Together We're Greater

In 2019–20, we are excited to gather alumni and friends together for a series of events around the globe, so we can connect and reconnect, discuss, celebrate, and share ideas for empowering Grinnellians.

All are welcome at these events. Learn more at Alumni Events or contact Nino Parker ’07, senior associate director of alumni and donor relations, at 866-850-1846.


Oct. 17, Des Moines, Iowa
Oct. 22, Washington, D.C.
Nov. 6, Chicago
Nov. 20, New York City


Jan. 5, Naples, Florida
Feb. 18, Denver
Feb. 27, San Francisco
April 2, Seattle
May 14, Minneapolis
June 24–26, Hong Kong (Specific date to be determined.)
Sept. 12, London

The Uneasiness of Tolerance

Last June, Priyanka Dangol ’21, 13 other Grinnell students, and their two professors stood at the visually stunning Wannsee villa on the outskirts of Berlin, Germany. Together they confronted the meaning of the site where Nazi and Schutzstaffel leaders met in January 1942 to plan the Final Solution — code name for the extermination of European Jews. Not a tourist destination in any conventional sense, it is a place to be approached with preparation and intention.

“Learning about it in a book,” Dangol says, “you see only black-and-white pictures, and you can’t really situate yourself. But when you actually go there, you see this beautiful lake and the beautiful beach and the green scenery. It hits you that the people who were making these vile decisions were in the exact same beautiful surroundings. And still they made those destructive horrifying decisions to kill millions of people.

“Going there, and going to concentration camps (Sachsenhausen and Natzweiler-Struthof) was hard to take but also very eye-opening,” she adds. “To see for yourself the surroundings in which people had to endure all this torture made the whole idea so much more real. You really start empathizing when you get to see detailed accounts of victims’ lives.”

The sites to which Dangol refers were among many during three weeks of travel in France and Germany that capped off a spring 2019 Global Learning Program (GLP) seminar on tolerance and intolerance in Europe from the Reformation to current times. The first-ever GLP course for second-year students was modeled after first-year GLP tutorials characterized by cross-disciplinary work, provocative contemporary questions, multi-geographical comparative studies, and international travel.

“The trip, and the whole course, gave me a much more holistic idea of things that I had very little knowledge about before,” Dangol says. “I think it is one of the greatest experiences I’ve had so far in my two years at Grinnell.”

Evolution of GLP 2.0

Students at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp memorial look at a model of the camp.David Harrison, professor of French, designed and team-taught the new GLP course with Daniel Reynolds, Seth Richards Professor of Modern Languages and professor of German studies. They taught a similar GLP course in 2016 for first-year students. Harrison says the GLP structure is so effective because it integrates “all the best aspects

of the Grinnell curriculum.” The GLP was made possible by the generous support of Susan Holden McCurry ’71 and the Roland and Ruby Holden Foundation. Expanding and deepening the GLP offering for second-year students made the extended travel experience even more critical.

“We don’t just go to a site for a few days, do some research, and come back,” Harrison says. “It’s about really in-depth trying to get to know a site, or several sites. The experiential learning aspect of the travel, the comparative nature of the travel component — the fact that we go to France and Germany, as well as Strasbourg on the border of those two countries — makes this something quite different from a regular Grinnell course.

“And,” Harrison adds, “it’s important to note that the course is not just for beginners. It requires in this case four semesters of language studies in French or German, so there is some preparation involved.”

Guaranteeing a minimal level of proficiency in either language meant that “everyone in the class would be able to converse with the locals on site,” Reynolds says. “And there would also be someone in the group who could translate signs, help navigate the rail system, help order food, those kinds of things.”

Another difference Reynolds saw with the second-year GLP course: “The students have a year of Grinnell under their belt, so they’re a little more confident about their ability to speak as intellectuals with scholars that we meet on the trip. They’re more sure of themselves in terms of why they’re in the class, what they’re going to do with the knowledge in the class.”

Purposeful research

“We really want the students to have a solid foundation for exploring present-day conversations about racism, migration, and political formations around nationalism, neo-nationalism, et cetera,” Reynolds says. “So, because these things that we’re facing today have a long pre-history, I think it’s important for students to understand how the debates we’re having today are framed by that historical process.”

During the course, each student proposed a research project related to the seminar’s central question in the context of the history and current conditions in France and Germany —namely, can we live together with people whose values and beliefs are fundamentally different from ours?

Stolpersteine, or “stumbling stones,” in front of Humboldt University“Our course explores how the idea of tolerance manifests itself as a philosophical idea, both in terms of the last couple of hundred years in France and Germany and in how the countries return to those philosophical debates in addressing current-day political and social questions,” Harrison says. “For example, whether we’re talking about the increase of Muslim populations or the expression of anti-Semitic actions, how do these two nations deal with those forms of intolerance today after all the things that have gone before?”

The students’ research projects, approved by midsemester, were completed and submitted prior to the travel. That, too, was purposeful. “The idea was that the research and writing they’d done would be the basis for their being able to interact with people abroad and to deepen their knowledge,” Harrison explains. “It also deepened the conversation among the entire group when we went to different sites so that each student, based on their research, could help inform the conversations.”

The result, Harrison says, was that students were more engaged. They approached interactions with a stronger background in the issues, and “were able  to ask questions of people one-on-one in a way that was very in-depth.” Student research also informed the course’s travel itinerary, which was built around scholarship rather than tourism. Reynolds describes it as giving history “some real geographical space.”

Harrison says, “We chose sites that were very focused on the topics we’d been studying, as well as speakers and lecturers that most visitors traveling abroad wouldn’t choose because they require a certain level of knowledge to appreciate them. One such place was the New Synagogue of Berlin, which represents the entire tradition of Berlin Judaism and its complex history over the past two centuries. That would not be a typical stop for tourists, or even a school group going to Berlin.”

Inspired to learn more

During the classroom portion of the course prior to the travel, Avery Lewis ’21 elected to research the various aspects of visually offensive materials, including how visual “offense” differs from textual and other forms. Specifically, he looked at depictions of the prophet Mohammed that have been published in the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

“My argument basically was that when we think about what is and isn’t offensive, the mediums through which it is depicted have to be taken into account,” Lewis says. “There are psychological, theoretical, and other grounds in which a visual offense can, in some instances, be much more offensive than other forms. I don’t think that’s talked about enough.”

Lewis, who cited Sachsenhausen, Natzweiler, and the Drancy (Paris) deportation camp as the most powerful and emotional experiences from the group’s travels, pointed to two sessions in Strasbourg that expanded his perceptions related to his research topic.

“At the Grand Mosque, I got a lot of information from my tour guide that made me rethink some of my arguments, or at least showed me I need to dive a little bit deeper into religious groundings and the beliefs around them before I can make a claim about a certain group of people,” Lewis says.

“Secondly, a big part of my project was about constitutionally what is and what isn’t protected under definitions of hate speech,” Lewis says. “Our lecture at the Council of Europe made me realize how much more complicated judicial systems are in Europe.

Sachsenhausen concentration gamp gates“It made me want to learn more about how the branches of the judicial systems work in each country in comparison to the overall European court of human rights, and to learn more about the complexities of my paper,” he says. “Even though I still stand by my argument, I would want to do a lot more research on it.”

Lewis says the GLP experience not only reaffirmed his desire to travel, it instilled in him the importance of traveling with intention, with a specific purpose or for a specific cause. “It also reaffirmed for me the importance of learning language, or as many languages as you can,” he says.

Shaping future aspirations

For Cinthia Romo ’21, the GLP seminar provided perspectives specific to her career plans. She says being able to interview people at nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) — most notably SOS Racism in Paris — provided “a different take on approaches to multiculturalism and race that are outside of the American context where I’m surrounded by it all the time.”

Having conducted her seminar research on the role of modern-day intellectuals in public society and academia, Romo says a lecture by a specialist in populism “reaffirmed what I had found about the role of the intellectual in politics, and in general put me on track in terms of what I want to do in future.”

The European trip also segued into her internship at a restorative justice agency in Maine this summer, and she drew comparisons about how models for restorative justice in individual trauma cases may be applied to historical traumas and broader concepts of tolerance.

“The best way to describe it is that the victim of a crime comes together with offender,” Romo says, ”so that the offender can assume responsibility and the victim can talk about whatever harm that has been done. It’s really effective and has been shown to reduce recidivism among offenders and also has reduced PTSD in victims.”

Romo added, “I think this course was really beneficial in seeing historical traumas through a more intense perspective in order to understand people’s experiences.”

Perspectives on tolerance

While many GLP students report a favorable impression of Germany’s efforts to remember and memorialize victims of the Holocaust, individual research produced some nuance in those impressions. After extensively researching the evolution of hip-hop as an expression of social and immigration issues in Germany, Linnet Adams ’21 says there are other areas where more could be done.

“When we were in Berlin, never once did we see any mention of what Germany has done to negatively affect the African community,” Adams says. “I never saw any monuments about it. I never saw anything about Namibia. A bunch of streets are still named after German colonial figures and parts of Africa that became colonized, so those things affirm to me that while Germany is doing a pretty good job at confronting what was done by Nazis, they still have a long way to go when it comes to what they did in the late 19th century and what they’re doing in the present.”


The Marienkirche, or Church of St. MaryIn an experience similar to Dangol’s epiphany at Wannsee, Adams recounts an impression from Berlin that was framed by classroom references and pre-travel preparation.

“At the Holocaust memorial, there are about 2,500 [stelae] or blocks between 0 and 4 meters tall,” Adams says. “There were regulations placed around the memorial that are hidden in plain sight; not many people can see them but they’re there. We saw a lot of people like standing on them [the blocks], taking pictures, posing. I along with everybody else found it very jarring to see them being so disrespectful.

“It reminded me of talking in class months before about what we should do when it comes to taking pictures at these types of sites, or at concentration camps,” Adams says. “One particular student brought up a Berlin-based Israeli comedian’s project where he found social media pictures of people disrespecting Holocaust memorial sites, and he was basically publicly shaming them.

“The behaviors we had seen from that project were what we saw at the Holocaust memorial. I just couldn’t believe that people still do it. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that.”

High expectations, difficult questions

In assessing the success of the new course, Harrison says he and Reynolds were gratified that the 14 GLP students “completely lived up to our expectations” given the increased depth and demands of the second year seminar.

“We saw a moral growth in being able to recognize that the questions we were dealing with were difficult questions with no easy solutions, and that the kinds of easy answers that students might have coming into the course are not as applicable when they left the course,” Harrison says.

“Students recognized that tolerance, or the practice of tolerance, is not easy — that it actually constantly requires questions and dialogue,” he says. “It is not just a matter of ‘we like everyone,’ because that’s not what tolerance is. Tolerance is really being able to live with people that you disagree with or that have ideas that you find disagreeable.”

“The GLP is an incredible learning opportunity for students, but also for faculty,” Reynolds says, “It’s probably one of the most exciting new features of our curriculum in recent times. Word has gotten out to students. They want to come to Grinnell because of the GLP."

Priyanka Dangol ’21 is a computer science major from Kathmandu, Nepal; Avery Lewis ’21 is a political science and English double major from Beloit, Wisconsin; Cinthia Romo ’21 is a sociology and French double major from Kansas City, Kansas; Linnet Adams ’21 is a German and history double major from New Orleans.

Solving Wicked Thorny Problems

There was something special about Free the Planet (FTP), an environmental advocacy-focused student group active in the ’90s and early 2000s.

Its unorthodox leadership model, commitment to networking and training with professionals, and purpose-driven student community gave the group a powerful ability to get things done.

FTP’s influence stretched well beyond campus. Its leaders built up a statewide student activist network called Iowa Students Towards Environmental Protection (STEP) that brought together campus activists from colleges and universities across Iowa. They organized professional training conferences every year and partnered with environmental nongovernment organizations (NGOs) to lead grassroots efforts that drew media attention to environmental causes and yielded results at the local, state, and even national level.

While FTP is no longer active on campus, its legacy lives on in its alumni. Many of its members have taken the skills, experience, and knowledge they gained in the group and applied them to careers in environmental advocacy and law. They have also carried with them lifelong friendships and a powerful network of peers with a common purpose. We caught up with four of the group’s original members to ask them about the impact that FTP has had on their lives and careers.

From FTP founder to climate policy advocate

When Bill Holland ’00 arrived at Grinnell, he felt passionately that big companies were polluting the environment and that building grassroots power was the best way to stop them. He wanted to join a student group focused on environmental lobbying and advocacy, but no such group existed. So, he partnered with his friend David Newville ’99 and founded his own.

Grinnell’s ethos of self-governance gave FTP “the freedom and flexibility to lead efforts on our own as students,” says Holland. He learned how to run a meeting, write press releases, recruit activists, and run a successful campaign.

Holland intentionally distributed leadership responsibilities across FTP to ensure that all of its members would develop those same career-building skills. While upperclassmen typically led student groups, “one of the things that we really focused on was putting sophomores in charge,” says Holland.

How to help save the planet

Want to help the environment but don’t know where to begin? Free the Planet alumni offer ways to make a difference:

  • Vote for candidates who prioritize the environment and convince others to do the same, suggests Sarah Kogel-Smucker ’01.
  • Once candidates are in office, hold them accountable, says Bill Holland ’00. Ensure that your elected officials recognize “how urgent and important protecting our climate and our planet is.”
  • “Show up to community meetings, have conversations, get involved,” encourages Shannon Anderson ’01. Whether you’re sending a letter to an elected official, participating in a rally, donating money, or giving your time to a local environmental group, “there’s a role for everybody in this movement,” she says.
  • To make your daily routine a bit more green, Vanessa Pierce ’02 recommends converting your old gas-burning stove to electric. As the U.S. electric sector moves increasingly towards renewables, “the future is going to be electrifying our buildings,” she says.

Second-years led the group, and third-year students and seniors were put in charge of subgroups and campaign teams focused on specific issues. Students who inherited leadership from Holland took that philosophy to heart and carried it on.

Holland also got the group involved in national campaigns and invited professionals from environmental NGOs like the Rainforest Action Network to provide training workshops on campus. Here, FTP’s Iowa location worked to its benefit.

National environmental campaigns were eager to include “committed students in a state where a lot of groups didn’t have activists,” Holland says. As a result, FTP had the chance to lead statewide environmental efforts that effected real change. They protested the destruction of rainforests and old-growth forests, campaigned for clean water protections in Iowa, and fought for more sustainability on campus. The wind turbine at the Conard Environmental Research Area (CERA) is thanks, in part, to FTP’s tireless efforts.

Holland still feels deeply connected to the group to this day. After graduation, several members of FTP were accepted to Green Corps, a national environmental activism training fellowship that accepts just a handful of recent graduates each year. Participating in Green Corps and organizing conferences back on campus after graduation “kept the FTP community going.”

Being part of an enduring FTP community “has been incredibly helpful to keep me connected to and inspired by the work that I do,” says Holland. “Some of my closest friends are now colleagues — it’s super cool when you see someone you organized with when you were 20 at a conference.”

Now, Holland is putting his political science major and time with FTP to good use as an environmental advocacy leader in Washington, D.C. As the senior director of state policy for the League of Conservation Voters, he works on state-level climate and clean energy work. “It’s basically working with state-based organizations on campaigning, lobbying, and advocacy,” he says. “It feels closely related to work that I did back at Grinnell.”

Illustration of trees

Igniting a passion for the environment

Having grown up in the urban setting of New York City, “environmental issues weren’t particularly on my radar” before coming to Grinnell, says Sarah Kogel-Smucker ’01. Then, the summer after her first year, she took a job canvassing for an environmental NGO. When Kogel-Smucker arrived back on campus newly curious about environmental causes, she joined FTP.

To date, her entire career has focused on environmental advocacy and public interest work. “I was a philosophy major, so that really came from my activism with Free the Planet and wanting to continue that,” she says. “I’m very grateful Free the Planet was part of my experience at Grinnell.”

Beginning her third year, Kogel-Smucker helped to lead FTP’s forest protection subgroup. The subgroup successfully campaigned against the purchasing practices of large companies like Home Depot, getting them to stop sourcing old-growth wood from endangered forests.

Kogel-Smucker fondly remembers long hours spent in the Forum — then a major hub of student activity — preparing for a meeting or planning the subgroup’s next campaign move with fellow FTP members. “It felt exciting and effective to be working locally as part of a national network on an international issue,” she says. “It was very motivating when Home Depot agreed to change their purchasing practices, because we were doing something where we were seeing real results and forests were potentially going to be saved because of it.”

She credits the College with giving FTP the funds and freedom it needed to be effective, and speaks highly of Iowa as a place to explore advocacy work. “We did public protests and actions, and overall the people we encountered were surprisingly supportive of that and liked that young people were caring about something. It was a very supportive environment before entering a more contentious world.”

After graduating, Kogel-Smucker took the advocacy skills she had gained with FTP and went back to New York. She spent some time lobbying for the Sierra Club and working other advocacy jobs. Then, during a stint working in Albany advocating for state environmental issues, Kogel-Smucker realized how big a role lawyers play in shaping environmental law. The experience inspired her to go back to school to study law.

Kogel-Smucker has now been practicing law for more than a decade. For much of that time, she worked in public interest environmental law in New York. Now, she works on climate litigation for the Washington, D.C., attorney general and calls climate change an “existential issue.”

“A lot of what I’m doing right now is working on multistate responses to proposed Trump administration rollbacks to environmental laws. It’s heartening to fight it, but frustrating that in a moment where we need transformational change, we’ve had to defend basic protections.”

While Kogel-Smucker hasn’t worked directly with other FTP alumni since graduating, she maintains a personal connection to the group to this day. In 2012, she married Bill Holland.

Learning to advocate locally

Shannon Anderson ’01 has always felt connected to the earth. A childhood spent exploring the mountainous public lands of Wyoming piqued her interest in conservation and sustainability from an early age, and she arrived at Grinnell eager to engage in environmental advocacy work.

While Anderson explored her interests in the classroom via a political science major and environmental studies concentration, FTP was her environmental community on campus. Anderson felt an instant sense of belonging at her first FTP meeting. “All of a sudden there was this group of people who spoke my language and cared about the same things I did,” she says. “It was an exciting group of people that had a lot of skills and passion and connections to the broader environmental movement.”

She became heavily involved in the group, leading several subgroups and campaigns — including a memorable protest where FTP students dressed up as Disney characters to raise awareness about harmful chemicals in children’s toys.

Illustration of people in meetingShe also worked with the Iowa Sierra Club to raise concerns about a proposed highway bypass that would bisect the fragile habitat of the Eddyville Sand Dunes Prairie. This experience would prove formative for her career. When Anderson and other FTP students showed up at a public hearing in Eddyville about the highway’s environmental impact assessment, they learned that the community support for the project was fueled by concern for children’s safety — the highway was dangerously close to a school. In the end, a mutually agreeable compromise was achieved.

“Showing up for the public hearing taught me a lot about community organizing and the need to be cognizant of people’s interests and needs,” Anderson says. “There was a need for the highway project and a need to protect the habitat. It was a good lesson on the need to listen, respect, and work together — even if you are coming from a different perspective.”

After spending a year in Namibia with Grinnell Corps, Anderson attended law school at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon. She worked on community economic development and affordable housing advocacy in California for several years before moving back to Wyoming to work full-time in environmental advocacy. Today, Anderson works as a staff attorney and community organizer for the Powder River Basin Resource Council, addressing the impacts of coal mining on Wyoming’s communities and wild places.

Anderson’s current role is heavy on litigation and advocacy work, but she still finds time to do a lot of campaigning. “I go back to those campaigning skills from my Free the Planet time — goals, strategies, tactics — I think about that stuff every single day,” she says. “Many people don’t learn those skills until much later, but I had the privilege of learning that all in college.”

Anderson has bumped into fellow FTP alumni from time to time over the course of her career, and recently reconnected with some of them at her 15-year reunion. “I was so glad I went,” she says.

“Grinnell is just an amazing college with fabulous alumni who really care about our future and our world. I had that before going into college, but the student body and the faculty really helped me develop that passion and carry it with me.”

Building an enduring community

“As a kid I cared about protecting the environment, but I didn’t understand how advocacy worked,” says native Coloradan Vanessa Pierce ’02, an independent major in international relations. By her second year at Grinnell, she was a leader of FTP.

Her first year, she got involved with the green voting subgroup, dedicated to raising awareness about environmental issues for the upcoming Iowa gubernatorial election. She recalls helping to organize a statewide rally in front of the Des Moines capitol building to pressure then-Democratic candidate Tom Vilsack to stand up for clean water in Iowa. “We wanted to drive the point home that we care about clean air and clean water, and the impacts of the agricultural industry, so we rented a huge U-Haul truck to send the message that if the state government didn’t get serious about clean water, we were going to pack up and leave,” she says.

Another campaign that generated attention was the forest protection subgroup led by Kogel-Smucker. Students who went to Menards and Home Depot risked arrest, “and in fact, some of them did get arrested,” says Pierce. “That was kind of wild. [Our] police liaison and media liaison both ended up getting arrested, so I had to jump in and help.”

Generating media attention for environmental causes was one of the group’s major tactical strengths. Sometimes, FTP campaigns were even higher profile than the national and state NGOs they worked with. One year, Pierce says, FTP generated more media coverage as a campus student group than the Iowa Sierra Club itself.

For the original members of FTP, the group’s strong bond and emphasis on community building and professional training extended beyond graduation. Greg Schrieber ’02, an FTP leader and close friend of Holland and Pierce, died tragically during the spring break of his senior year. To honor his memory and the community he believed in, they organized an annual training conference on campus for five years after they graduated. The conference, called “Hoedown in the Heartland,” offered training for the new generation of student environmental activists across Iowa and commemorated “the productive mischief we had made in the spirit of saving the planet.”

Today, Pierce is a freelance consultant and talent scout working primarily for the Climate Breakthrough Project, which invests in high risk/high reward strategies to address climate change. They look for “brilliant strategists with bold ideas” who could use monetary support and training. Pierce is particularly interested in bringing more diversity into the environmental field by helping connect creative thinkers from less well-represented groups with the resources they need.

Grinnell students still engaged

Although Free the Planet is no longer active on campus, several other student organizations are concerned with many of the same issues that fired up students years ago. Grinnell’s list of student organizations is ever-growing, and many of them focus on issues of sustainability and environmental advocacy.

  • The Student Environmental Committee works to increase awareness and promote positive behavioral change to address systemic issues of sustainability, especially on campus. Past projects have focused on increasing waste disposal literacy among students.
  • The Grinnell College Garden provides students with the opportunity to learn about small-scale farming and the value of local food systems.
  • The Student Government Association Green Fund directs money to student projects focused on sustainability on campus. It recently implemented a pilot industrial composting system in coordination with the College’s sustainability committee.
  • The Farm House is a student project house with a small garden.
  • The Grinnell Sunrise Movement is the local branch of the national youth-based movement advocating for the Green New Deal.
  • The Food Recovery Network collects perishable food from the College dining hall that would otherwise go unused and donates it to community partners for people in need of a free meal.
  • Iowater provides citizen-gathered data on water quality in Iowa. The Grinnell branch coordinates these efforts in the local watershed and increases awareness on campus of Iowa water quality issues.


Touchable: The Value of Hands-on Research with the Grinnell College Art Collection

In the basement of Burling Library, in the perfectly chilled Print and Drawing Study Room, on an even chillier February afternoon in Grinnell, students eagerly crowded around Jiayun Chen ’19 and Susan Wood, professor of art history at Oakland University. Their attention remained fixed upon a small marble head, resting on a soft white pillow. Chen had examined the portrait before, but this time, she found something new.

Art objects offer opportunities for new discoveries

This particular head is one of three possibly ancient sculpted heads, which form a part of the College’s art collection and are some of the artifacts that students can research. Monessa Cummins, associate professor of classics, heard about the heads from Jerry Lalonde, professor emeritus of classics. “Jerry just kept saying someone needs to work on those sculpted heads,” Cummins says.

For years, very little was known of the stone portraits. When Andrew Stewart, a professor from the University of California Berkeley who specializes in Greek sculpture, visited campus in 2015 for a lecture, he examined the heads. Stewart identified one as Roman and authentic and the other two as possibly Greek and worthy of study. 

A seed was planted, and a few years later when Chen approached Cummins one spring about doing a Mentored Advanced Project (MAP), Cummins suggested that she work on one of the ancient heads. They looked at the three heads and settled upon the Roman head for Chen’s research, thinking it might be more distinctive. 

Chen, who had studied Greek sculpture at Grinnell, used the following summer at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens (thanks to the Gerald Lalonde Fellowship) and her semester abroad in Rome to visit as many museums as possible to gather images of portrait heads that resembled the Grinnell portrait. Based on her portfolio of comparable heads, Chen confirmed Stewart’s conjecture that the portrait could be dated to the third century, and she narrowed the range to about 225–300 C.E.

That’s when it got interesting. Third-century Roman portraiture is a mess, Chen says, “because there are lots of coexisting styles, and then you have this lack of material culture. You have fewer monuments, which could show you the change in imperial portraiture.” 

Cummins invited Susan Wood, who wrote a book on third-century Roman portraiture, to give a lecture on the subject and inspect the sculpture in person with Chen. The third century in Rome was a time of economic stress, as the empire was coming apart at the seams. Portraiture of the time, not immune from these pressures, shifted to a very hard abstract style, according to Wood. “It isn’t some kind of spiritual angst. It’s time, pressure, and money.” Wood says these factors resulted in the recycling of old portraits, which sculptors would refashion into portraits of other people.

The practice of re-cutting portraits was common in Rome. Whenever an emperor came to a bad end, like Nero or Domitian, he got the damnatio memoriae treatment, or “condemnation of memory.” How did that work in practical terms? They would chisel the emperor’s name out of inscriptions and destroy his portrait. Sometimes the sculptures were vandalized, but other times, the Romans recycled the artwork. After all, why wreck a perfectly good piece of marble? 

Sometimes, the handiwork would be obvious, like a badly Photoshopped image or a botched plastic surgery, but other times, the adapters would skillfully re-cut the portraits, making it difficult to discern whether it was re-cut at all. 

But what about the Roman head in the College’s art collection? Had it been re-cut? That’s what Chen wanted to know, and that’s why a throng of students gathered around her in the basement of Burling as she ran her fingers across the marble.

Fresh eyes on the object itself

Before Wood’s visit, Chen sent her photographs of the portrait. Wood did not see any signs of re-cutting. But when Chen and Wood took a closer look at the portrait with fresh eyes, new details appeared. Chen found some overlapping traces of stippled hair, short locks of hair chiseled with what appeared to be simple strokes, which Wood believes to be the original traces of the hair and the sculptor’s attempt to re-cut the sculpture and create a new hairstyle and thus, a new portrait.

They found more. Chen asked, “What about the ears?” They both agreed the ears looked suspicious, almost unfinished. Wood explained the apparently unfinished ear holes, “the hairstyle change would have necessitated cutting back around the ears,” and surmised that the sculptor might have tried to drill the volute of the ear and then given up.

Chen also noticed something peculiar about the nostrils of the portrait. There were none. “Don’t Roman portrait sculptures usually have little drilled holes for the nostrils?” she asked Wood. It didn’t look like the result of damage, because it was too even. It appeared to Chen and Wood that somebody had cut down a larger nose to change the features of the face.

The face, seemingly of a young boy, was also notable. It didn’t look like any members of imperial families that Wood knew, so she and Chen believe it to be a funerary portrait. The main reason for making portraits of children was because they had died young and their parents wanted memorials of them in the family tomb.

Although there is still much to be known about the head, Chen’s research uncovered new details. Doing so required a hands-on approach, though. 

Hands-on leads to new ideas

Chen could have visited all the museums in the world and looked at digital images of the sculpture for days on end, but nothing compares to the opportunity for hands-on research. As much as Chen enjoys examining ancient sculptures in museums, she relishes the opportunity to feel the objects with her own hands. “Even though you have gloves on, you can actually feel the sculpture, feel how polished it is.” 

Wood also believes in the necessity of this hands-on approach. “I’m always telling my students, photographs are not good enough. You’ve got to see the real thing. Even very good photographs never tell you the whole story.”

Cummins, as well, could talk for days about the value of working with these material objects. “For engaging the imagination, for close attention to detail, and the kind of repeated, continual observation that eventually yields a thought, you can’t beat it.” When confronted with a physical object, she finds students are more motivated to observe it carefully.

Grinnell students have the unique opportunity to handle the items in the College’s collection with their own hands. Although the authenticity of the objects is not necessarily in question, the lack of a provenance — specific knowledge about the objects’ origins — offers students the challenge of trying to place the objects in their chronological and cultural framework on the basis of their own close observations and study of similar objects. 

Value of original undergraduate research

Conducting original research as an undergraduate is a great challenge, and Cummins is ebullient in her praise of Chen’s dedication to this research. “There’s no body of knowledge out there to help you reach that thesis in a certain sense. You are on your own and students in this situation are really forced on their own resources to figure things out, and to discover how really hard that is, to have an original thought about something. They really learn experientially what it is to research. And it’s a whole new ball game.”

In the narrow field of third-century Roman portraiture, Chen has developed a level of expertise seldom found in undergraduate study. During her research, and since, Chen plays a game with herself in museums. “I go to a portrait; I don’t look at the information below. And then I try to date it and then compare my answer to the labels.” Sometimes, she’s wrong. But other times, she thinks, “Is the museum wrong or am I wrong?”

Chen’s knowledge is valuable beyond showing off at museums, though.

“It’s powerful to know that you actually know something. Because I had been talking to people about a portrait so much, I feel like I have really mastered the material. And that’s a great feeling.” 

Chen’s research on the Roman head represents the culmination of her studies at Grinnell. Through her classics coursework, MAP, and summer coursework at other institutions, she built up a wealth of experience. The research paper Chen wrote about the Roman head for her MAP earned one of three Phi Beta Kappa awards given to Grinnell students. Chen gained valuable experience through presenting her work at a conference and talking with other scholars in the field about it. She presented her findings in Lincoln, Nebraska, at a meeting of the Classical Association of the Middle West and South, a regional organization of classicists. In part because of these experiences, Chen was accepted into a Ph.D. program in classical studies at Columbia University in New York City. 

An unlikely connection — classics and chemistry

Other objects in the College’s art collection are used for research too, and not just in the art or classics departments. Chemists are getting in on the fun as well. 

Nora Madrigal ’19 and Ben Hoekstra  ’19 were looking for something to research in their Chemistry 358: Instrumental Analysis class. Madrigal, a classics and chemistry double major, and Hoekstra, a chemistry major, had both taken a classics course with Cummins and were interested in doing research with an ancient object from the College’s collection. At the suggestion of Angelo Mercado, associate professor of classics, they met with Lesley Wright, director of the Grinnell College Museum of Art (see Page 6), and decided upon the Reed Painter vase as the object of their study.

In 1975, Grinnell College acquired a lekythos, an ancient Greek vessel generally used to store scented oil, which was common in Athens from 475 BCE to 400 BCE. The lekythos had been in the possession of former Grinnell President John H. T. Main before being donated to the collection. Its provenance prior to the beginning of the 20th century is unknown. As part of a 2005 MAP, Nathaniel Jones ’06 performed an iconographic analysis of the exterior of the lekythos, which he determined to be the work of the Reed Painter. But questions remained about the vase’s use in antiquity, questions which could not be answered through visual observation alone.

Based on Jones’ previous research, Madrigal and Hoekstra suspected that the vase had been used as a funerary container for scented oils, but they wanted to confirm that hunch. So, with the assistance of Leslie Lyons, professor of chemistry, they conducted various chemical experiments to determine the composition of the vase and identify any organic compounds present in the interior of the vessel. They used another lekythos from the collection as a control to which they could compare their results. 

Madrigal and Hoekstra performed organic residue analysis on the lekythoi by extracting organic compounds from the porous interior of the vases. Madrigal and Hoekstra hypothesized that they would be able to identify compounds commonly found in olive oil, which would confirm its use as a funerary vessel in antiquity. Once the extracted materials were prepared, they used tandem gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) to separate and identify any extracted compounds, a process that works particularly well for analyzing trace amounts of organic residues. Additionally, the pair conducted X-ray fluorescence (XRF) analysis on the surfaces of both lekythoi to determine the elemental composition of both the clay and the black glaze present on each. 

Based on the results of the GC-MS analysis, Madrigal and Hoekstra could not identify any compounds associated with olive oil in the Reed Painter vase. They were, however, able to identify one compound, phthalic acid isobutyl octyl ester, in both of the vases, which suggests a possible link to the storage of scented oils. Previous research in the field has often explained the presence of this compound as evidence of environmental contamination, but it has also been found to be a component of the essential oils of various plants, especially those with a strong odor. In particular, this ester has been identified in rose oil as well as in members of the Acanthaceae family, found extensively around the Mediterranean. These connections, tenuous as they are, provide a potentially promising connection to the funerary use of the Reed Painter vase in antiquity. With more time, Madrigal says, they could ask other questions, and possibly glean other answers.

Asking the right questions

As any researcher can attest, questions often lead to more questions. But it’s important to ask the right questions. And sometimes asking the question is the most important part. 

Wright is a big advocate of these research projects. “Who knows what we might learn? Research is always instructive, whether or not we find out it’s by somebody we can name or it has some great significance. It’s the process of learning how to do that research that is so valuable for students. They use art as a primary resource that opens up other questions, which was certainly the case for Nora and Ben.”

Even though they were unable to confirm the questions about the functional nature of the vase, the research experience proved valuable for the students involved. Madrigal reflects on the experience: “This was basically the best chance I got to directly combine the two subjects that I had been studying for four years.” She sees a lot of potential for similar interdisciplinary research to be done with items from the College’s collection. Chemists might not think of the art collection as a resource for potential research projects, but Madrigal thinks more students should consider the option. “I think there’s definitely a lot of information to be gained by analyzing artifacts — not just classical artifacts, but any artifacts — through a scientific lens. Adding that scientific analysis can really enhance our understanding of the pieces themselves, their history, and their use.”

Students and faculty from across the curriculum make use of the College’s art collection, but the hope is that it will continue to be used even more for research like this, which benefits both students and the College. For students, the objects prove great fodder for original research, enhancing their academic experience and preparedness for graduate school environments. And for the College, this type of interdisciplinary, deep research yields new discoveries about some of the very old objects in the art collection.  


NBN Connections to Grinnell

Grinnellians in the New Books Network catalog include current, past, and retired professors Andrew Hsieh, who was interviewed (along with co-author Sherman Cochran) about The Lius of Shanghai (Harvard University Press, 2013); Scott Cook, who chatted about his book The Bamboo Texts of Guodian: A Study and Complete Translation (Cornell University East Asia Series, 2012); and Edward Cohn, who discussed his work The High Title of a Communist Postwar Party Discipline and the Values of the Soviet Regime (Northern Illinois University Press, 2015). 

Book cover samples

Alumna Erica Lehrer ’92 a professor at Concordia University, was interviewed by Hugo Lane ’85 about her book Jewish Poland Revisited: Heritage Tourism in Unquiet Places (Indiana University Press, 2013). Lane hosts the New Books in Eastern European Studies channel.

How to Produce a Podcast

  1. You’ll need a computer with a broadband Internet connection, a decent microphone, a set of earphones, and a reasonably quiet place to record.

  2. To make the podcast, talk into the mic and have your computer record it. If you want to interview people, that’s more complicated. To do it in person, you’ll need something studio-like to get good audio. Interviewing them remotely is easier, and you’ll have several options: Do it over Skype, with audio-capture software like Piezo, or over Zencastr, which works through a browser and is your best option in terms of ease and audio quality. 

  3. You’ll then end up with one or more audio files, like MP3s. This is the raw audio. You’ll need to edit and process it (remove sounds and such) with an audio editor like Audacity, Garageband, or Adobe Audition. Once you’ve buffed and polished your raw audio, it’s almost a podcast. 

  4. The final step is to put “bumper” music on it, beginning and end, because, well, all podcasts have bumper music. You can use the audio editors to do that. You’ll have to get something that’s free to use; there are websites for that. 

  5. Once your podcast is done, you have to distribute it. That means uploading it to a server, showing it on a webpage, and getting it on any number of podcast aggregators like iTunes and Stitcher. You can do all this yourself, but it requires technical know-how. If not, use a dedicated podcast hosting service like Blubrry, Podbean, or Libsyn. 

  6. Now the last step, the one everyone misses. If you want people to listen to your podcast, you have to promote the heck out of it. If you want to do this on the cheap, be prepared to spend a lot of time on Twitter and Facebook. Or, you can pay to have your Twitter and Facebook posts “boosted,” and pay other podcasters to promote your podcast. Not cheap, and only sometimes effective. As any editor will tell you, the way to build an audience is to produce good stuff in volume, consistently, over the long term. If you don’t want to do this, I recommend you avoid the podcast business altogether. Remember, content is still king.  

Podcasting for the People

In his previous life as a professor of Russian history, Marshall Poe ’84
enjoyed reading as many scholarly works as he had time and inclination to digest. But like most academics, his research tastes were specialized; who else but a small circle of historians would be interested in Poe’s first book, A People Born to Slavery: Russia in Early Modern European Ethnography, 1476–1748 (Cornell University Press, 2000)? Even Poe’s mother barely glanced at it. 

Poe realized, not for the first time, that valuable research being produced by academics wasn’t reaching the public — and he felt it should. “A lot of good ideas and scholarship are trapped in these expensive monographs. You won’t find them in local libraries, and most aren’t written for the public,” he says. 

“The target audience for journal articles and most academic books are academics,” continues Poe. “But there’s darn little attempt to get them out there to the broader public. I thought if there was a way to get that information to more people, more would consume the content.” 

Poe turned to podcasting, and now thousands of listeners — academics and nonacademics alike — daily consume scholarly work via Poe’s brainchild, the New Books Network (NBN). Each weekday, five podcasts are posted free of charge on the NBN website and podcast subscription sites, which are promoted by Poe’s fellow Russian major (and the much more social-media savvy) Leann Wilson ’07

“You have to meet people where they are, and where they are isn’t in front of books,” says Poe, whose second book, A History of Communications: Media and Society from the Evolution of Speech to the Internet (Cambridge University Press, 2011), explores such issues. “I knew people wouldn’t even know about these [academic] books; and if they did, they couldn’t afford them; and if they could afford them, they wouldn’t have time to read them. Most people avoid reading books and if given a choice, will watch or listen instead.”

Facilitating lifelong learning

What NBN offers are 30–60 minute interviews with academics chatting about their latest books with other experts in the field. Whether the topic is Empire’s Guestworkers: Haitian Migrants in Cuba During the Age of US Occupation (Cambridge University Press, 2017) or The Treasures of Alexander the Great: How One Man’s Wealth Shaped the World (Oxford University Press, 2016), the podcasts are informal and informative, and the authors, who usually receive little publicity, “are pleased as punch to talk about their books,” says Poe. “There’s a real difference between listening to someone talk about a book they’ve written and reading their book. The book comes alive, and that’s what happens on these shows.”

Listeners can subscribe or browse through 81 subjects (or channels) ranging from philosophy and national security to Hindu studies, mathematics, and architecture. Each subject has its own website, RSS feed, Facebook page, and Twitter feed. NBN archives contain 5,000 episodes, and nearly 250 volunteer hosts produce 100 new episodes monthly. All of the books come from academic presses, although some books are “crossovers” — more popular books from those presses — and most are nonfiction. (One notable exception: A professor interviewed actor James Franco about his book of poetry.)

“We provide an easy way for anyone who is interested to get acquainted with books and ideas they might not otherwise be able to,” explains NBN philosophy host Carrie Figdor, University of Iowa. “There’s only so much time in the day and only so much information that will come to your attention.”

Empowered to make a bold career change

The network has grown immensely since Poe’s first foray into podcasting. In 2007 he was interviewed for a podcast about an article he’d written for The Atlantic magazine (on the history of Wikipedia, one of Poe’s inspirations for sharing knowledge.) At the time Poe was a history professor at the University of Iowa. Inspired by the experience and intrigued by the idea of spreading information and research far beyond its usual (written) borders, he learned how to podcast and started New Books in History, interviewing one historian a week about his or her work. The project took off, and in 2011 he launched NBN, expanding it to dozens of topics and recruiting other academics to do the interviewing. Poe left his tenured position at Iowa and eventually moved to Northampton, Massachusetts, where he devotes himself full time to the venture.

Wilson joined NBN in 2015. She was a Fulbright scholar who’d spent so much time in Burling Library “that most people from the class of 2007 wouldn’t know me.” After dropping out of a Ph.D. program in Russian history at the University of Michigan (she instead earned her master’s, then moved back home to Milwaukee), the dry-witted Wilson knew the chatty, exuberant Poe through his scholarship; the two met in person at history professor Daniel Kaiser’s retirement celebration. Poe asked if she would help with NBN but couldn’t yet pay her; they exchanged emails, and she eventually joined, editing and publicizing the podcasts. 

“A big part of my job is knowing the hosts, their area of interest and what books they’d like and not like,” she explains. “For someone like me, it’s fun. You get to flip through these catalogs; and if I want a book, I ask. I do what university press publicists do; but instead of begging The New York Times to feature our books, I go to social media and engage directly with people who are listening to our podcasts.”

Wilson writes attention-grabbing summaries and tags the author and where they teach, posting on Facebook and Twitter. “We started using Twitter vigorously, and it has really helped out,” she says. “We want to reach the people who will listen to our interviews and retweet and create buzz about them.” The New Yorker staff writer Adrian Chen, for example, tweeted that “My favorite running soundtrack is the @NewBooksNetwork. They post like 4 interviews with authors of (mostly) academic books per day on every topic. I’ve learned so much.”

NBN’s audience is wide-ranging; in 2017, more than 7.3 million downloads were recorded by NBN’s server. Of the roughly 250,000 subscribers, many are academics; but the typical listener, says Poe, is simply curious and educated. A New Zealand farmer wrote to say he enjoys listening while herding sheep into the paddock, while an adult film star recently tweeted his endorsement of NBN. Other fans who’ve written Poe include commuters looking for something new to learn each morning on their way to work. Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger and Southern Poverty Law Center director Richard Cohen are also NBN fans.

“I’ve listened to perhaps 150 of the interviews over the past few years — at least one or two a week on average,” says William A. Clark, associate dean of The Graduate School at Pennsylvania State University and a former professor of Russian/Soviet politics. “Marshall has a very unique knack of identifying interesting and important works by top-tier scholars in these disciplines. He also identifies younger up-and-coming scholars who are making significant forays into the scholarship. … Nothing matches the scale and sweep of the New Books Network.”

Sharing scholarly work for the common good

NBN doesn’t accept advertising and is primarily supported by Amherst College Press under Mark Edington, director. “I’m so excited about NBN — it’s such an act of goodwill,” Edington says. “New scholarly ideas are important and of significance to our society and democracy. We aren’t giving books away but are giving authors a chance to reach an audience vastly larger than the audience that will buy their books.”

Though it’s not the goal, NBN is selling books; when a listener on the NBN site clicks on the book being discussed, they’re directed to Amazon, and each day, 2–10 books are purchased via that route.

But the listeners are the primary target. On an average day, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Time Use Survey, American leisure time includes 19 minutes of reading as a primary activity — compared to 2 hours, 47 minutes of watching television. Time spent listening to audio is harder to measure and vastly underreported, says the bureau, since it’s generally done as a secondary activity, while commuting, walking, or working out, for example.

Recently a speech language pathologist and regular NBN listener contacted Figdor, the longtime co-host of the New Books in Philosophy channel. “I have minimal formal education in philosophy and have learned most of what I know through podcasts and other secondary sources (e.g., Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy),” wrote Rick Carpenter. “It is to your credit that I am able to understand your podcasts, as they are among the most content-dense that I listen to.” 

It’s just the kind of response Poe dreamed of when he launched the NBN. “Our mission is to democratize access to scholarly information in books so [that] not only someone at a university knows about it, can afford it, and can take time to read it, but that everyone can. There’s a lot of valuable research that’s not reaching people, and I think it should.” 

New Books Network by the Numbers

  • On average, NBN podcasts are downloaded about 5,000 times in the first days after publication. Downloads decline slowly until they settle at around 50–100 per month. 
  • The most popular single NBN episode was a New Books in Political Science interview with Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde, based at University of Georgia, on his book Populism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2017). It was downloaded nearly 12,000 times in one week. 
  • The most popular NBN subjects are history, political science, philosophy, African-American studies, Jewish studies, and Islamic studies. 
  • The NBN has more than 250,000 subscribers and probably several times that many listeners, located in 163 countries.
  • The NBN has more than 300,000 followers on Facebook and Twitter. 


Birth Justice

When she was an expectant mom, Monique Hagan knew the risks that she faced: African-American women are twice as likely to experience pregnancies that result in early delivery, low birth weight, or even infant death, according to National Vital Statistics. 

Various studies have shown that “psychosocial stresses” – such as racism – can raise a woman’s level of cortisol to dangerously unhealthy levels. Cortisol regulates everything from metabolism to the body’s immune response.  

“That stress can also stress out the baby, so it’s definitely a concern,” says Hagan, a New Orleans resident who calls racism a “difficult” fact of life. “Once you fall down that wormhole, it’s just more stress, so you’ve got to pull yourself out of it.”

That’s where Latona Giwa ’09 comes in. The New Orleans registered nurse in 2011 founded the Birthmark Doula Collective to provide emotional, physical, and educational support to mothers-to-be, most of them black and poor. Giwa moved to New Orleans after graduation to serve as a Grinnell Corps fellow (fellows perform community service and promote leadership and social integrity).

“Certainly, the pregnant families that we’ve worked with often articulate a number of stressors and challenges that they’re experiencing, such as poverty, issues finding work, discrimination at work, and the difficulty in finding supportive providers,” Giwa says.

Value of doula services

In medical circles, a consensus has developed attributing hypertension and preeclampsia (a combination of high blood pressure and damage to organ systems — typically the liver and kidneys) to the stress brought on by racism. Both conditions can result in infant death and even maternal death. 

“Unfortunately, those rates are getting worse over time instead of better,” Giwa says. 

Doulas, however, are being hailed for improving birth outcomes. But in 47 states, doula services, which typically start midway through the second trimester, are not covered by insurance. Birthmark, which is partially grant-funded, provides care on a sliding scale. 

“Doulas are shown to reduce C-section rates really dramatically, by between 30 and 50 percent depending on the study, reduce the rate of unnecessary medical interventions, reduce the use of anesthesia and epidural medication, and thereby improve birth outcomes,” Giwa says.

“Both women and their infants emerge from birth healthier when a doula is involved. They’re more likely to breast-feed; they’re less likely to have postpartum depression or postpartum mood disorders. The impact is tremendous.”

Black births matter

Latona Giwa“Black births matter” is a rally cry that Giwa coined. Challenges don’t just come at birth. Stress has been attributed to another troubling statistic: Black infants are twice as likely to die in the first year of life as white infants. 

The 28-year-old Hagan, thanks in part to Giwa, escaped the misfortunes faced by other African-American moms. She gave birth three yours ago to a healthy daughter, Sariya. Giwa’s influence was so consequential that Hagan became a doula herself. She now is one of a dozen doulas working for Birthmark, which helped shepherd the pregnancies of 500 women in 2018. 

There are reasons for optimism in some states. Giwa was asked in the past year to sit on the Louisiana Department of Health’s reinstituted Maternal Mortality Review Board, in which doctors and community health workers like herself are “elucidating and drawing the connection between social determinants of health and these horrible outcomes,” Giwa says. 

Birthmark’s efforts extend to postpartum care (sometimes referred to as the fourth trimester), during which women learn the importance of infant feeding, future pregnancy plans, and specific health needs. Family nurse practitioner and lactation consultant Nikki Greenaway makes home visits to new moms in conjunction with Birthmark. Greenaway and Giwa in 2018 opened the New Orleans Breastfeeding Center. Breast milk, with its potent antibodies, is hailed for giving infants a healthy start on life. 

Studies affirming black birth challenges can, not surprisingly, create stress for providers. Giwa is well suited to the task, Greenaway says. “When you first meet Latona, you see her as this calm and quiet, almost meek, person,” she adds. “But deep down, there’s a ferocious lion that keeps everything moving and working. There’s a fire that burns in Latona.”

Embodying social justice

Giwa, a sociology major, came to Grinnell already embodying social justice sensibilities. But the College, she says, gave her opportunities to cement her worldview in ways she couldn’t have elsewhere. 

As a first-year student, Giwa enrolled in a community organizing tutorial taught by Chris Hunter, professor of sociology, senior faculty status. It quickly became clear to Hunter that his protégé was “eager to embrace the material.

“She was particularly eager to learn more about how to bring a progressive agenda into play,” Hunter says. “It wasn’t just a theoretical attraction to her.”

At Grinnell, Giwa developed the now-defunct Voicebox, a student-led group that served as a resource center for all campus activist groups, which normally operate independent of one another. Voicebox provided training for students to “learn how to do their thing,” Hunter says. 

“Latona was really interested in promulgating a broader movement among the students that would work better together,” he adds. 

Giwa also developed a peer education group dedicated to social justice. The program, called A Just Grinnell, carried the slogan “Learning Oppression, Creating Community.” Like Voicebox, A Just Grinnell ran a social justice training program and received funds from the College to aid in its efforts.

Additionally, Giwa helped supervise the Grinnell Community Meal, created in 2000 to build community with the town of Grinnell. The weekly event is coordinated by the Grinnell Social Justice Action Group. In her native Minneapolis in 2007, under the guidance of Hunter and with a nonprofit called StreetWorks Outreach Collaborative, Giwa helped to produce a guide for homeless children and teens that lists social service support organizations. 

The internship with StreetWorks, after her second year at Grinnell, gave Giwa her earliest ideas for a birth justice movement. 

“These young women were either becoming pregnant because they were homeless or they became homeless because they were pregnant and lacked resources,” she says. “I started researching how to support pregnant women, and that’s when I discovered the concept of a doula.”

Grinnell classmate Leah Krandel ’09, an independent studies major (marginalization in American society), works closely with Giwa as a biology teacher and director of mental health at New Orleans’ G.W. Carver High School, a public school in the Ninth Ward.

Giwa recently spoke with one of Krandel’s biology classes about opportunities for careers in the sciences, and she also highlighted challenges facing pregnant black women. Krandel has referred pregnant students — as many as five per academic year — to Birthmark. 

Krandel, who is white, used Birthmark when she delivered her own daughter seven months ago. The doula stayed with her during the course of her 16-hour labor, telling Krandel what to expect and encouraging her to be an “advocate” for herself.

“The medical personnel changed out about three times while I was in labor, so my doula was the constant while everyone else around me was changing,” she says. 

Giwa, for her part, escaped complications in delivering her daughter, Emory, three years ago. It’s an outcome that she’s tried to replicate with the thousands of women that Birthmark has assisted. New mom Hagan says Giwa has an enviable aptitude.

“Latona is a calming spirit who’s able to bring peace into a room,” she says. “She’s not wavered by anything.” 

When You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know

For students whose parents didn’t complete a four-year college degree, getting into Grinnell is just the first hurdle. Figuring out how to survive, much less thrive, is a whole series of hurdles. And it’s less a sprint over a brightly lit track than a marathon through a dark tunnel with blind curves, switchbacks, and alarming obstacles. 

How do they navigate this tricky landscape alone, without a map? For those used to pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps, asking for help isn’t exactly second nature. They’re independent and self-reliant, and even if they wanted to ask for help, who would they ask and what would they say?

Anticipating those questions and those needs is something Grinnell is getting better at. As a first-generation college student himself, Mark Peltz, Daniel ’77 and Patricia Jipp ’80 Finkelman Dean of the Center for Careers, Life, and Service (CLS), understands the questions and the needs. 

With Grinnell’s individually advised curriculum presenting much less structure than the traditional general education requirements at most colleges, he wonders, “Are we inherently making some assumptions about our students’ ability to navigate those sorts of less well-defined structures that are part of the student experience here?”

Being able to navigate the world of higher education effectively means understanding how it all works. Social capital theorists use the term habitus for that sort of understanding. “Habitus refers to the deeply ingrained knowledge, habits, and skills that we develop over our lifetimes. Some authors, like [Pierre] Bourdieu, have referred to habitus as understanding of the game,” Peltz says. “How processes work, how systems work, how higher education works is not inherently understood by all college students. How do you manage your time in an environment where there’s lots of free time? What are office hours? What are student groups? And who gets involved in those things? And why and how frequently? Oftentimes first-generation students may not have the habitus to make the most of college.” 

Figuring out the rules of higher ed

Nomalanga Shields ’18 is a survivor. She was a low-income, first-generation student from Chicago, excited about attending Grinnell. Thinking about psychology and biology as possible majors, she attended the Grinnell Science Project pre-orientation for underrepresented students. During New Student Orientation, she recalls people saying, “Go to the Writing Lab, go to the Reading Lab, meet your professor in office hours.” The advice fell on deaf ears, Shields says. “I didn’t have to do that in high school because to go to Grinnell you have to do pretty well in high school, and you did it mostly by yourself.” 

Her first semester, she took Russian, biology, and calculus in addition to her First-Year Tutorial. “I didn’t listen to anyone because I was thinking I can do this. I took hard classes in high school. I can do it now. But it was way too much to balance,” she says. The further into the semester she went, the worse she did, and the more alone and untethered she felt.

At home after that semester, she checked her grades on the College portal. Her GPA was below 2.0. She was put on academic probation. “I felt like such a failure,” Shields says. “I called my high school adviser because I didn’t have any good connections with professors or any staff at the time. I didn’t know who to go to for support or even to say how I was feeling.” She was worried she’d get kicked out of school. She wanted to quit or transfer, but her high school teachers urged her to tough it out.

At the beginning of her second semester, Shields was invited to join Partners in Education (PiE), a team of Grinnell faculty senior mentors, advising staff, and post-baccalaureate fellows as well as other struggling students. Mark Schneider, now professor emeritus of physics and then Shields’ academic adviser, was part of PiE. He and the others provided advice on homework and making a schedule. “He was someone to hold you accountable,” Shields says. 

She had trouble making her own schedule. If she had three papers due, she didn’t know what to do. “I would sit down with Mark Schneider and he would be like, “You should go to the Writing Lab during this time, then check back in with me.” The process allowed her to start building better habits. 

Shields also started developing a community with fellow students in PiE and relationships with professors. She went to their office hours and asked for help with papers. “By doing that, then my papers started getting better,” Shields says. Early in her work with Patrick Inglis, associate professor of sociology, he thought she was a C-minus paper writer. “I was so upset,” she says. “I was like an A-plus paper writer in high school. Now he jokes, ‘You’re an A-minus paper writer. You’ve grown so much.’

“Second semester got a lot better because I felt like I had a team behind me at that point. You can’t really do everything by yourself,” Shields says. “In higher education it’s just not in the classroom where you’re learning, but also what you do you do after hours. Who are you meeting, what study groups are you a part of, how are you spending your time, if you’re going to sleep at a right time. Every hour after classes matters, and that’s something that I didn’t understand during my first year. I didn’t realize higher education really was like the whole 24 hours, how you plan that out. It really matters.”

Preparing for careers that matter 

Two people looking through binoculars Figuring out the academic side of college is a huge relief, but there’s still figuring out whatto do for a career. Peltz says, “We shouldn’t assume that students know how to navigate this process. Some students might have a very clear and well-defined idea of what they want to do and the pathway to get to that particular outcome. Other students may not necessarily have any sense of what that future goal could look like, should look like, and how to navigate that pathway. I think that the work that we do in the CLS helps coach and mentor students in navigating some of those worlds.” 

Tim Burnette ’19, a low-income, first-generation student from Virginia who self-identifies with the pronouns they/their, knew since high school that they wanted to earn either a Ph.D. or an M.D. For half days during high school, Burnette attended a magnet school that emphasized science and prepared them well academically for Grinnell. They figured out early on how to navigate College and get what they needed by speaking up and asking for it. But, Burnette says, “I had no idea how to do outside of Grinnell, real-life stuff. Laundry and daily things, got it. But getting a job, getting a competitive fellowship, going to grad school? I had no idea how to do any of it.”   

Peltz says, “In the context of our work in the CLS, I think about it helping students to develop both the personal insights about themselves, you know, ‘Who am I, what do I care deeply about, why?’ But then it’s also then mapping some of those personal observations onto what other opportunities are available and understanding what those options and pathways might look like and how to navigate those. And some of that comes through direct experience of various kinds.” An externship, for example. 

Burnette did an externship their first year with Lynn Westley ’80, assistant professor of biology at Lake Forest College. Burnette got to see what the life of a professor is like, and since they had been trying to decide between being a professor and pre-med, the experience made a big difference. “That convinced me this is what I want to do,” Burnette says.

During their second year, Burnette was invited to a “potato lunch extravaganza” put on by the CLS for second-year students with excellent grades to talk to them about highly competitive scholarships and fellowships. Burnette says with a grin, “I liked the idea of a baked potato lunch. It just sounds fancy, so I went. That put fellowships on my radar, because I didn’t know what they were. I ended up getting an honorable mention for the Goldwater Scholarship, which is a big national science award. I would never have applied if [the CLS] wouldn’t have had the baked potato luncheon, because I wouldn’t have known to.”

Burnette credits Ann Landstrom, assistant dean and director of global fellowships and awards at the CLS, with helping them figure out what fellowships and other opportunities to apply for and how to prepare application materials so they were as compelling as possible. “She was able to turn every con, or what you would think as a con, into a pro. It was incredible, yeah. I won’t say she’s a magic worker but she’s a magic worker,” Burnette says. They’re waiting to hear about a possible Fulbright grant, which they’d use to study with a professor in the Arctic Circle and defer graduate study for a year.

Burnette plans to pursue a doctorate in botany and has already been accepted by the University of Kansas. “Vince [Eckhart, professor of biology] not only convinced me that was an option but was the person that helped me figure out how to do a lot of that. He provided a lot of guidance about who I should talk to, who’s the better school, what school has the best reputation, who he knows.”

People like Eckhart, Landstrom, and Ashley Millet, manager of the campus greenhouse where Burnette has worked all four years, form a sort of personal network for Burnette to bounce ideas off of, learn how things work, and forge further connections. 

Two people in a cave with flashlights

It’s exactly the kind of networking Peltz wants all students to experience. “The other big piece with social capital is,” Peltz says, “in addition to increased self-awareness and a better understanding of how particular industries behave, or how decisions get made, or things like that, there’s also this sort of network effect that is oftentimes missing from particular groups of students. Meaning who they know, who is able to help them even further, may be initially pretty limited.

“So through experience, through these connections, and through developing one’s personal advisory board, students are leveraging the knowledge, skills, and connections — the social capital, of sorts — of others to develop their own. And that’s one of the benefits of coming to a small-knit community, because it’s through those relationships and experiences that those gaps tend to get filled.”


And Shields, who had such a rough first year? Well, she’s over halfway through her Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, studying housing displacement and social inclusion strategies in Hungary, India, and South Africa.