Feature

Around the World, Around the Table

Seven thousand miles from Iowa, I sit around a table of Grinnellians and stare down at the bowl that has just been placed beside our bubbling hotpot. Inside it is an intact organ that looks awfully similar to a human brain, albeit a generously seasoned one.

What have I gotten myself into, I wonder, as I poke the pig brain with a single chopstick. At the next table over, Garrett Wang ’20, Karin Cho ’20, and Kaity Moore ’20 chow down on a plate of duck blood tofu. Meanwhile, Alex Johnson ’20 turns a bright shade of pink and begins to cough. I shout across the room to ask if he is okay.

“Yep,” he answers. “I didn’t realize Sichuan food was so spicy!”

Back at my table, Jackson Schulte ’20 takes an unceremonious bite of cerebrum and seems to emerge unfazed. So does Yanni Tsandilas ’20, who has family in Greece and likens the dish to lamb brain he has eaten there. 

A picky eater by normal standards, my habits are comically out of place among a group of foodies. But after four days in China (and a cold pint of beer), the idea of eating all parts of an animal is becoming slightly less aversive. Still, the thought of putting a piece of brain in my mouth feels more than a little unnerving. I am certain that I will not regret going through life without trying it. And yet —

“Justin,” I announce to Justin Hayworth, College photographer and videographer, “I’m going to do it.” 

This is the point of no return. With the whole group looking on, Hayworth points his camera at my face. I select the smallest morsel I can grasp with my chopsticks and swallow it whole. Snap. Snap. Gag. Snap. Relief.

After downing my drink and furiously scrubbing all traces of brain matter from my chopsticks, I can’t help but crack a smile. 

“Was it worth it?” asks Francess Dunbar ’20.

“As long as it makes it into The Grinnell Magazine,” I respond.

Katie Mehltretter ’20 tries baby octopus at a hotpot restaurant

Food for thought

Over spring break, 15 first-year students traveled to China as part of a Global Learning Program tutorial led by Jin Feng, professor of Chinese, and Todd Armstrong, professor of Russian. The class, Food, Culture, and Identity in China and Russia, explored foodways as a window into the history and culture of these two complex societies. 

Rather than simply reading about food (after all, that would be cruel), the students experienced Chinese culinary culture firsthand. Over two weeks, they ate their way through Hangzhou, Nanjing, Suzhou, and Shanghai. Between meals, they also visited cultural sites, bonded with classmates and professors, and explored beyond the itinerary. As this issue went to print, the class kicked off summer break with two more weeks of course-embedded travel to the Russian cities of St. Petersburg, Moscow, Irkutsk, and Vladivostok.

Hayworth and I were lucky enough to accompany the class for the first eight days of their trip to China. Undeniably the least adventurous eaters of the bunch, we nevertheless managed to get out of our comfort zones and sample a wide variety of Chinese cuisine. In the process, we explored a beautiful country and gained insight into one of Grinnell’s most exciting new academic initiatives.

Lazy Susans and eel noodles

On a warm Sunday evening in late March, our group arrives in China after nearly 30 hours of travel. We spend the night in Shanghai before boarding a bus to Hangzhou, a city that Marco Polo once described as “heaven on Earth.”

Our first stop is lunch at Kui Yuan Guan, a 150-year-old noodle restaurant of international acclaim. Feng leads the group into a private dining area, where two round tables await. Each is equipped with a Lazy Susan and topped with several cold dishes, served family-style. 

“Here you can see the fan-cai principle that we learned about in class,” says Feng. “Who can explain it to Justin and Katherine?”

Eric Kasprzyk ’20 and Audrey Enerson ’20 fill us in. “Chinese meals are all about balance,” Kasprzyk says. “Each meal includes fan, a base of starches and grains, and cai, meats and vegetables.”

“It’s also important to have a mix of heating and cooling elements,” Enerson adds. “And eating in season is essential.”

Feng looks pleased. “Many of the vegetables we see here don’t even have an English translation,” she says, pointing to a plate of what appears to be frosted greens. “But they are all spring vegetables, harvested from this region.”

From the moment we pick up our chopsticks until we take our last bites, the dishes don’t stop coming. The staff are like whirling dervishes: serving the lotus root, clearing the duck tongue, pouring the tea, on and on until nearly 30 plates — per table — have been consumed. 

In the midst of this orchestrated chaos, I try my first Chinese delicacy: noodles with fried eel. To my pleasant surprise, it tastes more like beef jerky than seafood. I try another nibble before determining that I have had enough eel for one day. 

EelsAfter lunch, we are invited to take a tour of the restaurant’s sprawling kitchens. The highlight is a room featuring seven large basins of live baby eels. Someone inquires about the unusual preparation, and the manager lights up. He launches into an explanation of the basins (the eels are kept for a week without food, which allows them to excrete any fishy-smelling substances) and shares Kui Yuan Guan’s secret method of cooking eel for maximum freshness.

We leave our first meal with a heightened appreciation for the regional pride, rich culture, and meticulous attention to detail that characterizes Chinese cuisine. I, for one, am also appreciative to have tried the famous eel noodles before viewing the lineup for next week’s dinner.

Exploring Chinese tea culture

On our next day in China, we venture outside the city and into the tea plantations of rural Hangzhou. As the bus winds its way through sloping mountains, our tour guide, Kai, prepares us for the next series of stops. 

“If you want to learn about Chinese foodways, it is essential that you learn about the culture of cha,” he says. “What have you been drinking at every meal?”

“TEA!” shouts everyone in unison. A former high school teacher, Kai is skilled in the art of coaxing responses from even the most reluctant of groups.

Our first stop is the China National Tea Museum, which manages to pack a dizzying array of information into a surrealistically beautiful setting. With six halls and an open plan — there are no external walls, only enclosures of vegetation — it is easy to forget that you are inside a museum.

Venturing into the exhibition halls, we learn about the complex cha culture that has unfolded over millennia in China, the birthplace of tea. Various displays document the historical origins of tea, methods for its growing and processing, and its central role in a wide variety of social contexts and customs.

Kohei Kotani ’20 is intrigued by the differences between tea culture in China and in his native Japan. “Japan is famous for green tea, and I’ve learned about it since elementary school,” he says. “But I never knew that Chinese tea culture is just as complex, if not more so.” 

When I ask him for examples, Kotani notes that Japanese people are less likely to use tea for medicinal purposes. “I also learned that there are three major ways of serving tea in China, and each utilizes different utensils and water temperatures,” he adds. “In Japan, I only know of one method.”

Later on, we head to the Meijiawu Tea Village. Outside a traditional teahouse, we are greeted by a statue of Lu Yu, an eighth-century scholar who is considered the most influential figure in Chinese tea culture. 

Inside, we sip cups of Dragon Well tea, a prized variety of green tea that is native to the region. A skillful saleswoman demonstrates its antioxidant properties by pouring iodine into a glass of rice. When rinsed with water, the rice remains stained, but when soaked in the tea, it regains its white color.

“This is no Lipton tea,” she tells us with a smile, already packing the pan-fried leaves into canisters for sale. “Because the nutrients in Dragon Well tea are intact, it detoxifies the body — dissolving fat cells, clearing your skin, and eliminating free radicals.”

By the time she pitches a student discount, everyone is hooked. A full 18 members of our 20-person group leave the teahouse with tins big and small. Perhaps the tea will fail to work miracles, but at least we will take home a piece of our trip. At any rate, this is what I tell myself as I amble out with a large tin, a small tin, and two bottles of tea-based supplements.

Sipping tea

Food meets art at Hangzhou Cuisine Museum

That evening, we head to the Hangzhou Cuisine Museum for a tour of Chinese food history. Like the class itself, the Cuisine Museum investigates and celebrates Chinese gastronomy — more specifically, the regional cuisine of Hangzhou over the past millennium — as a window into China’s history and culture.

As we explore the museum, audio guides direct us through a series of exquisite exhibits. One features silica replicas of every dish served — over 40 in total — at a 12th-century banquet for Emperor Zhao Gou. Another documents the rise of food culture during the Southern Song Dynasty (1127–1279 C.E.), when Silk Road migrants from the old capital of Kaifeng introduced Northern flavors into Hangzhou cuisine. 

By the time we have finished our tour, everyone’s stomachs are grumbling. Thankfully, dinner is not far away. A museum employee directs us to a private dining room, which has already been set to accommodate our group. 

Even the décor has been seemingly arranged to welcome the GLP class. “Hey, Professor Armstrong,” one student says, “check out that bookcase on the other side of the room.”

We turn and look to find a Russian cookbook prominently displayed on the uppermost shelf. Whether or not this was a purposeful choice on the part of the restaurant staff, everyone appreciates the reminder of adventures to come.

After filling our cups with Dragon Well tea, the waiters begin to deliver the dishes. From delicate melon to mandarin fish and pork belly prepared in Song Dynasty style, each plate is not only a rich slice of regional culture, but also a work of fine art.

When the 30-course meal is finally over, we are treated to a visit from the head chef. Nobody is surprised to learn that he cooked for last year’s G-20 summit in Hangzhou; the food is that impressive. Feng presents him with a GLP class T-shirt, and we burst into applause. 

art at Hangzhou Cuisine Museum

Snippets from the bus 

The next morning, we wake early for the three-hour trip to Nanjing, the former capital of the Republic of China. Although everyone is tired from a late night out, the professors ask the class to spend some time debriefing on the bus.

One group discusses the biggest differences between Chinese and American food culture. Schulte and Dunbar note that Chinese meals are less open to customization; unlike in America, there is no such thing as “having it your way.” Johnson, meanwhile, is surprised by the sheer volume of food at each meal.

“Yeah,” adds Ethan Huelskamp ’20, “it’s interesting how that stacks up to the stereotype of overweight Americans.”

We agree that this probably has something to do with nutritional value. Though fast food restaurants have multiplied across China in recent years, processed food remains far less common than it is in the United States. In China, most dishes are seasonal, regional, and generously spiced.

At the other end of the bus, Gabriela Gryc ’20 brings up the topic of American privilege. When she, Steffie Ochoa ’20, and Caryn Crittenden ’20 stopped for a late night snack — at a McDonald’s, no less — the staff delayed closing so that the group could finish their meal. 

Another student mentions the difference between “meals in competition” versus “meals in conversation.” Compared to Americans, Chinese people place less of an emphasis on which region or city produces the “best” cuisine. Instead, they take pride that distinct regional styles can coexist.

Finally, Katie Mehltretter ’20 shares that she is starting to get over her squeamishness. “It’s a lot easier to eat baby octopus outside of an American context,” she says. Thinking of the pig brain, I agree, but not without a slight shudder.

Exploring a rural village

The next morning, we leave the city and bus out to a rural village on the outskirts of Nanjing. The sky is still gray — thick with smog or rain, we cannot tell — but here, the streets are empty, and the rice paddies stretch for miles. There is a quiet beauty, but also an overwhelming feeling that this village has seen better days.

“In the last 20 years alone, the proportion of China’s population living in urban areas jumped from 26 percent to 56 percent,” says Kai. “With so many young people moving away in search of better jobs, these rural communities die out.”

“However,” he continues, “this village is one of the nicest in the country. It’s been maintained for tourists, so there’s not as much poverty here as in other regions.”

Though the village has emptied out over the years, several dozen families remain. Walking through the streets, we encounter an adorable toddler, her grandfather, and multiple unleashed dogs. One affectionate mutt decides to follow us through town, circling our feet and barking our arrival to animals that eye us from the side of the road.

The group converges at a home-style restaurant for lunch. We watch as the owner nets fresh fish from a basin, then motions to the river across the street. “Our lunch was caught fresh today,” Feng translates. Catching my eye, she adds, “And of course, there are vegetables too!”

The meal is simple, flavorful, and nutritious. In addition to the fish, there are spring greens, pork dumplings, and a hearty chicken soup, head and all. Gryc mentions that some plates remind her of her mother’s Polish cooking, and Kaspryzyk, who is also Polish, agrees. 

Johnson adds that he appreciates the ubiquity of farm-to-table food in China. “Unlike in the U.S., local food isn’t overpriced and overhyped,” he says. “It’s just a fact of life.” 

Culinary fusion and Grinnellian bonding

After a rainy visit to the mausoleum of Sun Yat-sen, founder of the Republic of China, we head back to Nanjing for dinner. In a nod to the city’s large Muslim population, the professors have selected a halal restaurant for tonight’s meal. We are joined by Karol Sadkowski ’16, who is teaching English on a Grinnell-sponsored fellowship in Nanjing. He also happens to be Armstrong’s godson.

At an ornate table, we indulge in a variety of familiar and unfamiliar dishes. Per halal strictures, there is no pork, but we are served generous portions of beef, lamb, fish, dumplings, and vegetables. One dish features spiced beef intestines, which Tsandilas declares to be the best he has ever had. I am less enamored and gladly pass my plate to the more enthusiastic eaters.

When the meal is over, the majority of the class follows Sadkowski back to his dorm. Several students remark that they could see themselves applying for the Nanjing English teaching fellowship after graduation, which prompts a grin from Sadkowski. “Do it,” he says, before leading us out of the building. 

Later on, we take a group trip to an American-themed bar and restaurant near Sadkowski’s dorm. Crowded around a table, we trade stories over plates of nachos, then sign our names and class years in a “Grinnell box” on the colorful wall. 

“It’s like Bob’s-in-China,” one student says, referring to the popular Grinnell campus hangout. Everyone agrees, and we are happy to be in the company of others who understand.

“This is why I love Grinnellians,” adds Ochoa. “I didn’t know anyone in this class before, let alone two young alums. But look at us now, here in China ...”

Across the table, I catch Sadkowski’s eye and smile.

Scorpion on a stick

Reunions and goodbyes

On Hayworth’s and my last day in China, we visit two universities. The first, Nanjing Normal University, was founded on the site of a women’s college that informed Feng’s early research. As we tour the grounds, Feng shares the illustrious history of the 100-year-old institution. In addition to being the first college to grant bachelor’s degrees to female students in China, Ginling Women’s College also sheltered 10,000 women and children during the Nanking Massacre of 1937–1938.

Next, we head to Nanjing University for a celebratory reunion lunch. Our class is joined by administrators and professors who have been involved with the Grinnell-Nanjing exchange, including many longtime friends of Feng and Armstrong.

When toasts have been made and gifts exchanged, everyone spreads out to mingle before saying goodbyes. While Kasprzyk, who is studying Russian, picks the brain of a Russian professor from Nanjing, Wang and another professor discuss living and learning abroad. All in all, the reunion is a fitting tribute to the 30-year-old partnership between the two institutions, rooted in shared history, invigorated by fresh faces and the promise of collaboration to come.

That evening, we dine at a restaurant in Nanjing’s Confucius Temple district. Like the rest of the city and China itself, Confucius Temple is a district of dualities. Though anchored by a historic Confucian temple, today the area is a bustling center of commerce, culture, and entertainment. Century-old medicine shops and cheap street food vendors abut underground markets, artisans selling crafts, and more than one Starbucks. New and old, rich and poor, modern and traditional — China is a dizzying blend of contradictions in flux. Most of all, it is a country that is growing, adapting, and very much alive.

Seated around the dinner table for our final meal, Kai asks me and Hayworth what we will take from the trip.

 “I think it would have to be the experience of eating together,” Hayworth says, and I agree. The simple act of sitting around a table, sharing plates of food, and trying adventurous new dishes creates a sense of community that can be hard to come by in Western society. Did we learn about Chinese culture by studying its food? Certainly, the answer is yes. But we also learned about human culture — how shared dishes and rituals can bridge divides, invite conversations, and create space for community at Grinnell and abroad.

In the end, perhaps Huelskamp sums it up best. “I’m definitely getting a Lazy Susan when I get home.” 

 

Excavating the Peace Rock

No one on campus had seen the granite boulder known as the Peace Rock in its entirety since April 25, 1914. That’s the day the rock was buried by students opposed to the abolition of the annual Class Scrap — a fight that pitted second-year men against first-year men. 

John Whittaker poses with the peace rockDuring the spring 2017 semester, students in John Whittaker’s Archaeological Field Methods class worked on excavating the Peace Rock with the help of other faculty members, anthropology majors, and local historian Byron Hueftle-Worley ’81, who has taught a class about the Peace Rock at the local library.

Whittaker and his students used ground-penetrating radar and other tests to locate the rock. They found what appeared to be the granite boulder about 75 yards east of Carnegie Hall, near the Humanities and Social Studies Complex (HSSC) construction site. 

But after 40 person-hours of digging with no sign of the Peace Rock, the students and Whittaker were ready to give up — until Hueftle-Worley began pushing a rod into the earth in the area surrounding the dig and eventually hit something hard. The class quickly excavated it, exposing the end of granite rock.

 “Despite there being some hiccups along the way,” says Rhett Lundy ’18, an anthropology major from Murfreesboro, Tenn., “it was surreal to unearth an object that was buried over a century ago and was a part of a distant, violent tradition, which differs from our current-day Grinnell College.”

Archive image of students with peace rock Class Scraps often resulted in black eyes and broken bones, Hueftle-Worley says. But in 1913, a student was killed in a Class Scrap in Wisconsin, prompting Grinnell College’s then-President John Main to proclaim the evils of the Class Scrap and call for its abolition. 

The Peace Rock first appeared on campus in 1913, when the planned Class Scrap was replaced by a gathering of first- and second-year men on a farm with a large granite boulder about 2.5 miles west of town. After a night of celebration, they pushed a large piece of the boulder into a cart and pulled the cart by hand back to campus. They unloaded the stone, declared the Class Scrap was dead, and announced that the Peace Rock symbolized the end of the fighting.

Upper-class students who didn’t want the Class Scrap tradition to end began to attack the Peace Rock in April 1914. First, they covered it with red paint. Then they tried to blow it up with dynamite from a local hardware store. 

The final assault came on April 25, 1914, when students dug a pit, rolled the Peace Rock into the hole and covered it with dirt. A page in the 1916 yearbook features a photo of two students posed near a sign that said, “Class Scrap Departs April 25 for Grinnell, China.”

The peace rock will be incorporated into the landscaping for the HSSC. 

Portrait of a Teacher:

George Drake ’56 has filled many roles at Grinnell: student, athlete, intern, sabbatical replacement, soccer coach (sort of), trustee, College president, and, perhaps most importantly, teacher. As a student, he dreamed of someday teaching at his alma mater. 

“I thought that would be the pinnacle of life,” he says during a conversation in his office in Harry Hopkins House. At age 83, Drake still teaches at Grinnell and his office shows it. Shelves overflow with books. His desk is not neat. 

His winding path to teaching at Grinnell

In 1960–61, after his first year at the University of Chicago Theological Seminary, Drake tasted the college teaching life. He organized an internship with Grinnell’s chaplain, Winston King, and taught two history courses for Homer Norton, the College’s British historian, who was on sabbatical. John Pfitsch, athletic director, drafted Drake for an additional duty. 

Pfitsch told him, “The president wants a soccer team. You were an athlete at Grinnell, and you’ve seen soccer played. Would you be the coach?”

Drake smiles at the memory. “So I agreed to do that, but fortunately we had an older Nigerian student named Joe Okumu [’62], who was a great soccer player. I organized the practices and Joe did the coaching. 

“So that year persuaded me that what I really should be doing, and wanted to do, was be a college teacher.”

Sue Ratcliff Drake ’58, who taught second grade that year at Cooper School (now a parking lot east of Quadrangle Hall), could see him being a professor. She points out that George was never ordained, though he’s given a number of sermons. “Not that I particularly wanted to marry a minister,” she says with a smile. 

George Drake returned to the University of Chicago and earned his doctorate in church history, though he wondered what good it would do him in his quest to teach in a liberal arts college. 

While the couple was in Colorado one summer, George learned more about Colorado College. “I wrote to the president and introduced myself and wondered if I could stop by and meet him,” George says. “I did and met some historians, and actually I got a job that way at Colorado College.” 

He started as director of the freshman honors program plus some teaching. The teaching responsibilities evolved and a few years later George found himself in the position of dean — without tenure. 

“This was the late ’60s,” George says. “The president thought a young guy might understand what these kids are doing. The student revolution and so on. So I did that for six years. Then went back to the classroom thinking I would never be an administrator again.”

By then George was serving on Grinnell’s Board of Trustees as an academic voice. Several years later the board offered him the job as Grinnell’s president.

Sue says, “He was well acquainted with the people that were in the administration at that time. He kept up with the professors that he knew already. I think that experience just made him feel really comfortable stepping right into [the presidency].”

George was on the board during A. Richard Turner’s presidency (1975–1979) and saw the problems he had with students and faculty. “When I got the job,” George says, “I thought, What have I done to myself? The word was Grinnell was a graveyard for presidents.

“I had some sense that I could maybe bring some healing to this place,” he says, “that it needed healing at that point and that my strengths might fit what was needed.”

Although being president was not exactly his dream job, he served 12 years, from 1979 to 1991. As he departed the presidency, the Grinnell College Board of Trustees honored him by creating the George Drake Professor of Religious Studies. “I didn’t mind being president,” he says with a smile. “Actually I liked it a lot better than I thought I would.” 

Tenure was the only thing he negotiated for when he was offered the presidency, which he left with about 10 years of full-time teaching ahead of him. “I wanted to make it worthwhile,” he says.

After George stepped down from the presidency, he and Sue joined the Peace Corps and served two years in Lesotho, a nation encircled by South Africa. George taught English at a girls’ high school and Sue demonstrated teaching techniques to area teachers. 

By the time Drake returned to Grinnell’s campus, most students didn’t know who he was. “I could make a fresh start,” he says.

Preparing to teach at Grinnell

While still in Africa, George was already thinking about what he would teach when he returned to campus for the fall 1994 semester. His scholarly background in early modern European history and British history — thanks to a year in Paris on a Fulbright scholarship followed by two years at Oxford University on a Rhodes scholarship — overlapped that of two other professors. 

“But we didn’t have African history then,” he says, “so I realized I could develop a course in southern African history.

“I had almost no interest in Africa when we went to the Peace Corps, knew very little about it, so I did a lot of reading while we were there.”

But reading wasn’t the only source of ideas. “A lot of what I did in that course on southern Africa had to do with my understanding of rural African culture. I think those two years gave me that understanding, and teaching those girls gave me that understanding.” 

George also knew he’d be teaching a First-Year Tutorial and wanted to include Nelson Mandela. “Seeing him, after all those years in prison, reach out to his former captors and look forward with the truth and reconciliation process,” he says, “that just seemed so extraordinary.” 

He had a theme — crisis, liberation, justice, and leadership — but how could he put a course together that wasn’t only Mandela? Inspiration came from an introductory history course he was preparing, Europe to America.

“It was English antecedents to developments in American history, regionalism, religion, and constitutional history,” George says. “I had to do a lot of reading in American history and got really interested, particularly in the early national period. Because of that and because a tutorial on this subject ought to include Americans in it, I developed the idea of using Washington and Lincoln. 

“Going from Washington to Lincoln makes a lot of sense. A lot of coherence there,” George says. He included Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. too. 

“Gandhi and King are closely related. And Mandela as well. Mandela self-consciously rejects the Gandhian approach. [He] concludes that there are some regimes that are so awful that they have no conscience. You can’t use their conscience against them. So that made a nice package.” 

George taught Crisis, Liberation, Justice, and Leadership for the first time in the fall of 1995 and many times since. He smiles again. “It has worked, so I’m lazy enough to stay with it. Because it’s a lot of work to develop a new tutorial.”

George Drake in the classroom

On teaching writing

In 1997 John Aerni-Flessner ’01 took George’s tutorial, “randomly and luckily.” He says that George “really sets a tone in the classroom that all opinions are welcome and makes sure that all voices are heard. I remember some absolutely epic discussions in there where he didn’t have to say anything after his introductory framing remarks. He picked an interesting topic and interesting readings and made everyone feel comfortable.”

Aerni-Flessner, who earned his doctorate in African history and is an assistant professor at Michigan State University, describes George as a great mentor and role model. “I actually utilize some of the strategies from George’s tutorial still. He had us write one-page reflections on each of the books. It was one of the hardest writing assignments I ever had — to hold yourself to one page and say something meaningful.”

George doesn’t claim any originality with that assignment. He learned it from Monessa Cummins, associate professor of classics, during a summer seminar for faculty to learn more about teaching writing. 

“I’d always used shorter papers,” George says, “but I’d never used the one page and she convinced me of the advantages. It poses a huge challenge to the student — how can you say something meaningful in one page? Plus, it’s close to what you’ll be doing in life when you’re writing. 

“It’s manageable from the faculty point of view to move from craft to final paper with a meeting with every student. Those meetings last 10 or 15 minutes. They’re not very long. You can accomplish quite a bit. 

“Plus you can take sentences apart. You can take paragraphs apart, because it’s a short assignment. So you really can focus on structure and grammar and things like that, as well, obviously, as organization and argument. It’s the best thing I’ve ever found for the teaching of writing,” he says.

Students tend to agree. Ariel Keller ’17, a sociology major, chose the same tutorial topic as Aerni-Flessner. “Professor Drake really focused on allowing us to grow as students in his class,” she says. “He had us bring our first draft in to him and then we were given preliminary feedback. We were able to revise and the second draft is what was graded. So I think I wasn’t as consumed by the idea of letter grades but more of becoming someone who’s involved with academics.” 

Aerni-Flessner says he doesn’t recall grades except one — his last tutorial paper. “I’d been getting lots of B pluses on tutorial papers,” he says. “I thought I’d finally hit it with the last tutorial paper. I spent copious amounts of time at the library in front of my computer with all the books. I got it back and George had given me a B++.” He laughs and continues, “Because he was George, I didn’t hate him for this. I just said, ‘What does it take to get an A-?’

“Then a couple of years later,” Aerni-Flessner continues, “when I was a second-semester senior about to graduate and taking his Southern Africa history class, I remember writing a paper and getting a comment like, ‘This is the kind of paper I’ve been hoping to see from you for years.’ That’s the kind of teacher George was.”

The knight as stealth bomber

It’s not just students who appreciate his teaching abilities. Ellen Mease, associate professor of theatre and dance, team-taught Humanities 140: Medieval/Renaissance Culture 1100-1650 with George at least three different times. 

 “The advantage of team-teaching, I think,” she says, “is I get to hear how a professional historian goes about providing the sociopolitical and the cultural context for the close study of the selected text that we’re working with.

“He would describe, for instance, the development of the most sophisticated armed weapon of the period, the knight, in terms of the expense that it takes to develop and deploy a stealth bomber. He’d talk about all the equipment that you needed as a knight — the squire, the armorer, the guy who’s going to repair, the guy who’s going to shoe, the horse, the technological development of the stirrup. You can’t stay on your horse in heavy armor unless you have a stirrup that allows you to balance. That’s the kind of detail that students don’t forget.

 “So here’s the other advantage of team-teaching, especially with George,” Mease adds, “being able to, both of us, evaluate student papers and to look at the utter simplicity of George’s ‘This could be clearer’ written neatly in the margin. He’s not telling the student how to rewrite the sentence. 

“When we advertise the extraordinary value of a Grinnell education,” Mease says, “this is a serious component of it; it’s the quality of the feedback that they get on their papers. George will say, ‘This is not college-level writing. Take advantage of the Writing Lab. Read carefully; write carefully; revise early; use the Writing Lab.’ He was always, I think, proud — not just as a teacher, but as a longtime faculty member and president of the College — that we were able to take underachieving students, C students, and turn them into a solid B if not the occasional A- student.”

Another component of George’s approach to teaching writing is the use of tutorials. These stem from his two years at Oxford University on a Rhodes scholarship before he went to seminary. 

“The way it works best in the U.S. is for three or four students to come in,” he says. “They’ve all done the same topic. They read each other’s papers and discuss them for an hour.”

Mease appreciated this approach in Humanities 140. “George and I would sit in as flies on the wall. You learn more about your own writing, the clarity of expression, from phrase to phrase, the cultivation of appropriate vocabulary, the clear thesis, the more than perfunctory concluding paragraph,” she says. “It was the willingness of George just to sit back and let them critique each other and not wait until he wrote comments on the paper. They would do better by letting them critique each other.”

A teacher who loves to learn

George Drake“If you’re trying to empower students,” George says, “and trying to recognize where they are individually and collectively, I totally subscribe to where Grinnell has evolved. When I taught here in the early ’60s, I predominantly lectured. It was sort of what most were doing.”

But now? “You would be in trouble around here, unless you were just a superb lecturer, if that’s what you did in the course. Any course that doesn’t empower students in the classroom to be actively engaged in what’s going on is, at Grinnell, not as good a course as it should be.”

So George continues to learn about teaching. During the last faculty writing seminar he attended, he explained to his fellow participants why he was there. “When I was president, we instituted the SFS [senior faculty status] program as we wanted to phase people into retirement and then get them to retire, because we didn’t want a lot of 80-year-olds doddering around here trying to teach. Well, I’m 80 years old and I’m doddering around and I’m trying to teach, so I better do seminars and try and improve myself.” He smiles at the retelling.

Sue, his wife of 57 years, had a lot of influence on him as a teacher too. She taught grades two and three for several years, including some of the hardest teaching of all — substitute teaching. She served as a model for him. 

“She’s a superb teacher,” George says, “balances discipline and loving.”

“He’s a man of doing. And curious,” Sue says, “and that’s why he’s so good.” 

Grinnell's Prairie

Drive down Interstate 80 to exit 173, head north for 100 yards, and take the first gravel road on your right. After about a mile and a half of rolling prairie, you’ll come across a sign with the College’s familiar red laurel leaf: Welcome to the Conard Environmental Research Area (CERA). 

Though CERA is just 11 miles from the town of Grinnell, the College’s sprawling field station feels worlds away from the bustle of campus. Just beyond the low-slung, LEED-certified laboratory and a couple of small administrative buildings, 365 acres of prairie, savanna, wetlands, and oak forest beckon. 

Grinnell College acquired CERA in 1968 and named it for the late Henry S. Conard, internationally recognized botanist and beloved Grinnell professor. In the 49 years since, students, faculty, and staff have worked to preserve, restore, and learn from its complex ecosystems. 

Biologists, birdwatchers, artists, and ecologists alike value CERA for its beauty, vibrancy, and immersive learning opportunities. Through these photographs, we invite you to experience CERA in a year — without getting your car stuck in the mud, which may or may not have happened to the author.

CERA plantlife in the summer

Grasshopper on yellow flower

Lightt snow on the ground in January

Winter plantlife

Snowy trail at CERA

CERA in the fall

White flowers blooming in the spring

Yellow flowers in the prairie

Fall colors on the trees at CERA

CERA in the fall

Plantlife at sunset in the fall

Grass burn in the spring

Studying Arabic for Fun

When I told my coworkers last fall that I was taking Beginning Arabic I, their eyes grew round and they said things like, “You’re brave,” or “Whew! Good luck.” I thought they were joking. 

Okay, sure, Arabic uses a different alphabet and it reads from right to left. And my 49-year-old brain is not as willing to memorize vocabulary as it once was, or perhaps it’s just more cluttered than it was at 19. But I was not the least bit nervous about taking Arabic. In fact, I was ridiculously excited. Learning new things is so much fun and I particularly like language. It’s such a window into different ways of thinking; and as a writer, I am always fascinated by how others think. Because I was a French major at Grinnell, I also felt confident in my ability to learn Arabic. Perhaps too confident. 

On the first day of class, 15 or 16 students crowded inside ARH 322, a small classroom with three tall windows overlooking Park Street and two walls filled with chalkboards. We sat in two messy, nesting semicircles, facing the widest chalkboard. At 1 p.m., Mervat Youssef, associate professor of Arabic, strode into the room speaking Arabic. Alarm flickered across people’s faces.

Mervat pointed at herself and said, “Issmee Mervat.*” She swept an arm around the room, as though gathering us all in like a flock of chicks. “Issmee,” she said again, beckoning us with her hand to speak. “Issmee,” we repeated and inserted our own names. It sounded a lot like “It’s me, Michele.” One word plus our own names? We could do this.

 “I really liked [Arabic] from day one when we were being made to feel uncomfortable,” said Moises Herrera ’19. “She just started talking and we didn’t know what she was saying and eventually we got the hang of it.”

The first day “felt like someone had picked me up and dropped me in Egypt,” said Cora Touchstone ’19, a transfer student from Georgia who took Arabic “on a whim.” It gave her a bit of a panicky feeling. 

Cora Touchstone ’19 practices her Arabic alphabet on the chalkboardOther students may have felt some panic too. On the second day of this five-day-a-week class, there were more empty seats in the room. By day three, the class was about two-thirds the size it was on day one. A Grinnell High School freshman stuck it out for two weeks; I suspect the heavy load of homework got to him as it was already getting to me. Two hours a night — are you kidding me?

Introducing our Arabic teacher

Teaching her native language was not in Mervat Youssef’s career plan. She was a radio journalist in Egypt before coming to the Midwest to study journalism and mass communication. She was finishing her dissertation at the University of Iowa in 2007 when she first heard about Grinnell. She was invited to read some poetry of Muḥyiddin Ibn ’Arabi, a Sufi mystic, as part of a celebration of the three Abrahamic traditions. “I was smitten [with Grinnell],” she said. 

Grinnell was apparently smitten too, because the event organizers told her the College was planning to start an Arabic program and invited her to apply. Arabic had been offered as a language through the Alternative Language Study Option since 2003 and was growing in popularity.

Yet Mervat wasn’t convinced teaching Arabic was in her future. “That’s not what I had in mind when I ended up in grad school,” she said. “I wanted to teach journalism.” Her dissertation adviser pointed out that she was already doing Middle East studies (her dissertation was about how Arab Americans were negotiating their Americanness on opinion pages), that she was bilingual, and that Grinnell is a great place. 

She also knew a Grinnellian, Sarah Burke Odland ’97, who was in the same doctoral program. “She was fabulous, very smart, and I always admired her,” Mervat said. “I thought, oh my gosh, if the students are like Sarah Burke, life would be good.” 

In fall 2008, Mervat began teaching Arabic on a two-year contract. “I thought this was a great opportunity,” she said. When the position was advertised as tenure-track, she applied. She earned tenure in 2016. “I came and I stayed.” 

The former journalist didn’t study how to teach a foreign language. “I think my teaching is reflective of how I learned,” she said. She learned English through immersion while attending a Catholic elementary school in Kuwait, where she was born and grew up. She learned German in high school the same way. “I’ve been inspired by all the great teachers that I had,” she said. One of those teachers was her father.

“I remember vividly how he taught us to swim,” she said. “He got some empty bottles of Pepsi. They’re plastic so they floated. He told us that if he wraps them around us, just two of them, they would make us float. So when we swam, we thought that we were being held with the bottles. Then he took one off and took the other one off, and we were swimming. I don’t think he lied to us because he showed us that it floats. But in our brains we can’t understand the physics behind it, so we got the confidence to just jump. And that became my main thing in teaching. Start speaking.”

Learning from scratch

We spent the first two weeks learning to read, write, and pronounce the alphabet. I was reminded of how random our English letter signs are for the different sounds we use. Arabic is wonderfully phonetic. For example, there is a single letter for the “sh” sound that in English we find in “dish” and “nation.” 

To my American ears, some Arabic letters sound quite similar to each other, like a “tuh” sound that’s made next to your teeth versus a back-of-the-tongue “tah” sound. Consequently, my spelling ability, once a forte in English, is less so in Arabic. The letter that probably bedevils me more than any is one we don’t have in English. “Ein” has a guttural, back-of-the-throat sound.

Besides learning how to pronounce all these letters, we also learned to write them. Arabic is written exclusively in a script form, but not all letters connect to each other. So each letter has four different ways of appearing in text, depending on whether it’s at the beginning of a word and connects to a letter after it, or if it’s in the middle, the end, or by itself. “Ein,” for example, looks very different depending on its place in a word.

To further complicate my spelling efforts, some letters have precisely the same shape as other letters. The only difference is where the “cookie,” a dot about the size of a period, is located. A “B” sound has a single cookie below it while the “N” sound has a single cookie above. I still occasionally misplace my cookies and create words that make no sense. 

Learning to read in Arabic felt a bit like being in first grade. Mervat wanted us to sound out the words, one letter at a time. “Cover and release,” she said, over and over. Covering the later letters in the word helped us focus on the pronunciation of each individual letter. 

We quickly graduated to learning vocabulary. Grammar came along for the ride. Even on the first day, though I didn’t realize it at the time, Mervat was subtly introducing us to grammar. After we practiced saying, “Issmee” plus our names, she introduced the question that would elicit that answer. “Mah issmookah?” she said to male students and “Mah issmookee?” to female students. It wasn’t until many weeks later that we formally learned about the suffixes used to indicate the gender of the person being addressed.

The immersion approach to learning a language was new for me. I learned French a few years before that shift in language pedagogy occurred. Mervat is very good at acting things out and explaining things in Arabic with simple words in ways that we all could understand. To convey the plural version of a noun, for example, she’d tick off on her fingers its singular form, “weh-LEYE-uh, weh-LEYE-uh, weh-LEYE-uh,  weh-LEYE-uh, weh-LEYE-uh,” (it means “state”) and then give us the plural form, “wi-LEYE-uh-tuh” (“states”). 

Class itself was intense and fast-paced. “You constantly have to be focused and I really like that in Mervat,” Moises said. “She really knows when someone’s lost their train of thought.” 

“You can’t get by without being fully engaged,” said Sarah Cannon ’19. “It’s the only class where I was actively learning the whole time.” She also found the class “exciting because it was 100 percent new.” 

I thought when I enrolled that I’d be able to practice with my husband. He studied Arabic intensively for nine months in 1971, when he worked for CIA, but he has forgotten a lot and doesn’t know how to read it at all. When I practiced reading aloud to him, he often couldn’t understand me because he learned the Lebanese dialect, which has different vocabulary and was not the dialect spoken in Morocco where he was stationed. When he’d hear a word he didn’t recognize, he’d say, “That must be Egyptian Arabic.” I’d say, “No! It’s modern standard Arabic.”

What I didn’t anticipate was all the studying required. Mervat wasn’t kidding when she said two hours of studying per hour of class. I confess that I didn’t study that much every night, especially after fall break. Sometimes I did the minimum to complete the homework rather than follow the suggested study method: Listen to the vocabulary words, write each one three times while saying it out loud, then use it in a sentence. I discovered that it’s an effective study method, but not quick. 

Nor did I attend the Arabic language lab, which was held from 7 to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday. I’m sure it would have been helpful because Tarik Taghzouti, the Arabic language assistant and Fulbright scholar, was very helpful both in class and during his office hours. Back home in Morocco, he’s a secondary-school English teacher. His expertise in breaking down concepts into simple bits was evident when he explained to me, in Arabic, how possessives work. 

A humbling experience

Mervat Youssef, Michele Regenold ’89,  Sarah Cannon ’19, and Ankit Pandey ’20 discuss the class assignmentEven though I was auditing the class, not taking it for credit, I did virtually all of the homework and took all of the quizzes and tests. I wanted to see how much I was learning and try to keep up. 

But oh my, what a humbling experience to be the slowest student in the class. My French was more of a hindrance than a benefit. It was like an old dog who’s annoyed by the introduction of a new puppy and keeps trying to insert itself when I was searching for the Arabic words. On one quiz, a fill-in-the-blank question was looking for “with whom,” and all that would come to me was “avec qui,” the French, instead of “mah men.”

Right before fall break, Mervat mentioned the final presentations that we would do the last week of classes. We had to work with a partner and present — all in Arabic — for 10 to 15 minutes. 

I wavered. Surely I had enough material to write a story about the class. I didn’t need to do a presentation, did I? Especially since I wasn’t being graded. Plus, I didn’t want to drag anyone else down with me. 

And did I even have the stamina to stick with the class through the end of the semester? After all, I work full time. I have a husband, a dog who likes to go running, and no dishwasher. I’d rather work on my young-adult novel than use “ahhm” (paternal uncle) in a sentence. Studying each night was already more than I’d bargained for. Planning, writing, and practicing a presentation with a partner?

I finally decided to suck it up and do it. One day in class I asked Moises if he wanted to work together. To my surprise, he agreed. We had been frequent partners for in-class activities so I already knew him to be diligent and motivated and unafraid to speak Arabic. I told him I wouldn’t let him down.

Given our fairly limited vocabulary, I wasn’t sure what we could talk about for 10 whole minutes. So I suggested we pretend that it’s 2026 and we run into each other at a coffee shop in Grinnell and catch each other up on ourselves, our classmates, and teachers. He agreed. And that gave us license to make up virtually everything we presented. We didn’t know too many words for professions, so most classmates became teachers, one became an army officer, two became translators — Moises assigned himself to the United Nations. I remained a writer. We also gossiped about our classmates’ love lives. We made our audience laugh. That was reward enough.

Overall, taking Arabic was incredibly fun and mentally stimulating. It was probably more challenging to my ego than I would have liked, but it was a thrill to experience something new again. 

“Are your brains exercised yet?” Mervat asked every day at the end of class. Yes, yes they are. 

*Mervat Youssef is vehemently opposed to the use of transliteration in the learning of Arabic. We never used it in class. I’m using my own version of it here to give readers a sense of the language’s sound.

How Arabic became part of the curriculum 

Arabic got its start at Grinnell thanks to student demand. In 2003, several students came to Dan Gross, then coordinator of the Alternative Language Study Option (ALSO) program, and asked for it. 

ALSO is Grinnell’s self-instructional language program — students learn reading, writing, speaking, and understanding skills using textual and online audiovisual materials. ALSO students are tested by an outside evaluator, an instructor from another institution. One requirement for a language to be offered through ALSO is that a fluent speaker, often a fellow Grinnell student, be available as a conversation partner for the students to practice with three hours per week. 

When Arabic was initially requested, a student from Alexandria, Egypt, was on campus and provided that support. 

Arabic was offered through ALSO until 2006. Then the College tried a distance-based program for two years. “It was awkward and slightly clumsy,” Gross says, “and too slow for Grinnell students.” So the College decided to make Arabic part of the regular curriculum.

Fit for Life

Intercollegiate athletics programs that play full schedules in front of big crowds in fancy arenas are a fact of life for college women athletes today. It’s a far cry from when college sports teams for women meant recruiting their own players and even coaching themselves.  

The landscape has changed radically since the 1972 Education Amendment and the 1979 Title IX policy interpretation specific to gender equality in intercollegiate athletics — so much so that students today would no doubt consider the athletic options for women just two generations ago incomprehensible. 

With no formal “varsity” athletics program during the post-World War II/pre-Title IX years, women at Grinnell relied on their tenacity and resourcefulness, the skills they brought to college with them, or all of the above. Intramurals, extracurricular recreation, and club teams were the main outlets for satisfying the competitive urge.

Then there were the physical education requirements. Dreaded by some, easy for others, curricular P.E. demands for both women and men were meant to promote lifelong well-being. Or else. Not getting a diploma because you couldn’t swim or do sit-ups was a legitimate fear in the 1950s and ’60s.  

To the question of whether the penalty fit the crime, Bobbie Segrest Froeberg ’58 might be offering a common-sense debate-stopper or testing the interviewer’s naiveté: “At least,” she says, “we weren’t going to graduate somebody who was going to drown.” 

Either way, we might deduce that many women of the era were cheerfully practical about graduation requirements, including those that involved physical fitness. Certainly the athletically inclined wrung every drop out of whatever recreational opportunities they found or created. Still, it seems fair to ask if at least some female students of the day didn’t openly regard the “athletic program” as unfair or deficient. 

“It’s not so much that I didn’t regard it that way,” says Kate Scanlan Budlong ’64, “it’s that I didn’t regard it at all. It wasn’t something that was on the front burner. Besides, that’s not what I was there for. I was a physics major. I was busy.”

Not so busy that she didn’t make time to play field hockey and volleyball and participate in White Caps synchronized swimming. But Budlong’s perspective on athletics had been shaped by widely divergent experiences earlier in her life.  

Shocking difference 

“When I was about nine years old, my family moved to France,” Budlong says. “The schools there were not coed, and athletics for women were vigorous. We did track, basketball, volleyball, a lot of stuff.”

When her family moved to Houston in 1958, Budlong says the difference was shocking. “There were no women’s athletics. In Texas, the boys played football and the girls did cheerleading. That was it.”

At Grinnell, Budlong says, “Women were getting antsy in terms of revolting against things like women’s hours, which were pretty severe, and the rules being different socially for women than for men. But [they weren’t] going around worrying if the athletics program was adequate. 

“There were plenty of things we could do if we wanted to take a break from studying, and the point of the exercise was the studying,” Budlong says. “We had plenty of other fun. There were all kinds of opportunities.”

Budlong says one reason White Caps was so enjoyable was that there was no pressure to compete. “We did it for the pure enjoyment of the game,” she says. “Of course, you needed a certain amount of swimming prowess. We had a ball, but we worked really hard. Some of it is difficult.”

How so?

“You try swimming on your back with one leg vertical. It’s not easy,” Budlong says. “Every now and then I still do some water ballet moves in the pool just for the hell of it, because they’re fun to do.”

Connie Sloop Archea ’67 brought considerable skill to White Caps after competing on a swim team and lifeguarding prior to college. She admits that the extracurricular activity was a bit of a “consolation prize” compared to competitive swimming.

“I’m not sure synchronized swimming was even considered a sport at that time,” Archea says. “It certainly was not an Olympic event. We would have laughed at the idea. Still, I had fun doing it.

“I don’t think we really questioned why there were no competitive varsity sports available for women,” Archea says. “That’s just the way it was.”

Splash of irony

The lack of a formal stage for women’s sports didn’t prevent the men’s coaches from appreciating athleticism when they saw it. When men’s swimming coach Irv Simone noticed Archea in the pool, he directed his team’s attention to what she was doing. “He told them to watch my freestyle stroke because that’s what it should look like,” Archea says.

“At the time I took it as a compliment and only later realized the irony of a woman who didn’t have the opportunity to swim competitively demonstrating a stroke to those who did,” Archea says. “Times have really changed, thank goodness.” 

Some sports were not available to women in any organized format. ViAnn Beadle ’67, having won the Missouri girls’ state golf tournament at ages 16 and 17, was allowed to join the Grinnell men’s team. “The coach [local golf club pro] never let me compete in any intercollegiate matches, but at least I got to play at the country club,” Beadle says. “I did make the team photo in the yearbook.” 

ViAnn Beadle ’67 poses with the Grinnell men's golf teamBeadle competed as an individual in two Midwest invitationals for college women. “In 1964 it was at the University of Minnesota golf course, and I drove up with a P.E. professor to play it,” Beadle says. “She wouldn’t let me drive up there on my own. In loco parentis ruled and women were locked up in the dorms at midnight. 

“The next year it was the University of Illinois and I played pretty well — I think I placed,” she says. “It was a much more fun time. I completely ditched her and spent most of my time with players from other schools.” 

For Iowa girls whose high school choices had been limited to half-court basketball, Grinnell’s intramural sports and P.E. classes opened a new world of possibilities. “Grinnell had lots of sports for women,” says Nancy King Hobert ’59, who was also in White Caps. “I thought I had died and gone to heaven with the variety of sports they offered.” 

Even some who had come from more extensive high school athletic programs were impressed. Fencing and archery classes were favorites of Kay Jones Rencken ’62, as was intramural volleyball. “We played it differently than it is done today, and I think it was more fun when we could ‘set it up’ for ourselves,” she says. “We had a pretty good team.”

Rencken says she was particularly intrigued by a sport she’d never even seen before coming to Grinnell — field hockey, which at that point was an intramural option. “Practically everyone I’ve talked to remembers hating field hockey,” she says, “but a few of us loved it. We were thrilled with the prospect of playing on a ‘team.’ 

“I liked sports, I liked competing, and I liked winning,” Rencken says. “I have been teased for the better part of my life about my competitive nature. I think it was honed on the hockey fields of Grinnell.”

Healthy and active

Intramural sports, which were run by the Women’s Recreation Association, had a profound effect on the lifestyles of students like Mary Albrecht Cowan ’59 and Irene Blaser Elliott ’67.

“Intramurals royally supplemented my academic work with unlimited opportunities for movement, learning, leadership, and competitive/cooperative experiences, all basic to who I am,” Cowan says. “That was true at Grinnell; it was true throughout my career as an academic administrator/physical educator and now in retirement when I’m almost as active as pre-retirement.

“Those experiences made me want to provide similar movement opportunities for all, not just those who are most highly skilled,” Cowan says. “It determined my staying in the field of physical education circa 1972 and Title IX rather than opting to go into athletics as a coach or athletics administrator.”

Elliott brought ballet skills to college and says she became “keen on the dance intramurals.” Those interests led to experiences in choreography, theatre, and elementary education. She still dances with an amateur ballet company. 

“I knew dancing was the only exercise I would be able to stick with over the years, and I was right,” Elliott says. “Most people my age have given up this kind of exercise, but I’m not stopping until I absolutely can’t stand up anymore. I’m quite sure the exercise, along with the wonderful feeling of moving to the most beautiful music in the world, has been keeping me healthy and active.”

Grinnell field hockey team poses with trophy after the 1968 state tournamentOther Grinnellians who may well have pursued varsity competition given the opportunity still see the physical education requirements as a sound plan with a worthwhile purpose.

“The four years I attended Grinnell the emphasis was on lifelong learning,” says Leanne Hoepner Puglielli ’66. “I loved to swim so [the swimming test] was not an issue for me, but lifelong learning also meant a healthy weight — I had to lose 20 pounds. In addition to requirements everyone had to meet, the P.E. requirement included a major sport, a minor sport, and a team sport. Majors and minors were supposed to be sports we could continue throughout life. The team sport was just that — it taught us how to work as a contributing member of a team. 

“You had to meet the criteria whether it took you one semester or four years,” Puglielli says. “There were folks who weren’t sure they were going to graduate because they couldn’t make it across the pool.

 “I was lucky to be athletic, because I was a biology major who spent all morning in class and four afternoons a week in labs. I don’t know how I would have accomplished the P.E. requirements if I needed more time,” Puglielli says, adding, “Understand that I did not just sit around — there was a mile swim after labs and before dinner every day of my four years.”

Cindy Maier ’70 strongly endorses the P.E. concept. “I actually have raved for 40 years about Grinnell’s gym requirement when we were there,” Maier says. “It was the best, most thought-through athletic requirement I’d ever heard of even to this day. It truly was your well-rounded liberal arts experience.

“The physical fitness requirement was pretty basic for those of us who were athletic, but the requirement for a carry-over sport you could do as an individual after graduation was really astute,” Maier says. “They were clever enough to know that someone like me that had done a lot of sports could qualify out of my individual carry-over so they didn’t even worry about me. 

“But someone who had done nothing in high school — and in our day, women could very easily do almost nothing in high school — didn’t have to have ability. They just had to complete those four quarters and learn how to do any one or multiple sports,” Maier says.

The epitome of sport

Maier credits the Grinnell P.E. staff for going the extra mile to support women athletes who wanted to compete at a higher level, even when the athletes’ skills outpaced the coaches’ expertise. “There were three of us from Philadelphia who’d played field hockey in high school,” Maier says. “We didn’t want to give it up so we recruited our friends. We got enough people to make a team, and we taught them how to play.

“We did play against other colleges, and the P.E. staff made all the arrangements,” Maier says. “They made it happen. It was very informal, but we did have a year when we played in the Iowa state championship at University of Northern Iowa, and we won! 

 “I have nothing but happy memories of athletics at Grinnell in spite of its not being a strong suit at the College for women in those days. What we did, we enjoyed,” Maier says. “That is the epitome of what sports should be — fun and not cutthroat, just good exercise and good camaraderie. What more can you ask for?” 

Celebrate Women Athletes

Pioneer Women’s Weekend: A Celebration of the Lost Generation of Grinnell Athletes will be held on campus April 21–22, 2017. See alumni.grinnell.edu/pioneerwomen. Regardless of whether they considered themselves athletes, Grinnell alums are encouraged to join in and honor Grinnell’s true Pioneers who played for the love of the game. For the latest programming details, contact the Office of Development and Alumni Relations at 866-850-1846. 

Grinnell College Student-Athletes Attend the NCAA’s APPLE Training Institute

There are a variety of barriers that can prevent student-athletes from maintaining wellness and the NCAA’s APPLE Training Institute is helping to end them. This year, the Wilson Center for Innovation & Leadership helped students attend.

The nationally recognized program — held at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, VA, from January 13-15 — aims to promote student-athlete wellness and substance abuse prevention. It creates a space where student-athletes can discuss their unique college experiences, collaborate on relevant issues prevalent in the student-athlete community, and build innovative foundations and solutions to enhance campus-wellness efforts.

Lessons from the Institute

Carson Dunn ’18, a mathematics major, says that hands-on learning approaches and facilitated discussions “have helped me learn what needs to be done on our campus as well as improve my leadership abilities as a whole.” The NCAA’s APPLE Institute not only facilitated his personal growth, but also reinvigorated his desire to bring about change for the Grinnell College community.

Maggie Remus ’18, an economics major, found that the institute fostered discussions that encouraged her to take on the challenges of being a student-athlete and to embrace this identity as a platform for change at Grinnell. She writes, “Throughout the weekend our group gained information about how to execute innovative strategies to improve the overall student athlete experience. We worked with groups from other colleges to develop action plans to bring back to campus.”

Nathan Zaroban ’18, a biological chemistry major writes that, “As part of the conference, we put together an action plan of how we wanted to address these issues when we got back to campus.” He describes that working with other student-athletes over a three-day period helped him to reflect on the student-athlete experience which helped frame the action plan he hopes to implement on campus.

Lauren Hurley ’18, a psychology major, writes, “The perspective of schools similar to ours and those that were very different gave invaluable insight into how substances abuse occurs on other campuses.” She describes that collaborative workshops with other student-athletes broadened her understanding of substance abuse — among other issues — allowing her to develop potential initiatives as well as to recalibrate previous ideas for reform.

What’s Next?

Zaroban found that, “It was very rewarding and motivating to hear that we at Grinnell College are so far ahead of the game in terms of both the institutional and peer support we give our students.”

However, he recognized that there were improvements to be made in other areas and immediate action steps to follow at Grinnell.

Zaroban says that he along with Dunn, Remus and Hurley “will be meeting with Athletic Director Andrew Hamilton to present some of our concerns and discuss how we should go about fixing them.” They hope to improve the student-athlete experience through developing comprehensive and cohesive wellness reforms related to mental illness and substance abuse preventions, framed by both student-athletes and faculty. Not only would this benefit the student-athlete community, but it would also have a long-lasting impact on the community atmosphere at Grinnell.

Dunn, Remus, Zaroban, and Hurley had different experiences at the institute that resulted in similar outcomes. They all appreciated the institute for teaching them the meaning of leadership as student-athletes and providing them the necessary training to establish innovative reforms for the Grinnell College community.

The students were sponsored by the Wilson Center, which seeks to inspire and prepare students as innovators and leaders through courses, professional development, and events that emphasize experiential learning.

Thinking Like the Next Generation of Prizewinners

In fall 2015, Grinnell introduced the Spark Tank Innovation Challenge to the College’s weeklong celebration of the Grinnell College Innovator for Social Justice Prize winners and their work in social justice. Loosely modeled after the television show Shark Tank, Spark Tank encourages Grinnell students to think like the next generation of prizewinners by designing their own social innovations to support the local community. 

Because the contest addresses local issues, Spark Tank seeks insight from experts in the town. For last year’s topic of education, Grinnell-Newburg district educators identified obstacles, coached student teams, and joined Grinnell Prize winners on the judging panel to determine which proposals would receive a share of the $22,500 prize for project funding. 

Not only does the competition support sustainable community initiatives, it also provides students with the skills, experience, and confidence to begin putting their social justice ideals into practice, at Grinnell and beyond. 

Lunchtime Language Instruction

Among last year’s winners were John Gallagher ’17Christine Hood ’17, and Liz Nelson ’17. They responded to music teacher Barb Van Ersvelde’s request for language learning opportunities at Davis Elementary School, home to all district third- and fourth-graders. Currently, the district does not offer foreign language instruction until high school. 

Although Gallagher is the only foreign language major of the bunch, all share a strong interest in language education. Gallagher and Nelson are working toward teaching licensure; and Hood, who plans to pursue a career in politics, cites education reform as “one of my biggest policy goals in life.”

With Van Ersvelde as their coach, Gallagher, Hood, and Nelson developed Lunchtime Language Learners, a program that offers weekly Spanish lessons to Davis Elementary School students. The classes are taught by five pairs of trained College student volunteers. 

Accessibility and sustainability were key goals throughout every step of the project, including the team’s decision to hold lessons over the lunch hour, rather than after school. “All students have a lunchtime and a recess,” Nelson explains. “We want people who may not have the option of being picked up later, or another way to get home, to be able to do this program as well.” 

After months of planning and preparation, Lunchtime Language Learners launched its first six-week session of classes in the fall of 2016. 

Upon entering the classroom — one week the gymnasium, another week the library — the excitement is palpable. The children warm up with a lively game of “Luz Roja y Luz Verde,” then race to their respective corners of the gym. Within moments, they settle into three seated circles. Each mini-class is capped at 14 and led by two College students.

While there is no standardized curriculum, all classes employ a high-energy, immersive pedagogy recommended by Claire Moisan, senior lecturer in French and director of the Alternate Language Study Option (ALSO) program. The method is designed to mimic the way language is naturally acquired, making it an ideal approach for teaching young learners. In practice, this looks like a lot of moving, gesturing, singing, and dancing — entirely in Spanish. 

A spirited round of “Cabeza, Hombros, Rodillas, Pies,” rings out from one corner of the gym, while kids in another circle delight to point out articles of clothing. When one student’s attention falters, a teacher points to her blue jeans, then his own, and shrugs. “¿Qué es esto?”

PANTALONES!” he shrieks, and the lesson resumes.

Surveying the lively scene, Van Ersvelde praises the program’s impact. “The kids give up their recess to participate, and they do it happily,” she says. “They’ve been surprised at their skill. Right away, they have wanted to share what they’ve learned with their homerooms and families.”

Lily Hamilton ’19, a volunteer teacher and Davis alumna, adds, “Our goal is to show kids that learning another language is fun. Even if they don’t remember the contents of the lessons, hopefully we inspire them to continue their language education.”

As fall semester wound down, Gallagher, Hood, and Nelson were already gearing up for their next session of classes, exploring avenues for continued funding and researching innovative ideas for programmatic development. 

Ultimately, they hope that the success of their program will catalyze other language learning opportunities in the local schools. “Even if it’s not Grinnell College students coming in and helping, even if it’s hiring a full-time district specialist, this program is hopefully going to show them that there’s a need for it and a benefit from it,” Gallagher says.

Student Resource Center Equips High-Schoolers for Success

Student Resource Center

For Lucia Tonachel ’18 and Naomi Worob ’18, the decision to create a resource center at Grinnell High School (GHS) was quite literally a matter of food for thought — the pair discussed it over dinner at Food House. 

“The prompt was about how to make sure that students who aren’t getting the basic resources that they need can still be engaged in the classroom,” says Tonachel. “That’s something that I’ve always been really passionate about.” 

Their coaches, GHS educators Melanie Sharp and Dwight Laidig, are also passionate about ensuring that all students have access to essential resources. Ten years ago, Laidig began stocking his own supply of snacks and other basic necessities for students in need. As word spread, teachers began pitching in, directing students to Laidig or offering resources of their own.

With Tonachel and Worob on board, Laidig’s resource drawer has grown into a comprehensive student center. Located within the high school, the center offers food, clothing, hygiene products, and informational resources in a warm, welcoming environment.

Before stocking inventory, Tonachel and Worob conducted a survey of GHS students and coordinated with the high school leadership council to ensure that their initiative was responsive to the needs of the community. Clothing, food, and hygiene products are currently sourced through individual donations, clothing drives, and Tiger Packs, a citywide initiative that provides qualifying kids with nutritious food to take home over the weekend. 

Although the resource center is now its own entity, teachers and other school employees continue to play a central role in connecting students with resources that they may need, but not know of, or feel comfortable accessing. 

“Nearly one third of our students receive free or reduced lunch,” Sharp explains. “There’s an obvious need for resources, but most kids won’t find their way to the center on their own. When they can lean into existing support networks, they’re less likely to fall through the cracks.”

While the resource center has only been open since the start of the 2016–17 school year, Worob and Tonachel are already making plans to ensure its longevity. They have worked with the Center for Careers, Life, and Service to create a permanent service learning work-study position at the resource center, which will help ensure that the College-community partnership lasts long after their graduation. 

Sustaining the Spark

Spark Tank PresentationsIn response to feedback from last year’s participants, the 2016–17 contest features several changes. Most prominently, the timeline is longer: rather than racing to complete the process in six weeks, students had the entire fall semester to develop proposals related to this year’s theme of poverty. They will compete for funding at the pitch contest in April 2017. 

As part of Grinnell Prize Week, Spark Tank participants and the entire College community were also invited to attend a new series of seminars held by past Grinnell Prize winners. These talks addressed topics such as sustainability, fundraising, and the nuts and bolts of translating social justice ideals into a successful career. 

In another deviation from last year, this year’s judging panel will select just one winning team, in order to more effectively focus resources for long-term sustainability and growth. Funding for the winning project, as well as a paid service learning work-study position for the winning team, will be provided by the Donald and Winifred Wilson Center for Innovation and Leadership.

 

A Legacy of Leadership

It is 11:55 a.m. on a Wednesday in early October, and room 101 of the Joe Rosenfield ’25 Center is already packed. Students, staff, faculty, and community members have all gathered to witness “Making a Career of Changing the World,” a panel discussion led by this year’s winners of the $100,000 Grinnell College Innovator for Social Justice Prize.

Seated on a panel facing the audience are prizewinners Luna Ranjit ’00, Jackie Stenson, and Diana Jue Rajasingh, along with Wall Alumni Award* winner Trevor Harris ’89. Smiling, they look on as a handful of stragglers find seats by the windows or stand toward the back.

Luna Ranjit ’00 acceptance speech

Ranjit, a Nepali native and the first Grinnell College graduate to receive the Grinnell Prize, introduces herself first. Five years after graduating with a degree in economics and global development studies, she founded Adhikaar, a multifaceted organization that promotes human rights and social justice in Nepali-speaking communities in New York City and across the United States. She and others from her organization were instrumental in securing the 2010 passage of the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, making New York the first state to include domestic workers in all major labor laws.

Stenson and Rajasingh, the other 2016 prizewinners, have worked extensively to improve the distribution of social impact technology in rural Indian villages. Their organization, Essmart, connects directly with local street vendors in India to research, source, and distribute essential technologies, addressing a supply-chain breakdown and empowering rural communities to drive their own economic growth.

But Ranjit, Stenson, and Rajasingh are not at Grinnell to simply list their achievements and collect their winnings before catching the next flight out of Iowa.

Rather, they are here to participate in Grinnell Prize Week, a four-day series of events designed to educate and inspire students so that they may one day pursue their own social justice dreams.

“To Serve the Common Good”

Although the Prize is only in its sixth year of existence, social justice has been integral to the College’s mission since 1846. That was the year that a group of New England Congregationalist ministers set out for the prairie frontier, determined to establish a college rooted in their ideals of abolition and social reform.

Throughout its history, Grinnell has remained true to its progressive roots. In the 1850s, the College began admitting women. In the 1860s, Josiah Bushnell “J. B.” Grinnell, founder of the town and benefactor of the College that bears his name, worked as an influential “conductor” on the Underground Railroad that secretly transported slaves to freedom. Half a century later, Grinnell graduated six students — four men and two women — who would go on to become key New Deal administrators. 

Today, Grinnell is known for attracting open-minded, intellectually engaged students who fulfill the College’s historic mission of educating men and women “who are prepared in life and work to use their knowledge and their abilities to serve the common good.”

A Continuum of Leadership

But how exactly can an institution educate students to not only do good, but also, in Rajasingh’s words, “do good well”? 

The Grinnell Prize was always intended to inspire the next generation of social innovators, but this year marked an unprecedented effort to frame that goal as a central focus. Although winners have previously been invited to campus to accept their prizes and engage with the Grinnell community, never before have so many events sought to establish the prize within a continuum of social justice leadership.

“This is the first time that we made an intentional effort to demonstrate through Prize Week programming how students may utilize our network of Wall Alumni Award and [Grinnell] Prize winners to further their own social innovation interests, both here on campus and after they graduate,” says Susan Leathem Sanning, assistant dean and director of service and social innovation. 

“This new programming focus — in addition to meeting with students about their potential interests and leading short courses, internships, externships, and workshops — is part of our new effort to integrate the prize and its winners into the educational mission of the College,” she says.

From Pipe Dreams to Praxis

Over the course of the week, the prizewinners visited classes at the College and Grinnell High School, mingled at networking events, and led workshops with titles like “Fundraising 101 — Funding Your Social Justice Dreams” and “How to Sustain Social Innovation.” 

Maria Vertkin, who won the 2015 Grinnell Prize for her work training low-income bilingual women to become medical interpreters, participated in many of the events, as did past Wall Award winners Harris and Alvin Irby ’07

At the events, students engaged the prizewinners with big-picture questions such as “What are the struggles of working for a community you aren’t part of?” as well as more targeted questions about fundraising strategy, organizational sustainability, and networking skills. These sessions, which ranged from panel talks to breakout workshops and a “coffee connection” at Saints Rest Coffee House, offered students a variety of opportunities to learn from the prizewinners. 

As they made the rounds, students filled out a Prize Week “passport,” earning stamps for each event they attended. Students who attended all six public events were entered into a raffle to win an iPad mini.

Raffle winner Hannah Stadler ’17 says, “As someone who is very interested in nonprofit work, I found the opportunity to converse with people who began their own [nonprofit organizations] to be extremely inspiring. The prizewinners were made accessible in low-stress environments like Saints Rest, and because of this, I felt comfortable practicing my networking skills with them.”

Testing Their Wings

Prize Week is just one of the ways that Grinnell inspires its students to pursue social justice. Last year, the College introduced Spark Tank, a new initiative that challenges students to design their own socially just innovations. Loosely modeled after the eponymous television show Shark Tank, in which innovators compete for project funding, Grinnell’s version adds a twist: Students must create innovations that address challenges generated by members of the town community. Local experts on last year’s topic, education, also joined Grinnell Prize winners on the panel of judges to determine which teams would receive funding.

“What we’re trying to do is have a continuum that connects students through volunteering, service learning work-study, Prize Week programming, and initiatives like Spark Tank, so that the Grinnell Prize isn’t a stand-alone, ‘look at this amazing project that somebody’s doing,’” says Sanning.

“Rather, we’re saying, ‘This could be you. And here are some ways that you can start testing your wings.’”

Ultimately, Prize Week is not just a celebration of the winners and their pioneering work; it is also a celebration of the College’s ongoing commitment to pursuing social justice. While the work is never done, Prize Week serves as a reminder that Grinnellians continue to cherish and uphold the values upon which the College was founded. 

* The Joseph F. Wall ’41 Sesquicentennial Service Award is a $25,000 prize given each year to two Grinnell alumni to either start or complete a project that shows creativity and commitment to effecting positive social change.

 

Happiness Is a Warm Friend

Aristotle described the ideal friendship as one in which reciprocation and respect for each other’s well-being serve a common good. Based on a mutual understanding of virtue and unshakeable in good times or bad, it may serve a useful purpose or make us feel good, but neither pleasure nor utility are its primary purpose. Rather, it is friendship for friendship’s sake with someone so intimate as to function as our “other self.” It is quite simply the gold standard of human relationships. 

If we’re lucky, we have a handful of such friends at any given time in our lives. It doesn’t matter whether they are lifelong or relatively new. It’s their unique qualities that make them irreplaceable. Writer C. S. Lewis is alleged to have captured the birth of true friendship as “the moment when one person says to another ‘What! You too? I thought that I was the only one.’”

Analyzing friendship may seem like an exercise in redundancy, given that we’ve been familiar with the concept since the age of 3. As early as 6, we learn to separate our own identity from others. Empathy follows. By the time we grasp that communities are made up of interconnected networks of friends, we have enough life experience to know that friends are valuable. Any third-grader can tell you that it feels good to have friends.

In fact, there is a generally accepted scientific correlation between friendship and happiness. Psychologists might prefer “subjective well-being” to happiness, but it’s a fine point. Both the Harvard Adult Development Survey and Nurses Health Study, backed by generations of gender-specific research, have concluded that we humans are more likely to achieve octogenarian status with good health and increased life satisfaction if we have not only quality friendships but more of them. 

How Many are Enough? 

There’s a formula for pretty much everything, and the one that calculates human capacity for friendship provides us with the Dunbar numbers, so named after a University of Oxford anthropologist and psychologist. Based on things like brain size and primate behavior in socially complex societies, it puts the number of casual friends we can effectively maintain at about 150. Following sort of a “rule of three,” Dunbar posits that we can cope with 50 or so dinner-party-level insiders, 15 confidants, and only five Aristotelian “paradigm”-type intimates at any given time. 

Putting aside a newish social media variable that allegedly allows users to put a name to the face of as many as 1,500 acquaintances, the 150/50/15/5 rule has been relatively stable from hunter-gather times. Research suggests that military and corporate structures throughout history have relied on similarly sized, eminently manageable divisions. 

The key to this cognitive efficiency is shared experience gained from face-to-face activity, which could be why the numbers don’t actually move much for users of virtual networks. Recent studies show that Twitter users maintain an average of 100–200 stable connections over six months. A Michigan State University survey of undergraduates on Facebook reported a median number of 300 Facebook friends per respondent, only 75 of which were considered to be “actual” friends.

The Inner Circle

Friends are not only important to us as individuals, they comprise networks that hold entire societies together. When the Industrial Revolution concentrated populations of workers around factories, those workers and their families became close-knit due to simple proximity. Frequent interactions, both planned and unplanned, helped build trust as more people shared concerns and confidences with each other. Time spent together in taverns, union meetings, clubs, and church activities provide obvious examples.

Technological and economic upheaval in recent decades altered that interaction and accelerated social change. In the 1990s particularly, sitcoms and movies struck a nerve depicting what sociologists had been saying for a while — that social intimacies formerly ascribed to family relationships were increasingly the domain of an inner-circle of friends. 

The more recent proliferation of “how-to-make-friends” media content indicates that we crave much more than passive, vicarious experience. We want, and apparently need, a lot of help with real-world friendships. Today, Internet sites abound with advice variously nuanced for introverts, singles, people with high IQs, older adults, and college students. Judging by the intended audience for that content, it’s not much of a stretch to say that the most friend-challenged cohort of all may be the first generation to have come of age in the new millennium. For them, the social, economic, and technological ground has been shifting for the entire 18–35 years they’ve been alive.

Accommodating Change

If hand-held technology has pressed “friend” into greater use as a verb, it hasn’t done much for its conventional definition. Pew Research Center surveys in 2014 and 2016 revealed that while 72 percent of all teens spend time with friends online, only 20 percent have ever met an online friend in person. Not that respondents see that as a problem. Relationships based on eSports and gaming (boys) and social media (girls) are a new normal only if one has something else to compare it to. 

Real-world organizations that employ people needing social skills are nevertheless paying close attention to the trend. Sensing the interactive challenges faced by young workers, companies like Mortenson Construction in Minneapolis have begun flexing hours to accommodate sports and social activities that help foster friendships across project teams. According to the American Bar Association’s Law Practice Journal, law firms should expect millennials to need more mentoring in the workplace, which turns out to be fine with millennials because they typically want the stability that mentoring helps provide.

But the juxtaposition of friends and family is where real transformation is occurring. While baby boomers tended to hold family in higher esteem than friends, and gen-Xers saw friends and family as a distinction with less of a difference, millennials live in a world where friends equal, if not trump, family. Hence, friends are providing not only the intimacy but also the influence that formerly came from conventional family units. 

How We Make Sense of Things

Karla Erickson, associate dean and professor of sociology at Grinnell, is conducting research on how college graduates from 2000–2015 “build selves,” which is to say how they make sense of success, failure, opportunities, and choices in their first steps out of college. Her study deals with their experiences in uncertain social and economic times in relation to the workplace. Erickson says she’s been surprised at how often themes of friendship emerged. 

“The friendship thing just kind of popped up out of nowhere. I wasn’t even looking for it,” Erickson says. Her first clue was not so much in what respondents said, but in the way they said it.

“People were using a ‘we’ voice, and often it turned out that the ‘we’ were friendship groups based in college,” Erickson says. “They would say ‘we decided to do something else’ or ‘we decided to move to Boston,’ but the ‘we’ wasn’t always traditional family, a home unit, a child or partner. Sometimes it was four friends.

“I’m starting to think that one of the things that characterizes this generation is the amount of weight and heft that they give to long-term friendships,” Erickson says. “I don’t have enough depth in my data collection yet to say this generation definitely does friendship differently, but I’m comfortable saying that friendship is one of its primary navigational tools.”

A Whole Different “We”

Erickson cites the way her participants think about themselves as workers adjusting to their existing opportunity structure. She says she expected interviewees to refer to the experiences of their parents, grandparents, or neighbors in making sense of their world. But the millennial generation doesn’t seem to use family as a “go-to” frame of reference for employment issues or any other major life event. 

“I was really struck by how often turning points weren’t about having a baby or taking care of a parent. They were about friendship,” Erickson says, adding that there also is little or no mention of money or salaries. “They don’t care about the larger economy. The way they make sense of whether they’re doing OK is by what their key good friends — the people they trust — are doing. If they’re OK relative to them, then they’re good.” 

Participants typically report no family rupture. They still visit home, and family remains very important to them. Nevertheless, Erickson says, “navigation of failure and success appears completely situated with their friends, not their parents. And that’s a whole different kind of ‘we,’ completely separate from the history of friendship we commonly refer to.”

Grinnell Effect?

Erickson’s early interviewees were exclusively Grinnellians, so she’s uncertain about whether what’s emerging is a millennial effect or a Grinnell effect. Either way, she worries that setting such a high bar for friendship may create conditions that can’t be met in other environments. 

“What I hear in these interviews,” Erickson says, “is people saying, ‘I’ve never been able to find that intimacy that I had with my friends at Grinnell.’ I hear people making job changes to try to find that community. I hear them doing stuff like taking up a weird hobby, like some kind of drumming circle that they’ve never done before, some kind of specialized knitting. They’re seeking that thing that they had at Grinnell.

“Friendships like that happen here in part because it’s rigorous in the sense of a shared struggle, in the sense that it’s tough to be a Grinnellian, and that the things that we select for in admission matter here — an intensity of personality, that you’re not a conformist, that you’re not trying to be mainstream, that you’re trying to be your own unique self.

“I think of it as part of the heritage of being a Grinnellian that you have this depth of connection with other people,” Erickson says. “It’s a great inheritance of the Grinnell experience, sort of like an alchemy where you are reforged a little bit.” 

The capacity to have friendships across gender is yet another positive aspect of the shared Grinnell experience, according to Erickson, especially since cross-gender friendships have been regarded historically as having so many potential pitfalls. “I think it’s lovely, the depth of these friendships,” Erickson says. “And I think it’s a trademark of the school.”

Tending Friendships

Erickson adds one caveat, and that is that people are likely never again going to have a time when they can stay up until 2 or 2:30 a.m. every night and shoot the breeze. “So if that’s the only way they know how to develop these close affinities,” Erickson says, “it’s going to be hard to replicate.”

Perhaps it’s because friendship seems so intuitive and subjective that intentional conversations about making and keeping friends are rare in the experience of any generation. But it’s a special conundrum for a generation that’s professionally migrational, likes structure more than its predecessors, yet has high demands and higher expectations of everything and everybody — including friends. 

“I teach labor classes, and at the end of them I advise graduates to tend their friendships,” Erickson says. “People tend to think they will just take care of themselves. Then two years later they’ve lost touch, and that’s really hard to rebuild.”

The Role of Values

Kelly Guilbeau is assistant director of advising and exploration at the Center for Careers, Life, and Service (CLS), whose mission is to empower students to live, learn, and work with meaning and purpose. Guilbeau says that while meaning and purpose are linked with happiness, achieving them requires knowing how to put one’s values into practice.

“The idea of values has been heavily incorporated into our work at the CLS over the past year and a half or so,” Guilbeau says. As of fall 2015, first-year students engage in an informal “values activity” upon arrival. It helps them prioritize what really matters to them in life. “Students end up with their top five values, which we expect to shift as they develop and grow,” Guilbeau says. “When appropriate, we might ask about these values intentionally.”

The values activity is specific to each student, but cumulative results for the class of 2019 show that friendship ranks among the top two values for the entire group. Happiness doesn’t make the top 20 because it’s not a selectable value, but rather a product of other values that produce life satisfaction. “I can’t tell you how many times students say ‘helping others makes me happy,’” Guilbeau says, “so they choose a value of helpfulness.” 

Emotional Intelligence = Social Competence

Guilbeau equates intimate knowledge of one’s own values to emotional intelligence — an attribute that gives us both the emotional competency to manage relationships and an overarching social competency for navigating the myriad human circumstances of life and work.  

Guilbeau says, “If a student came in and said ‘I’m having trouble with my friends,’ I would begin asking about what matters to them, like ‘What do you need from your relationships in your life? Why does that matter to you? And how can you surround yourself with people that support that?’ 

“Then it’s an easy comparison to ask ‘How does the group you hang out with support your values? Do your friends or the activities you do with your friends ever conflict with your values?’ If there is a disconnect and action needs to be taken, then the real and often difficult work begins.”

Having a preference for people who are sympathetic with our values doesn’t mean that we can be friends only with those who never challenge our beliefs. In fact, staying grounded in personal values during times of turmoil or anxiety is key to the negotiating process necessary for a friendship to endure.

“I think you’re probably more likely to be a friend with someone who’s wildly different from you if you can practice empathy,” Guilbeau says. “You’re being challenged to think about the world in a different way. There might even be arguments. An authentic friendship, a real friendship, has times where you might have to manage conflict. You might have to step out of your comfort zone and negotiate.” 

In the course of such negotiations we may seek to protect or reinforce our own values, but we also gain perspective on what matters most to other people. 

“To do all of this requires a lot of emotional intelligence,” Guilbeau says. “I have to know what I’m going to fight for, what’s a deal breaker, and what I’m willing to leave behind. I have to know what matters to me.”

A Simple Approach

Guilbeau, whose background is clinical mental health counseling, says it’s important that we periodically reassess our values since they’re apt to change as we’re exposed to new things and new people and as we learn more about ourselves.

“If we don’t unpack our experiences, we’re right on to the next thing and never really think, ‘What does this mean for me?’ or ‘How did this influence where I’m going next?’” Guilbeau says. “I see my role in the CLS as to infuse that into our conversations and programs so that it becomes a natural part of every experience, that you don’t have an experience without unpacking it.

“All of this is completely transferrable to friendships,” she says. “What I always come back to is knowing what works for you and being able to negotiate it and knowing that it’s possibly going to change over time with every single person that you are friends with.”

So what should we do when we’re alone in a new place and separated from our trusted circle of friends? Guilbeau offers a simple approach: “Put yourself in situations where you might interact with someone,” she says, “After an interaction, come back to yourself and see if you want to interact with that person again. Do they work for you or do they not work for you, based on what matters to you? 

“If you can say your intention out loud, then you are practicing self-awareness and allowing yourself to pursue what you need,” Guilbeau says. “At the end of the day, is this potential friend right for you at this point in your life? To me, it’s as simple as that.” 

Top Values of the Grinnell Class of 2019

(from the Center for Careers, Life, and Service)

Top Values of the Grinnell Class of 2019