How to Stand Out from the Crowd

The Alumni Awards recognize individuals who embody Grinnell College’s mission of lifetime learning and service. Recipients have distinguished themselves by their service to their careers, their community, and Grinnell College.

Alumni are nominated annually by their classmates and peers, and the Alumni Council selects the recipients. The council this year selected 13 recipients. We’re thrilled to share their stories in the pages that follow.

Richard Booth

Richard Booth ’54

For his leadership in expanding Grinnell’s facilities as a trustee

Part of a long line of Grinnellians, Richard Booth was a key force in expanding Grinnell College’s facilities during his two decades on the Board of Trustees. Booth served as a jet pilot in the Air Force before embarking on an impressive business career at Lennox Industries. He became a trustee in 1982, serving with dedication, dependability, and excellence while also participating in many class and College activities.

Joan Fuhrman Jones

Joan Fuhrman Jones ’54

For adding beauty to the world with her paintings

For the past 37 years, Joan Fuhrman Jones has been doing what she enjoys most — painting. Focusing mainly on watercolors and pastels, she has won more than 75 awards and prizes, and her art has been featured in more than 100 juried shows and competitions. While she majored in art at Grinnell, Jones put aside painting early in her career for public service roles, serving as a program director for the YWCA and working in public relations for the American Red Cross.

Barbara Hunt Moore

Barbara Hunt Moore ’65

For being a class connector and vigorous volunteer

Barbara Hunt Moore has rejoiced with the members of the class of 1965 in their successes, sympathized with them during losses, and kept the class linked together through detailed, friendly class letters. She has written more than 70 class letters since becoming a class agent in 2001. While leading the International City/County Management Association’s publishing and information resources department has kept her busy, Moore also has found time to give back to her class and alma mater by serving on the Alumni Council, participating in Grinnell-in-Washington regional events, and helping plan reunion activities.

Dorothy Dosse Metzler

Dorothy Dosse Metzler ’66

For her devotion to environmental education

Dorothy Dosse Metzler has been planning, leading, and implementing change since she was a student at Grinnell. An educator and a naturalist, she uses the outdoors as her classroom. For example, she started Hudson Watch, a summer program for science teachers to do a field investigation of blue crabs in the Hudson River. Later, as education director at a 2,300-acre South Carolina greenway, she created programs for elementary school teachers, showed them how to use the outdoors as a classroom, and developed programs about the human history of the area.

Delabian Rice Thurston

Delabian Rice-Thurston ’66

For her deep conviction that education is the essential path

Delabian Rice-Thurston’s dedication, commitment, and passion for higher learning is commendable and inspiring. For 17 years, she served as the executive director of Parents United for the District of Columbia Public Schools, a parent organization advocating for adequate funds for Washington, D.C., schools. “Nobody left the city because it didn’t have a baseball team or because the convention center was too small,” she said at the time. “They are leaving our city because we don’t have good schools for children in their neighborhoods.” Rice-Thurston attended PTA meetings all over the city to encourage parents to be advocates for education. She later taught social studies in the district’s schools in an effort to solve problems by working on the inside. At the age of 64, she started working on her Ph.D. at Howard University, investigating evidence that conditions endemic to states that reduce achievement for even the best students are not analyzed in the United States.

Thomas Cech

Thomas Cech ’70

For groundbreaking research and leadership of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute

The only Grinnellian to win a Nobel Prize, Tom Cech has had an exemplary career including breakthrough research, decades of teaching, and 16 years serving as a Grinnell College trustee. Cech received the 1989 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the co-discovery of the catalytic properties of RNA. He served for a decade as president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and then returned to the University of Colorado at Boulder as director of the BioFrontiers Institute. He has authored more than 350 publications.

Merryll Penson

Merryll Penson ’70

For spurring on black cultural change at Grinnell and technological change in Georgia libraries

Encourages, reaches out, steers, connects, teaches, shares, guides, and mentors: All of these words are used to describe Merryll Penson. During her 32-year career, Penson infused her spirit and technological understanding into libraries throughout the state of Georgia. She helped establish a groundbreaking statewide electronic library, GALILEO (Georgia Library Learning Online), and made sure that resources were open to everyone. As executive director of library service for the University System of Georgia, she directed the electronic library, coordinated collaborative efforts of 29 libraries, and led a systemwide implementation of next-generation library platforms. During her student days at Grinnell, Penson played an important role in the foundation of Concerned Black Students (CBS) and the Conney M. Kimbo Black Cultural Center (BCC), including serving as the first BCC house monitor.

Joel Shapiro

Joel Shapiro ’89

For being at the forefront of addressing human trafficking in the United States

Through his tireless work as an attorney and author of legislation, Joel Shapiro is at the vanguard of fighting human trafficking in the United States. His inherent goodwill, promotion of social justice, and ability to see inequities drives him to identify strategies to create social change. In his law practice in Portland, he specializes in advocating for domestic victims of sex trafficking, as well as consumer protection cases. While earlier working as chief counsel for U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, Shapiro helped craft national anti-trafficking legislation. He also is co-founder and executive director of the Trafficking Law Center, which provides pro bono legal services to Oregon trafficking victims and survivors. “I can trust and confide in Joel without feeling re-victimized or re-traumatized,” said one survivor. “He’s made a positive impact on my life.”


Julia WulfkuhleJulia Wulfkuhle ’89

For her landmark scientific research on cancer therapies

Julia Wulfkuhle has worked for more than 20 years to improve therapies for cancer at the National Institutes of Health and now is a research professor at George Mason University. She recently published a landmark scientific paper describing a revolutionary method to identify drugs that are most effective at killing a highly aggressive form of breast cancer. A frequent mentor, Wulfkuhle was involved in establishing the Aspiring Scientists Summer Internship Program for high school scientists from underrepresented minority groups.

David White

David White ’90

For fostering inclusiveness and the protection of worker rights

With a remarkable ability to listen to people on all sides of complex issues, David White has thrived in his role as national executive director and chief negotiator of the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. As a labor and entertainment attorney, he has promoted inclusiveness and the protection of worker rights. White also is a director for the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco and a Grinnell College life trustee. He chaired the College’s Board of Trustees from 2007 to 2011.

Jacob Willig-Onwuachi

Jacob Willig-Onwuachi ’95

For his mentorship and commitment to the Grinnell community

Jacob Willig-Onwuachi gives his time generously and is known for his diplomacy, mentorship, and devotion to the Grinnell community. As an associate professor of physics at Grinnell for a dozen years, he conducted collaborative research with undergraduate students in magnetic resonance imaging and medical physics. With a longstanding commitment to diversity, he has been involved in numerous campus and community organizations. He is now a clinical professor of physics at Boston University.

Matheos Mesfin

Matheos Mesfin ’14

For providing higher education opportunities for immigrant students of East African heritage

Matheos Mesfin identified cultural factors that prevent East Africans from taking advantage of educational opportunities. Then he went to work on fixing the problems. In Washington, D.C., he founded the Institute for East African Councils on Higher Education, which has opened doors to college for immigrants and first-generation immigrant students of East African heritage. The institute tailors scholars’ high school curricula and helps them complete college applications and interview effectively. As a result, more than 100 institute students have landed in four-year colleges and universities, including Grinnell College, Stanford, and MIT. In a 2018 letter to Mesfin, President Raynard S. Kington wrote, “Getting promising students to consider the whole range of educational opportunities is a challenge that will need to be addressed on many fronts, and I admire your drive to confront it in an underserved community close to your heart.”

Silvia Foster-Frau

Silvia Foster-Frau ’15

For reporting on immigration and other critical topics for the San Antonio community

As the immigration and border affairs reporter for the San Antonio Express-News, Silvia Foster-Frau has brought attention to important issues while maintaining a humanitarian perspective that is deeply aligned with the values of Grinnell College. During the 2017 Sutherland Springs church mass shooting, she broke national stories and wrote heartfelt long-form articles. Her extensive reporting on immigration has made her to become a sought-after expert and earned respect from her peers, and she won the 2019 Texas AP Star Reporter of the Year award.

Nominations for future Alumni Awards are accepted at any time. To nominate a fellow Grinnellian,  complete the nomination form.

They Moved Mountains

They knew there would be pushback.

When Grinnell College announced on March 10 that it would require students to leave campus, transition to distance learning after spring break, and cancel all events through the end of the spring semester, it was the first Iowa college to take those steps.

“We had been working on coronavirus responses for some time, and we understood very early on what the threat was to the Grinnell community,” says Sarah Moschenross, associate vice president of student affairs. “We had three guiding principles: Protect the health and safety of our students, provide for academic continuity toward graduation, and protect the most vulnerable in our community. We knew we would face pushback in all kinds of ways. But knowing these principles and the College’s mission of social responsibility fortified us when the pushback came.”

Those early decisions by College leaders have gone a long way to mitigating the spread of the COVID-19 virus in Grinnell. But how did the plan actually become reality? How did more than 1,400 students from all over the world return home safely while students who couldn’t go home were set up with social distancing measures?

Student affairs leaders frequently referred to this action as moving mountains, and the list of what and whom it took to move those mountains was about as tall as a mountain itself.

“I have never seen a whole institution mobilize for our students like Grinnell just did,” says Maure Smith- Benanti, dean for diversity, equity, and inclusion. “We’re so lucky to work here.”

Planning Ahead

Well before the pandemic officially became a pandemic, Grinnell College was holding meetings about it.

Knowing Grinnell’s local medical facilities had limited capacity, a planning group led by Anne Harris, dean of the College and vice president for academic affairs; Angela Voos, vice president for strategic planning and chief of staff; and Heather Cox, associate director of emergency management, started meeting weekly in January and then with increasing frequency to map out plans and contingencies.

“When you are in the emergency, you are executing,” says Moschenross. “By starting in January, it allowed us to center ourselves in our mission and then execute it in action mode.”

Smith-Benanti says it was clear when the College went into emergency mode. “There was one day where I was getting so much communication at the same time that I couldn’t put down my phone long enough to get my shirt on my head.”

“I can’t possibly explain how intense it was for student affairs,” adds Jaci Thiede, vice president of development and alumni relations. “They didn’t have the time to think; they just had to execute. Those early meetings made all the difference.”

A Team Effort

The other crucial aspect to executing the plan was getting help from everyone across the College and beyond. Within student affairs, every staff member rose to the challenge.

“Our staff would identify a need and then take care of it,” Moschenross says.

Everyone pitched in to help students depart safely. (People cross central campus laden with bags and backpacks)

Campus partners assisted in countless ways. Since the Division of Student Affairs didn’t have a designated social media manager, professionals within student affairs, the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, and the Center for Careers, Life, and Service pitched in to post information.

Michael Sims [assistant dean for student involvement], Dennis Perkins Jr. [department head of residence life], Lauren Myers [assistant director of housing operations], and the residence life team made the moving-out process happen, aided by the organizational skills of Rachel Bly ’93 [director of conference operations and events] and numerous faculty and staff volunteers,” says Ben Newhouse, dean of students. “Guided by Meg Jones Bair, development and alumni relations staff helped re-book flights and reserve rental cars for students to get home. DAR also started the Supporting Our Students Fund to assist students with unexpected costs due to the pandemic. Financial Aid office and Information Technology Services removed financial and technological barriers. Vrinda Varia [director of intercultural affairs] and Megan Baldree [assistant dean of student success] provided direct care and case management for all students who needed or requested assistance. These were the moments where your best assets shine.

Susan Sanning, associate dean and director of service and social innovation, and Erik Sanning ’89, technical director in the theatre department, drove their horse trailer into Des Moines to purchase totes so students could pack,” Newhouse adds. “That was something that was critically needed, but none of us had the time for it. That’s one of many examples of how people showed up in really powerful ways.”

Originally students had until March 23 to depart, but the College ultimately moved up the timeline by a week.

“That decision weighed on me for many days,” Moschenross says. “I saw the window for travel closing for some students. There was a real chance that students wouldn’t make it home to their families and that they would be here — where we knew they couldn’t access medical care in the same way they could in other places.”

“Students were looking at their phones all at once.”

Saketan Anand ’21 shares what it felt like to be on Grinnell’s campus when everything changed. Anand, a double major in Spanish and economics from Mumbai, India, is the Student Government Association’s vice president of student affairs.

I was in the dining hall with my close friend and president-elect of SGA Lana Katai ’21 when we received the email about classes moving online and students moving out.

It was crazy. Students were looking at their phones all at once, and their expressions were changing rapidly. It felt like watching a movie in slow motion. I ended up leaving and reading the email in my room, because I felt like everyone was already panicking and asking so many questions. It was overwhelming. As an international student, I had hoped that the College would allow me to stay, which allowed me to focus on helping others, advocate for students and say goodbyes way earlier than anyone really wanted to.

I am still in Grinnell, in the same room where I received the news. I have a single dorm room on East Campus. Since the news came out, the students who stayed have been shuffled around campus and been assigned individual bathrooms with no more than two students on a given floor. Meals are delivered to us at scheduled times on tables placed outside our dorms. We have access only to buildings within our cluster. Academic buildings are shut. Businesses and restaurants in town are shut. It feels like a ghost town, especially at night.

A lot is difficult right now, but it’s been important to me to remember that this is an effort that is successful only if everyone takes it as seriously as the next person. I’m glad the global community is taking this seriously. I have been reflecting on the varying levels of privilege we have as individuals and as a generation as interconnected as we are now, with the internet and Zoom and Skype and Facebook and Instagram and YouTube.

We’re all in this together, and that’s how we’ll get through it.

Leadership Laurels

Another powerful asset in formulating a response to the unprecedented situation was having a medical doctor and public health researcher as the College’s president. Before becoming Grinnell’s president in 2010, Raynard S. Kington was principal deputy director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). He also held several other roles within the NIH and was at one point a division director at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“Dr. Kington has tremendous leadership with large-scale crisis management and decision making,” Voos says. “He’s a creative problem-solver, reads widely, and has a wide range of knowledge. All of those factors contributed mightily to our response to the pandemic.”

David Maxwell ’66, chair of the Grinnell College Board of Trustees, echoed that appreciation in an April 6 campus message.

“Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, [Kington’s] background as a medical doctor and a public health researcher has been invaluable in shaping our actions from the early days of this crisis,” he wrote.

Likewise, the leadership from Harris, Cox, and Voos was crucial in steering the College through troubled waters.

“Anne is a big thinker and a community builder,” Voos says. “Heather is incredibly organized and experienced at crisis management. We hired her to raise our level of preparedness for incidents, and she came here in the nick of time.”

Thiede says Voos is a problem-solver by nature.

“Angela works hard to see obstacles that could get in the way of progress and movement, and then does a superb job of removing those obstacles,” she says.

Grieving with Students

The accelerated timeline meant plane tickets and rental cars had to be reserved immediately. Past gifts to the College and the new Supporting Our Students Fund were instrumental in making it happen.

“I don’t know if all of this would have been possible without the generosity of alumni and donors who have given back,” Newhouse says. “That enabled us to do the right thing and give students emergency help to travel.”

While it was hard to demonstrate it during crisis mode, student affairs staff sympathized with students who were dealing with such an abrupt end to their time in Grinnell, especially members of the class of 2020, who lost their final weeks at college.

“We saw students helping each other,” Moschenross says. “We saw students celebrate in the ways that they could. There was real grief, and we shared in their grief, but we were so busy with emergency operations that we couldn’t take the time to grieve with them in the way that we wanted to. I think students have been adaptable. Because our students are already tuned into social justice and social responsibility, they came to understand really quickly what their role is to protect each other and the vulnerable members of the community.”

Smith-Benanti half-jokingly says that she doesn’t want to go through any emergency again without Moschenross and Newhouse.

“They would lay down their own health and safety to support our students, and so would I,” she says. “We tried to do everything we could, pushing ourselves past our physical and emotional abilities to do the right thing for our students. We believe in them. We love them.”

Grinnell’s response to COVID-19 is rapidly evolving. See more about the College’s current response for alumni and the campus community.

Stories from the Pandemic

What was it like to be in the shoes of Grinnellians as the coronavirus pandemic accelerated? Here, in their own words, they share their experiences.

“Included in my current tasks? Notifying people that their COVID-19 test is positive.”

Don KraitsikDon Kraitsik ’70 practices family medicine at Gallup Indian Medical Center in Gallup, New Mexico.

My usual outpatient care of longtime patients — Navajo, Zuni, Apache — has been totally disrupted. I spend hours on the phone doing a variation of telemedicine. Many patients have no phone, poor service, no answering machine, no texting. Some are homeless. When I finally do make contact with them, they are suspicious at first, thinking I might be a bill collector. I have to convince them who I am.

The Navajo Nation has been hit hard by the coronavirus. On a per capita basis, the Navajo Nation has surpassed New York and New Jersey. When sheltered at home, many Navajo people have no running water (making hand-washing difficult) and many people live together in multi-generational large family groups. If one family member gets the coronavirus, everyone in the family gets exposed.

I have been asked to serve on an oversight committee regarding ventilator rationing if we come to a major surge and need to make moral and ethical decisions about who gets a ventilator. I have previously taken care of patients with tuberculosis and hantavirus. I think the coronavirus is unlike any other disease I have ever faced in its overwhelming threat to all humans.

I am not on the front lines seeing sick COVID-19 patients in consideration of my age. Many of my younger colleagues are spending long days in full personal protective equipment providing quality medical care for very sick patients. I salute, applaud, and honor all health care workers everywhere who are on the front lines.

“We had necessary conversations about what we each would accept for end-of-life care.”

Juliet MushiJuliet Mushi ’05 is an assistant professor in the department of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences at Yale School of Medicine and is an attending physician
in the division of maternal-fetal medicine at Yale New Haven Health System/Greenwich Hospital. She lives in Harlem, New York.

My husband, Grant, and I had always talked about signing health care proxies and a living will, particularly after we had our baby, Kanaeli, last year. But in the busy-ness of everyday life, it always ended up on the bottom of the to-do list.

The beginning of the pandemic brought on a deep fear and uncertainty on my part. It was important to me that family members had clarity and certainty about our wishes.

It prompted us to finally get those papers signed and have necessary conversations about
what we each would accept for end-of-life care.

When it became clear that the situation in New York City was serious, we encouraged our childcare provider to stay home with her family while earning her salary. That meant Grant took on primary childcare responsibilities on top of having to work from home. Meanwhile, I was working full time at a hospital job.

blue virus

It was challenging for both of us. We are both very career-oriented and have strong and independent personalities. But we learned again how to lean on each other during that time. We now celebrate date night at home every Saturday by ordering food, sharing our highs or lows from the week, and drinking divine cocktails made by Grant.

What keeps me going? Grant and Kanaeli, supportive check-ins from family and friends, the
7 p.m. cheer for essential workers, Afrobeats playlists, and meditation and yoga apps.

“I was up at 3 a.m. each night combing through the published literature.”

Michael IsonMichael Ison ’93 is a professor in the divisions of infectious diseases and organ transplantation at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

My research focuses on respiratory viruses. I’ve been tasked with being the chair of the data and safety committee for the National Institutes of Health’s COVID-19 clinical trial. I’m a member of the Feinberg School of Medicine COVID-19 Task Force.

When the first cases in Italy and Iran were announced, I was convinced that a pandemic was upon us. We began work to convert some of our standing research projects focused on respiratory viruses to include COVID-19 so we could quickly start work on these studies.

As the epidemic began affecting our medical center, I had a week when I was busier than I had ever been. I was balancing working in our COVID-ICU with efforts to get our research up and running and putting in place a program to get our sickest patients access to an experimental drug to treat the infection. I was multitasking and working 16-hour days only to go home and continue working from home. I was up at 3 a.m. each night combing through the published literature and Twitter.

My day is spent working on Zoom and Microsoft Teams calls. When I’m not on call, I’m troubleshooting research problems for things we would never think about before. Where can we see the patients who are infected with a virus that we strive to keep away from our other patients? How do we get consent when the signed form is infectious?

I know that with the work we are doing, we will have a better understanding of SARS-CoV-2 and its impact on our patients. Being involved with a team focused on cutting-edge care and providing access to novel therapies (and vaccines soon, I hope) to our patients is very rewarding.

”My mask sometimes frightens my pediatric patients.”

Rhashedah EkeoduruRhashedah Ekeoduru ’03 is a pediatric anesthesiologist and associate professor of anesthesiology at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth.

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic was frightening for me, because my role as an anesthesiologist requires me to get close to patients’ faces to assist their breathing, place breathing tubes, and manage their tracheostomies. I am very high risk for contracting COVID-19.

Many physicians and I began wearing N95 masks throughout the entire workday. It is very difficult to breathe naturally while wearing these masks, and they can cause tension headaches. We previously only wore these masks when caring for patients afflicted with tuberculosis, so supplies were limited and dwindled quickly.

Cartoon person in personal protective equipment with green backgorundTo protect ourselves, many of us sought assistance from friends and family members who had access to N95 masks. We also wore masks obtained from hardware stores.
Today, high-risk personnel like me have been fit-tested for special N100 masks fashioned with high-efficiency air filters.

One downside is that they sometimes frighten my pediatric patients, so I have had to get very creative in order to provide a safe and comfortable clinical environment for them. We also are required to place plastic sheets over patients’ faces prior to any airway intervention. This is a change in practice and requires imagination and finesse for success.

I typically tell my kiddos that we are pretending as though we are going to go camping. One of the camp activities is to “blow up the balloon” — the anesthesia mask and circuit that will put them to sleep for the procedure. I am proud of how my colleagues and I stood strong, adapted, and collaborated during an unprecedented and unexpected crisis.

Everyone has the same common challenge right now, so we are doing our best to uplift each other’s spirits. I focus on maintaining my health and wellness by staying active (I purchased a Peloton at the start of the pandemic) and maintaining my creativity through painting. I have also taken advantage of some of my newfound free time by writing papers on the importance of ethical practice in medicine.

I am optimistic that a vaccine will become available within the next year that will allow us to regain a sense of normalcy and peace.

“I feel for my patients who are in health care or work in grocery stores. Their fear is palpable.”

Robin Cook KopelmanRobin Cook Kopelman ’95 is a perinatal psychiatrist and women’s mental health specialist in private practice and an adjunct associate professor at the University of Iowa College of Medicine.

I did telemedicine for almost four years, providing specialized women’s mental health services in northwestern Iowa. Recently I made a transition to private practice and was excited to be returning to providing in-person care.

On Tuesday, March 10, my son, a first-year student at Grinnell, texted me that students would not be returning to campus after spring break. Grinnell’s early response was a catalyst for our group being prepared to hit the ground running with telehealth before it became a necessity. At the time, we thought we were being cautious, but it really meant we were ready to do telehealth when it seemed an important option just a week later.

I miss seeing patients in person in my office. Having experience with telemedicine has really prepared me for this moment. I know how to troubleshoot technical problems, I know how to set up my background, and, specifically for my field, I know how to accommodate for not being able to see the patient’s entire body and losing the input that your sense of smell provides.

Because I work with patients in their homes, their connectivity isn’t always the best, so we run into more disruptions than in our usual care, for sure. My favorite disruption, though, isn’t a bad one — I love seeing my patients’ children and pets.

For many, the pandemic has been a welcome slowing of a busy life that created a different kind of stress for them. This is especially true for my patients who are anxious about leaving their house or being around people. Others don’t feel so alone, now that “everyone is anxious.” This shared experience can be unifying and equalizing.

“There will be no easy solution.”

Scott FridkinScott Fridkin ’86 is a professor of medicine and epidemiology in the division of infectious diseases, the departments of medicine and epidemiology at Emory University.

I left the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) about four years ago after 23 years working in outbreak response, mostly related to preventing health care-associated infections and health care worker safety, which included pandemic planning.

Now I teach emerging infectious diseases at the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University in Atlanta. In the third week of January, I was responding to several of my invited guest lecturers from the CDC, which is across the street from Emory. That afternoon, I received a call from a friend who used to work for Delta and now operates a small airline. He asked if this was going to be a big thing, as he has called me during the Ebola, SARS, and H1N1 pandemics. In those times I often talked in generalities and nuanced responses. This time, I just replied, “Yes, this is the real thing. There will be no easy solution.”

In my course, rather than juggle guest lecturers and move planned talks around, I opened up three weeks to running workshops about COVID-19, working in real time to share how the government can and should respond to this pandemic. Needless to say, we didn’t simulate how the CDC would be sidelined nor how much poor information and inconsistent policy choices would influence the pandemic in the United States.

red virus

My classes have ended now. Today, work includes visiting nursing homes to help them with infection control. I help them manage their residents and interactions with acute care hospitals. I also am launching research initiatives focused on assessing health care worker risk for COVID-19.

“Our group diagnosed and cared for California’s first known COVID-19 patient.”

Christine ThorburnChristine Thorburn ’92 is interim CEO and board chair of the Palo Alto Foundation Medical Group part of the not-for-profit Sutter Health system.

In late January, our group diagnosed and cared for California’s first known COVID-19 patient, who had been a business traveler from China.

That gave me pause, because we live and work in Silicon Valley, where there are many, many business travelers between China and California. However, the point when I realized our work and lives would fundamentally change was the day the news reported a clear community-acquired case of COVID-19 in our local area. At that point, our triage of patients into our offices for care needed to change dramatically.

We rapidly escalated a plan to divide our physical clinics into “respiratory clinics” and “other care” urgent clinics. At the same time, we developed de-escalation plans for all of our ambulatory and clinical practice patients, which we needed to do to limit physical exposure of other non-urgent patients.

We needed new methods of caring for patients. Our larger system had been working on a video-visit project, which we had hoped to roll out over two years as the private insurance companies and possibly Medicare changed their agreements to allow payment for them.
Medicare said “yes” to paying for almost all care-by-video visits (except procedures and surgeries, of course) by mid-March. Within 10 days, our system rolled out a plan to allow for video visits not only for my medical group, but for all six medical groups within Sutter Health.

We are still working out the kinks, but it is humbling to see not only my clinician colleagues adapting but also our patients, including 80-year-olds using smartphones or computers with cameras.

I am motivated to work with my colleagues to develop the “new normal” way of caring for patients to remain as safe as possible, both for patients and for providers. We will need to remain vigilant about the easy spread and asymptomatic presentation of this novel virus.

What have I learned? Humans are capable of adapting to much more rapid change than we usually feel comfortable making.

“I had been in a lab at least twice a week since I was 17.”

Aurora Burds ConnorAurora Burds Connor ’96 is director of the preclinical modeling and testing facilities at the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT.

On Saturday, March 14, the president of MIT announced that noncritical research would stop. Only one of my projects was considered critical, so I needed to terminate everything else.

I had already told my staff to stay home earlier that week, so I was alone when I realized that I would not be doing hands-on research on a regular basis. This thought was disorienting and destabilizing. I have wanted to be a scientist since I was 9. Other than my semester abroad at Grinnell and the birth of my two children, I had been in a lab at least twice a week since I was 17.

Cartoon person in personal protective equipment with red backgorundThe lab I was standing in was a space that I had spent years designing when our new building was built. This is my dream job, and this lab is my home. I took a deep breath and quickly boxed up a small microscope so I could at least dissect plants and bugs with my kids, knowing it was a Band-Aid for the loss I was feeling. I took a selfie next to my favorite microscope.

Today, I am a consultant for SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 research projects and testing initiatives. Like most universities, MIT does not have a space for work with infectious materials like this coronavirus, so there is no option for me to test any of the therapies my colleagues are developing. Instead, I assist with regulatory paperwork that must be approved before any preclinical or clinical trials can begin.

“Thank goodness for virtual backgrounds.”

Nathaniel HopkinsNathaniel Hopkins ’98 is a senior staff psychologist and coordinator for information and systems for the University of Kentucky Counseling Center.

On Monday, March 2, I was wolfing down lunch and reading a Facebook post about what people thought about the news that COVID-19 was coming and what we were doing to get ready for quarantine.

The post gave me a moment of, “Oh crud, if someone is going to make things work in my office for this, it is me.” That is what I do in my job: think through all the ways things can go wrong so we can build ethical systems of practice.

I have spent a lot of my work time since then building out tech solutions to be able to do our work remotely. One of the biggest challenges is that health care provider licensure is fragmented both by state and by credential. The result is we are unable to continue to provide therapy to our students who have gone home to 49 other states and multiple other countries.

It has been really awful to say to a student, “Sorry you were forced to go home to Cincinnati, an hour away. I can’t continue to provide therapy to you because you’re not in Kentucky.”

My spouse and I, both psychologists in our counseling center, both need to be doing confidential therapy sessions at the same time, all while our kids are also trying to do remote school work. Every space in our house has become a meeting room. Thank goodness for virtual backgrounds.

green virus

“We wear face masks everywhere in the building.”

Michelle Raymer JoyMichelle Raymer Joy ’96 is vice president and chief operating officer of Carson Tahoe Health system in Carson City, Nevada. Carson Tahoe Health is a not-for-profit health care system consisting of two hospitals, two urgent cares, an emergency care center, outpatient services, and a clinic provider network.

A typical workday in the office now is a temperature check, screening questions, and use of hand sanitizers in order to enter the building. We wear face masks everywhere in the building and in all meetings with more than two people.

More than 75% of the day is spent on COVID-19-related items. We have spent time on surge planning for a potential influx of patients, increasing our bed capacity from 181 beds to 481 beds. This includes making sure we have enough staff, physicians, ventilators, other equipment, and PPE [personal protective equipment] to take care of this influx
of patients.

As we have suspended elective surgeries and other non-emergency services, we have redeployed staff and are retraining others to new areas to help with a surge in patients. There has been a tremendous amount of detail in the surge plan. Where do COVID-19 patients get placed? Where do non-COVID-19 patients get placed? What about emergency surgeries and birth and deliveries? How do we increase our traditional ventilator capacity from 22 to 60? What is the morgue capacity? How do we implement crisis care standards? How do we take care of staff now and during a surge?

Health care is a calling. Everyone continues to show up each day willing to do whatever is needed.

Our frontline employees and first responders are true heroes.

“I see patients take their last breath without those who love them surrounding them.”

Bethwel RaoreBethwel Raore ’01 is a neurosurgeon in North Atlanta, Georgia.

In mid-March, we all knew COVID-19 was starting to ravage the country. My hospital was already seeing patients, but because I’m not a pulmonary critical care or infectious disease physician, I didn’t quite see myself as a frontline worker. All the elective surgeries were stopped. All we did were cases of brain and spine trauma or cancer — those that couldn’t wait.

One evening, when I was on call for neurosurgical trauma, there was a major accident on the interstate. I came in to evaluate a patient who had multiple spine fractures from that accident. His fractures threatened disability, so we had to rush him to the operating room. I knew the patient was from an accident, so I didn’t think much about COVID-19.

We performed surgery and took care of the patient with all the precautions required by the hospital at that time, but there was some comfort in my mind that he wasn’t a COVID-19 patient and he wasn’t hospitalized in the ICU that was designated specifically for COVID-19 patients.

Two days later, he was still on the ventilator, and a CT of his chest revealed findings that were characteristic of COVID-19. His test came back positive a few days later, and he was transferred to the appropriate ICU. After several days, he died.

That gave me a wake-up call: COVID-19 was everywhere, and anyone could have it.

These days, one major change for me is talking to patient families. Discussing end-of-life issues in my profession is a daily occurrence. It is the hardest and most important work I do. To be able to convey information that is not positive, but to express care, concern, and empathy, is a sacred event. It is something I cherish, given its importance.

Since COVID-19, not being able to sit with patients and their families face to face has been uncomfortable.

It breaks my heart to hear wails and cries on the other end of the phone. I can’t be there to hug them or sit silently with them as they absorb the news.

It has been difficult seeing patients take their last breath without those who love them surrounding them.

I am a believer of the gospel of Christ. I believe there is a purpose for everything, even if that purpose may elude me. At this time, I am supposed to be here. I am supposed to be making a difference. I am supposed to be making the world better.

Those are my thoughts when I wake up and go to sleep.

Three cartoon people in PPE with dark blue background

One of Grinnell’s Greatest Mentors: Joe Rosenfield

Joe Rosenfield's yearbook photoJoe [Rosenfield ’25] was an instinctive mentor, a tendency that was intensified by the tragic death of his only child, Jim. Joe frequently reached out to young men and women of promise. One of his mentees, Fred Little [’53], said that Joe “really relied on his intuition. He really, really trusted his intuition; some cases to his detriment, but in most cases [not]. I mean, Joe would meet with somebody, would find out a little bit about him and make a decision [about whether] this person was someone he wanted to help or not.” Fred said he didn’t think Joe was a lawyer at heart; “a lawyer would never act like that; he would want to see papers and check on people.”

Fred LittleJoe mentored Fred from when he was a child, so Fred was in a good position to judge this quality. Fred’s father, a 1916 Grinnell graduate and chair of the [Grinnell College] Board of Trustees in the early 1940s, was Joe’s close friend; in a Des Moines elevator conversation, he asked Joe if he would like to be a Grinnell trustee. Joe’s positive response led to his 59-year tenure as Grinnell’s greatest trustee. When Fred was 10, his father died tragically, and Joe stepped in as a mentor and surrogate father. Joe had continuous contact with Fred and on several occasions took him to Chicago for Cubs baseball games. Looking back on a time when Fred seemed “lost,” he believed Joe’s support was critical and that his mentoring was sustained into Fred’s legal career. … In 1976, Fred became a Grinnell trustee through Joe’s urging and influence, and later, when he considered resigning, all Joe needed to do was remind Fred of how he himself had become a trustee through Fred’s father’s influence. Ultimately Fred, like his father, served as chair of the trustees and testified that his devotion to Grinnell was a “mirror of Joe’s devotion.”

Robert 'Bob' NoyceAnother mentoring connection centering on the College was Joe’s connection to Bob Noyce, a 1949 graduate who invented the integrated circuit on a silicon chip and founded Intel Corp. Joe, himself, was the best source of information about their relationship:

“I have a particular feeling for Bob, who first came to Grinnell not as a trustee [but as a student]. … I remember almost the first time I ever saw Bob, I was just highly impressed with his intelligence and pride. It occurred to me, here is the kind of guy we would like to have on the board. … I talked to a couple of other trustees about it; they got acquainted with Bob; over a period of time we got him on the board and he proved to be better than we thought he would be. …”

In the same 1998 interview, Joe reflected on the role he and the College played in the founding of Intel:

“One thing we did, several of us urged Bob to leave the company he was with (Fairchild) and go into business for himself. And Sam Rosenthal, a fellow trustee, and I took it upon ourselves to tell Bob that we would raise money or put up the money to help start the company. And he said, ‘We’re working on it. Someday we’ll do it.’ I remember one [trustee] meeting, he came to me and said, ‘Well, we’re ready to launch a new company and if you fellows are interested, we would like you as part of the group,’ which he was allowed to do. And that was a great thing for the College. We didn’t know how great; it could have been greater if we’d have kept our stock a lot longer.”

Joe further explained that he, Sam Rosenthal, and the College invested a total of $300,000, one-tenth of the Intel startup, eventually selling the Intel stock for $16 million, a remarkable profit; but the College would have been much better off had it kept the stock instead of following Bob Noyce’s urging that the College not have the bulk of its endowment subject to the fortunes of his company. …

Connie WimerJoe also reached out to young women who showed promise. He tried to convince Connie Wimer to run for the Des Moines City Council when she was in her thirties. She says at that time she never would have thought of running for office: “So, I look back and think what in the world did he see in me that he thought I could do that? I think he saw a passion on issues in me.” Only one woman had served on the City Council at that time (1964). Of course, Connie went on to become one of Des Moines’ most significant leaders and the founder and CEO of Business Publications Corp. [and a Grinnell College trustee in 2014].

David ClayDavid Clay served Grinnell College as treasurer for over a decade, and in his later years Joe and the trustees trusted him to become overall manager of the College’s endowment. Clay provides an intimate look into how Joe mentored young people who showed promise. Joe was, in Clay’s words, “a real mentor to me.” For example, when Joe was working on the transition of the portfolio as he anticipated his death, he made David feel that he, David, was the decision maker. David says Joe helped him as a young man to grow over the years into the treasurer Joe thought he could be. Often, Joe would call him asking, “Anybody given us any money today?” Dave would respond, “Well, no,” and Joe’s retort would be, “Okay, maybe we better figure out how to make some money today.” Joe would “bird-dog” the budget, and when there was an end-of-year shortfall, he would step in to make up the difference. When David began in the job, if Joe disagreed with him, he would advise David to “think a little longer,” and he knew that he had missed something. Regarding negotiations on behalf of the College, Joe advised, “Don’t take their last nickel; we want to be partners on this project. Both sides need to be satisfied to do a job well.”

David “had never met anyone in an organization you could put that much faith in,” and the board of trustees understood this as well. This was the very core of Joe’s influence on David Clay and all others with whom Joe interacted. Typical of his focus on others rather than himself, in 1999, a year before his death, Joe participated in the planning for management of the College’s investments when he would be gone. This was, in a sense, Joe’s final step in mentoring the College he loved so deeply.

Copies of Mentor: Life and legacy of Joe RosenfieldExcerpted from Mentor: Life and Legacy of Joe Rosenfield (Business Publications Corp., (2019). Published with permission.


A Light Switch Went On

Whether it was by luck or design, Sarah Purcell ’92 found a mentor in the first faculty member she met at Grinnell — Al Jones ’50, L.F. Parker Professor of History. In a department full of excellent professors, Jones was a legend.

Al Jones '50In the fall of 1988, Purcell enrolled in his First-Year Tutorial on Culture and Power. That year, as interim director of the Rosenfield Program in Public Affairs, International Relations, and Human Rights, Jones was instrumental in organizing a convocation series and film series on the topic of culture and power. Purcell attended the lectures, watched films, and read novels, all through an historical lens. She even had lunch with one of the convocation speakers, Edward Said, a spokesman for the Palestinian people.

“It was a hugely formative experience for me,” she says. Purcell declared a major in history her first year and asked Jones to be her adviser.

At one point that year, he asked her, “Have you ever thought about being a professor?”

“A light switch went on,” Purcell says. Before that she hadn’t connected history to a particular career path. She just knew she loved it.

Flash forward 30-some years to a second-floor classroom in the Bucksbaum Center for the Arts. Purcell waits eagerly for her students in History of Popular Culture. They enter the room in pairs to have short peer review conferences about their research proposals.

Purcell invites each student reviewer to speak first before sharing her views. They focus first on the strengths of the student’s proposal. Then they discuss improvements the student could make, like shortening a paragraph-long thesis statement to a single sentence or correcting flawed footnotes.

“What the hell?” she says in a lighthearted way. “You’re history majors. You know how important footnotes are.” Then she smiles at them, pushes up her glasses, and says, “I yell at you with love, only with love.” But they know she’s serious about the footnotes.

Whether she’s working with students in her classes or one-on-one with research assistants, providing close attention and care is second nature to Purcell.

Talent Spotter

Sarah Purcell leads a classPurcell, who now holds the same named chair as her first mentor in history, is an enthusiastic, dynamic, encouraging mentor of her own students. In 2019, she received the Council on Undergraduate Research’s inaugural award for excellence in mentoring in the social sciences.

In his letter supporting Purcell’s nomination for the award, Michael Latham, then dean of the College, wrote, “While Grinnell has a strong culture of faculty mentorship of student research experiences, one thing that really makes Professor Purcell stand out as a research mentor is her ability to work with students as research collaborators — despite the fact that she works in a field in which collaboration is not the norm.”

One of the qualities Purcell looks for in student collaborators is enjoyment of the research process. She spotted that in Sam Nakahira ’19 when Nakahira took History 100 with Purcell as a first-year student.

“She got really deeply into sources,” Purcell says, “engaging with them on a level really beyond what was required … especially at the introductory level. She also gave an extremely good presentation based on her research, so I thought she had teaching potential too.”

Purcell asked Nakahira if she’d ever thought about being a professor. Nakahira hadn’t, and the idea intrigued her. She became a Mellon Mays Fellow as well as one of Purcell’s research collaborators and advisee.

Nakahira worked with Purcell on a summer Mentored Advanced Project (MAP) on digital history and slavery. They visited Louisiana State University’s Special Collections
to do primary research. Nakahira sought information about the interior spaces of a Louisiana
sugar plantation, so she pored over receipts for furniture, correspondence, and financial and tax records. She also learned about daily life through grocery lists and
schedules for slave workers and the tasks they were assigned.

“She really helped me feel comfortable with different research methods,” Nakahira says. For her Mellon Mays research project on Japanese American agriculture after World War II, she and Purcell discussed oral history, a technique Purcell last used herself when working
as Al Jones’ student research assistant in 1990.

“She gave me the confidence to do things,” Nakahira says. “Her support was empowering.”

Advice Not Taken

Purcell encourages all her students to take a year off before pursuing graduate school, though she didn’t follow that advice herself. “What was I going to do? Work in a bank for a year?” she jokes. “I knew grad school was the right step for me.” Winning a Beinecke Scholarship that paid for the first two years of her program was reasonable confirmation of that assessment. So off to Brown University she went for her doctorate in history.

Next she taught at Central Michigan University for three years. While she enjoyed her work there, she really wanted to teach at a liberal arts college. Then an opening in the history department at Grinnell caught her eye. She’s been teaching here since 2000.

Mentors Make a Difference

Most Grinnell grads are not destined to become professors. Other careers beckon, and Purcell is fully aware of that. The skills she teaches transfer to many other professions.

Hayes Gardner ’15 especially values her effect on his writing. Purcell gave him specific tips that helped him not only relay information correctly, but to write concisely and clearly as well.

“My writing vastly improved throughout my time at Grinnell,” he says. “I’m currently a journalist, so that’s extra important to me. She definitely morphed me into a better

Purcell recommended Gardner for a summer internship with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which gave him great reporting experience. When he graduated, Gardner was pretty sure he wanted to go into sports journalism, but first he wanted to do a year with a service organization. Purcell encouraged him to do freelance writing on the side.

He thought it would be difficult to find the work, but after sending a few emails, he landed a gig covering high school sports for The Oregonian, the largest paper in Oregon. Without her
encouragement, Gardner isn’t sure he would have tried freelancing.

“I didn’t think it would be possible,” he says, but he wound up freelancing for years. “That was the foundation for my current career,” he says. Gardner is now a sports writer for the Courier-Journal, Louisville, Kentucky.

Even years later, Purcell shares job opportunities and connections. “It’s great to still have a mentor like that even after you graduate,” Gardner says.

Getting to know each other during a summer MAP project helped forge that lasting connection.

“It’s nice to have the luxury to know each other as people,” Purcell says.

While Grinnell faculty and students have enjoyed close mentoring for decades, one benefit
of formal programs such as Mellon Mays and MAPs is that mentoring becomes even more accessible to students. And as Sarah Purcell can attest, who knows where that may lead?


When the Mentor Becomes the Student

“Serving as a Mellon Mays mentor is not just about what you give the students,” says Valérie Benoist, professor of Spanish and Latin American studies. “What they give back to you is just as important.”

Most professors understand this sentiment. The passion that students can bring to classes, their interest in learning, engagement with the subject matter, and the drive they have to explore can inspire and motivate even the most overworked professor.

In the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program, faculty mentors find this effect even more pronounced. Mentorship requires faculty members to work one-on-one with students over two years at Grinnell, guiding them in long-term research, developing as a scholar, and preparing for graduate school and professional life. It’s a major commitment on the part of faculty members already carrying full course loads, office hours, and the other day-to-day tasks associated with their work. But it comes with major rewards.

“Working with my fellow, Ifetayo Olutosin ’18, for two years was a very rewarding experience as I got to watch her grow intellectually and truly become a scholar,” says Benoist. “We met weekly and Skyped when she was not on campus. I helped her sharpen her research skills, worked with her as she crafted her research questions and wrote and rewrote her argument, and assisted her with her presentation for conferences and applications to grad school and her submission of an article for publication. She is now in her second year of graduate school at the University of Southern California, where she is completing a Ph.D. program in Latin American Studies, but our relationship did not stop with her graduating. It has grown into a relationship of scholars and will become one of colleagues.”

Karla Erickson and Shanna Benjamin

Karla Erickson (left) and Shanna Benjamin

Karla Erickson, professor of sociology, became involved with the Mellon Mays Fellowship program in 2009, its inaugural year at Grinnell. She now serves as the second director of the program, taking over from Shanna Benjamin, associate professor of English, a former Mellon Mays fellow herself who initiated the effort and led the program for a decade at Grinnell.

“We stay connected with our fellows for 10 to 20 years, for much longer than they are here,” says Erickson. “It’s wonderful to get them to graduation. When you hang the medal on them at Commencement, you really feel that. But when they get through graduate school and don’t just survive but thrive, it’s great to see. And it’s great for a program this young to have that kind of success.”

Shared Benefit

The Mellon program has demonstrated success, both at Grinnell and nationally, at producing scholars who enter the academic world and increase the diversity of faculty at the collegiate level, then continue to push the program forward.

Nationally, the program has produced more than 700 tenured fellows since it began in 1980. At Grinnell the program has already produced 55 fellows who’ve gone on to graduate school and three who’ve earned their doctoral degrees. Additionally, more than a dozen are currently pursuing graduate studies.

The program has gone well beyond that primary objective and created unforeseen positive consequences as well.

“The projects my fellows are working on really help me expand my own knowledge on the subject and how I teach it in the classroom,” says John Garrison, associate professor of English. “It’s really inspiring. They come in with new thoughts and ideas on the subject, and it helps me keep up with new ways of teaching and inspires me to do new things.”

Shakespeare doll with Mellon fellow Elijah Griffin sharing his research with professor John Garrison in background

Garrison is mentoring two Mellon fellows, Elijah Griffin ’21 and Saiham Sharif ’20. Both have presented at conferences on their research projects and have traveled to Cape Town, South Africa, to study with other fellows from around the country.

“The program gives them an idea of what graduate work will look like, and it also provides them a community to support them,” says Garrison. “And just as they are getting a glimpse of what graduate school will be like, I am getting a glimpse of what it is like to teach graduate students and guide them on long-term projects, which is unusual at the undergraduate level.”

With 15 years of experience teaching the ins and outs of Shakespeare to undergraduate students, Garrison welcomes the fresh ideas and inspiration he draws from his mentees.

“It really reignites my passion when I see someone else so engaged in the subject,” he says. “It keeps me from getting in a rut, and I can continue to view the subject through a new set of eyes and keep up with not only where the field is currently, but also where it might be in five to 10 years.”

One of his fellows, Elijah Griffin, is conducting research and exploring the notions of blackness in Shakespearean performance as part of his fellowship. He’s looking at adaptations of the plays to see how blackness is approached and performed within Shakespeare and how it can impact the message and meaning of the work.

“This has really helped me rethink how Shakespeare exists in a contemporary sense,” says Garrison. “I want to think about Shakespeare as it exists now, not just in the 17th century — how it is relevant today and how it speaks to contemporary audiences. This helps inform why we still teach Shakespeare and why it is still relevant.”

For Benoist, who is looking forward to taking on more fellows as a mentor, Grinnell is the perfect environment for an experience that fosters growth from both student and mentor.

“The small classes, great students, and the opportunities for interaction with them in and out of class really make Grinnell perfectly suited for a program like this,” she says. “Meeting with your fellow and exploring new ideas makes you think about your own scholarship and pushes you in directions you might not have otherwise pursued. I wish more people could take advantage of it. It’s been an amazing experience, and I really look forward to participating as a mentor again, in addition to continuing the relationship I already have as a mentor with Ifetayo.”

The Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program was established in 1988 by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to address the shortage of minority scholars on college and university campuses across the country. Funding from the foundation allowed Grinnell to bring the program to campus in 2009 to support promising undergraduates considering graduate study.


From Internship to Leadership

This story is part of the series:

When English major Mark Couch ’87 was a senior at Grinnell, career planning wasn’t his top priority. He had vague ideas — maybe journalism, maybe law school – but little practical experience.

With help from Jo Calhoun, then internship coordinator and assistant director of the Career Development Office, he landed an internship in the Iowa Legislature with the chair of the house judiciary committee during the 1987 legislative session.

Twice a week Couch and several other students interning in Des Moines, Iowa, caught a 6 a.m. van shuttle from campus. At the state capitol, Couch handled typical intern chores, such as drafting responses to constituent letters.

His most significant project was researching other states’ laws for the legal sale of fireworks. At that time, fireworks sales in Iowa were strictly limited. The judiciary chair lived near the Iowa-Missouri border and watched Iowans cross the state line to buy fireworks.

“We collected the toughest restrictions from other states that allowed fireworks sales and assembled them into one bill,” Couch says.

To his amazement, it passed the house.

“I thought it was because we crafted the best bill ever. Really, it passed because my boss had a powerful position in the legislature,” Couch says. “The bill got killed right away in the senate.”

Although his bill didn’t change state law, the experience offered lessons to consider in pursuing a career. “I had learned how to hunt and gather useful information and how to present it clearly,” he says. “It also reminded me that the quality of the work isn’t the only — or even the decisive — factor in the ultimate outcome.”

Eventually, the experience turned out to be useful. But not right away.

His first job after graduation was stocking shelves at a bookstore in his hometown of Des Moines. After networking with friends, he landed an interview for a sales job with the Des Moines Business Record.

“If you had your druthers,” asked the sales manager, “would you rather be selling or writing?”

Writing, Couch said, figuring that would end the interview. Instead, he met the paper’s editor and got the job. “That job was like an apprenticeship,” he says. He covered three beats during his four years there, before finally landing a dream job at the Des Moines Register. “That started my journalism career,” he says.

From there, he jumped to other newspapers — the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, The Kansas City Star, and finally The Denver Post — “moving mostly for better pay.” He was a business reporter for most of his career, covering real estate and economic development, though he took only one economics course at Grinnell. “I read The Wall Street Journal every day,” Couch says. Grinnellians know how to learn.

While a reporter in Denver, he was assigned to cover the campaign of a prominent businessman, John Hickenlooper, who ran for mayor. “He was terrible as a debater, and I predicted he had no chance,” Couch says with a laugh. “But he won, and thus began my political reporting career.”

Couch was assigned to city hall to cover Mayor Hickenlooper. Several months later he was sent to cover state politics at the capital. “My experience in the Iowa Legislature had given me some perspective.” He didn’t want to cover predictable partisan debates. Instead, he wanted to learn how the state budget worked. From November to April, he attended budget committee hearings and learned the finer points of each department’s budget.

“To actually sit there day after day and really study it, all of that work I did at Grinnell as a student, learning how systems work and how human behavior interacts with those systems,” he says, “I got good at explaining a complicated system for the newspaper.”

But newspaper reporting as a career option was fading.

Couch’s expertise in the state budget combined with his communication skills made him a candidate for a job as a legislative liaison and public information officer for the Colorado Department of Revenue. He served as the department’s “flight traffic controller” by making sure subject-matter experts were available to testify for about 150 bills each legislative session. “It was fun but a grind,” he says.

In 2013 he moved into higher education as the director of communication for the University of Colorado School of Medicine. A few years later he was asked to be the new dean’s chief of staff, so he added that responsibility to his plate. “It’s a mix of practical and political and I still write every day,” he says.

For a student who enjoyed both political science and English but wasn’t sure how, or if, to blend those interests, his internship served as a practical launching point.

Anya Grundmann ’89 Shapes What America Listens To

Anya Grundmann ’89 stayed in Grinnell after graduation, taking music classes and working in town as she contemplated her next move. One day she turned the dial on her radio to the local public radio station. Fresh Air was on, and Terry Gross’ soft voice cut through the static, capturing Grundmann’s imagination through smart conversations with fascinating people on topics she had never thought about.

What Grundmann loved about Fresh Air — learning intimately about wide-ranging topics — she also found at Grinnell. Both drove her to a career in public radio and her current job as vice president of programming and audience engagement at National Public Radio.

Grinnell’s individually advised curriculum allowed her to spend as much time on her English major as she did on music — studying piano, singing in the choir and Grinnell Singers, and participating in music ensembles. Grundmann embraced opportunities to learn outside the classroom, including studying biology at a wilderness field station. She also worked as an editor of The Scarlet & Black, a valuable experience for her future career in journalism.

“The whole point is that we’re there to learn and explore,” she says. “I tried to throw myself experientially into the different facets of academic subjects, but also in terms of the extracurricular things … I really appreciated the freedom and flexibility of that.”

How She Found Her Sound

With Terry Gross’ voice still ringing in her ears but without a semblance of a plan, Grundmann set out to Flagstaff, Arizona, in January 1990.

Flagstaff’s public radio station, KNAU, was housed in the music building where Grundmann started taking classes toward a master’s in music.

“I just kept walking by.” She told herself, “one day I’m going to walk right in there.” And she did, offering her services as a volunteer.

As it happened, the news director needed someone to cover a press conference on the Navajo reservation that day. So, armed with a recorder and absolutely no idea what she was doing, Grundmann set out for her first report.

She covered the press conference, returned to the station, and made a short radio spot — her first experience cutting tape and piecing together an audio story. “I thought that was magic.” Grundmann continued to learn the ins and outs of public radio, allured by the creative process of producing audio stories.

When the station needed someone to produce another classical music program, Grundmann jumped at the chance. They put her on air Friday and Saturday nights. “I was not that good, but it was enjoyable.”

At the station, Grundmann was able to channel her lifelong passion for music into her work and develop her skills as a public radio announcer.

From the beginning of her work in public radio, Grundmann focused on “connecting people with great music, the ideas and issues around music, the creative experience of music, that communal connectivity that music brings to us that’s beyond the spoken realm.”

How an Internship Helped Her Learn the Craft

Then, in 1994, she accepted an internship in the cultural programming department at NPR in Washington, D.C. She noticed people complaining about writing certain parts of their shows and volunteered to try her hand. In that way, she honed her skills in pursuit of that coveted NPR sound. She ascended the ranks from intern to associate editor and then supervising editor of the classical music program, Performance Today, before becoming executive producer of the NPR Music unit.

But it all started with an internship. For Grundmann, learning on the job was expected, and it was the best way to learn. “Historically in public radio, internships have really been a great pathway because it gives people a real exposure to the craft.”

Perhaps even more so back in the ’90s when she was learning the craft.

“Back then we were using reel-to-reel tapes and razor blades, and I have scars to prove it. And then in order to mix things that were beautiful and complicated, you had five different reels and you had to sync them up. It was like directing some kind of movie or something.”

Nowadays, digital recorders and audio editing software have enabled quick and accessible learning opportunities for audio production, allowing anyone (including the author of this story) to start a podcast.

A Pioneer in the Digital Realm

As technology evolved, so did Grundmann, pushing for new ways to engage with the audience in the 21st century. As NPR looked to expand into the digital space, Grundmann zeroed in on the opportunities she saw to enhance the music programming. At the time, much of NPR’s music programming was ephemeral, so a website that could aggregate and organize public radio music programming would have been a valuable addition. But Grundmann thought they should do more.

“We’re in a new space where it’s a different experience for people to click on something and engage on the web; and it’s very visual. So just taking the things we were doing on the radio and putting them online felt like a half measure.”

So, with Grundmann at the helm, they came up with ideas for the new digital space, landing on three initiatives as they launched NPR Music: Project Song, a documentary series detailing the journey of a song’s creation; a blog from Carrie Brownstein of Washington indie rock band Sleater-Kinney; and a recommendation list from renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

The overwhelmingly positive response from these new ideas encouraged Grundmann that NPR Music was on the right track with the web-first music programming approach. From that spirit of experimentation also came the incredibly popular Tiny Desk concerts, a series of intimate video performances recorded live at the desk of All Songs Considered host Bob Boilen.

The Ethos of NPR

Changes in the digital landscape have challenged NPR to grow and adapt while still adhering to its mission. As millions of viewers watch Tiny Desk concerts and millions more tune in to NPR’s podcasts, Grundmann’s focus remains fixed on innovation, maintaining the delicate balance of sustaining current listeners while connecting to new audiences across rapidly changing platforms. Part of what has made her so adept, throughout her career but especially now in her leadership role, is what she describes as a “surfer” mentality. NPR is filled with incredible journalists who are experts in their fields, “deep divers,” as she calls them. But just as vital in journalism are “surfers,” people who can learn and explain how complex issues relate and inform each other, a skill found in spades among liberal arts students.

From comedy shows like Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me to the TED Radio Hour and everything in between, NPR’s content helps people understand our crazy world and, at its best, understand each other.

Grundmann believes the first step to understanding is listening better, urging us to “take a breath while we’re listening to people whom we may not agree with. Take a deep breath and then empathize and take a beat and then have a conversation.”

Part of being a good listener, she says, is also about respecting the spaces in between.

“What if you were to walk through a day and think about the spaces in between what people are saying, or the spaces in the music and what the spaces do in terms of making that music really pop and be strong, and the quality of the conversations when you have some space?”

What happens, she says, could surprise you. “People might say some things that they wouldn’t have if you were talking all the time. I think if you practice that in your life, it’s actually interesting what happens.”

So the next time you turn on the radio, or ask your smart speaker to play a podcast, you might still hear Terry Gross’ soft voice, but if you listen closely to the spaces in between, you might be able to hear Anya Grundmann, shaping what America listens to.

Anya Grundmann helps manage NPR’s award-winning lineup of podcasts. If you want more podcasts with a Grinnellian flavor, you'll find brief descriptions and links at All Things Grinnell. Listen to the full interview with Anya Grundmann on season 2, episode 8.

A Short List of Podcasts by Grinnellians

Practical Experience Plus Practical Advice

This story is part of the series:

Chaz Del Mar ’22, an intended philosophy major, spent the summer interning for David Calvert ’75 at the Youth Action YouthBuild chapter in East Harlem, New York. Youth Action YouthBuild is a nonprofit organization that serves to uplift 17–24-year-olds in East Harlem communities by helping them achieve their high school equivalency, find jobs in food and construction services, and go to college.

“It was rewarding to work with youth my age because I have a lot of the same goals as they do,” Del Mar says. He helped wherever they needed him — in the computer lab, planting trees, renovating the office, planning community events and more, including grant writing.

“Grinnell students bring technical skills with IT and social media that supplement a lot of what we do,” Calvert says. He’s hosted 12 students in the past four years, both as interns and externs. “They bring energy and a desire to find out what’s next. They’ve also been really good at connecting with our community. I’ve always worried that students won’t land well here, but that’s never the case. They’ve connected with the young people in the program and have thrived in the East Harlem environment.” Del Mar was no different than previous interns. “I felt like a part of the community because the work that YouthBuild does is all about serving the community,” he says.

Connecting with a Grinnell alum was also a valuable part of the experience. “I decided to focus on my philosophy intended path instead of double-majoring, because I want to take classes in a broader range of topics,” Del Mar says. “David helped me through that, because he was a double major at Grinnell, and David’s experiences helped inform my choices moving forward.”

Good Help Is Hard to Find

This story is part of the series:

Why a Cellular Microbiologist Returned to Iowa

Imagine you’ve been working in Paris for several years, but now your job is ending. Where would you go next? And would the state of Iowa be at the top of your list?

In 2017 Lilliana Radoshevich ’04, a biology and French double major, was wrapping up her postdoctoral position at the Pasteur Institute in Paris while looking for a tenure-track faculty job in the United States.

“I saw one at the University of Iowa and I thought, ‘Oh, this is great,’” she says. One reason the job appealed to her? Its proximity to Grinnell and therefore the strong possibility of attracting Grinnell interns.

“I have a friend, Manav Pathania ’05, who started at Cambridge, and he was jealous because I would get Grinnell interns,” Radoshevich adds, smiling. “I immediately thought that I could tempt some Grinnellians to start working in the lab.”

She credits Grinnell’s biology department with preparing undergraduate research interns so well.

“That 150 course is really a deep dive into how scientists do science. And Grinnell really excels at placing people in graduate school, because the courses are designed that way. So I thought that would be a great way to help out Grinnell and also help out our lab,” Radoshevich says.

As a student at Grinnell, Radoshevich was in the first cohort to take the redesigned Biology 150 course, Introduction to Biological Inquiry, so she knows well the educational experience it provides. She also did a summer internship at the Pasteur Institute where she made the connections that helped her land her postdoc years later.

Shortly after arriving in Iowa City and starting her new job in December 2017, Radoshevich introduced herself by email to Shannon Hinsa-Leasure, associate professor of biology at Grinnell, who was already in touch with one of Radoshevich’s colleagues at Iowa.

“Shannon is really an amazing professor and I want to give her all the credit. One thing that she’s been doing is incorporating visits to the University of Iowa labs and also journal clubs where her class talks, either in person or via Skype, with the lead authors of a paper from the primary literature,” Radoshevich says. Reading primary literature is not unusual in Grinnell courses, but it’s less typical for undergraduates elsewhere.

Sooner Than Expected, Radoshevich’s First Intern

Lilliana Radoshevich looks on while Madeleine Vessely peers through a microscopeMadeleine Vessely ’20 arrived at Grinnell planning to major in chemistry, but taking BIO 150 with Hinsa-Leasure changed her mind. “The topic was microbial pathogenesis. I took that class and that was it for me,” says Vessely, who decided to double-major in biology and anthropology.

During her second year, Vessely applied to “a bunch of internships.” All of them turned her down. She went to her adviser, Hinsa-Leasure, and asked, “Do you have any ideas of what I could do this summer?” Hinsa-Leasure reached out to Radoshevich, and Vessely soon had a summer internship.

“It was the first time that I worked in a lab outside of class, and I loved it,” Vessely says. Her parents are both medical doctors, so she’s familiar with the clinical side of medicine. Working with Radoshevich exposed her to the research side.

How an Internship Helped Shape a Student’s Career Plan

Radoshevich’s research is focused on a protein called ISG15. “It’s up-regulated or stimulated by interferon, which is one of the main proteins that makes you feel feverish,” she says. She uses Listeria monocytogenes, a food-borne bacterial pathogen that can invade host cells, to understand what this protein is doing generally. “We try to understand the basic and fundamental biology associated with these proteins and that could then be used to treat diseases,” she says.

During Vessely’s summer 2018 internship, she experimented with Listeria in liver cells. “We were looking at it just for fun,” Vessely says. In the process she made a discovery. “We didn’t expect anything different. And then we saw a different phenotype in these liver cells compared to a different kind of cell.” She found that in liver cells the protein gets upregulated when the cells are starving — cells can starve just like humans can.

Vessely followed up on her 2018 findings the following summer, interning with Radoshevich again. She conducted experiments and repeated them to try to get reproducible results.

“That’s one thing that many students have to learn,” Radoshevich says. “It’s not like a canned lab class where your experiments would all work. You actually have to troubleshoot. Changing variables and getting something to work is a big part of graduate school. I think a lot of people start in this area because they want to help human health, but getting something from bench to clinic can take 30 years.”

Which means many experiments that don’t return the hoped-for results. “It’s definitely hard at first,” Vessely says. “It’s like, ‘Oh, I’m doing something wrong.’ But sometimes you just have to get good at it, at failing.”

One reason Vessely did a second internship with Radoshevich is because she likes the self-directed nature of the work. “If you have a question that you want answered, you can go about finding it yourself. But it’s also about collaborating with other people,” she

As a result of her 2018 internship, Vessely’s interest in public health research has deepened. In spring 2019 she did a Mentored Advanced Project (MAP) with Hinsa-Leasure, researching antibiotic resistance. She intends to apply for post-baccalaureate positions to see
if she wants to pursue a doctoral program in the future.

“I feel like she’s a perfect Ph.D. student,” Radoshevich says of her first intern. “But she’ll do
whatever she wants. She has a very bright future.”

One can imagine Radoshevich’s internship supervisor saying that about her once upon a time too.