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.

Wanted: Bright Students with a Strong Social Conscience

This story is part of the series:

What Grinnell Interns Brought to a Tech Company

In April 2019, as Grinnell students scrambled to track down summer internships, a mobile health startup in Los Angeles offered the motherlode to four lucky Grinnellians — paid internships plus help with housing. At mPulse Mobile, Rena Brar Prayaga, director of behavioral data science, and Ram Prayaga, chief technology officer, wanted interns from Grinnell, but not because their sons Gyan Prayaga ’21 and Jeev Prayaga ’22 attend the school. “One of the reasons is the social justice mission focus that we’ve seen when we’ve visited and talked to students,” Rena says. “That was important because we are a mobile health startup where much of what we do is focused on trying to help to improve outcomes for underserved populations and hard-to-reach populations.”

Those populations include people on Medicaid and Medicare, who are often lower income, older, more vulnerable, and more isolated. Uncovering the needs and barriers related to health behavior and communications for these populations was crucial. “We wanted students who’d be willing to engage in that kind of thinking and be committed to that approach, which requires a lot more effort,” Rena says.

The ability to take risks when you don’t know exactly what the outcome will be, Ram says, was also something they were looking for in interns. It was a quality they’d spotted among Grinnell students. “The willingness to put yourself out there, to put your ego on the line, that’s not something that you find very often,” Ram says.

Students Put Their Creative and Critical Thinking Skills to Work on Practical Projects

Rena and Ram, who have hired interns before, decided to try something new for summer 2019 by creating a cohort of four interns. Carlton Segbefia ’21, Ridhika Agrawal ’20, Ben Nguyen ’19, and Aditi Munshi ’19 joined mPulse Mobile’s behavioral data science team. “We brought them in to do some high-value innovation projects,” Rena says. “These were projects that the CEO was watching and waiting for.” Segbefia, a computer science and sociology double major from Ghana, built a dashboard that shows daily metrics — what’s working and what’s not — that’s displayed on a large TV screen at the company’s office. “We were very impressed with his ability to think through the problem,” Ram says. “He wasn’t too nervous about taking on something outside his comfort zone.”

Ben Nguyen and Aditi MunshiAgrawal, an economics and math double major from India, and Nguyen, a psychology major from Michigan, worked together on a study about patients refilling their prescriptions. The work included cleaning and preparing data, data analysis and modeling, literature reviews, and writing. Their contributions earned them co-author status on a paper accepted by the Journal of Medical Internet Research.

Munshi, a computer science major from California who is completing her second year in a 3-2 electrical engineering program at Columbia University, helped build application software, specifically an “activation score.” The score helps describe how likely a patient is to engage in healthy behaviors, Rena explains. “We gave her some guidelines and she wrote the rules.” Ram worked with Munshi on the project. “There’s a lot of data,” he says. “If you don’t do it in an efficient manner, then it takes too long. We definitely had challenges along the way. I thought, she’s not going to be up for it, she’s going to be frustrated, but she just plowed through it and kept going. That was cool. We were really proud of her and what she was able to accomplish.”

Ram and Rena were also impressed with the students’ level of maturity. “They brought a high level of integrity to their work,” Rena says. “Even little things.” Like work hours. “They would be here on the dot. They didn’t take long lunch breaks. They worked usually a little beyond what they were supposed to.” “We had to shoo them out,” Ram says. “They were constantly asking for more,” Rena adds. “We weren’t used to that.” Ram jokes, “It was kind of annoying for us, actually.”

A Shared Apartment and a Short Commute Make for a Homey Stay

Figuring out short-term housing, especially in high price locations like Los Angeles, can make internships, even paid ones, expensive learning experiences. For a while, the four interns had plans to share an Airbnb. “We knew they’d need a place to stay,” Rena says. She and Ram proposed to their CEO that the company rent an apartment that could be used by the interns during the summer. At other times, the company’s own remote workers could stay there when they’re in town. “We wanted [the students] to feel safe,” Rena says, “and not spend an hour commuting.” The apartment was about a 10-minute walk away. The CEO and CFO donated furniture and dishes to help make it comfortable.

With their own place to retreat to, it would have been easy for the interns to hole up by themselves, but they embraced the mPulse community. “They were outgoing,” Ram says. “They didn’t keep to themselves. Whatever social events the company was holding, they participated.” Their contributions, both professional and social, made an impact.

“It was a big loss when they left,” Rena says. The company is thinking about replicating the cohort model next summer.

Meanwhile, the company offered ongoing internships to Segbefia and Agrawal, who worked remotely from Grinnell during the fall. “That was fantastic for us,” Rena says, “because they have the domain knowledge.”

And fantastic for the students.

Internships Help Grinnellians to Launch

The Powerful Combination of a Liberal Arts Education and Practical Experience

A brief history of internships at Grinnell

Internships have become such an expected part of the college experience that it’s hard to imagine they weren’t always ubiquitous. Yet before the 1960s, throughout the United States internships were most common in medicine and K–12 education — aka student teaching.
Grinnell’s internship program began in 1977, just three years after the appointment of the College’s first full-time director of career services, John Adams. His model was a legislative internship program run by Ed Gilmour, a professor of political science at Grinnell, in the 1960s.

How internships evolved at Grinnell

In the 1970s and 1980s, internships were most often done during the school year, rather than in the summer. Students were responsible for finding faculty sponsors, keeping journals, meeting with their sponsors, and setting internship goals. Students spent two full days per week during the spring or fall semester at their internship sites, which had to be within driving distance of Grinnell. They earned four hours of academic credit for their ability to reflect on and learn from their internship experience.

Summer internships started gaining more traction as funding for unpaid opportunities became more available. In 1985, when Wayne Moyer, professor of political science, became director of the Rosenfield Program in Public Affairs, International Relations, and Human Rights, he started fielding requests for modest support of summer internships that fit the Rosenfield mission.

“Internships became a big part of the program,” Moyer says. “They continue to be a major element of what the Rosenfield program does. To some extent we were a trial balloon for overall internships at the College.”

Steve Langerud, director of the Career Development Office from 1993 to 2006, agrees. He used the Rosenfield program as a model for attracting funding for other summer internships. “One of the most compelling things about internship opportunities, particularly in the summer,” Langerud says, “is that you could do things then that you couldn’t do in a college setting, and that you couldn’t do without money.” Helping students get paid was a crucial part of it, Langerud felt. Because otherwise, some Grinnell students had to go home and work to make enough money to come back the next year. They couldn’t afford to take unpaid internships.

“I was inspired by Grinnell College’s underlying philosophy — allow students to transcend their economic status and create an even playing field,” Langerud says.

Experiential learning connects the liberal arts to the workplace

Mark Peltz has built on Langerud’s work. As the Daniel ’77 and Patricia Jipp ’80 Finkelman Dean of Careers, Life, and Service, Peltz began in 2011 to reshape what’s now known as the Center for Careers, Life, and Service (CLS) so that experiential learning is embedded in the student experience from their earliest days on campus. In terms of internships, Peltz has forged a two-pronged approach — cultivating opportunities and providing nuanced advising to help students prepare themselves.

What Career Communities Offer

Grinnell’s seven career communities include arts, media, and communication; business and finance; education professions; government and social service; health professions; law; and STEM. Students can join one or more. Each is led by a professional with extensive industry-specific knowledge and experience. Students can participate in industry-specific treks and skill-building workshops and access a network of advisers, peers, and alumni.

Kelly Harris, associate dean and director of employment engagement, leads the team that cultivates internship opportunities, many of them with alumni and parents. Internships are one way for students to explore and test out their interests, she says.
Harris also manages the funding process for unpaid and underpaid internships. The best, most equitable way to distribute internship funding is something she and Peltz have discussed. Should the College provide partial funding for as many students as possible, or fully fund fewer students?

“There are more students requesting internship funding than there is money available,” Harris says.

“We fund as many as we can.” From 2015–2019, students received, on average, 84% of their funding requests.

“Grinnell was one of the first institutions in the country that was awarding internship funding to students to do unpaid experiences,” Peltz says. “That’s no longer distinct, particularly among our peer schools, some of which award $800,000 or more to students each summer.”

While funding and opportunities are important, so is solid advising about the internship search process. “That’s where the career communities come in,” Peltz says. “They provide more specialized advising and coaching so [students] can understand some of the nuances.” Such as the subtle differences needed in a résumé for an internship with a science research lab compared to a library. Or the timing of the recruiting process in different industries. Finance and consulting begin in late summer to early fall, while many nonprofits recruit in late winter to early spring. CLS advisers guide students on how to best present themselves as well as on when and where to look for these critical experiences.

Expert advice and support from CLS staff help students transform their thinking and their skills and ultimately their lives. If you’d like to assist the CLS in its efforts, consider making a gift to the Campaign for Grinnell College.

Internship Funding and Stipends

Total Funding Awarded

Total Funding Awarded: 2015: $304,953 - 2016: $422,404 - 2017: $457,106 - 2018: $487,209 - 2019: $368,026

Average Stipend Awarded

Average Stipends 2015: $2823 - 2016: $2,913 - 2017: $2,968 - 2018: $3,087 - 2019: $2,747

Available funds fluctuate year to year based on gifts, budget allocations, and endowment returns.

Alumni Care Package: Variation on a theme

“This one should not go back to college, right?” I said to my 10-year-old son while pointing toward Sarah. His loud laughter filled the room as he rolled back and forth on a floor mat, his right fingers inside his widely smiling mouth. It was Aug. 1, 2019, and Sarah Weltz ’21 was soon heading back to Grinnell to start her third year. My son made loud grunting sounds any time we talked about Sarah’s impending return to campus. Her summer working as his caregiver and advocate had been adventurous, fun, and reaffirming of the deep connections Grinnell can foster across generations and circumstances.

Sarah and I were first connected by her roommate Lauren Miller ’21, who did a 2019 spring break externship at Global Nomads Group (GNG), a nonprofit virtual exchange and global education organization, where I am currently chief of programs and learning. After her externship I had emailed Lauren and Peony Teo ’21 (another former extern at GNG) to ask if they knew of any current Grinnellians or recent graduates who would be in New York City for the summer and might be interested in a modestly paying caregiving and advocacy job. I was impressed by both Lauren and Peony during their externships and was hoping perhaps one of them would be interested in the position. I tried to enhance the limited compensation by describing in the email “all the learning my family has to offer: health care (medical/nursing/systems/politics), rehabilitation (PT [physical therapy], OT [occupational therapy], speech), neuro-atypical communication, systems thinking, education and disability rights, jazz music, and the hard-earned wisdom and life lessons from the Warrior Prince and his weary parents.”

Lauren forwarded the email to Sarah, who is originally from New York City and was planning to live with her parents that summer. As a biological chemistry major interested in medical school, she saw the relevance of this work to her career interests and responded enthusiastically to the forwarded email (“OMG LAUREN THAT SOUNDS AMAZING! THANK YOU SO MUCH! I will contact her now!”). Soon after, we were on a FaceTime call making plans to meet.

How an Out-of-the-Blue Disease Changed Our Lives

My family’s circumstances are rather exceptional. My son, whom my husband and I adopted at birth, was perfectly healthy and typically developing until he was almost three, when a rare autoimmune encephalitis dramatically changed his and our lives. We woke up one morning to his first seizure, went by ambulance to our nearest hospital, and returned home 15 months later to vastly altered lives. Our apartment filled with medications, supplies, and equipment. Our attention shifted to our son’s moment-to-moment safety, insurance navigation, and medical bills. Our careers and professional aspirations narrowed dramatically. Our interdependence with multiple paid caregivers grew. Now, almost eight years since the onset of his illness, my son still requires round-the-clock care and is fully dependent for all activities of daily life. His recovery from the acquired brain injury caused by his disease has been glacially slow but steady. He is funny, smart, spirited, determined, nonverbal, non-ambulatory, and an incredibly good judge of character. He took to Sarah immediately. The first time Sarah met my son and me in person was on a trip to the dentist. Near the barrier-free door to my son’s school, Sarah hopped into our wheelchair accessible van and helped me navigate heavy traffic to the Bronx dental clinic (one of the few in the vicinity that both takes insurance and serves children with special medical needs). She watched attentively as I rattled off my son’s complicated health history and long list of medications, observed closely as I restrained his arms while the dentist examined and cleaned his teeth, and laughed heartily as I did a happy dance when informed that he had no cavities.

Often, new caregivers struggle to figure out ways to be helpful, but Sarah jumped right in, asking great questions and immediately demonstrating deep respect for my son. From the first time they met, she figured out that he understands everything being said and interacted with him accordingly. She avoided the common missteps of speaking to him as if he were a baby, or loudly, or simply. It takes most new caregivers a while to overcome the flawed assumption that what people express outwardly is a reliable indication of what they absorb inwardly. Sarah seemed to assume his comprehension, which in situations like my son’s is the least harmful — and, in his case, most accurate — assumption. I was also pleasantly impressed by how she made sure to talk with and to my son, rather than just with me or my husband, about him.

Sarah Weltz, Sandra Joy Stein, and Stein's son sitting on a park bench

One Shared Summer, Lasting Connection

Our summer together was full of adventure and learning, as well as a hefty dose of daily drudgery. Thankfully, Sarah was up for all of it. She accompanied us to a Central Park race where she ran alongside my son in his wheelchair and cheered him on when we helped him out of his chair to run across the finish line with assistance. She stealthily attended to all the medical tasks of getting through our day — drawing up medications, hanging a feeding bag and priming the long plastic tubing that ultimately connects to my son’s gastrostomy tube while he sleeps, feeding my son while deftly dodging his often-flailing arms, then settling into read a book or play superhero wrestling games with him.

We have had lots of meaningful conversations, on topics ranging from our deeply flawed health care system, to the lived realities of classism and racism, to the fraught languages of adoption and disability. She has read several books and articles related to my son’s condition and our family life, as if approaching her summer job with us as a college course with a reading list we collectively curated. We had the kinds of conversations that I remember experiencing frequently at Grinnell on what we then called the Forum Beach. We have discussed how Grinnell compels its students to take a deep look at themselves, at their communities of origin, and at the broader world in ways that are unique and compelling. We have marveled at how the Iowa cornfields and vast, dramatic skies somehow provide a protected path for the common discomfort of profound personal growth.

We have met and hung out with each other’s Grinnell friends with ease and appreciation (even though my friends and I are around her parents’ age). We have shared timeless stories about picking majors, dorm life, relays, food services, campus dating, and themed parties. One of my favorite moments was when Sarah cautiously asked two of my friends whether the Alice in Wonderland parties of our time were in any way like the Alice parties of hers, then probed further to make sure that they understood exactly what distinguishes this particular party from all others. (Yes, Sarah, yes, they were then as they are now!)

For three days a week during Sarah’s time with us, my son was in an intensive assisted-walking physical therapy program. In this program, he walked on a treadmill while suspended by a harness, with his legs attached to robotic legs that guided his movements. Sarah stood by my son as he walked up to three quarters of a mile, cheering him on as she would her own teammate on Grinnell’s swim team, ultimately and effectively distracting him from any pain or discomfort he might have been feeling during his session. He rewarded her cheering by walking faster and flashing her his huge, illuminating smile.

Our common Grinnell experiences, even with 30 years between them, have proven to be a powerful bond. We share a passionate sense of wonder and curiosity. We are open to possibilities. We seek justice and call out injustice. We are radically and creatively pragmatic. We laugh when things go wrong, then try again to get them right.

So, when I told my son that Sarah shouldn’t go back to Grinnell, of course I didn’t mean that in a literal sense, and I hope she understood the ribbing as an expression of the fierce love and deep gratitude we have for her. While my whole family would have benefited tremendously had she stayed in New York City and continued to work with us, we are also incredibly excited for Sarah to have two more years of learning and growth at the college that has contributed so distinctly to the women who we both are today.

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.