Tilberg takes first at NHD

Monday, August 1, 2022
(Photo Contributed) Sarah Tilberg stands with her exhibit, “A Ray of Compassion: Debate and Diplomacy of the Indochinese Refugees,” which earned first place in the Junior Division, Individual Exhibit category at the National History Day national competition.

LE MARS — Sarah Tilberg of Le Mars capped off her seventh grade year with a first place award in the National History Day national competition in June.

Tilberg took first place in the Junior Division, Individual Exhibit Category with her exhibit “A Ray of Compassion: Debate and Diplomacy of the Indochinese Refugees.”

Tilberg’s project was under the direction of Le Mars Community Middle School TAG Instructor Kathi Oetken.

National History Day is a year-long academic program that challenges students to research, develop and present papers, exhibits, documentaries, websites and performances about historical topics related to an annual theme. This year’s theme is “Debate and Diplomacy in History: Successes, Failures, Consequences.”

The National History Day project is required of students involved in the LCS TAG program.

“My project featured Iowa Governor Robert D. Ray and how he helped the Indochinese refugees resettle in Iowa using debate and diplomacy. He also prompted the United States government to change laws in order to help future refugees,” Tilberg said. 

Inspired by the book, “The Good Governor: Robert Ray and the Indochinese Refugees of Iowa,” Tilberg said she learned a lot.

“I learned why the Indochinese refugees were fleeing their homeland, why assistance was needed to help the refugees, the compassion that Governor Ray had toward these refugees, and how the people of Iowa stepped up through donation, sponsorship and relocation,” she explained. “I also learned how the people of Iowa have still been helping these people through donating grain bins and helping to improve their economy and livelihoods.” 

Students use a variety of sources to gather information for the project. Tilberg started with her own grandfather.

“My grandpa, who lives a few hours away, was my first interview. He shared how my aunt had invited a Vietnamese girl over to their house for a birthday party. She was a part of the boat people refugees who came over in the early 1980s. The girl shared her story about leaving her homeland and how her grandma died during their voyage. They had to throw her overboard to bury her,” Tilberg said.

She next interviewed her viola teacher and his wife.

“Gary and Joan Vanderhart are from Sioux Center and they had sponsored a young man by letting him live with them for a year. The young man attended college at Dordt,” she said.

“Another interview I used was through Faith Christian Reformed Church. They provided me with a biography that was written in 1985 and published in The Banner about Khay Baccam who was an Indochinese refugee from Laos who was sponsored by their church.

“The church explained how they helped refugees with translation, finding them a place to live and work, and other needed necessities. They also shared about how their church has gone back into the communities of Laos to help improve their quality-of-life and how the reformed churches donated grain bins to relocate to Laos to prevent their crops from molding,” she continued.

An Abundance of Research

Students use a wide number of resources in their research. Tilberg said she researched local college and public libraries, local newspaper archives, The Library of Congress, The National Archives, Iowa PBS, Iowa Culture of Affairs, Newspaper.com, and Presidential Libraries and Museums.

While the state NHD contest was in-person, the national contest was once again held virtually. That meant more work for Tilberg.

“I had to take pictures of the actual exhibit and insert them into a PowerPoint template. I then had to insert all the quotations, personal words, and format everything within the required guidelines,” she explained.

While she didn’t make changes following the state contest, she did correct errors and any fonts that were not correct.

Many Local Ties

Tilberg indicated she learned a lot about the Indochinese refugees and Iowa’s role in their lives.

One of those things was learning about the local connections to the local community and nearby communities.

“I learned how the influence of one man affected the outcome of an entire refugee group and other future refugee groups. Governor Ray was the only governor at first to offer these refugees assistance. Other governors and Americans were later encouraged to assist through Governor Ray’s diplomacy and debate.

“Governor Ray helped reform regulations through the governor’s resolution to Cambodia and the Refugee Act of 1980. The Iowa Bureau of refugee services was established through Governor Ray and it remains the only certified state agency and has assisted various refugee groups in Iowa,” she said.  

There was also a learning experience in just putting the project together.

“I learned how to put together an exhibit through research, interviews, time management, writing a process paper and annotated bibliography,” she said.

NHD is in the Family’s Blood

Competition at the national level of NHD is not new to the Tilberg family.

“My siblings and I have participated in NHD for several years and my older sister competed in the national competition twice, where our family was able to experience the national contest,” she explained. “This helped me understand the whole process and I was able to read about many different history topics.”

Tilberg said she was “overjoyed” that her project received first place.

“I hope my project can help others better understand this difficult time in history and see the overwhelming compassion that Governor Ray and the people of Iowa had toward these refugees. Many people gave of their time and money to help others, who were less fortunate, to have a better life,” she said.

A Secondary Honor

Oetken added there was another honor for Tilberg.

“First-place entries in the Junior and Senior divisions’ five categories of documentary, exhibit, paper, performance, and website are given the title, ‘National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Scholar’ and receive a $1,000 award sponsored by NEH,” Oetken said.

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