong planned an Imagine Fellowship that would take her to the cradle of organ culture in North Germany and The Netherlands. She leveraged her time abroad to study for a month at the Goethe Institute in Dresden and fulfill the language requirement for a German minor. “It goes hand in hand with everything you should know as an organist,” she says. “German and French are the languages we’re supposed to study.”

The organ as teacher

One of the pinnacles of De Jong’s trip was the time she spent at the St. Jacobi church in the heart of Hamburg, home to Schnitger’s most famous organ. Not only did she get to help tune the instrument, but she was also able to play it.

Of the experience, she says: “It was a little daunting, but it was also a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And it was absolutely sublime. Something I’ve learned at Luther in my lessons with Dr. Gregory Peterson ’83 is that the organ teaches you just as much as a teacher will. You can sit down and feel what sounds good and what doesn’t based on the acoustical space and the keyboard and pedalboard. European instruments are different from American instruments, and because they’re older, there are certain things you can’t play
on them.”

Class with a master

De Jong also took a master class in Amsterdam with renowned organist Jacques van Oortmerssen, from whom she learned more about the symbolism in Bach’s music and how an instrument’s touch can inform a player’s expressiveness, as well as how to be expressive without injuring yourself (there are many competing tensions in the body while a person plays). As De Jong says, “The organ is an intense instrument!”

Researching the intersection of technology and humanness

Cole Puffer
Cole Puffer

Growing up the son of two physicians near Rochester, Minn., Cole Puffer ’15 developed an early interest in science and medicine. He spent his Imagine Fellowship engaged in a comparative-data study conducted between clinicians at Mayo Clinic in Rochester and Akershus University Hospital in Norway. The study investigated the effectiveness of a filter that fits into the interior vena cava, which carries blood to the heart, and reportedly helps prevent pulmonary embolisms in trauma patients.

What it means to be human

Puffer started at Luther with a strong affinity for neuroscience but quickly gained an appreciation for the study of the mind through less scientific means. “I have a deep interest in what it means to be human,” he says. “My first year of classes at Luther ignited that sense of wonder, in particular Paideia and my first-year J-term, Big Questions.”

By the time he had to plan his Imagine Fellowship, Puffer was more interested in the philosophical, rather than medical, side of neuroscience and humanness. “I was attacking that interest from a different angle,” he says. “What I wanted to learn more about through my fellowship was the research process and how it was done in a hospital setting.”

What it means to be a doctor

Through his fellowship, Cole worked with physicians at Mayo Clinic to design the study and its databases, as well as an unbiased method of collecting data at the participating institutions. Then he went to the Akershus University Hospital for two months, where he spent two or three days a week doing data collection and the other days shadowing Norwegian doctors in different parts of the hospital. “I had no clue I’d be able to do that,” he says, “but it ended up being an incredible experience.”

One day, Puffer was shadowing a cardiologist while he monitored a patient who’d undergone minor surgery. The doctor was using an ultrasound machine on the patient’s lower leg but then set it down abruptly, frustration clouding his face. After the consultation, Puffer says, “He looked at me and said something profound: ‘We started using these machines, and we forgot how to be doctors.’”

What it means to be both

“That moment really influenced me,” Puffer says, noting that it sparked a new interest in combating the negative role that technology sometimes plays in doctors’ offices. “For example, because of the requirement of electronic medical records, doctors are spending more time typing and less time talking to patients, which has resulted in less satisfaction in both doctors and patients, and I think it’s responsible for higher rates of physician burnout.” But he recognizes that electronic health records will play an increasingly important role in the years to come, and he’s been helping an oral surgery office convert its records from paper to electronic while he waits to start medical school at the University of Minnesota–Duluth in August.

“In my future career,” he says, “I really want to strive—partially as a direct result of going on this fellowship experience—to have a human touch in my practice and my relationship with my patients. They’re coming in in a vulnerable state—they’re going to the doctor because something is wrong—and the more you can greet that with both techonology and a sense of humanity, the more it helps them feel confident in themselves and their treatment, which leaves both parties better off.”

Solving for y with the help of a pilgrimage

Erika Storvick
Erika Storvick

Erika Storvick’s fellowship was an exploration of spirituality. Now a senior, she entered Luther as a math major, but “took a couple of religion classes and fell in love,” she says. For the first portion of her fellowship, she walked the French part of El Camino de Santiago, a famous pilgrimage. She followed this experience with two weeks at Plum Village, a Buddhist monastery near Bordeaux. She ended her fellowship with a week at Taizé, a Christian monastery in Burgundy.

From solving for y to engaging her faith

Storvick loved math in high school and considered majoring in it at college, but religion classes at Luther taught her to look deeper, which encouraged her to double major in religion. “There’s something different between attending church services and engaging your faith in an academic setting. Luther’s Religion Department taught me to question and look deeper and challenge assumptions people make about religion,” she says.

Storvick’s fellowship proposal combined a lot of the interests she’d developed through Luther’s religion program. “I wanted to learn what a pilgrimage was and how a spiritual journey can bring people together,” she says. “At Plum Village, I got the chance to engage with what I’d learned in my classes on Buddhism.” She was able to test what she’d learned in her classes on interfaith dialogue there and at Taizé, which, the week Storvick was there, hosted a gathering in honor of one of its founders that included world leaders from the European Union, the United Nations, and other organizations.

You can’t walk a pilgrimage backward

“My original plan was to walk El Camino backward, but that kind of goes against the spirit of the pilgrimage,” Storvick says, “because part of its purpose is to meet people and travel together. To be a part of the community, you have to do it forward.”

Storvick learned a lot about the power of community during her pilgrimage. “I appreciated meeting so many different people on the journey,” she says. “Every night in each hostel or gîte, we had a chance to share why we were doing the pilgrimage, and a powerful realization for me was that even if we didn’t speak the same language, we interacted in a meaningful way. I learned a lot about the importance of community and how so much can be learned from someone you don’t necessarily identify with.”

Being present in the moment

During her Imagine experience, Storvick went from a Christanity-centered pilgrimage to a Buddhist monastery, from walking up to 30 kilometers a day to sitting still and meditating four hours a day. She reflects, “The monastery was all about mindfulness and being present in the moment, but that was an attitude also prevalent in the pilgrimage. Sometimes you’re just thinking, I have to get up this hill.”

Researching incarceration and personal reformation

JD Davis
JD Davis

After developing an intense interest in the U.S. prison system, JD Davis ’15, a social work major, used his fellowship to travel to Norway, visiting a wide range of prisons, from Norway’s most secure facilities to halfway houses that are integrated into the community. He interviewed inmates, correctional officers, prison chaplains, researchers, and a community group that helps released convicts reintegrate. Davis is currently serving as an AmeriCorps VISTA member in the Twin Cities, helping released convicts successfully reenter society, and he was recently accepted into law school at the University of Minnesota.

“It lit a fire in me”

Although he grew up in Lino Lakes, Minn., home to a 1,300-man correctional facility, Davis’s interest in the U.S. prison system was sparked his first year at Luther, when Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, came to campus to talk about how the sorts of restrictions that were in place during the Jim Crow era are essentially being re-created in the U.S. prison system. “I was blown away by all that was happening,” Davis says, “and it lit a fire in me for learning more.”

Davis took every opportunity to research the prison system: “I was able to incorporate that interest into my classes each semester and find ways to write papers on prisons and penal philosophy. Also, Britt (Hellgren) Rhodes ’96 always takes her Social Work 101 class to the correctional facility in Prairie du Chien, Wis., and I went with that group almost every semester. I helped drive students there and back.”

Norwegian prison tour

In June of 2014, Davis used his Imagine Fellowship to travel to Oslo to spend a month in Norway touring prisons and conducting interviews. “It was my first time being out of the country, so that alone was an amazing experience,” he says. But what made an equally big impression on Davis was the Norwegian philosophy of incarceration.

“Inmates in Norway are not treated differently from any other citizens, they’re just removed from society for a time,” he says. “The way I like to think about it is that in Norway, incarceration is just a time out. You still have access to everything you always had outside of prisons; you just need time to go to a different place and receive services to reform yourself so that your crime doesn’t happen again. Norwegian inmates don’t even wear special uniforms; they wear street clothes in prison. That alone says a lot about what they’re doing over there.”

Rejecting the status quo

Davis’s current position on the Goodwill–Easter Seals Minnesota’s ReEntry Team leaves him working with what many would call a broken system, but he remains resolute: “This is definitely my thing. I’m still very passionate about it. And the Imagine Fellowship really helped me solidify this passion, and it also continues to inspire me, because by going to Norway, I was able to see that things can be different within prison systems. The status quo isn’t the only way. So I want to continue to work with our prisons and try to create real change here.”

Empowering communities through long-term volunteering

Karin Hecht
Karin Hecht

Karin Hecht ’16, a psychology and English double major, spent her fellowship working with the Los Martincitos Senior Citizen Center in a shantytown in Lima, Peru. Participants in the program often live in harsh conditions with little support. The center provides two meals a day, social activities, basic medical care, a literacy school, and home wellness visits.

Using her fellowship to volunteer

“One stereotype about psych majors is that they like to help people,” Hecht says, “and that’s definitely why the major appealed to me.” It’s also why Hecht structured her Imagine Fellowship around volunteering. She’d visited her older brother when he was working with the Peace Corps in Peru, and she decided to volunteer in that country with Cross-Cultural Solutions (CCS), a nonprofit organization that Hecht says models some of the same values.

Through CCS, Hecht ended up working last January with Los Martincitos, which serves about a hundred abuelitos, as the elderly participants are called. On days when the center was closed, Hecht accompanied the program director on home visits, checking in on people who couldn’t make it to the center and inviting new people to join.

The problems that the abuelitos faced, such as poverty, isolation, and lack of access to medical care, exist in the U.S. but are amplified in Peru, Hecht says. She witnessed some heart-wrenching situations, such as a woman who’d broken her ankle and would have been bedridden for life were it not for the simple medical intervention of the center, which provided pain medicine and monitored healing.

Helping in ways that have an impact

Hecht is glad that her fellowship was an emotionally difficult experience: “It was good that it pushed me out of my comfort zone and allowed me to consider this other facet of poverty in developing nations.” 

She continues: “One of the fears I had going in was that sometimes these short-term volunteer experiences are not helpful. People show up for a week, make friends with the kids, leave a week later, and think they saved the world. I tried to pick a program that would minimize that. The programs I was working with didn’t rely solely on the people coming in. They had full-time staff members, and we’d come in to help them for as long as we could.”

Hecht cares about making sure that her efforts have an impact. “So many people from first-world countries like to throw money and resources at developing nations,” she says, “and though that can help, sometimes it can end up hurting because you don’t have a good concept of what the people actually need or want or what impacts the politics of that country will have on your help. You need the ability to work within the system, which means asking the people who actually live there what they need and want.”