Sally Henry Finds Her Footing

Profile text: Joey Puckett
Audio Highlight: Omar Alcorta
Edited by: Sam Purkiss
Photos: Omar Alcorta

Once again, Sally Henry was surrounded by new people and new opportunities, trying to find the right footing in an unfamiliar place. She’s no stranger to all that. She faced the same challenge when her family became the first Micronesian residents of Storm Lake. Just like last time, she’s quickly adjusting and discovering the right place for her at Buena Vista University, where she just finished her sophomore year. 

When she first enrolled, Henry expected the campus to look a little more like Storm Lake High School, as inclusive as the rest of town. Soon, though, she realized that despite being located in Storm Lake, the most diverse city in Iowa, Buena Vista University’s student body is far less varied than the community she knew growing up. “I don’t have nothing against that at all,” said Henry. “It’s a weird change for me. I feel different. I don’t know if that makes any sense.”

In Storm Lake Community schools, white people are a minority. Henry is Micronesian, the fastest growing national population in Storm Lake. Micronesian children have proliferated in the parks and classrooms around town. Although she did not speak Spanish, as most of her peers did, going through a school system that values immigrant education played a major role in shaping her life. The move to the majority-white Buena Vista University felt completely foreign to her.

Henry believes in the American Dream, evidenced by her life in Storm Lake. She lives a life that makes her feel like she can have a good, positive impact on the world. She feels valuable.

Henry is taking a journey not unlike that of her own parents, who came to America in the late 1990s. The two met in Georgia, and soon there was baby Sally, and with her a desire to move out of the family’s dangerous neighborhood. In 2005, she and her family became Storm Lake’s first Micronesian family. “We thought that was really nice, because…it’s nice to be the first to something,” she said in good humor.

Soon, her father began working for Tyson’s pork processing plant in town. He works in production, a nebulous job title to Henry, who still doesn’t quite understand what that encompasses.  Her mother eventually began work at Tyson’s neighboring turkey plant. Growing up, she thought it was cool that her dad worked for the biggest manufacturer in town. The older she got, however, the more she reckoned with the backbreaking labor expected at such meatpacking plants. She sees the toll such hard work takes, and although the pay has risen slightly higher, memories are fresh of when Tyson laid her father off for a long period. If that weren’t enough, meat processors are the most injury-prone workforce in America. Although her parents have never been seriously injured on the job, she knows of others who have been hurt by the machines.

On the brighter side, she appreciates that Tyson gave her the chance to grow up in a safe hometown. She obviously adores Storm Lake. She speaks of how kind the people were and are. Her favorite sight in the world is downtown at night, where the mesmerizing lights remind her of “the olden days.” Although it’s no Chicago, there’s no shortage of fun for her. She and her younger siblings love to play in the park, playing football or whatever comes to mind. They love to swim in the lake. This is another view that never tires her. However, there is a pastime that lights up her eyes: joyriding. There’s nothing better than pulling up to Lakeside or Bel Air beach and watching the sunset.

And then sometimes…I had this one relative. She kind of doubted me. She thought that I wouldn’t make it to college…I feel like that really stuck to my mom. She was like, ‘Sally, you heard this, right? Don’t let that get to you. Don’t let it do this and that.’ It was very stressful because like, I’m here [at BVU] now. I just want to prove these people wrong for the ones that, you know, who doubted me, that I couldn’t make it.

Growing up, Sally Henry was quiet. As she grew in Storm Lake, she began to feel like a genuine part of the community, which brought her out of her shell. She felt like she belonged. She’s optimistic about her small town, which she believes will grow for decades to come, as other people find how welcoming and inclusive Storm Lake really can be. Henry believes in the American Dream. She lives a life that makes her feel like she can have a good, positive impact on the world. She feels valuable. She grew up in a kind, welcoming place that, as the daughter of immigrants, gave her opportunities less common in other cities. Most poignantly, at a time where many young people feel hopeless at the bedraggled state of the country and the world at large, Henry feels hope for the future.

The inclusive quality of Storm Lake was precisely why, growing up, her parents invited fellow Micronesians to join them there. They hosted countless new Micronesian families when they first arrived in town. First it was their family members and then their friends. The visiting families would stay for long periods of time as they looked for work in town. Henry and her mother exhausted themselves doing such impactful work. It seemed like as soon as guests found their footing in town, more would arrive. As exhausting as this commitment felt, it paid off. They are tight-knit members of the local Micronesian community, who express gratitude for her mom and dad for welcoming them to Storm Lake. The guest families and the Henrys all became very close, sitting up late getting to know each other, speaking about home and their hopes for the future.

Henry discusses the unique challenges and opportunities that come from of being part of the first Micronesian family in Storm Lake. Audio profile by Omar Alcorta, 2021.

The parents of those families all have the same hope, said Henry: “They want their kids to go to college, to be the best they can be and not go through what they went through. Since [parent’s] futures are [essentially] done, they want their kids to live good [lives, without] struggle.” As it is known, this common sentiment puts a lot of pressure on the children of immigrants to live better than their parents. Henry herself felt the pressure of being a model child who did well by her siblings to make it to university. She dislikes the feeling of being an example. She can’t stand when adults brag about her to her parents. She just doesn’t want to be compared to anyone. She thinks comparison is bad for everyone. “You shouldn’t be, like, judging yourself for being different than anyone else,” she said. “You just have to have pride in yourself for being who you are, and that’s what I did. So here I am today, still embracing myself.” Recognizing that all people follow their own tracks in life, at their own speed, helps to recognize the individuality of every person without relying on stereotypes to assign judgment for that person. The way she was raised, and the town she was raised in, inspired this respect for people as individuals.

Hosting families eventually wore on Henry’s family, as it would anyone. Where there had once been free time, now it was consumed caring for newcomers. You can’t cook for two families every night without growing tired. Everyone in her community had to work hard and pull their weight to make do in Storm Lake. The best thing for Henry about more Micronesians coming to town has been the growth of her community. Before, she barely knew her extended family. Getting to know more about them, and goofing off with long-lost cousins, has been fun. She didn’t have many words to describe the feeling. It was a good feeling, if a bit overwhelming.

The growth of her community has also enabled her to retain knowledge of her parents’ culture. They come from Pohnpei, one of Micronesia’s four main islands. She loves her parents’ rice and banana recipes, which she claims is good with any conceivable meal. Her favorite part, though, is the dancing. She loves to watch people dance as much as she enjoys moving herself! It really brings out her culture, she said, and helps popularize Micronesia’s modern music.

At Buena Vista University, Henry participates in Army ROTC. She joined to grow out of her comfort zone (not to say she isn’t a little patriotic). She’s having a great time in it. The instructors are wonderful. She likes the people. Perhaps military service might fulfill a need she has felt lately: wanderlust. The only time Henry has really traveled was to Chicago for a junior year school trip. She experienced so many new things. Her imagination was unstoppable, running through all kinds of possibilities for the future. She wants to explore the world and be adventurous. She’s been in Storm Lake long enough without exploring the world outside. 

First on her list is Micronesia. Right now, the money her parents send back is being used to build a memorial house for her grandfather, who passed away three years ago. Her extended family is still there, building the walls, the windows, and doors. Once it’s completed, they’re going over for Christmas and will stay in the house her family built. They’ll have a dedication ceremony where she’ll see her older brothers. Presumably, she’ll eat lots of authentic food, dance a good deal, and scratch the traveling itch. There’s no telling where the future will take Henry. She could be half a world away in just a few years, serving the United States and protecting our freedoms. That’s all a ways down the road. She still has two years of college left, a major to figure out, and a home to continue making inclusive.

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