From BVU Mason City to the Iowa Legislature
Amanda Ragan, who attended Buena Vista University in Mason City, has traveled an unconventional path to arrive at her place in the Iowa Senate. She balanced work and family commitments while earning a bachelor’s degree in human services.
State Senator Amanda Ragan '93 apologizes at the start of an interview that sound from her phone may reverberate. It’s early Monday morning, a March day in which wind chills dive well below zero as she sits in an otherwise empty chamber. The Iowa Senate Chamber, to be precise.
“There are only two of us in here at this point,” she says. “I’m sorry if there’s an echo.”
If there’s some symmetry found in the conversation opener, it’s this: Amanda Ragan has traveled an unconventional path to arrive at her place in the Iowa Senate. She serves as a Democrat representing Iowa District 27, a tract covering Franklin County, and parts of Cerro Gordo County and Butler County.
“I’ve always been interested in issues and in working with ideas and proposals to make our communities better,” says Ragan, who won a special election to the Iowa Senate in 2002, the first of her six election victories.
“At that point, I knew I needed to get a bachelor’s degree. I had always wanted one, but I also knew I couldn’t be far from home.”
The 1973 graduate of Rockwell-Swaledale High School grew up on a farm near Rockwell. She headed from high school to North Iowa Area Community College in Mason City and earned her associate’s degree. After getting married and starting a family, she helped raise cattle on the farm. The death of her mother and a subsequent divorce, however, left Amanda on the farm with her two children, ages 14 and 10. “At that point, I knew I needed to get a bachelor’s degree,” she says. “I had always wanted one, but I also knew I couldn’t be far from home. Attending Buena Vista University’s Mason City campus allowed me to be at home, raise my kids, and get my education without a lengthy drive.”
She juggled work and family commitments while earning a bachelor’s degree in human services. Amanda remembers driving from Rockwell to Storm Lake for the commencement exercise in May 1993. Daughter Edie and son Charles went to the ceremony and were eager to see Mom’s smile with her BVU diploma in-hand.
“It made sense to have them along because my graduation should have been a family affair,” she says.
After graduation, Amanda found a job with the North Iowa Girl Scouts. In 1997, she was selected to manage The Community Kitchen of North Iowa, a soup kitchen in Mason City that serves hot meals to 100 plus people a day, six days per week. Based upon her work at The Community Kitchen, she was asked in 1999 to take on the additional responsibility of overseeing the Mason City Meals On Wheels program. Meals On Wheels purchases meals from Mercy Medical Center in Mason City and distributes those meals to 80 or more people per day.
“We started with a noon meal at the Community Kitchen and added an evening meal four nights a week in 2013,” she said. “Both The Kitchen and Meals On Wheels programs depend on volunteers to be of service to our area. We have only three paid staff members, two cooks at The Kitchen and I serve as Director of each agency.”
In 2002, Amanda was asked if she’d enter a special election to fill the position of a retiring State Senator. She was selected to run at a special nominating convention, was put on the ballot, and won.
“My dad, who has been gone for many years, was active in politics, but he never ran for office,” she says. “He and my mother were members of two different political parties, but they got along great and simply agreed to disagree on a few of the issues.”
As she sits in the empty Senate on a blustery Monday morning, she reflects on how her life and family have grown. Daughter Edie Blanchard is an Iowa State University graduate; and she is the Director of the MacNider Art Museum in Mason City. She and her husband have two children. Her son, Charles Wishman, graduated from the University of Northern Iowa, and serves as Secretary/Treasurer of the Iowa Federation of Labor in Des Moines. He and his wife also have two children.
Amanda’s husband, Jim Ragan, is a University of Iowa graduate, who retired after 24 years of service with the U.S. Air Force.
“We have the state schools covered in our family,” she says.
In the meantime, Senator Ragan is a proud graduate of Buena Vista University, a place whose presence at Mason City helped start her on this path decades ago. Prior to the day’s session in the Capitol, this member of the Senate Education Committee reflects on the significance of community colleges, regent’s universities, and Iowa’s private colleges. She touches on the importance of the Iowa Tuition Grant Program and maintaining the accessibility of higher education, something BVU champions through its 16 locations across Iowa.
“It would have been difficult for me to go back and get my degree without BVU,” says Senator Ragan, who has served for 17 years in the Iowa Senate. “I remember being in lectures and how encouraging the professors were for students. They wanted us to succeed. Buena Vista was a great education and I have always been a proud graduate of their program.”