Feature

No Room for Error

From flowering crabapples to sycamores, birches, and firs, the trees dotting Grinnell’s campus have served as familiar landmarks — as well as beloved spots to climb, make art, and meet for class — for generations of Grinnell students.

So when 31 trees between Alumni Recitation Hall (ARH), Carnegie Hall, and the Robert N. Noyce ’49 Science Center were scheduled for removal to make way for new construction, campus sustainability coordinator Chris Bair ’96 came up with a plan to preserve them.

A third-generation Grinnell graduate, he didn’t want the trees to be fed into a chipper and turned into mulch or used for lumber by someone with no connection to the College. “They seemed like a resource worth celebrating and keeping on campus for another 100 years in another form,” he explains. 

The first thing that came to mind: Use those trees to make furniture for the new buildings on campus.

Bair’s idea resulted in an internship in the summer of 2018 that brought together California-based furniture maker Tor Erickson ’01 and a current student, Isabella Kugel ’20, to build a desk that now greets visitors in the new Admissions and Student Financial Services center (ASFS), which opened in November at Eighth Avenue and Park Street.

Bair’s official title is environmental and safety coordinator, and he’s involved in anything green on campus, from recycling and energy efficiency to renewable resources. To get the project started, the Office of Development and Alumni Relations searched for Grinnellians who are skilled woodworkers. They found a half dozen. Bair pitched the idea of using campus wood for furniture to the architects designing the ASFS and the Humanities and Social Studies Center (HSSC). Designers, alumni woodworkers, architects, and Bair brainstormed and came up with several pieces — including benches, the reception desk, and a logo — that would go into the two buildings. 

Kugel is an independent major with a focus on agronomy and economic ethnobotany. She’s worked with Bair on recycling, composting, and other sustainability projects, so when she found out about the campus trees idea, she emailed Erickson. The two then set up the summer internship at Erickson Woodworking, outside tiny Nevada City, California. 

“We really wanted to use this wood to tell Grinnell’s story,” explains Bair. “Tor decided to come to Grinnell, then he used his carpentry skills for service after graduation (Erickson was a volunteer on a Rotary grant, teaching carpentry skills in Africa). The idea of taking campus wood and having it used by an alum who did Grinnell-type service to build a desk, then place it in the admissions building, is a neat story. And getting a current student involved brings it full circle.” 

Desk in AFA

Designed by Erickson, the desk is 14 feet wide and 5 feet deep, made from black walnut that came from three 80-year-old trees that stood just north of ARH. “It’s really exceptionally beautiful material, with incredibly rich and even-colored grain,” says Erickson. 

Erickson also made a 4-foot-wide Grinnell laurel leaf logo with curled edges that hangs above the desk. That wood came from a maple that grew near the old campus bookstore that was once located on the east side of Carnegie.

About a dozen of the 31 campus trees taken down — mostly maple, sycamore, and walnut — were large enough to be processed for lumber. Some of them were brought to a nearby farm in Grinnell for milling, then transported back to campus and stacked and stored. The trees that were too big for local milling were hauled to an Amish-operated sawmill in southern Iowa, then brought back to Grinnell. Some trees were too small for lumber but perfect for other uses, including spoon carving during a one-day workshop sponsored by the Center for Prairie Studies in early 2017. 

From the wood that was stacked and stored, Bair, Kugel, and Erickson (remotely), picked out hundreds of board feet of lumber for the desk — about 2,600 pounds of wood — that was then driven across the country to Erickson’s shop last summer via semitrailer. 

The family business

Both Kugel and Erickson come from woodworking backgrounds. Erickson’s parents founded Erickson Woodworking in the early 1970s and he grew up learning the craft. A history major at Grinnell, he traveled, built houses, and taught after graduation, then returned to California in 2007 to work with his father in the former gold mining town where he was raised. He’s since become a partner in the company. Erickson, his parents Robert Erickson and Liese Greensfelder, and one employee make and sell just 75 pieces of furniture a year, primarily chairs (rocking, dining, and office) and tables that for the most part come from trees harvested in California. 

Isabella Kugel ’20 uses chains to move woodKugel’s father has a custom wood cabinetry business outside Milwaukee; and like Erickson, she spent a number of summers working in her father’s shop. But the Erickson shop is “a very different school of woodworking,” Kugel explains. “Chair-making is different than cabinetmaking — they (the Ericksons) work with so many more angles. They do a lot of bending of wood and cutting shapes.”

Along with an intern from the Rhode Island School of Design, Kugel worked with Tor and Robert Erickson and a shop employee each day during her internship, focusing most of her time on the campus desk. She also helped build a rocking chair and designed and built two sawhorses from local sugar pine.

 She also processed the walnut wood slabs for the desk, cutting them into usable pieces, then running them through the jointer (which flattens and straightens the lumber), the planer (making it all the same thickness), and the table saw (to cut the correct width). 

“All the wood pieces had to be absolutely precise when we were building the desk,” says Kugel, who at night slept in a tent pitched on a pine platform outside the shop. “We measured to five-thousandths of an inch, so every time you milled down a piece, you had to be ever so precise on how much wood you’re taking off because there’s no room for error.” 

Once the pieces were processed, they were sanded in one batch so there was a consistent pattern to them. That pattern is especially obvious in the two raw-edged, walnut slabs that mirror one another on the front of the desk that visitors see as they walk in to the admission building.

Tor and Isabella standing in front of wood slabOne of the coolest parts of the internship, Kugel says, was a trip she and the Ericksons took to Zamora, California, about 75 miles from their shop, to mill lumber at a local sawmill. “I’d never experienced wood that way before. There were massive logs and we made lumber out of them. I’m used to ordering wood that comes prepackaged as beautiful, perfect boards. We were there for two days milling that lumber, working on a giant saw machine, debarking the wood, and using a huge winch to lift a 1-ton piece of wood.”

Grinnell connections, through wood

Anthropology professor Jon Andelson ’70, who initially connected Bair and Kugel and is director of Grinnell’s Center for Prairie Studies, finds the campus wood project especially appealing. Both Kugel and Erickson have taken classes with him (he’s one of Kugel’s advisers), and Chris Bair is a member of the Center for Prairie Studies Advisory Board. 

“There are so many connections in this project,” Andelson says. “It connects Chris and Tor to current students, it connects California to Iowa, it connects us to the natural world around us, it connects our heads and our hands, and it connects something old that was living until recently with something brand new being built today.”

In addition, says Andelson, “Prairie studies has been sponsoring the Prairie Artisan Series (where the spoon-carving workshop began), and the mantra for that is ‘add a little hand knowledge to your head knowledge.’ There are very few ways connected to the College that Grinnell students can gain some knowledge of manual skills. I think it’s neat to have Tor as an alumnus making his living with both his hands and his head, and I can see Bella [Kugel] doing that in the future, too.”

For his part, Bair says, “I’m tickled pink that we’re having stuff made out of this wood. Trees are taken down all the time and they’re a resource. In 50 years if we don’t want that desk anymore, it can easily be repurposed.” 

And the campus wood has even more life ahead of it: Pioneer Bookshop is selling pens, letter openers, bowls, and cutting boards all made from campus wood. Bair wants to get some of the wood into the hands of alumni for woodworking workshops during Reunion, and Tor Erickson is working with Andelson to plan another summer internship for a Grinnell student at his shop. 

For Kugel, who spent this past fall semester in rural Italy studying sustainable agriculture, the internship was incredibly rewarding. “We’re taught about networking — that you’re supposed to find alumni who are passionate about what they do — and that’s what happened,” she says. “I made this awesome alumni connection with Tor and felt like I could contribute my skills and knowledge. At the same time I was learning new skills and knowledge, all while having a lasting impact on Grinnell. 

“That really mattered to me,” she says. “To have an impact.” 

Blind Turns and Cryptic Crossroads

Psychology major to zookeeper? Biology coursework to Delta pilot?

Grinnellians have long been told that a liberal arts degree prepares them to excel at just about anything. The wide range of careers that Grinnellians have pursued successfully bolsters that argument.

But getting from point A to point B can seem like a mysterious process. What’s the path from anthropology to fighting cybercrime?

In this story, we talked to four Grinnellians whose majors could hardly seem further from the work they do now. They shared their off-the-beaten-path tales and the elements of their Grinnell education that made even their biggest leaps perfectly possible. They also shared the advice they’d give anyone who wants to make a major career pivot.

“It was a big leap into the void.”

Stephen Potter ’80 is a pilot for Delta Air Lines.

Pilot illustrationI was an airplane nut as a kid. For some reason, I got it in my head that I was too tall to be a pilot, even though that turned out not to be true. I went to Grinnell thinking I might be pre-med, and I majored in biology. I liked the intellectual life, I liked the campus life. I also really liked that Grinnell inculcated an idea of service.

At some point I decided that medical school was not in my future, so I went home to Boston and got whatever I could get for a job. In 1980, that was not much. I did work in a beautiful high-rise building near a government center, though. I remember seeing an ad for the Air Force that was “Aim High, Air Force.” Then, one day, I was eating my sandwich, looking down from an empty office, and I saw an F-15. There was an Air Force recruiter beside it.

The seed was planted. I knew whoever won the election that year, the military was going to get bigger. I still wanted to be a pilot, and I knew demand for pilots would be high. I aced the initial aviation tests.

Still, it was a big leap into the void. You sign a contract for six years. There’s no guarantee that you will do anything you want to do. In so many ways, the culture was the complete opposite of Grinnell. There were no choices. The workload and lifestyle is so hard on individuals and their families. But at Grinnell, I had learned how to cram a lot of information in my head in a short time. I could work hard.

Learning to fly is a long process. You don’t cook up pilots like pancakes. But eventually I flew the F-4, a Vietnam-era twin-engine, twin-crew fighter. It was cool and fun and fast and loud. It was everything I was looking for. 

It’s fun flying fighter jets, but it’s a young man’s sport. You’re pulling G’s. Imagine your head weighs 120 pounds and you’re turning around to look at a jet behind you … trying to kill you. You get back problems. You can pass out. People die doing that stuff. It was thrilling, but demanding. I thought of it as giving back.

Eventually, I got out, and I was able to get a job working at Delta. I do a mix of national and international flying in a Boeing 757, which carries about 200 passengers, and a Boeing 767 widebody, which carries about 211 passengers. I often go to Santiago, Frankfurt, Los Angeles, and Fort Lauderdale. 

I love this work, and Grinnell is something that actually prepared me for it. I knew how to study. I have a humane outlook on life. Being a pilot is about more than just stick and rudder. It’s about interacting with crew, customers, and also representing the company well. It’s about someone who can be a well-rounded individual.

“When you understand people, you unlock the secret to everything.”

Mona Ghadiri ’11 is a senior product manager at Trustware.

Cyber Security illustrationI started as a history major at Grinnell, but one day I was sitting with my roommate and I said, “I really just want to study people. What major is that?” She looked at me and said, “You’re joking, right? That’s anthropology.” I fell in love with it. It was the first A I ever got in college.

Anthropology teaches participant observation. You pay attention to the way people do things, and that’s how you learn the “rules” for groups of people. You find out what’s important to them. I realized that when you understand people, you unlock the secret to everything.

I was interviewed for a story in The Grinnell Magazine about some work I did in anthropology, and the editor put my face on the cover. After I graduated, I ended up working at the magazine.

While I was in Grinnell, a friend connected me with a business owner in Grinnell who was Iranian. I’m half-Iranian, so she thought we should talk. We did. He worked in manufacturing, and he offered me a job as a project engineer. I had no business doing that! But a copy of The Grinnell Magazine was in his office, and my face was on the cover. I said, “That’s me!” I think that helped me get the job.

My new boss gave me a book about injection molding — the process used to make hard plastic parts, like things you might find in your car — and told me to learn it in three weeks. I did. Beyond that, I used what I learned in anthropology: watch, learn, copy.

I eventually went to get an MBA, and applied for a job at the cybersecurity company Forcepoint. When I interviewed, they told me everyone else had software experience, which I didn’t. But sometimes, like in the TV show Chopped, the person with the least experience beats the person with the Michelin star. They’re not afraid to go outside the box, because they don’t know what the box is. Sometimes, the box is a burden.

In cybersecurity, it’s not just about building the strongest lock. It’s about understanding people, so that you can help them be as strong as the lock you might create. This work isn’t just about how you prevent malicious users outside of an organization from getting in, but about preventing the ones inside from doing damage. How do you create a system so someone who gets a bad performance review can’t steal intellectual property? Maybe it’s just making sure that a big change can’t be made unless two people approve. 

“Last year, we went 11 and 1. My evaluation said ‘needs to improve.’”

Ian Shoemaker ’96 is the head football coach at Central Washington University, a Division II team.

Football coach illustration When I got to Grinnell, I thought I’d be a doctor or an engineer. But I’d come from a small, rural high school, and my preparation was nowhere near where it needed to be. I ended up with a psychology major, and I had to bust my ass just to get out of Grinnell with a degree and a decent GPA.

My senior year, I took a sports psychology class with Professor [Will] Freeman. It turned out to be really eye-opening. I loved the idea of sports psychology and performance enhancement, and I applied — and got in — to the sports psychology graduate program at Western Washington University.

I played football and baseball at Grinnell. I had toyed with the idea of coaching. So while I was in the graduate program at Western Washington, I sat in on an undergrad football theory class that was taught by the head football coach. It was a bunch of football players and [first-year] students. Here I was, a Grinnell grad in graduate school. But my work piqued the interest of the coach, and eventually I got a graduate assistantship. That allowed me to be an assistant coach on the women’s fast-pitch softball team.

We won a national championship that year.

I got my next job at 24. I was head baseball coach and offensive coordinator [for the football team] at what is now University of St. Mary in Kansas. They’d never had baseball or football before, and I was the head coach — recruiting, working the budget, the whole deal.

Over the years, I’ve been all over. I’ve been in jobs in Kansas, North Dakota, and Ohio. Now, I’m back in Washington. I’m incredibly fortunate to have a partner in life, Jenel Chang ’94, who is a teacher and who has supported me through all of these jobs. It was years and years before I was able to make money in the profession.

Every school has a different challenge. I’m constantly trying to figure out how to put the puzzle together. I’m at Central Washington University, a Division II school that recruits kids from around the state. It’s not a place like Grinnell, where there’s national recruiting and limitations because of the [rigorous] entrance requirements. The competition level is different here. Last year, we went 11 and 1. My evaluation said “needs to improve.” The expectation here is that we win a national championship.

“She might as well have suggested I apply to Hogwarts.” 

Christy Johnston Brown ’11 is a zookeeper at the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens.

Zookeeper illustration During my junior year of high school, I decided I wanted to be an art therapist. I wanted to use art to work with chronically and terminally ill children to help them deal with their feelings through creative expression. It seemed like a great way to combine my creativity and interest in psychology. 

After I graduated [from Grinnell with a psychology major], I knew I had to take the GRE and take a few extra art classes to get into a graduate program to pursue this work. I kept putting it off. Finally, my parents sat me down — I was living at home at the time — and they said, “Is this still what you want to do?” 

It wasn’t.

I had an emotional breakdown, because I had been studying for this since high school. To realize that this path wasn’t for me felt terrifying.

Around that time, I was doing a lot of pet-sitting. I was also re-reading a book that I had been assigned in a psychology class with [Professor] David Lopatto called What Shamu Taught Me about Life, Love, and Marriage. The book was about principles the author had learned at the Moorpark College Exotic Animal Training and Management Program, and how it was possible to train people in some of the same ways we train animals. My mom saw that and said, “Well, why don’t you apply to Moorpark?” 

She might as well have suggested I apply to Hogwarts. It felt fantastical — learning to train lions, working with primates, living in a zoo.

It was a light switch. I decided to look into it. Eventually, I ended up taking some classes, applying to Moorpark, and getting in. My two years at Moorpark were some of the hardest of my life, but they were also incredible.

Today, I’m a zookeeper. I help take care of reptiles, amphibians, birds, and mammals [at the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens in southern California]. I train animals to do things like offer their paws for nail trimming or open their mouths for tooth brushing. I do outreach to schools and community centers, and I rely on the skills I learned in Grinnell theatre classes to present. 

It’s definitely hard work. It can get to be 120 degrees here, and we often have to move around wheelbarrows of sand and mulch and dirt and gravel. We have to clean the habitats. And depending on what species I’m working with, animal poop can weigh a lot.

Still, I’m working at a job that fulfills me. I could never spend my all of my time sitting at a desk. Even when I’m doing the hardest physical labor, it doesn’t really feel like work, because I’m so excited about what I do. 

Tell us about your own unexpected post-Grinnell path. 

 

Building a Textbook Lending Library

In the spring semester of 2016, Tim Burnett ’19 approached Deanna Shorb, the College’s dean of religious life, on behalf of QuestBridge, a national organization for low-income students. Grinnell’s chapter wanted to partner with Shorb to develop more resources for students in need. 

Shorb had just the thing in mind. As the co-organizer of a campus first-generation student program, for seven years she has asked participating students about their major obstacles and concerns. First-generation students are the first in their families to attend college, and while they are not always low income, first-gen and low-income students often face overlapping challenges. 

One of those challenges, as Shorb has heard consistently every year from the students in her program, is textbook expenses. Shorb saw Burnett coming to her as a sign. It was time for Grinnell to have a textbook lending library.

Burnett jumped on the idea: “I knew that we could work to make a difference.” As a low-income student, Burnett had personally felt the burden of high textbook costs. “During my first semester at Grinnell I had to drop my Advanced Introduction to French class because I couldn’t afford the textbook,” Burnett says. “The book for that one class was my whole textbook budget for the semester.”

Getting the library up and running

Over the course of the semester, Burnett met with Shorb to work out the logistics of getting a lending library off the ground. They had to complete three major tasks before the beginning of the next school year. First, they had to approach the Office of Financial Aid and ask them to compile a list of low-income students who would be invited to use the library. Second, they had to get the textbooks. Finally, they had to shelve and catalog the books. 

Shorb took responsibility for speaking with Brad Lindberg, director of financial aid, who agreed to help them out. He told her that if she and Burnett prepared information about the lending library, his office could determine the students in highest need of the service and contact them directly. That way, only the students themselves and the financial aid office knew whether any given student was on the confidential list. 

With that done, Burnett took the lead in developing and distributing a poster asking students to donate their textbooks to their peers at the end of the semester. Students rose to the occasion, and by the end of the spring 2016 semester Burnett and Shorb had more than 2,000 books for their new library.  

“I made so many trips with boxes and boxes of books,” says Burnett. “One day we had so many that we filled [up] the bed of [Deanna’s] truck. All of those hours required a lot of commitment, but it wasn’t for naught.” In fall 2016, a small room in the Center for Religion, Spirituality, and Social Justice (CRSSJ) officially opened its doors as the school’s new lending library.  

Scaling Up And Expanding The Team

Once the library was up and running, Shorb and Burnett realized they were going to need some extra help. They decided to expand their team of two to a team of three. Ally Leicht ’19, another QuestBridge student, joined the library as student co-supervisor in the fall of 2016 and began assisting with the tasks of organizing, cataloging, and distributing the books. 

And she came just in time. After all that effort spent moving books over the summer, the team got word that the CRSSJ was moving to a new location in 2017. The new library was going to have to move with it. “Without Ally, the move would not have been possible,” Burnett says. 

Moving all of those books again was a daunting task, but it was also an opportunity to find the library a bigger space. Thanks to the flood of student donations, the number of textbooks had risen to nearly 3,800, and they were beginning to overflow the bookshelves. “There were even jokes about the floor caving in under all of the books,” Burnett says. 

Creating an equitable system

Organizing the books within a physical space is only part of the task of running a library. Another big task for Leicht, Burnett, and Shorb was determining the best way to ensure that every student who used the library was getting the books they needed in the manner most useful to them. Since Grinnell’s lending library was the only one of its kind in the country when it opened its doors, the team had to learn through trial and error. 

“One of the main struggles we had at the start was the rental period,” says Leicht. Originally they only let students check out books for two days but quickly realized the short turnaround was more of a hassle than a help. “We switched to full-semester loans, which has worked out wonderfully.”

They are also trying to figure out the best way to deal with outdated textbooks and ensuring that the books they have are the ones students most need. Library use has grown from about 30 students in fall 2016, the first semester it opened its doors, to around 150 students in spring 2018. While the library originally operated on a first-come, first-serve basis, the team switched to a wish list-based approach after the first year. 

“We still have work to do in creating an equitable system,” Burnett says. “It’s a tough call because we want to loan the most books out possible, but do so in a fair manner.”

Shorb hopes to continue expanding the library. She wants a software program that can help them organize the student wish list, and a way to more reliably have the textbooks students are most likely to need. Eventually, she hopes she can hire someone for a part-time position fully dedicated to the library. Until then, Shorb, Leicht, and Burnett are dedicated to making the library the best resource it can be.

“I love being able to lighten the financial strain for students and help them to focus on learning rather than money,” Leicht says. 

Similar but different

In the mid-2000s, a group of students called Grinnellians for Economic and Social Diversity organized and ran an informal textbook lending library for a few years from a residence hall basement. Although the intent was to support low-income students, it ended up being open to all.

One major distinction between the earlier library and the current one is income, says Deanna Shorb. “Use of this library is only for those identified (very privately) by Financial Aid as low income.”

A Game Like Cat and Dog

Growing up in communist Romania with parents who weren’t Communists wasn’t exactly a cakewalk. Then fortune smiled, and Florin Cîţu ’96 met a Grinnell alum who was teaching economics for a year in Romania. At age 21, Cîţu headed to Grinnell with one pair of jeans and a pair of cowboy boots — he never wore the boots. 

Twenty years later, after a successful career in international banking, Cîţu found himself elected to Romania’s senate.

He never planned on going into politics. “Basically, I was duped into it,” he says with a grin and a swig of beer. 

During the fall of 2016, a friend needed Cîţu’s help on a political campaign in Romania. Not the knocking-on-doors, stuffing-envelopes kind of help. No, rather, it was the allowing his name to be on the ballot kind of help.

 “My friend says, ‘You can always quit if you don’t like it,’” Cîţu says. He won election to Romania’s senate in December 2016, representing the capital city, Bucharest. 

Once he was in Parliament, Cîţu decided to take his new role seriously. Maybe he could help. Particularly with the budget.

Florin Cîţu ’96 speaks into the microphone at meeting

Finance credentials

It’s safe to say that Cîţu knows a thing or two about finance. After graduating from Grinnell with a major in economics, Cîţu pursued a doctorate in economics at Iowa State University, completing all but the dissertation. Then he took a job as an economist with the Reserve Bank of New Zealand, the first of several in international banking. He returned to Europe in 2003, taking progressively more responsible positions in the banking industry. In 2011, he left banking and opened his own consulting business in Romania.

He also started a blog, florincitu.wordpress.com, subtitled “A look at financial markets and government policies through the eyes of a skeptic.” Critiquing the Romanian government’s financial policies has been Cîţu’s hobby for several years. He’s also been consulted as an expert in finance and Romania’s economy by print and broadcast media.

He argues that private enterprise and innovation are key to Romania’s long-term economic health. “We’ve got to do something to attract investors,” he says. 

“Florin understands well the issues affecting the economy in Romania,” says Jack Mutti, professor emeritus of economics. “His challenge will be to get those issues on the table.” 

Culture of communism

After 42 years under communism, the people of Romania are used to the government providing everything. The current ruling party, the Social Democrats, likes to say that the government will create jobs. Fighting that mentality is the biggest challenge, Cîţu says. “It’s tough to be on the right.”

He’s a member of the National Liberal Party (PNL), which advocates for economic freedom as well as individual liberties, such as rights of gays and lesbians. “We need to fight for both freedoms,” Cîţu says. 

He wants to see more entrepreneurs in Romania and thinks the government can make that easier. “We can do some good stuff in government,” he says. Currently the regulations and bureaucracy don’t encourage entrepreneurs to take risks. There’s a fear of doing things wrong. Cîţu says people are scared that if they fail and go bankrupt, they’ll be regarded as “bad.” 

Working in Parliament

Romania’s Palace of the Parliament is the second largest administrative building in the world, after the Pentagon. About 30 percent of the building is occupied, one side by the Senate and the opposite side by the Chamber of Deputies. Each large room has different ornamentation, elaborate and ornate, while power cords for TV camera crews snake down the halls. 

Cîţu tried to take his Doberman to Parliament one day but was told no. Cîţu prefers to work at home anyway.

As a member of the main opposition party, Cîţu doesn’t have the power to influence policy directly with his votes, “but I make them think about it.” 

He says, “Ninety-nine percent of the time, votes are political.” 

Mihaela Paraschiy works with Cîţu in the Senate as chief of staff for the PNL party. She’s had a close-up view of Romanian politics since 2005. “A game like cat and dog,” she says, “never boring.” 

Cîţu became a vice president of the party during his first year in office, with a focus on business. He rose quickly because “I found an empty space and I filled it,” he says. 

Creating a voice

Cîţu understands how to make himself stand out. “You need to make yourself a voice,” he says, something he had practice with well before he was recruited to run for the Senate. He also uses humor and speaks directly to his audience.

Cîţu has worked with a communications consultant to learn how to bring attention to his agenda when speaking with the media. “You have to be in control of your emotions,” he says. Early on, he tended to get red in the face. But now, “I take the high road all the time.” 

It’s also important to communicate with people not as an expert, he says, but as a person. One way he does that is by not looking like a stereotypical politician with short, slicked-back hair and a tidy suit. Instead, he wears a sports coat and jeans and keeps his hair a little longer. 

He also communicates with people on Facebook — he has more than 14,000 followers — and his blog.

When it comes to being on television, Cîţu only goes on evening news programs with journalists who are experienced and knowledgeable. “I bring substance,” he says. “Then you’re different from everybody else.” 

He also tells the truth. “I don’t compromise,” he says. “I can always be a banker.” 

 

The Year of the Grinnell Woman

In 1992 widespread anger caused by the humiliating treatment of Anita Hill during Clarence Thomas’ Supreme Court confirmation hearing by an all-male, all-white panel of lawmakers ushered in the “Year of the Woman.” According to Rutgers’ Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP), that year 29 women filed for U.S. Senate seats, and 11 won their primaries; 222 filed for U.S. House seats, and 106 won their primaries. 

Though that doesn’t seem like many today, these numbers had surpassed previous records by leaps and bounds and have had a long-lasting impact on our electoral politics. The 24 women who won election to the U.S. House of Representatives for the first time in November 1992 was the largest number of women elected to the House in any single election. The U.S. Senate saw the first black woman elected and tripled the number of women overall in that chamber. 

As of August 2018, 107 women hold seats in the U.S. Congress, comprising 20 percent of the 535 members. Twenty-three women (23 percent) serve in the Senate, and 84 women (19 percent) serve in the U.S. House of Representatives. Five women nonvoting delegates also represent American Samoa, the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands in the House. 

But there is still work to be done — the United States is far from having equal gender representation in local, state, or federal government. According to recent data compiled by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the United States ranks 102nd in terms of women’s representation in government. For comparison’s sake, the United States’ neighbor to the south, Mexico, currently ranks ninth. 

The United States is poised for another seismic electoral shift. In this powerful #MeToo era, women are taking to the streets to protest what are seen as attacks against basic rights. They are also running for public office in unprecedented numbers, with a few high-profile women shining in the spotlight, such as New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who defeated an incumbent congressman in her primary, and Georgia’s Stacey Abrams, the first black woman nominated for governor by a major political party in the United States. 

According to CAWP’s most recent figures, there are 468 women running for the U.S. House and 51 running for the U.S. Senate as of this writing; these figures well outpace previous records. Moreover, an NBC analysis found more than 40 percent of Democratic House nominees are women, compared to less than 10 percent for Republicans. 

“It makes sense that there are more Democratic female first-time office seekers out there right now,” says Barbara Trish, professor of political science. “Given that Republicans dominate state and local offices — with Democrats taking a big hit over the last decade — the door is open for Democratic challengers to those incumbent-held Republican seats.”  

So it follows that there are extraordinary numbers of Democratic women throwing their hats in the ring for local, city, and statewide offices for the first time. And, of course, there are Grinnell College alumni among them; at least three have sailed through primaries and will know in November if they are victorious in the general election.  

Kayla Koether ’12 leans on fence at a farm in Iowa

Women seeing themselves as contenders

Kayla Koether ’12 seeks to represent the people of Iowa House District 55 in northeast Iowa as a progressive Democrat (kaylaforiowa.com), and is running against an incumbent Republican, Michael Bergan, in November. 

“I am running for the Iowa House of Representatives because, for years, I have been troubled by the trajectory of rural Iowa,” Koether says. “It’s become an expectation that young people will leave to pursue their vocations. It’s become more and more difficult to become a farmer or an entrepreneur here.

“For too long the rural exodus has been viewed as ‘inevitable’ and taken for granted by policymakers. But we rural dwellers are dedicated to our places, and we have a vision of strong rural communities. I want to bring that vision to the Iowa Statehouse,” she adds.

Koether says she thinks the reason for the groundswell of women running for public office across the United States is because we are at a crossroad in our country.

“Many people are feeling a call to duty. Those considering a run for public office realize — and have probably realized for some time — that we are nearing the edge of the cliff,” she says. “The need to step up and set a course toward progress on so many levels — economic stability for all, human relationships, health care access, environmental sustainability — hasn’t been so profound since the lead up to the Great Depression.” 

Liz Johnson ’88, co-founder of VoteRunLead (voterunlead.org), a nonprofit that trains women how to run for political office, has worked with several Grinnell College alums over the years, including Koether. According to the organization’s recent survey, which polled 750 potential female candidates, 56 percent of those candidates said they don’t think as many women run for office as men because no one has ever encouraged them to run. 

Johnson, who is currently a VoteRunLead board member, says this is changing — especially after the results of the 2016 presidential election. Women are no longer waiting for permission or encouragement to become civic leaders, she said. The number of women seeking training from VoteRunLead to run for public office across the country has exploded; the organization has trained more than 12,000 women to run for office since November 2016. 

“The 2016 election was a real wake-up call for women across the political spectrum,” Johnson says. “We are realizing we can no longer sit on the sidelines of our democracy and think it will represent us well. And communities are looking for women to run for office, especially local office. The leadership of women incorporates our life experiences, providing a perspective in policymaking that is more inclusive and brings more people to the table to solve complex problems.”  

Koether agrees with that sentiment.

“In the past, women in particular didn’t see themselves as candidates because they didn’t fit conventional expectations,” she says. “Now, they have seen that the stakes are too high and the system will not fix itself. They must step up so that we can reach our highest aspirations for a vibrant democracy.” 

Laura Clymore Ellman ’87 at a speaking event

Finding the courage to run

Laura Clymore Ellman ’87, a federal compliance assessor at Argonne National Laboratory, is running for Illinois State Senate in the 21st District (ellmanforillinois.com). Ellman, a Democrat who lives in the Chicago suburb of Naperville, Illinois, hopes to unseat incumbent Republican Michael Connelly. Ellman is focused on helping the state of Illinois find its financial footing and fostering its economic growth. The state’s poor financial shape is among the worst in the nation.

She had never really seriously considered running for public office, citing a lack of experience, “but November 2016 happened,” and Ellman says she suddenly felt qualified. “At the time, it was more ‘why not?’ than ‘why?’ run,” she says. 

“I never thought it would be me, and I have never been overly politically active. It was just never one of those things I identified myself with.” By Thanksgiving she knew she would run.

“I decided to run for a lot of reasons. For nearly 20 years, out where I live, the ballots were pretty one-sided: uncontested races, all the same party,” she says.  “I’d be frustrated for that one election day, but it never really went beyond that. As I talk to more people, the more convinced I am that we need alternatives; we need to have contrasting opinions on where Illinois is going. Having the same band of people representing us is not in our best interest.” 

Grinnell College women up to the challenge

Erin Gonnerman poses by one of her campaign signsEllman was not the only Grinnell College alum who decided to run for public office after the 2016 election. Erin Hennessy Gonnerman ’09, who has already won her race and is now a Two Rivers (Wisconsin) City Council member, did, too. “It was three weeks after Nov. 8, 2016, that I picked up my nomination papers to run for city council,” she says.

Gonnerman, a mechanical engineer at NextEra Energy, says she thinks Grinnell College female alumni are particularly well-suited to running for office.

“Don’t hesitate to run, especially for local offices that can be done while maintaining your full-time job,” she says. “It’s a good way to get involved in the government and help you decide if higher office is something you’d be interested in. City councils and village boards need people with diverse opinions and backgrounds, and they also just need people who are willing to do the work, put the time in, can think critically, and who care about the community.”

Though Grinnell College women may have the strong critical thinking and leadership skills it takes to make good political candidates, they still can face an uphill battle while running. One only need look to the Barbara Lee Foundation’s well-known 2014 report “Keys to Elected Office: The Essential Guide for Women” to see just how difficult it is for women seeking public office. 

The guide doesn’t hesitate to show female candidates the cold, hard reality of running. It points out that, when it comes to fundraising, women are often not included in the same well-connected donor circles as their male counterparts. According to the guide, women are judged on their looks, the way they dress, their families — and often have to be more qualified than their male opponents. “Women need to provide more evidence than men of expertise. The first way to relay that to voters is to make an excellent first impression — to hit the ground running and to maintain that momentum throughout the campaign,” the guide states.

Rita Rawson getting sworn inBut none of those factors has stopped Grinnell College women in the past. Rita Rawson ’90 was first elected in 2015 and is in her second term as alderman of the 5th Ward in Davenport, Iowa (voteritarawson.com). She is also the only woman of color on the city council. Rawson says the way women can win is by pinpointing important local issues that citizens feel have been ignored. Rawson has been successful in promoting urban revitalization.

“The older, core neighborhoods have been neglected for decades,” she says. “But after a lot of hard work, urban revitalization is now the council’s No. 1 goal. When I was running, I never had a thought of  ‘I can’t get this done.’ My goal was to always just get it done.”  

Her advice to alums currently running for office is to have a vision that you can articulate clearly. “Being yourself and being authentic to your voice and vision, as well as being honest to constituents, is critical.” 

Kim Butler smiles at the camera

Participating in our democracy effectively 

Kim MacDonald Butler ’83, a progressive Democrat who lives in Balsam Lake, Wisconsin, is not letting obstacles get in her way of making a difference in her rural community. She is running for Wisconsin State Assembly District 28 against Republican Gae Magnafici (votekimbutler.com). Previously, Butler was set to race against incumbent Republican Adam Jarchow, but he dropped out of the race after losing a special election for the state senate earlier this year.

“I stepped up to run against the incumbent, assuming I would lose, simply to get the issues of jobs, education, health care, and the environment inserted into the discussion. That he decided not to run for re-election is a happy accident,” she says. 

Butler initially decided to get politically involved after her children began high school. “Just voting and giving money every once in a while was not getting the results I wanted,” she says.

So in early 2016, Butler joined the Polk County Democrats; by late 2016 she was elected co-chair of the group. However, it was only after being chosen as a delegate to attend the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on behalf of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders that she was truly inspired to run for state assembly.

“There was something about Bernie Sanders that really touched me. Largely it was his focus and speaking on income inequality,” Butler says. “So when he said, ‘Go join your local Democratic party,’ I did. Then he said, ‘Go to your local caucus and make sure everything was fair,’ so I went and eventually moved up and was elected as a delegate for the national convention. It was a really eye-opening experience for me, seeing so many people so passionate about politics.”

For Butler, campaign training has been instrumental in giving her the tools she needs to run for office. The first major training camp she attended was Camp Wellstone, a weekend-long program targeted to grass-roots progressive candidates. “You learn all the things you need to know to be a candidate; how to raise money and win your race,” she says. 

After completing a couple of other training programs, she connected with Liz Johnson at a VoteRunLead training camp, which Butler attended to gain more knowledge about running as a female candidate. It was there she also re-connected with Koether, whom she had first met at Camp Wellstone.

Koether says that connecting with fellow Grinnell College graduates was the final push she needed to decide to run for state office.

“It was heartening to run into other Grinnellians, including Kim Butler and Liz Johnson, at the campaign trainings I attended as I was making the decision to run,” she says. “Feeling grounded and part of a supportive community was key in helping me find the courage to put my name on the ballot.”

She continues, “At one of those trainings, a woman told me that running for office is like ‘getting a Ph.D. in life,’ because you hear so many stories and see the world through so many different perspectives. Going out and talking with people in our communities — and helping people find ways to talk to each other — is exactly what I wanted to be doing during these troubled times."

Ellman adds that you should not let running for office scare you — you have more to contribute than you realize, she says, and the time is now. 

“A common belief is that those seeking office have loftier ideals than just normal folks. But maybe now OUR loftier ideals should push us to run,” she says. “If you have considered it but thought the barriers too high, think again. Once you get started and commit, those barriers become much more manageable.” 

How to Build an Entrepreneur

Grinnell students have many opportunities to develop their entrepreneurial skills. Here are some of them:

  • “Real Life Entrepreneurship” course. Entrepreneur Sanjay Khanna ’85 led a three-week short course at Grinnell on entrepreneurial thinking, strategies, and approaches in November.
  • Innovation competition. Over the course of a weekend, student teams work to develop, validate, and build prototypes of their best entrepreneurial ideas. They compete for cash prizes and a scholarship to the University of Iowa’s Venture School.
  • SPARK Community-Based Social Innovation Challenge. Students with a social entrepreneurial mindset can participate in SPARK, in which community partners identify specific challenges, and students develop 5–7 minute pitches to solve them. Pitch winners receive $15,000 and the chance to implement their ideas.
  • Diverse paths of innovation and leadership. The alumni speaker series brings an array of alumni, including entrepreneurs, to talk about their work.

Liberal Arts and Entrepreneurship

When Jeman Park ’20 and a few friends dreamed up EduPass, technology that helps schools keep tabs on students during unscheduled times of the day, he was just a senior at Minnesota’s Mounds View High School working on a side project. But his high school principal saw plenty of potential and asked him if he and his co-founders could build out the app they’d mapped out. The app could track if a student had spent her time talking with a civics teacher about an upcoming paper, studying in the library, or hanging out in the cafeteria, instead of sequestering them in an all-purpose study hall.

Park and his team were off and running.

For tech entrepreneurs showing such early promise, heading straight to business school might have seemed like the obvious next step. But for Park, Grinnell has proved to be a perfect fit. Though its financial aid was a consideration (“I didn’t want to be riddled with debt as an entrepreneur,” he says), he’s been even happier with the ways that Grinnell has helped strengthen his critical thinking skills and think expansively about the larger possibilities of EduPass into the big data era. 

“Recently, we went back to the drawing board to figure out what our true value was — for teachers, principals, and students. We realized we needed to understand their stories and perspectives to build something that was for all of them,” he says. “Grinnell has changed the way I think about problems and changed the way I think.”

He’s also taken advantage of more formal offerings by the College. Through the Center for Careers, Life, and Service, he’s learned how to network more effectively and land a mentor. He recently took a Learning from Alumni course from Doug Caulkins, professor emeritus of anthropology and former director of the Donald and Winifred Wilson Center for Innovation and Leadership, gobbling up lessons from Grinnell entrepreneurs who have returned to campus to share their stories.

Caulkins says Park is anything but alone. “I’ve been teaching career and entrepreneurship courses for more than 15 years, and never has student interest in innovation and entrepreneurship been greater,” he says. Caulkins’ Creative Careers course alone has attracted 50 students, the largest at Grinnell.

As Park and his team of six continue to work on the app (it’s currently being tested with thousands of students at two high schools), he’s eager to use the lessons he’s learned so far to take the company as far as it will go. “It’s a roller coaster to try to turn an idea into reality,” he says. “But my dream is to work on EduPass after college.” 

Start, Scale, Sell

Grinnellians have always had an entrepreneurial streak. J.B. Grinnell himself founded a church in New York and the town of Grinnell. (He also dreamed up “Grinnell University,” though the college that stands today sprang to life from Iowa College’s relocation.) Robert Noyce ’49 famously co-founded Intel, Nordahl Brue ’67 was the brains behind Bruegger’s Bagels, and Lucia McMillan Cleveland ’74 launched The Spice Hunter.

Today, young Grinnellians are as ambitious as their predecessors, building companies they hope will change the world — or at least their corner of it. In the stories that follow, we share the big visions, the tough failures, and the grit that it takes to build a business from the ground up.

1. Start: From side gig to solopreneur

Illustration of Natz Soberanes ’13

As a student, Natz Soberanes ’13 seemed perfectly positioned to line up her dream job as counselor or a therapist. She majored in sociology. She was a great listener, and she was deeply empathetic.

But when a fellow Grinnellian introduced her to WordPress website software during her senior year, she quickly discovered both her talent and affinity for technology. That summer, Alexia Brue ’95 hired Soberanes to intern at the health website that Brue had co-founded, Well + Good. And in 2014, Soberanes’ aunt recommended her to a friend who needed a new website to promote her fledgling coaching business. 

Soon, through word of mouth, Soberanes had built a full-time business in a unique niche: women, often moms, who wanted a website to promote a new or growing business. It turned out that all those skills Soberanes had been burnishing to pursue a career in counseling helped her stand out in a crowded field of web designers. “A lot of my work is being able to empathize with others and understand where they’re coming from,” she says. “For example, a lot of women I was working with were nervous — they weren’t sure they had value to add because they were ‘just’ moms. But I’ve been able to connect with them and help them.”

While most business owners don’t think of their web designer as helpful coach, Soberanes does double duty in ways her clients love: She digs deep into their lives, learns about their priorities and passions, and translates those conversations into websites that truly represent her clients’ businesses and work. 

Still, she admits it hasn’t always been easy to run her own business. Her top-notch reviews ensure she always has a steady stream of clients (she has a perfect rating from more than 70 clients who have reviewed her on the hiring website PeoplePerHour), but the financial headaches are often just as constant. “Just because you send an invoice doesn’t mean that it’ll get paid,” she says. “Plus, unlike people who get a regular paycheck, I’m not guaranteed to make a certain amount on a certain day.”

That said, she’s thrilled with what she’s built so far. The business gives her the flexibility to travel — she splits her time between Mexico, Texas, and California. And today, she does work for women running businesses in construction and architecture, yoga and massage, and photography and fashion. They’re a diverse set of industries, but Soberanes brings their projects and larger business missions to life through their sites. “When you’re having long phone calls with clients where you talk about everything in their lives, not just ‘This is what I need on my site,’ you get to know the human aspect of them, and that helps the work,” she says.

2. Scale: Creating a company with millions of raving fans

Illustration of Jason Chen ’07

Jason Chen ’07 had never considered himself particularly lucky in love when he was growing up in Shanghai. He’d had plenty of crushes on girls — but they were always unrequited. By the time he arrived in Grinnell, he worried he might never be in a relationship.

But Chen wasn’t content to feel sorry for himself. He took action in perhaps the most Grinnell way possible — by making a beeline to Burling. He devoured materials on evolutionary psychology, sociology, and anthropology. He carefully observed the way that men and women communicated with each other. He planned to unlock the code to love.

Over time, and in his own way, he did. He found his first love at Grinnell — and experienced his first breakup. The deeper he dug into the complexity of emotions and relationships, the more he realized that the simplistic view he had once had of attraction and love was wrongheaded. “I realized that love isn’t about looks, height, or money, as I had previously believed,” he says. “It was about things like values, responsibility, empathy, and boundaries.”

He carried those ideas with him when he returned to Shanghai after graduation, and eventually, he wrote a post about it on an online message board called BBS, a Chinese version of Reddit. The post covered topics including confidence, self-esteem, and dating, specifically for men. And users were bowled over. Men started emailing Chen by the dozens, asking for his best advice. Soon, dozens of advice-seekers had turned into hundreds.

After sending out countless emails, Chen started seeing a bigger opportunity. He channeled that initial reader interest into a regular email newsletter, then an ebook. 

Chen credits an analytical approach — one he honed at Grinnell — as a secret to success. In a course about the presidency taught by Barbara Trish, professor of political science, Chen learned how to use quantitative and qualitative analysis to study State of the Union addresses. He closely analyzed the words they used, the frequency with which they used them, and the context that surrounded them to tease out important patterns and deeper meaning. He used that technique early on as he studied what his readers, viewers, and customers were most interested in, and it helped guide what he shared with his audience next.

Over time, he built a real business, MSW Media. He spent years developing top-notch material about dating and social skills. He built a website and a payment system. He worked with specialists who could help him protect his copyrighted material and thwart digital thieves, who are particularly rampant in China.

Today, Chen’s company has 13 employees, an online talk show with 4 million subscribers, and information products and courses on topics including confidence and masculinity.

Chen says that part of his success stems from pairing the lessons he learned from his studies at Grinnell to his deep knowledge of Chinese culture, whose values can look far different from American culture. “In China, it’s very common for parents to tell their children — in middle school, high school, and even college — that they should only be studying and not ‘waste’ their time in relationships,” he says. “A lot of these ‘good kids’ who listened to their parents then lack this kind of experience when they finally do have to interact in a dating situation.” By the time these same young men have graduated from college, their parents are urging them to marry, and that urgency often leads to disastrous attempts at romance and relationships.

As Chen looks ahead, he sees an even bigger market to pursue. “Steve Jobs always talked about following customers’ needs and that customers sometimes don’t know what they want until you put it in front of them,” he says. “Our next step is to teach people to go beyond dating and relationships, into how to be a better man, a better person. It will link up with Chinese philosophy, like Confucius and Taoism. I want to teach people about the inner game.”

3. Sell: Building a company worth buying

Illustration of Marcus Eagan ’12

When Marcus Eagan ’12 was 12, he started taking apart all the computers in his house so he could understand what made them work. His mom, understandably, was furious. His dad was more sanguine. “Neat,” he told his son. “Now put them back together.” 

While the scraps for most of the machines remain in his parents’ Detroit home, Eagan did succeed in reassembling one of the computers. That was enough to persuade his parents to put him in programming courses. By high school, Eagan was making serious cash on the side fixing websites.

 By the time he landed at Grinnell as a transfer student (he loved its link to Intel co-founder Robert Noyce), he was deep into the tech weeds. While there, he co-founded Freenet, which became the Free Network Foundation — an organization that supported a community to build, maintain, and own a share of the global computer network — after Eagan left Grinnell.

After bouncing around in an array of tech and writing jobs after graduation, Eagan landed at a consulting firm that did work with Target. He happened to be deeply embedded with the Target team when the company’s headline-making security breach occurred in 2013. While Eagan wasn’t working on anything related to the swiped data, he did have an insider’s view of what was happening. “Their HVAC system was networked, and it was on the same network as the payment processors,” he says. “Once that [HVAC system] got hacked, the payment processor was able to get skimmed,” he says.

It got him wondering about his own security. He’d just bought a Dropcam, a Nest, and an Xbox — all internet-connected tech that could theoretically be jam-packed with devastating viruses. But how would he even know? He felt confident that he could help solve the problem.

That led him to launch Nodal Security, a company that was focused on building a tool to help consumers discover whether their devices had been hacked. He landed a Stanford engineer as a co-founder and, with the help of some grant funding, a modest angel investment, and venture capital, built a small team that was working doggedly on the security device.

He quickly found that the startup life was comprised of almost endless fundraising and external skepticism. “This kind of work is already very hard and very stressful, and I had to endure a lot of racism,” he says, noting that he had to contend with people explicitly telling him that his white co-founder would be a better CEO than he was, even though his co-founder wasn’t interested in that job.

Eventually, while raising the third round of seed funding, he met up with Paul Judge, an angel investor and cofounder of Luma, a home wi-fi company. Judge immediately saw promise in Eagan’s idea and the company’s work, but instead of offering Eagan a check to help fund its growth, he offered to buy it on the spot. Within weeks, the deal had closed. Though the deal didn’t make Eagan a billionaire, it did give him some financial breathing room. (He did splurge on a few things, including a feast with friends and floor seats with a pal at a Celtics game.) As part of the acquisition, Eagan agreed to work as director of the Internet of Things (IoT) security for Luma.

Eagan left Luma last year and is currently dreaming up his next big entrepreneurial move. He deeply admires the approach of Elon Musk, who takes on multiple “moonshot” projects at a time, and he’s especially eager to tackle both climate change and computer security. As he looks ahead, he’s eager to bring the best and brightest with him. “A great idea isn’t one that’s only in your head,” he says. “Don’t hold good ideas inside. Share them.” 

 

Is Grinnellink Right for You?

Now, years after Grinnell opened Miller’s eyes to the injustices of the world, Grinnellians continue to feed her passion for righting the world’s wrongs. In return, she is helping students find their own paths to success, whether they choose law school or something else entirely. 

As to whether other alums should consider the Grinnellink program, Miller says, “Yes! Yes! Yes! I want to give two thumbs up to anybody who thinks the Grinnellink program may be something they want to think about.”

Although there are many internship opportunities available to college students, a Grinnellink internship provides Grinnell students the unique opportunity to develop and cultivate their professional networks, build on their academic backgrounds, develop professional skills and confidence, and foster career exploration with alumni or friends of Grinnell. 

In addition, any student who secures an unpaid 8–10 week, full-time Grinnellink internship is eligible to apply for grant funding to offset the costs of food, transportation, and housing during the internship. 

Thinking of hosting an intern but unsure whether your profession or organization would be the right fit? Interested in learning more? Contact Jovan Johnson, assistant director of employer engagement and internships, at johnson5[at]grinnell[dot]edu or 641-269-4782.

 

Taking Interns Seriously

As one of just three full-time lawyers working at American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska, Amy Miller ’93 puts her boundless energy, empathy, and passion to use on a daily basis. She seems so entirely in her element that it’s hard to imagine there was a time when she balked at the thought of becoming a lawyer. 

An art history major from suburban Nebraska, when Miller first came to Grinnell she pictured herself in a profession that involved plenty of books and little cause to be the center of attention. But a series of experiences at Grinnell and an insightful adviser changed all that.

“I feel like a jellyfish that rode the wave and washed up in the most perfect ocean that I could have hoped for,” says Miller. Now, as a mentor with the Grinnellink internship program, she’s helping a new generation of Grinnell students find their own perfect ocean. 

Discovering her “right place”

When Miller was considering her options for college, she had a few criteria. She knew that she wanted to go to a smaller school in the Midwest with rigorous academics and that she was not interested in sports or a Greek system. She added Grinnell to her list because the promotional materials she received included student-written essays that were “sassy, funny, and quirky.” She decided to visit. 

“The minute I stepped on campus, a guy walked by wearing one of those long, floaty, Indian cotton skirts, and I thought ‘Yes, this is where I want to go!’” laughs Miller. “My parents were totally freaked out but I knew I was already in my right place.”

Before coming to Grinnell, Miller had not experienced much outside her “suburban bubble” in Nebraska. “My parents were more on the conservative side … they certainly weren’t taking me to protests or anything like that,” she jokes. 

But her undergraduate experience was to prove transformative. Grinnell, Miller says, “took my head and opened it up.”

Amy Miller in office talking with coworker

A crisis of conscience 

When Miller was a first-year student, some of her Langan Hall floor mates invited her to volunteer with a group that helped out at a homeless shelter in Des Moines, Iowa, on weekends. It was unlike any experience she had had before. “It feels dumb to admit it, but I had not really had that face-to-face experience with people living in impoverished situations,” Miller says. 

Then, in her third year, she studied abroad with Grinnell-in-London. 

“That was my next crisis of conscience,” she says. Her first time in a big city, Miller saw things that shocked her. There were people sleeping on the streets and police hassling people who clearly didn’t speak English or understand what was happening. She recalls thinking, “Why are you hassling him? He’s trying to do the best he can!”

“I had kind of a meltdown,” she says. “I had met people at the homeless shelter in Des Moines, but they had a roof over their head and they had their own room. Wow. It sounds naïve, but I had no idea that was how the world worked.”

She talked to her Grinnell-in-London professor, the late Michael Cavanagh, trying to make sense of it all. After listening to her concerns, he suggested a career path she hadn’t considered: law school. She initially resisted. “I was a very shy person, and I couldn’t envision myself standing in court shouting ‘Objection!’”

Cavanagh insisted that she wouldn’t be happy unless she was actively making a difference. She relented. “I told myself I just wouldn’t be the courtroom type of lawyer.” 

Going back to Nebraska

Miller has now been “the courtroom type of lawyer” for nearly 20 years. She started working part time at ACLU of Nebraska in 1999 and came on full time in 2001. Miller has long since overcome her shyness. “People were being mean to my clients! And I realized no matter how shy I’m feeling, I’ve gotta figure out how to yell at somebody.”

After Grinnell, Miller returned to her home state to attend law school at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She decided she should use her “gift of a good situation” to give back and right some of the ills in the world. “And then I thought, well, I should do that in Nebraska. Because we do suffer from brain drain, and somebody has to stay and fight. I guess I decided I would do that.”

Then, after a few years working at ACLU, Miller saw an appeal from Grinnell asking alumni if they would like to host student interns. “And I thought, ‘Uh, Cha! Yes, I would!’” Miller has been hosting a Grinnell intern each summer ever since. 

Practical help and a fresh perspective

Miller had never thought to take on an intern until she saw the call for volunteers, but she now sees interns as an invaluable asset to her office. “Grinnell students pick things up so fast, and they really are quite independent, because that’s how the College is training them,” she says. 

She also appreciates the more intangible benefits of mentoring Grinnell interns. Interns come back from court appalled at how the judge is treating people, or don’t understand why police seem to resist cultural sensitivity training. Seeing interns’ genuine reactions reminds Miller that certain things that seem commonplace to her aren’t so commonplace to those viewing them with fresh eyes.

“Having that fresh perspective keeps me in check so that I don’t allow injustices and inequities to seem like they’re just day-to-day business,” she says. 

Her interns also help her keep tabs on what is happening back at Grinnell. While much has changed, she can always find common ground. “It is restorative and charming to remember there is life continuing on campus even though I’m not there anymore,” says Miller. 

Taking interns seriously

Every year, Miller takes projects that she knows will require hours of in-depth research and sets them aside specifically for her Grinnell interns. She also tries to give each intern at least a couple of options to ensure that they can work on something they’re passionate about and get the most out of the experience. 

“It boggles my mind that there are internships that don’t fully embrace the opportunity that a talented, intelligent Grinnell student brings to the table,” says Miller. “I don’t need someone to go get me coffee — I can get my own coffee — but I do need help doing the substantive research that takes a lot of focus that I don’t have the time to do.”

This philosophy has served Miller — and her interns — well. Several bills have been introduced and passed into law in the Nebraska state legislature as a result of Grinnell intern reports. 

A success story

Nathan Calvin ’18 is the latest intern whose research has made a lasting difference. During his 2017 summer internship at ACLU, Calvin wrote a report focusing on the high cost of calling home from jail, as well as privacy issues surrounding attorney-client phone calls. A law prohibiting “excessive commissions and bonus payments” and guaranteeing free calls between attorneys and their clients passed with bipartisan support in April.

Of working with Miller, Calvin says, “It’s really hard to imagine anyone taking their intern having a good experience more seriously. She’s not just a great boss, she’s a great mentor and friend.”

He credits the internship with solidifying his resolve to go to law school and helping him to understand the sort of work he wants to spend his life doing. He wrote about the experience in his law school applications and asked Miller for letters of recommendation. He has now been accepted at Stanford Law School, but will defer admission for a year to work on artificial intelligence ethics issues at Oxford University’s Governance of AI Institute. 

Read more about internship opportunties at Is Grinnelliink right for you?