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Crystal Ortbahn is the kind of person who can drive a creeper van and get away with it.

Or, it would be a creeper van, if it hadn’t been so well maintained, Crystal said of her 22-year-old Dodge Caravan. Nevertheless, “the paint is sort of reaching its death point.”

She calls it simply, “the blue van.”

“I appreciate that it’s a survivor,” Crystal said. “I think I’ve only had Campus Safety jump start me three or four times, which is pretty good for a blue van.” The gauges are off. The passenger door doesn’t open from the inside.

Senior Krista Youngberg is one who has experienced this firsthand.

“The van will make a weird noise and she’ll say, ‘That’s just the van saying hello,’” Krista said.

Crystal’s parents told her it was a character-builder. “And it has been,” Crystal said. Nevertheless, “it’s a mutually beneficial relationship. The blue van takes me places, and I take care of the blue van.”

Going places is a priority for Crystal Ortbahn.

As a high school student, she committed to various levels and formats of student government in Pierre, South Dakota. Because Pierre is the center of government in South Dakota, Crystal calls her interest in government “a fit that seemed natural to pursue.”

That didn’t stop her from pursuing anything else, however. Her interests ranged from astrophysics to learning Russian and even to military schools. Crystal puts it more simply.

“I had a lot of interests,” she said. Not much has changed, but her interests have channeled her into the English, government and philosophy departments. “Really, I’ve just followed my curiosity.”

Senior Amanda Strenge says this  curiosity-following is typical for Crystal.

What separates Crystal from the pack is simply “the things she’s interested in,” Amanda said. “She has such a love for learning that not all people posess … she does a lot of things the typical student wouldn’t do.”

This curiosity of Crystal’s knows no boundaries. In her time at Augustana, she has studied in Ireland, Hong Kong, Greece and Scotland. Her trip to Hong Kong arose from a church mission trip that she was interested in expanding on. So she took her J-term sophomore year abroad.

“It’s hard to predict the outcome of that kind of experience, but it was something I knew I wanted to do,” Crystal said. “I wasn’t doing it for a definite outcome … it was something I needed to explore at the time.”

Crystal reached out to schools in the Hong Kong area but finally ended up hearing from a friend about her camp counselor, who was living and tutoring in a city just outside of Hong Kong.

Crystal lived with her for over two weeks, working at the Concordia English center. In the process, she learned about how to tutor English learners, observe the tutors and employees, and somehow ended up participating in a deaf ministry program with Cantonese sign language.

It wasn’t something she had planned on.

After her Distinguished Scholars trip to Ireland her freshman year, “I thought that was it,” Crystal said. Now, “I see and understand, wanting to experience what is new. There are people I haven’t met yet.”

And in traveling away from home, Crystal seems to have found it.

“I’m just drawn to learning from somewhere new, but I also see South Dakota as a place I want to come back to,” Crystal said. “But I want to learn a little more about myself before I do that.”


One true love

There is one thing Crystal already knows about herself, however, and it is this: she loves Dr. Pepper.

“She loves Dr. Pepper more than life,” Amanda said.

And Crystal’s actions certainly do seem to validate Amanda’s claim.

“It’s not really a campaign, but a lingering frustration that we don’t have Dr. Pepper,” Crystal said. “But I also see not having Dr. Pepper on campus as beneficial to my physical well-being because if it were on campus, I would consume outrageous amounts of it. And it would definitely become my primary source of caffeine.”

While she admits that it doesn’t seem to be “a pressing student concern,” Crystal is dedicated enough to Dr. Pepper to have done her research. She knows who owns the company, who bottles it and who distributes it. And because Dr. Pepper is produced by an independent company, it can be served with both Coca Cola and Pepsi.

“It’s a gray area,” Crystal said. Nevertheless, “even having a can machine with Dr. Pepper cans in it would be great. … I would go there to get a Dr. Pepper.”

However, she admits that her college campaign for Dr. Pepper has not been a serious effort.

“I am on ASA, so I am solely responsible for that not coming into fruition, but I totally have written joking comments in the ASA comment box,” Crystal said. “I don’t think it’s really important. I think it’s funny.”

Crystal says she seems to be the only student concerned with it, although she has received significant verbal support from journalism professor Jeffrey Miller.

It was Jeffrey Miller’s prompting that started her serious project, too. As a part of one of her journalism classes, Crystal was encouraged to create and update a blog, which she focused around the development of documentary films in the United States. She then took this project – where else? – on the road, to the Sundance Film Festival in Utah as a part of her senior Civitas project.

“In going to the festival, part of my lens in experiencing the festival was to see as many documentary films as I could and try to place them into the categories I studied,” Crystal said.

Her goal?

To discover how filmmakers “handle truth” in documentaries, because it is generally accepted that the way things are filmed changes their truth, Crystal said.

“Since January I’ve probably seen over 30 films,” Crystal said. “Probably way more than that, actually.” Her second estimate ranged from 35-40, all of which are very different from each other. She is still finishing her blog.


Striving for connection

While they may all seem very diverse, there is a common thread in Crystal’s experiences. In all that she does, she works toward connection. This is what her travel is all about.

“I learned a lot about my connection with people: the human reality of different stories, but we’re all in the same story,” Crystal said.

Part of this collective story involves Crystal as a complex character in her own life. Krista describes her as a puzzle lover, a noise-maker, a 2 a.m. snow angel buddy and an adventurer.

“She likes to dance, but don’t touch her.,” Krista said. “Don’t give her a hug. But if she pats you, that’s love.”

And “every time she says, ‘I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know,’ she actually knows and she doesn’t want to offend anyone,” Krista said.

All in all, “how would I describe Crystal? Oh, good God. Witty, loyal, intelligent… she’s Crystal.”


Family ties

Another common thread in Crystal’s life is her family.

“Just the support from both my parents and both of my brothers and my grandmother shapes me a little bit,” Crystal said. After returning from Hong Kong, she struggled spiritually with what she’d seen there. Her parents listened.

“They’re motivators and supporters but at the same time, when I’m stuck or when I just sort of need to bounce ideas off, they’re good people even just to change directions, or to contemplate things in new ways,” Crystal said. “They were just willing to listen and let me figure out where I was on my own.”

Nevertheless, the questions are still there.

“That’s still something that’s churning, I think,” she said of her spirituality.

However, having her family there has been a consistency within her experience.

“If my parents are one thing, they’re consistent. … While I’m everywhere,” Crystal said.

Literally. Because no matter where she is, Crystal Ortbahn is going places, whether it’s in her creeper van or not.