Campus News

Grinnell Prize Awarded to Founder of Essie Justice Group

Gina Clayton is the recipient of the 2017 Grinnell College Innovator for Social Justice Prize. The attorney and activist founded and directs Essie Justice Group, a nonprofit, California-based organization that developed a nine-week Healing to Advocacy program. It’s built on the belief that those directly impacted by oppressive systems are the most effective change agents. 

Gina ClaytonApproximately 50 women have graduated and been invited into the “Essie sisterhood,” the organization’s mobilization base. This year, Essie is building a statewide network dedicated to bringing about decriminalization, reducing incarceration and ending state-sponsored violence against women and communities of color.

During Grinnell Prize Week, Oct. 2–6, 2017, students, faculty, staff, and local residents will be able to interact with Clayton, learning her best practices to design, organize, and launch innovative programs to address social justice issues. The award ceremony will be held Oct. 3 at the College.

The Grinnell Prize, which began in 2011, awards $100,000 — $50,000 to the prizewinner and $50,000 to the prizewinner’s organization — to recognize efforts in social justice. 

Nominations for the 2018 Grinnell Prize open July 1. To submit nominations, see


Commencement 2017

"Engage, care, be passionate. Because each other is all we have. This is all we got, this is all we have. And it may not be heaven, but it can be Iowa. Congratulations, class of 2017. Welcome to the real world. We need you out here." 


Class of 2017 listens to commencement speaker Kumail Nanjiani ’01

Class of 2017 listens to commencement speaker Kumail Nanjiani ’01

Lizzie Eason ’17 hugs Karen Shuman, professor of mathematics and statistics

Lizzie Eason ’17 hugs Karen Shuman, professor of mathematics and statistics.

Gabrielle Matthews ’17 takes  a selfie with her family.

Gabrielle Matthews ’17 takes a selfie with her family.
Xiaoxuan (Jessie) Yang ’17 accepts her diploma from President Raynard S. Kington.
Xiaoxuan (Jessie) Yang ’17 accepts her diploma from President Raynard S. Kington.
Jack Mutti, College marshal, rings the College bell to start the processional.
Jack Mutti, College marshal, rings the College bell to start the processional.
Sadie Tristam ’17 embraces her dad after coming off the commencement stage.

Sadie Tristam ’17 embraces her dad after coming off the commencement stage. 

Poppin' bottles in celebration

Ariel Keller ’17, Sophia Gatton ’17, Haley Lopez ’17, Lydia Stariha ’17,  Carolyn Silverman ’17, Nicholas Curta ’17, Thomas Marsho ’17, Ethan Lahn ’17, and Matt Hammond ’17 poppin' bottles in celebration. 

Q&A with Kumail Nanjiani ’01

KT: So how did you hear about Grinnell in the first place? Why did you end up coming here?

KN: Well, I knew I wanted to go to a liberal arts school. And I knew I wanted to go to ... not a big city. Grinnell’s not a big city. And so I kind of went by ranking. I was in Pakistan. I didn’t really have a good sense of what different places were like. And I liked the website, I liked what they offered, and they were ranked really well, and I’d heard really good things. So that’s kind of why I picked it. I didn’t really know what it was going to be like.

KT: First impressions?

KN: Very small, very, very quiet. I was surprised by how not a big city it was. Those were my first impressions. I’d never been in a town that felt like that.

KT: Why come back to give this speech?

KN: I honestly was like, if Grinnell ever asks me, I’ll do it. So when they asked me, I was excited. I felt really honored. And then I got nervous. Like, what am I going to say? There’s so much pressure. So I said yes, and then for a while I just kind of freaked out about it.

KT: In your speech, you talked about finding work that satisfies you. How do you find that thing that you want to keep doing every day? What do you do in the meantime?

KN: I stumbled into stand-up, and I was very lucky that I did. But I think that people have plenty of time to figure out what satisfies them. Until then, just be engaged and keep looking. The world is full of weird, highly specific jobs.

KT: You worked in computers for several years before pursuing comedy full time. Would you still be doing that if comedy hadn’t worked out?

KN: Probably. When I quit my day job and moved to New York to pursue comedy full time, I didn’t have a plan B. That’s the bad and the good of not thinking too far ahead. The good was that I didn’t freak out. I just put myself out there and did it. The bad was, I ran through all my savings, and I didn’t have a job. I had a few pretty intense months. If comedy hadn’t worked out, I think I would be much sadder.

KT: How do you keep people entertained? Do you have any strategies, or are you just a naturally entertaining person?

KN: I’m not a naturally entertaining person. If you’re able to articulate your personal experience, people generally find that engaging. I can’t guess what people will like; I can just do what I want to do as best I can: talk about my experience, and hope that people connect with it.

KT: What has it been like to write and play yourself in The Big Sick?

KN: It’s been challenging, but also really satisfying. I wrote the movie together with my wife, Emily V. Gordon. We had never done anything like this, but we were working with the best people in the world, and they guided us.

This project also made me realize that good work takes a lot of hard work and rewriting. And unlike stand-up, that work happens in a vacuum. Nobody sees your movie until it’s done. If I write a joke and try it, certain parts might work and others might not, but I still presented that story. You can rewrite a joke, but while you’re rewriting, you’re performing it and getting feedback.

KT: Last question. How has Grinnell informed your comedy?

KN: Grinnell showed me that it’s okay to be yourself. As a teenager, I tried to fit into some other person’s version of cool. But at Grinnell, there was such a focus on figuring out who you are, and weird wasn’t bad. I gained a lot of confidence here. Grinnell helped me realize that I don’t have to change to be accepted. 

Campus Construction in High Gear

The new Humanities and Social Studies Complex (HSSC) moved closer to reality this spring with the arrival of heavy construction equipment and a tower crane on the northwest corner of the academic quad.

During March and April, up to 2,000 cubic yards of soil were excavated away daily to prepare for footings and foundations that will support 931 tons of structural steel, 28,000 square feet of exterior glass, and 14,000 square feet of copper and metal panels. 

These materials will help comprise the HSSC’s north and south pavilions, the construction of which will continue through 2018. Renovation of Alumni Recitation Hall and Carnegie Hall will follow, with occupancy of the entire complex planned for fall 2020.  

Also this spring, MacEachron Field was closed off to prepare the geothermal well field for HSSC energy sustainability. It is anticipated that Mac Field will reopen to normal use once its turf is fully re-established after the coming fall season.

Meanwhile, site preparation moved forward for the new Admission and Financial Aid Center (AFA) directly across from the HSSC at Park Street and Eighth Avenue. Design for the AFA is still in development. Construction will begin in fall 2017 with completion slated for fall 2018.

The footprint of the new AFA made it necessary to relocate the Center for Religion, Spirituality, and Social Justice (CRSSJ), as well as three student language houses. 

The CRSSJ is moving to a one-story, College-owned house at 913 Eighth Ave. Renovation and expansion of that structure, to include respectful space for students of all religions and spiritual traditions, will be completed this summer.

The Chinese House, German House, and Russian House are moving onto new foundations built on the west side of Park Street north of Eighth Avenue. The moves will occur this summer, with student occupancy set for October.

In one other construction-related move, the Reading Lab, formerly at 1321 Park St., has moved to a College-owned house at 1204 East St. until it settles into the HSSC alongside the Writing Lab. The Park Street house is being razed to clear space for the relocated language houses.

“The Muslim Gandhi”

Timothy Dobe, associate professor and chair of religious studies, has received the Frederick Burkhardt Residential Fellowship for Recently Tenured Scholars for his research on Mahatma Gandhi’s engagement with the Muslim community.

Dobe will receive $95,000, plus funds for research costs and related scholarly activities. He will spend the 2018–19 academic year at Duke University’s Islamic Studies Center. There he will work on his project, titled “The Muslim Gandhi: Islamicate Hinduism, Alternative Communities and Radical Religious Love.”

“This work has developed directly out of my teaching here at Grinnell and will feed back into it,” Dobe says. “The award will give me the resources and the time to further develop this major research on Gandhi.”

Dobe’s research focuses on the importance of Gandhi’s underexplored engagement with Islamic traditions and Muslim leaders. He examines ways in which Gandhi himself engaged with Islam, as well as how Muslim and Hindu communities continue to make sense of Gandhi’s legacy.

Yesenia Ayala ’18 Awarded Truman Scholarship

Yesenia Ayala ’18 of Los Angeles has been awarded the Truman Scholarship, a $30,000 nationally competitive graduate study scholarship sponsored by the Harry S. Truman Foundation. She is one of 62 students selected nationally, based on academic success and leadership accomplishments as well as their likelihood of becoming public service leaders.

“Yesenia exhibits the very best of what we as professors hope to promote in our students — not only someone who is smart and capable, but also someone who is compassionate and caring and who applies what she learns in service of positive change in society,” says Patrick Inglis, assistant professor of sociology.

A sociology and Spanish double major with a Latin American Studies concentration, Ayala plans to pursue a master of public administration degree with concentrations in local government management and policy analysis. 

Her career goal is to influence education policy, ensuring underrepresented voices are heard and that public policy benefits all students. The Posse scholar hopes to work in the Los Angeles Unified School District’s data analysis department, advocating for underrepresented students.

“I will ensure that policies are made to best help students, teachers, staff, and communities work together to provide the most successful learning environments,” Ayala says. 

She has worked with Al Éxito (“to success”) in Iowa, an organization that helps prepare middle school Latinas/os for education beyond high school. Ayala has designed and led workshops to inform Iowa’s Latina/o youths and their parents about the U.S. education system, financial aid, essay writing, and the college applications process. 

In September 2015, the White House honored her as one of 11 Champions of Change selected from more than 1,000 nominees for empowering and inspiring members of their communities. 

Scarlet & Give Back Day Raises $772,000

April 6 was a red-letter day for giving to Grinnell. The third annual Scarlet & Give Back Day was also a red hair day for Andy Hamilton ’85, director of athletics and recreation. 

Mike and Linda Bird Powers ’67, members of the 50-year reunion class, first issued a strong challenge to motivate Grinnellians:  If 3,000 alumni, students, parents, faculty, and staff would contribute during the 24-hour giving period, the couple would commit $500,000 to the College’s Center for Careers, Life, and Service (CLS), with emphasis on health professions.

“As we decided on making the commitment financially, we became particularly enamored by the CLS programs,” said Mike Powers. “Looking back at our Grinnell experiences, we both could have benefited from what the CLS has now and what it has the potential to offer with continuing support.”

Andy Hamilton getting his hair dyed redHamilton then posed his challenge to current and former athletes, parents, coaches, and athletics staff: If 750 individuals with a relationship to Pioneer athletics gave to Grinnell on April 6, he would dye his hair scarlet.

Donors responded to both challenges, Hamilton dyed his hair, and at the end of Scarlet & Give Back Day, 3,064 donors, including 806 with ties to athletics, invested more than $772,000, surpassing expectations.

Mae Parker, director of annual giving, said that Scarlet & Give Back Day is a “strong piece” within the College’s annual giving program.

“Whether on campus or around the world, Scarlet & Give Back Day brings the larger Grinnell community together for one day to support the place they’ve called home at one time or another in their lives.”

For Hamilton, who continues to sport varying shades of scarlet hair, the giving day offers the opportunity to connect with former teammates and athletes he’s coached. “Grinnellians invest in each other as part of teams while they are here, and we want the department to continue to provide this type of connection and engagement with current and former athletes and their parents.”

The date for the annual giving day is chosen within the campus’ spring “I ❤ GC Week.” Current students participate through events hosted by the Student Alumni Council, which works throughout the year to develop class affinity and the practice of philanthropy.

Scarlet & Give Back Day was introduced in 2015 and has generated a combined 6,440 donors and $3,010,140.80 during the annual 24-hour giving celebrations. To contribute before the end of the fiscal year, June 30, 2017, contact 

the Office of Development and Alumni Relations at 866-850-1846 or use the online giving form at

Scarlet and Give Back Day Celebrations


Physics Professor Receives Prestigious NSF Grant

Eliza Kempton, assistant professor of physics, recently received a Faculty Early Career Development grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Eliza KemptonKempton is the first Grinnell College faculty member to win this prestigious grant, which is expected to provide more than $680,000 over five years. It is the largest grant ever awarded to Grinnell College in support of a single faculty member’s work.  

The grant is one of the NSF’s most prestigious and most competitive awards, supporting junior faculty who are exemplary scholars and teachers. Recipients integrate their scholarship with their organization’s educational mission.

Kempton’s project, titled “Radiative Transfer Modeling of Super-Earth Atmospheres — Looking Toward the James Webb Space Telescope and Beyond,” comprises both educational and research aims.

To increase success rates in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) classes at Grinnell, Kempton will develop a spatial reasoning course for students with low preparation for STEM fields, and a peer-mentoring program for STEM students from traditionally underrepresented groups.

Starting in September 2017, Kempton will create computer programs to model the atmospheric structure and composition of those planets close in size to Earth, or “super-Earths.” The computer programs will be used to study the characteristics of atmospheres of many different types of “super-Earths.” She will make these programs broadly available to other scientists to use for their research.

“This work is especially timely,” Kempton says, “because it prepares us to understand the observations of super-Earths that will be obtained with the James Webb Space Telescope, NASA’s successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, which will be launched in 2018. This project serves the national interest, as it helps our scientific understanding of the properties of planets around other stars and prepares us to study planets that are similar to Earth and which could harbor life.”

Familiar Names at 2017 Commencement

Honorary degree recipients at this year’s Commencement will include Kumail Nanjiani ’01, comedian and actor on Silicon Valley; Daniel Werner ’91, attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center; Emily Pfitsch, widow of the late, longtime coach John Pfitsch; Alfredo Quinones-Hinojosa, a migrant farm worker turned neurosurgeon; and Barb Van Ersvelde, local K–12 educator. To listen live, go to on Monday, May 22, 2017, beginning at 10 a.m. CDT.

Campus Construction Under Way

Students and faculty returned from winter break to see significant progress at the site of the new Humanities and Social Studies Complex (HSSC). In early January, carefully planned tree preservation and removal was completed, and safety fences were placed around Alumni Recitation Hall, Carnegie Hall, and other areas of the northwest quad that are included in the HSSC’s footprint.  
Late January saw the demolition of the former Bookstore and the Carnegie stacks, as well as mass excavation of the site. In early February, shoring of existing foundations occurred simultaneous with continued excavation and other site work, including sidewalk improvements at the Commencement area. 
A campuswide event celebrating the start of HSSC construction is being planned for April. 
For more information about HSSC construction, see