Campus News

Commencement 2019

Amy Tan headshotAmy Tan, author of several novels including the bestselling The Joy Luck Club, will be Grinnell College’s 2019 Commencement speaker. Born in California to Chinese immigrant parents, Tan went against her mother’s expectations that she become a doctor and a concert pianist, turning instead to writing. Her most recent book is a work of nonfiction, Where the Past Begins: A Writer’s Memoir (ECCO/HarperCollins, 2017). 

Watch Grinnell’s Commencement live on May 20 at

Grinnell Has a Podcast

Longing for a taste of campus life? Then give All Things Grinnell ( a listen. Hosted by Ben Binversie ‘17, the podcast features interviews and stories with students, faculty, alumni, staff, community members, and visiting speakers. Topics include research, campus life, and current issues of cultural, economic, social, and political significance. 

All Things Grinnell is available on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, and wherever you listen to podcasts. Several episodes are available now, and new episodes will be published every other week. Send comments and story ideas to podcast[at]grinnell[dot]edu. Watch for a Q&A with Binversie in the summer issue to learn how the podcast came about.


Studying How Galaxies Grow

Charlotte Christensen, assistant professor of physics, recently received a $484,300 Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

CAREER Awards are the most prestigious and competitive grants the NSF awards. They are made to junior faculty members who are exemplary scholars and teachers to enable them to pursue projects encompassing both research and teaching. 

Christensen is the second Grinnell College faculty member to receive a CAREER grant. The first was Eliza Kempton, associate professor of physics, who received a CAREER grant in 2017 to conduct research on exoplanets and develop a spatial reasoning course and peer-mentoring program for STEM students. 

Beginning June 1 this year, Christensen’s CAREER grant will support her research into how galaxies form. Astronomers have found that galaxies grow through a balance of gas loss, gas in-fall, and star formation. What drives these processes, however, is only poorly understood.

To enhance that understanding, Christensen will model dwarf galaxies, which are ideal test subjects for studying galaxy growth because they have low masses and are especially sensitive to energy input from supernovas. 

For the teaching component of her project, Christensen will develop a set of computational exercises, labs, and open-ended research projects for students that will be integrated into the physics curriculum. 

Christensen and her colleagues had earlier integrated a computational lab into the 200-level mechanics course with the support of a Howard Hughes Medical Institute grant. Building on this work, Christensen will improve the overall education of physics majors by incorporating computational problem-solving, an increasingly fundamental component of a modern physics education. 

The grant also will support summer research projects for 12 Grinnell students, including opportunities to present at national conferences and to visit collaborators at research institutions. By participating in these innovative projects, Grinnell students develop a dedication to truth, evidence, and critical thought.

In addition, Christensen’s curricular development will address a gap in computational skill development that the physics department has observed between male and female physics majors. Female students, including physics majors, are substantially less likely to enroll in computer science classes than male students. 

Best Qualified Pool of Applicants

Applications to Grinnell College have risen dramatically since 2012, when the number was 3,131, the largest at that time. For 2019, the figure is 7,961, a new application record.

“The people here in the enrollment services division have worked diligently and wisely on a variety of strategies to increase our visibility and subsequently our applications,” says Joe Bagnoli, vice president for enrollment and dean of admission and financial aid. 

Although increased visibility unfortunately translates to more applicants being denied admission, “it gives you a great deal of flexibility in shaping your class,” Bagnoli says. “I believe Grinnell’s three primary commitments to academic excellence, social responsibility, and diversity should be reflected in every entering class. Having a robust pool of applicants from which to select the class makes it easier to deliver on all three commitments.”

One major piece of good news is that Grinnell has received its highest number of applications from domestic students of color. “There are not just more students of color in our pool,” Bagnoli says. “They’re not just a more diverse group. The applicant pool also appears to be among the best qualified we’ve ever seen. So, that’s why we’re excited.”

While many factors account for the increase in domestic students of color, one is the increase of applicants from QuestBridge, an organization that helps high-achieving, low-income students apply to colleges. “That’s the single source of greatest increase,” Bagnoli says. Grinnell has partnered with QuestBridge since 2010.

Before admission staff members read applications in depth (and derive a more thorough understanding of academic achievements), they can get a quick sense of the whole pool’s overall academic qualifications from SAT test scores. “The 25th percentile is 1,320 and 75th percentile is 1,500,” Bagnoli says. “This puts us in the company of the most selective schools in the country.”

Applications are up in virtually all categories of data: domestic students and international students, first-generation students, public schools, and private schools. 

“The share of applicants applying for aid is quite high,” Bagnoli says. He learned recently that among the 40-plus colleges and universities that are both need-blind and meet 100 percent of need, “no other college or university, as a share of annual operating expenses, invests more institutional grant assistance to students than does Grinnell College.”

Domestic Students of Color Graph

Behind the Scenes with the Grinnell Prize

How can awarding $100,000 to a social justice innovator each year benefit Grinnell students and the College? More than a few people asked that question when the Grinnell College Innovator for Social Justice Prize was first awarded in 2011.

The answer has evolved as the prize itself has evolved. 

“Initially we saw the prize as a way to recognize Grinnell’s distinctive history and identity,” says Raynard S. Kington, president. “In recent years, we’ve seen how embedding the prize into our curriculum, making the winners accessible to our students, faculty, and staff so they can learn how these innovators do what they do — that’s where the real value lies — in helping us all create connections.” 

Susan Sanning, associate dean and director of service and innovation with the Center for Careers, Life, and Service (CLS), took over management of the prize in 2014. “That forced me to think about the value of service and innovation. I wanted to integrate the prize into the CLS and the College,” Sanning says. 

One of the ways that happens is through the planning and execution of Grinnell Prize week each fall. The winner is invited to campus and participates in a variety of events. 

Mélanie Marcel, the 2018 Grinnell Prize winner, is founder and CEO of SoScience, an organization that helps scientists and social entrepreneurs collaborate to solve societal challenges. SoScience advocates an approach to research that focuses on social impact rather than on projects for which they can secure funding from industry or governments.

“Mélanie is doing something that is redefining the box,” Sanning says. As she planned public events for prize week, Sanning wanted to provide enough opportunities for students, faculty, and staff to see the immediate things Marcel is doing as well as the systemic things.

Workshops helped lay out the practical pieces of Marcel’s work. In “Using Science for Good,” Marcel introduced the field of responsible research, its actors, and its methodologies through a simple game she developed and uses in the annual “Future of” conference SoScience hosts. Another workshop, “Facilitating Collaborations Between Scientists and Social Entrepreneurs and Grassroots Change Agents,” focused on the practical strategies and tools Marcel designed and uses in SoScience.

“The participants got to interact and discuss social issues with Mélanie, while also getting to hear about her life, personal experiences, and specifics in this area of work,” says Joy Suh ’19, major in biological chemistry. 

Prize Week culminated in a career panel to help students see how diverse careers can connect science and the social good. Sanning “looked for folks who are using their liberal arts education as a catalyst for careers in multiple fields.” 

The alumni panelists filled that role well. They included chemistry major Mitch Erickson ’72, science adviser to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security; biology major Indrani Singh ’08, director of community health partnerships at the University of Rochester Medical Center; and Emily Stiever ’09, an independent major focused on political ecology and chief operating officer and vice president of field operations for Solar United Neighbors, a national nonprofit.

Sanning also wanted to “include an unexpected academic perspective in there,” which is why she invited Tammy Nyden, associate professor of philosophy. Nyden’s civic engagement with Mothers on the Frontline helps show students another way to connect work with service. Nyden is co-founder and president of the group, which helps inform scientific research on children’s mental health by presenting stories that aren’t typically heard. 

A theme of connection wove through all the events. Making connections with people, with ideas, and with students’ own interests was key.

During her keynote, Marcel said about the Grinnell Prize and the College: “The work you are doing is really like no other. We need special places like this one, places to collaborate, places where empathy, openness, and understanding are fostered.”

Awarding the Grinnell Prize to an innovator in social justice and asking that person to share his or her experience with students provides a mutually beneficial learning opportunity. Students get to see how education is a catalyst to do what they’re passionate about, and the prize winner gets to extend his or her influence and create more connections to grow the work.

Oops! Our Bad

Grinnell College is a tad late in handling a simple vote — okay, 50 years late. 

In 1967–68, the College introduced a change to its Latin motto. “Christo Duce” — translated as “With Christ as leader” — became “Veritas et Humanitas” – “Truth and Humanity.” The new motto was part of a new seal and logo — the laurel leaf design that’s set in a square with 1846 above it, surrounded by the new motto and the College’s name in Latin. 

The design was originally an experiment, but it was well received. The laurel leaves have been used as the College’s identity ever since, while use of the official circular seal depicting an open book was limited to diplomas, transcripts, and other official documents.

The “oops” part is that although the Board of Trustees liked the new square seal, it was still on probation, so to speak, and wasn’t formally approved for use 50 years ago. That changed at the board’s October 2018 meeting, when it voted to approve a bylaws amendment, confirming this text: Collegium Grinnellense and Veritas et Humanitas. In addition, the laurel leaf design has become the official College seal. 

AFA Construction Update

The new Admission and Student Financial Services center at the southwest corner of Park Street and Eighth Avenue opened for business in November. 

Joe Bagnoli, vice president for enrollment and dean of admission and financial aid, anticipates the new building will help make a more compelling case for enrollment at Grinnell while providing visitors with a warm welcome. 

See Page 25 for a story about the welcome desk. Wood for the desk came from trees removed from the construction site for the Humanities and Social Studies Center just across the street.stairs in AFA building

Fireplace in the AFA

Front desk in AFA

Grinnell College National Poll

In fall 2018, Grinnell College partnered with J. Ann Selzer, a nationally renowned pollster from Iowa, to conduct the Grinnell College National Poll. The College undertook this pilot project as a way to provide research opportunities to students and faculty and to contribute to the national discussion about the direction of American politics. 

The first poll was conducted Aug. 29–Sept. 2. Administered by professional interviewers, the poll surveyed 1,002 randomly selected landline and cell phone numbers of U.S. adults ages 18 or older, including 779 likely voters in the 2018 general election. The initial findings were released to the public Sept. 5 and included a challenging path to re-election in 2020 for President Donald Trump, intense partisan divide about the National Football League protests during the national anthem, and widespread support for lawful immigration. 

One of the innovative aspects of the poll is the inclusion of questions about political activation. For example, the poll asked respondents how likely they were to attend meetings, rallies or marches, contact public officials, or help others register to vote in elections in the near future. Using these responses, the poll seeks to establish an activation index, which would measure individuals’ likelihood of political action and participation.

Grinnell faculty members have been an integral part of the poll since its inception. Barbara Trish, professor of political science and director of the Program in Practical Political Education and the Rosenfield Program in Public Affairs, International Relations, and Human Rights; Peter Hanson, associate professor of political science; and Xavier Escandell, associate professor of anthropology, all worked with Selzer to draft the questions for the poll. They are also incorporating the poll into their classrooms and research.

In her Political Parties course, Trish says students are using the poll’s findings to explore whether the policy positions of the parties as expressed in their platforms are consistent with those expressed by rank-and-file partisans. Hanson says the poll is a “very useful tool for teaching about quantitative reasoning and the national political environment,” and he is working with a student to write a blog post analyzing the poll’s initial findings. 

Escandell, as the faculty director for the Data Analysis and Social Inquiry Lab (DASIL), has overseen the cleaning of the survey data, preparing codebooks, and conducting preliminary data analyses. Escandell says DASIL, with the help of students, is “creating an interactive data visualization tool that will make the findings easily accessible to the public.” 

Through a special topics course, Political Polling: Analyzing the Grinnell College National Poll, taught by Ron Rapoport, visiting professor from the College of William and Mary, students have assessed poll data on key issues with an aim of understanding the social and political landscape of the 2018 midterm elections. 

The second poll was conducted after the November midterm elections. For more information visit the Grinnell College National Poll.

Building a Greenhouse and Intergenerational Relationships

Congratulations to Chad Darby ’88 and Jennifer Kulik ’94, recipients of the College’s 2018 Joseph F. Wall ’41 Alumni Service Award. Each will use the $30,000 award to launch programs benefiting their respective communities in the Pacific Northwest.

Chad Darby headshotDarby’s project will build and develop a commercial-quality greenhouse for an elementary school outside of Portland, Oregon. 

“The experiences that will be made possible as a result of the greenhouse will quite literally bring learning to life for our students who might otherwise be exposed to some concepts only in theory or in a less practical, meaningful way,” says Jordan Mills, Bridgepoint Elementary principal.

Jennifer Kulik headshot

Darby says working in the greenhouse will teach students many skills in nursery operations, seed starting, plant care, and improving yield. He adds, “At the same time that we have a crisis of hunger and poverty in much of the United States, children are becoming less and less familiar with the sources of their food and the methods used to produce it.” 

Similar to Darby, Kulik saw a community need and started an organization to address it. Silver Kite Community Arts specializes in creating intergenerational arts programs and arts experiences for older adults. All of the arts programs use life stories as a source for art making.

With the Wall Award prize, Silver Kite is partnering with Sustainable Housing for the Ageless Generation (SHAG), a Washington nonprofit of affordable rental apartment communities for low- and moderate-income seniors. The program will be piloted in five different SHAG communities in the south part of Seattle.

“Based on feedback and learnings gleaned from the pilot programs, we will create an intergenerational program toolkit, which can be used by other SHAG and senior living communities to implement their own version of the program,” Kulik says.

The Wall Award was established in 1996 as a tribute to the College’s 150-year tradition of social commitment. The award was named in honor of Joseph Wall ’41, professor of history and longtime dean of the College, who inspired an ideal of social responsibility in his students.

Each year, a committee composed of alumni, faculty, and a student choose up to two award recipients and award the $30,000 prizes to either jump-start or complete a project that shows creativity and commitment to effecting positive social change. 

Since 1996, Grinnell College has presented the Wall Award to 50 alumni who have contributed more than $1 million and their time and talents to 44 diverse projects throughout the United States and in five other countries, perpetuating a legacy of activism. 

For more information about Darby’s and Kulik’s projects, see

Wellness Survey

Grinnell College has collected wellness data from students every three years since 2012. The data collection is part of a national effort, the American College Health Association’s National College Health Assessment.

The survey asks dozens of questions about student health and mental health as well as behaviors related to alcohol and other drug use. Grinnell students have consistently surpassed the national average survey participation rate of 21 percent. In 2018, Grinnell students’ participation rate was 51.6 percent. 

Jen Jacobsen ’95, assistant dean of students and director of wellness and prevention, shares the aggregate Grinnell results with staff and students across campus to help inform programming. She shares safety data with Campus Safety, sense of belonging data with the Office of Intercultural Affairs, alcohol and other drug use data with the Harm Reduction Committee, and sexual health data with the Sexual Health Information Center, a student-run organization. She also uses it for student training, including peer educators who focus on wellness, student leaders, and students who host overnight prospective students.

Data even finds its way into pub quizzes. “We find ways to gamify it,” Jacobsen says.

One piece of the student well-being puzzle that Jacobsen finds particularly fascinating is students’ perceptions of the behavior that’s happening around them. Students tend to assume, for example, that more fellow students are drinking, and drinking more, than they actually are. 

“The perception of norms is almost always wrong,” Jacobsen says. 

Since 2012 the survey data show a positive trend downward, 10 percent, in both the perception and the reality of the number of drinks students are consuming. Even more importantly, fewer students are self-reporting experiencing blackouts or alcohol-related injuries. Additionally, fewer students report having their sleep or studying disrupted by other students’ alcohol use.

Part of the explanation for this change, Jacobsen says, is the messaging that’s been going on about social norms. For example, the term “sober sex” has been used intentionally by the wellness office. In 2015, 51 percent of Grinnell students thought the typical student wanted to be intoxicated for sexual contact, and in 2018, 24 percent think so. 

“Perception is getting closer to reality,” Jacobsen says. “Grinnell students are critical thinkers inside the classroom. Discussing norms and their potential misperceptions is a way to extend this critical thinking outside the classroom to their everyday decision-making.”