Back Talk

The Power of Grinnell

We have all experienced meeting Grinnellians in unexpected places. Our group of four Grinnell friends took this to an international level during a trip to Tuscany to celebrate our collective bicentennial. We were visiting Lucca, Italy, in 2018 and taking a cooking class. While learning from Chef Giuseppe how to roll the perfect gnocchi, we chatted with our classmates — when lo and behold, we discovered a fifth Grinnellian in our midst. 

The roots of our friendship trace back to 1985 during our freshman year at Grinnell. The unique alchemy of place and time that happens at Grinnell provided the genesis of a deep and enduring friendship. We could regularly be found eating at Cowles or Quad, at a party, on a study break, or lounging in one of our rooms. Throughout our years at Grinnell, we listened to and supported each other through ups and downs; and during our senior year, the four of us lived together in a house off campus. The sum of these small, shared, seemingly insignificant moments served as the building blocks of a profound friendship that has lasted over 30 years. 

Post-Grinnell life took us in different directions, and the intensity of our connection waxed and waned. Periodic touch points occurred via weddings, visits, and on-campus reunions. Our 25th Reunion marked the first time all four of us were back on campus together. We pledged to see each other more regularly and decided to take a big trip together to celebrate our milestone 50th birthdays that would soon be upon us. Returning home, our routines took over all too quickly as we slipped back into our old habits. 

Luckily, Lara’s work was investing in wellness, and as a result of a coaching call she got the wheels moving on “the trip.” She set up a conference call and gave assignments to narrow down potential dates and destinations. A lengthy planning process of Wednesday night meetings using Zoom cloud videoconferencing ensued in which we considered the entire world and eventually settled on Tuscany. Though the weekly calls disrupted our routines, the process of planning proved invaluable, since it enabled us to organize and reconnect. We selected dates in May 2018 for travel and developed an itinerary. 

We were elated when we met at Boston’s Logan airport, after nearly a year of preparation that required time, dedication, and great understanding and support from our families. The trip itself was wonderful! Highlights included wine tastings, museums, the city of Florence, and the cooking class at which we met fellow Grinnellian Lisa Piediscalzi ’85. Though we have returned to our busy lives and no longer hold our weekly conference calls, this trip will always be one of our fondest memories. It reminded us that in addition to the academic foundation Grinnell gives its students, it also provides a community and a place to build lifelong relationships. Our trip was more than a birthday celebration; it was a tribute to our friendship. 

From Bubblegum to Butterflies

Last spring, I participated for the first time in the Everyday Class Notes (ECN) care package project and found it was a wonderful way to connect with current students, in more ways than one.

ECN is a Facebook group of Grinnell alumni of all ages who regularly communicate, celebrate, and sometimes commiserate our everyday lives after Grinnell. Since 2014, a subset of that group has provided care packages to current students as a way to support, encourage, and connect with them (usually in February to help alleviate midterm stress). Some alumni also team together to fund items or shipping costs or to do the shopping, packaging, gathering, delivering, distributing, etc. The packages are as diverse as our alumni community and might include snacks, sweets, games, activities, toiletries, winter gear, blankets, ethnic foods, gift cards, and more.

I included a letter with each of my packages, detailing my time at Grinnell (1989–1996), offering advice, sharing insights, telling stories, and including an invitation to look me up if they are ever in the greater Seattle area. Sometimes students write back, which is a delight in itself, but I got a special treat in October 2018 when Michi Soderberg ’21, who had received one of my Asian-themed packages, flew out during Grinnell’s fall break to visit a friend of hers who is a student at the University of Puget Sound. While her friend attended classes, I played tour guide and took Michi to Seattle’s famous Pike Place Market.

Since Michi hails from the upper Midwest, it was such a delight to introduce her to the sights, sounds, and even smells of the Pacific Northwest: salt water, seagulls, ferry boats, and the delicious smells of the market. We visited the infamous Bubblegum Alley (where tourists stick chewed bubblegum on the brick walls of a “hidden” back alley), watched fish vendors throwing fish (a very iconic market scene), and hiked down (and up) hundreds of stairs to the waterfront and back.

We also feasted our way from one end of the market to the other. We snacked on salmon jerky from the famous Pike Place Fish Market, salmon-filled pastries from Piroshky Piroshky (a Russian bakery), Greek yogurt from the corner market, cheese crackers from locally-famous Beecher Handmade Cheese, assorted chowders from the award-winning Pike Place Chowder, pumpkin cheesecake fudge from a local chocolatier, and sampled what Michi described as the best tea she’s ever had from a tea-tasting vendor called Vital-T-Leaf.  

 We also rode the Monorail to the Space Needle and the Butterfly Garden at the Pacific Science Center, and even made a side trip to Daiso (the Japanese dollar store), where I picked up a few things for the next round of care packages. Like me, Michi also is of Japanese heritage, so that was a treat for both of us.

The weather even cooperated. It was an unusually dense fog for most of the day, so Washington State’s iconic Mount Rainier wasn’t out, but the notorious Washington rain held off until we were done … and I didn’t even get lost navigating my way out of Seattle’s maze of crooked four-, five- and even six-way intersections and one-way streets.  

The best part, of course, was being able to share stories of Grinnell then and Grinnell now and realizing that even as Grinnell evolves, some things — like the ability of Grinnellians to connect with Grinnellians — remain the same

Music: A Language of Compassion

“They called themselves the Velvetones…like velvet,” said my mother, Catharine Herr Van Nostrand ’59, as she reminisced over her 1958 photo of my father, David Van Nostrand ’58, singing with Herbie Hancock ’60 and two other students at the piano. Dave was a biology major enthusiastically singing in vocal ensembles and listening to jazz LPs, and Herbie was spending every possible moment at the piano and studying jazz. Over the years, my family religiously listened to every new Herbie Hancock release with pride, but it took me half a lifetime to discover that the photo captures one of the most precious moments in our family’s lore.

A clue surfaced in 1989 when my boyfriend (now husband) Byron Ricks ’87 mentioned Dave to Herbie after a concert in Philadelphia. Herbie said, “Ah yes, Bun and Dave!” (my mother’s nickname was Bunny). 

More than 20 years later, Herbie performed at Seattle’s Paramount Theater. I contacted his agent with news of my father’s passing (November 2014) and was granted two backstage passes. When he saw my daughter Julia and me, he said again, “Ah, Bun and Dave!” Then I showed him the picture. “We were best friends,” he said. Though their paths had taken them in different directions — Dave had gone on to be a surgeon and humanitarian (and much more), and Herbie a 14-time Grammy Award winning jazz pianist, UNESCO Ambassador (and much more) — their Grinnell experience had created a lifelong bond.

Herbie was even more generous this past March (2018) when he told Byron, Julia, and me backstage in Seattle, “All you need to say is ‘Dave Van Nostrand,’ and you are in.” This turned me into a family ambassador. I expressed gratitude for the way his creativity continues to influence my family, and for his collaborations that bring people together around the world. In turn, he gave us his undivided attention on everything from my work in music to Julia’s electronic compositions. He impressed me with, “We had a group! What was the name of it again…something like the Mellotones?”

I finally asked my mother to reach deeper into her memory. “It seems there was a piano near the dining hall, and they would hang out at it and run through a few numbers, perhaps after waiting tables together,” she recalled. 

As the story goes, she transferred to the University of Iowa, and told Dave that she would accept his South Younker pin if he were serious — pinning being a symbol of true devotion. This gave Dave something to think about. Meanwhile, the romantic twist inspired Herbie to arrange a couple of songs for them. Upon a return visit, she recalls hearing the Velvetones harmonize on “How Can I Tell Her” by the Four Freshman, and an improvised number by Herbie which he introduced as, “This one is for Bun and Dave!” 

They were pinned, had a marriage that lasted 54 years, and three musical daughters, the oldest one being jazz pianist Laura Caviani.

This memory grew sweeter and more precious with time, the meaning crisper in retelling. It formed the foundation of a friendship that mattered — regardless of status, profession, or time. Herbie and Dave delighted in not only finding another fellow who could simply swing an eighth note, but in sharing the universal language of music, a strong and creative form of compassion for their unknown futures. 

Photo from left to right: Herbie Hancock ’60, Janice Pearson ’58, David Van Nostrand ’58, and (we think) Anne Moore ’59. Photo from the collection of Catharine Herr Van Nostrand ’59.



The Ice Rink Lesson

David Hagstrom ’57, who lives in Portland, Oregon, has received encouragement all his life; he now watches for each opportunity to encourage the deep desires of others.

Typical January temperatures in Fairbanks, Alaska, hover near 20 below zero. Some of my jogging friends would brave the cold and continue their pastime outdoors. I chose an alternative venue, a narrow track circling the Olympic-size hockey rink at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks.  

When the hockey team was practicing, my run was energized as I watched the puck careening at lightning speed back and forth across the rink. When the team was away, I still used the track for my fitness routine. And, on one occasion, such a quieter time presented me with a lesson that significantly changed my life.

One late afternoon, I noticed a university colleague of mine and his 8-year-old son in the middle of the immense rink. Peter was teaching his son, Andrew, how to ice skate. As I circumnavigated the rink time and time again, I noticed Peter’s calm and patient teaching style. 

While Andrew was in the locker room, I said to Peter, “I was so impressed with your way of being with Andrew out there on the ice. What’s your secret?”

“Andrew’s a kid who’s always struggled,” Peter said, “in school, and at home. So, early on, I just focused on what Andrew seemed to have a zeal for. Ever since he learned to walk, Andrew has been totally enthralled with hockey and skates. It’s his major delight. We attend all the university home games. And so, I’m trying my very best to help Andrew learn to ice skate. For some time now my motto has been ‘find out what he’s passionate about, then pour it on.’” 

Although born naturally positive — even optimistic — I’d not given much active thought to the practice of thoughtful encouragement. In subsequent conversations, Peter and I talked a good bit about what caring encouragement requires. It entails attentive and meticulous observation in the moment, a steady sense of inconspicuous watchfulness over time, and finally, asking honest questions and deep listening throughout. That’s what Peter and I came to believe. I believe it now, more strongly than ever. 

These days my thoughtful encouragement practice remains primarily focused on family, friends, and colleagues. And, over time I’ve come to understand that this way of being with them is not always that easy and straightforward. For instance, what’s to be my response to a person who constantly belittles other people in an effort to always be right or in control? 

During a recent social occasion, I observed John finding fault with each and every comment made by another person in the room. Toward the end of the evening, John approached me. I had watched for this opportunity all evening.  I asked him, “What are you yearning for in your life, John?” 

After a period of silence, he put his hand over his heart and offered a watery-eyed response: “I just want to find a small piece of land where I can live out my life in peace and quiet.  I’m not much good with people, but I’m okay on my own.” At that point we were interrupted, and he said, “Thanks, David, for listening and encouraging me.” 

Find out what they’re passionate about, then pour it on. It’s been 30 years since I first heard that jewel of wise instruction. I don’t know whether Andrew has gone on to be a hockey star. But I do know that I’ve learned to be a better encourager.


In Search of Tom Cole ’71

Grinnell has always impressed me by having few glitzy, headline-hogging alums. I’d like to think the College instead produces serious, hardworking leaders in all sorts of fields; the kind who do, rather than boast about doing. Among those, I include Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla, from the state’s 4th District, and a deputy majority whip. Several months ago, troubled by the state of our country, I wrote him a letter. 

June 14, 2017

Dear Tom Cole,

I have followed your career with interest, initially because you are a fellow Grinnellian and later because you sound like someone I could honestly disagree with and respect. I am so troubled by the direction our government seems to be heading in. It doesn’t take a genius to see that one day, possibly quite soon, you and members of your party will be faced with a choice between civic duty and political self-interest. You must sense this coming, too. I know the first rule of an officeholder is to get re-elected, but I urge you, should that occasion arise, to put patriotism before party loyalty. The institutions of our nation truly seem at risk. The president shows no respect or even understanding for our democratic system. If he starts acting in a way that you feel violates the precepts of government, that starts us down the road to some form of thinly-veiled dictatorship, I urge you to speak out. 

What can I offer in return? Dinner in Brooklyn, New York, should you ever be in the neighborhood. I’m a pretty fair cook. 

After Charlottesville, Va., I tried again:

August 17, 2017

Dear Representative Cole,

… What President Trump did this week, tacitly endorsing people who hate blacks and Jews, was a gut-punch to this American. I wish you and others in the Republican leadership (surely there must be some who truly care about their country, not just their position) would speak out. Forcefully. 

This is a test. You may not have asked to be put in this position but here you are. I think you know what your duty is. You don’t want to look back and feel that your silence contributed, however indirectly, to the kind of attacks and injustices your own racial heritage has made you all too familiar with. 

Then it occurred to me that he may not be seeing my letters. After all, I’m not a constituent. But I’ll bet Rep. Cole reads The Grinnell Magazine! So, ever the optimist, I fired up my laptop once more. 

Dear Tom Cole,

Have you seen the recent reports that President Trump is now calling into question the authenticity of the Access Hollywood video in which he makes those embarrassing and shameful remarks about groping women? “Maybe it’s not my voice,” he’s been telling people. 

Now, we both know it’s him on that footage. He admitted as much when it first surfaced. What we have is a president who is unable to accept the difference between truth and falsehood. Differences in ideology, in style, are one thing, but when the leader of our country loses his grip on reality, thinks he can make something true just by saying it, that’s another. Aren’t you worried for the safety of our nation? 

You’re an elected official. Don’t you think someone in government should be calling for the president’s mental health to be independently evaluated? It would be an extraordinary act, but these are extraordinary times. The man has almost unlimited power and seems dangerously out of touch with the concepts that form the foundations of civilized society. He may be ill. He literally may not understand what he is doing. And that’s dangerous.

Let’s talk. My dinner invite is still on.

Representative Cole is in a tough spot, but I have faith in him. He’s going to speak up, say out loud what his more timid colleagues all privately admit: that they are scared, that our leader seems to be deteriorating, that action must be taken. Whatever it costs in the short term, he’ll sleep better at night knowing he did the right thing. I’ll do my part. 

I'll make him a good meal.

I wonder if he’d like my vegetarian enchiladas…

On the Citrus

Richard Tillotson ’66 lives in Honolulu, where he worked for many years in advertising and now focuses on his own creative writing; his most recent novel is What You Will On Capitol Hill.

The summer of 1965 was one of those times when the powers that be decided too many immigrants were coming across the border and taking American jobs, so they closed it. They didn’t consider who was going to pick the fruit ripening in California’s citrus groves.

The growers put out a desperate call for anybody willing to live in remote barracks set in the middle of vast orchards and work 12 hours a day for pennies per basket of oranges picked. I and a few hundred other college kids on summer vacation answered the call. So did a number of recently released felons from the California prison system and a larger number of – suddenly illegal – workers from Mexico. 

The illegal immigrants were the only ones who were good enough at the job to make any money at it. The growers were very particular that their fruit had to be clipped at the very base of the stem. If any stem was left protruding from an orange, it was liable to puncture the other fruit in the basket. They issued everyone powerful metal clippers to do this right. While balancing up on a ladder, you were supposed to grab an orange with one hand and carefully clip the stem at its base with the other. It took me at least an hour to pick a basket of fruit this way, and my earnings were pitiful. But some of the Mexican workers were so skilled they could operate the clippers with one hand and simultaneously twist/pluck fruit off with the other using only a work-toughened thumbnail. Like jugglers, they could deftly toss oranges from both hands into burlap sacks that hung round their necks.

We didn’t have their example for long, however. One morning at our 5 a.m. breakfast, two members of the border patrol appeared at the entrance to the dining hall. Without a word being spoken, the Mexicans seemed to rise as one and disappeared out the back door and into the orchards.

Most of the men with no other job options seemed to have come either from prison or Los Angeles’ skid row. The one I remember best was a middle-aged black man named Eddie who had the bunk bed beneath mine. Eddie was a gentle and considerate man. He used to chuckle at my canvas duffle bag, which I’d lock at the top with a padlock through the metal clasp. Eddie would say, “If I wanted, I’d just take my razor and go in there through the bottom, but that lock’ll keep an honest man honest.” One evening as we were getting ready for lights-out, I set my wallet on my bunk in preparation for putting it under my pillow and sleeping on it. Another college kid called my name, and I took a few steps away to see what he wanted. Eddie came running after me shouting, “Don’t you ever leave your wallet on your bunk like that!” I’ll never know for sure why he was so angry at me, but after thinking it over for 50 years, I’ve reached this conclusion: In my naiveté and entitlement, I had tempted him. It would have been easy for him to scoop my wallet himself. Like the vanished Mexican workers, it would have just disappeared. He had good reason to be angry. 

I only lasted two weeks at that job, but my experiences were the source of an early short story, “On the Citrus,” which won the 1966 Steiner Short Story Award at Grinnell. That award confirmed my lifelong career choice as a creative writer. I remember next to nothing about the story, but I have vivid memories of my time on the citrus. It taught me a lot about the difficulty and dignity of manual labor and the camaraderie of men who have no options but to share it. 

A Growth Mindset

After graduating college, I spent a long time searching for the perfect job. Most important in my search was finding a job where I felt like part of a team that was pushing me to be the best I could be. Following months of interviewing, I found one I was willing to leap into. It seemed perfect. My bosses not only seemed to understand that I was looking for a mixture of personal and professional growth, but they actually seemed to encourage it.

Two months into the job, I started to notice the contrary. As I completed my more advanced duties, they were replaced with clerical work. I felt confused because I thought I was taking the challenges in stride and returning quality work. Soon thereafter, I noticed a shift in my attitude as any hope of my position delivering professional growth began to expire.

Four months in, I was finding myself incredibly irritable — not only at work but also in my personal life. When my boss asked me to make a personal dinner reservation for her, I questioned how I could have been so disillusioned initially to believe she ever valued my professional growth over her own needs. I politely told her I did not feel comfortable making such a reservation. She replied that I was expected to do anything she requested. I left that day without making the dinner reservation and immediately began looking for jobs elsewhere.

A week later, my boss called me into her office and fired me. I had never been one to fail at anything growing up, so I imagined getting fired would hurt. Instead, I felt immense relief that I wouldn’t be required to stay at a place that offered me nothing more than a paycheck. 

I left that night and sought out a temporary job while I continued my search for something more long-term. I took what I assumed to be a short-term position at a math learning center, Mathnasium, but by the end of my first day, I realized that something was fundamentally different with this job than my last. My boss genuinely cared about my well-being, and the higher-ups at the headquarters actively wanted to know how to improve their systems from those working within the centers. It became apparent to me that this was a position in which completing challenging tasks would return more complex problems to me to solve instead of any regression.

Sure enough, a little after a month in, I was asked if I’d like to continue my growth as a management trainee for the franchise headquarters. I jumped on the offer and began tackling any obstacle put in front of me, with the help of my bosses and the understanding that my failures were fine as long as I learned and continued to grow from them. This focus on a growth mindset wasn’t something I just felt in my core, but it was something stressed very often by those around me. It pushed me to work harder and gain more confidence in my skills.

Less than four months into my career at Mathnasium, I was given the opportunity to run my own center and manage a staff of wonderful people that I hope to continue challenging every day I work here. And that’s why I’m so glad my previous boss fired me. She wasn’t able to give me the one thing I wanted most: growth. I hope to use that experience to not only prioritize growth in my future opportunities but also to remember that my employees deserve the same. 

Post-Polio Challenges Lie Ahead

As a 12-year-old polio victim in the early 1950s, I faced isolation, closed school doors, and bullying, including a common use of the circular motions recently used by the now president of the United States against a partially disabled writer. 

But there were good things. Friends gathered at my bedroom window after school. My school principal took me to shoot baskets on the school playground many weekends. A home-school teacher got me into loving history. Friends literally protected me from physical bullying. I had wonderful rehab personnel and stunned parents and family who did all they could to lovingly support me. 

My worst moment came in the hospital isolation ward. A girl my age was in the iron lung in the room across the hall. She and I would exchange waves, smiles, and the comic books nurses would read to her. Early one morning I could not hear her iron lung clattering away in depressing rhythm. Our nurse came in and said, “Bonnie is gone, Ron. She died at 3 a.m. I’m sure you made her last days pleasant.” After going home, I thought I would be done with polio.

Let’s leap forward to 2015. One of the residents of my late mom’s nursing home is exactly my age and had been a teacher and coach in the Worcester, Mass., schools. Bob is a big strapping guy hardly able to move his wheelchair. When I asked him why he was there, he said, “Post-polio syndrome. When I got it in my late fifties and started to go downhill, my wife couldn’t be of much help. Soon I had to be here. How did you escape?” 

Given research on the subject, my only explanation could be luck. My doctor tells me I have outlived normal startup points — further proof there are some advantages to being older. So many of us do not take advantage of the health care available to us, avoiding preventive care and necessary treatments for “hidden” conditions. I was reminded further of this when I recently talked to a polio victim. She had never heard of post-polio syndrome and had no symptoms.

Post-polio syndrome (PPS) is a relatively common condition that affects polio survivors years or decades after recovery from an initial acute polio virus attack. It’s characterized mainly by new and unexpected weakening both in muscles that were previously affected by the polio infection and in others that seemingly were unaffected — a condition that cannot be reversed as effects inevitably worsen. 

In my case it would mean that though I had total paralysis in a lower leg as a child with polio, 40 years later I could lose the use of upper-body functions — arm and shoulder weakness often being the first signs of PPS along with fatigue, sleeplessness, and new breathing problems. Evidence suggests that many doctors do not know about PPS. None of my doctors have ever raised the issue with me. Like so many health conditions, this is one requires self-maintenance and, for victims, support nets. 

The numbers are huge. There has been a major decline in polio cases, from an estimated 350,000 cases per year in the late 1980s to 74 reported cases in 2015. But the World Health Association reports that there are 12 million people who live with the effects of polio, 1 million of them being in the United States. Data I’ve seen suggests between 20 percent and 50 percent of these victims will suffer from PPS, a large number of people who will need help. 

Millions of people worldwide may be PPS victims, often in the prime of life, and often in addition to lifetime paralysis. Bottom line: If you had polio, there is a substantial chance you will have PPS and need to prepare yourself and your family. 

Here are some pertinent resources: and Mayo Clinic’s post-polio syndrome site:  

Conversing With Art

Art is a language. Artists communicate with us through color, form, subject, scale, texture, movement, and symbols. We all know how to “read” this language, if we stop and engage with the art. While many of us believe we can’t understand art, I’ve found that we are usually selling ourselves short. Instead, we can be intimidated by dense verbal discussions of art that leap beyond what is before us to complex interpretations and inferences. If we use our eyes and look closely at the work created, we can understand a great deal of the visual language. 

Lesley Wright

Think of a visit to an art museum as a conversation. Walk into a room and decide whom you would like to talk with (which work of art). What questions do you want to ask? What does the art tell you in return? What are its friends and neighbors telling you? Do they get along? 

Curators and exhibition designers (should) present exhibitions so that conversation comes naturally: conversation with the visitor and conversations among the works of art. The very best exhibitions that I visit, no matter how difficult or abstract the art, are ones where I can see that everything is there for a reason. Every piece has a relationship to others, sparks new ideas as I move through the space, or gives me a reason to look again at something I missed before. Being in the room excites my interest, and I want to grasp the argument made by the curator.  

The art on view is the end point in a long process of curating and creating an exhibition. For every presentation of art, someone had to make an inspired series of decisions to generate the conversation we have with the art. Showing art by culture, by chronology, by theme, or by color are all choices, not self-evident schemes.

How do we select the art and exhibitions we bring to Faulconer Gallery? That, too, is a conversation among curators and museum staff, and with artists, faculty, other museums and organizations who specialize in sharing exhibitions with museums. Sometimes we go out and create an entirely new exhibition, born of an idea in a curator’s mind. Sometimes we look for existing exhibitions planned at another museum and available to us. Weaving together these opportunities builds a stimulating exhibition program. Most of our exhibitions come together in about two years, but more complex or highly desirable shows can be in development for three years or more. Sometimes we seize an opportunity and bring a project to the gallery is about six months. 

Faulconer Gallery presents eight to 12 exhibitions a year, large and small. A powerful exhibition might have six works of art or more than 100. What matters most is great art and strong core ideas that can be shared visually with the public. Daniel Strong, associate director and curator of exhibitions, might work with a single artist on a project created just for Grinnell. Kay Wilson, curator of the collection, may develop an exhibition of prints from the collection in concert with a few faculty members. I may curate an exhibition about art in the Midwest with the Center for Prairie Studies. Or one of us might leap at an opportunity to curate an exhibition that beats with the pulse of contemporary art created elsewhere in the world. 

Exhibitions developed in partnership with others make the conversations in the gallery richer, informed by perspectives honed in other disciplines. Our programming makes some of these discussions available to our audience. Whether we pay to bring an exhibition to our walls or to build out a new idea ourselves, we seek a connection with our campus and community. Through the art we bring to Grinnell and our abundant programming, we hope you can join the conversation.

Lesley Wright has been director of Faulconer Gallery since 1999.

From Egypt to Iowa

I recently became a U.S. citizen; and the day I took my oath, I voted in my first presidential election.

I am an American by choice. More than 17 years ago, I arrived in the Midwest, a young graduate student looking forward to studying in an inclusive vibrant classroom where men and women equally participated in class discussion. For me, the Midwest was fascinating. Unlike the weather, people were nice and warm. I adjusted really well and became part of the community. I excelled academically, took part in interfaith discussion groups, volunteered in organizations working with the disabled people and was welcomed in the homes of my host families during the holidays. I was embraced and accepted, and I reciprocated and gave back.

Mervat Youssef

I chose to be an American. After graduating from the University of Iowa, I landed a job at Grinnell College. I earned it. I have worked hard, participated in educating hundreds of young men and women, obeyed the law, contributed to the economy, and paid my fair share of taxes. I was very happy to stay in the state I now call home. I chose to be an Iowan.

On Nov. 9, Donald Trump became president-elect despite losing the popular vote. My vote was not as valuable as some others. The electoral system in the United States does not guarantee that all votes are equal. Thus, although the majority of Americans did not vote for a candidate as divisive as Trump is, he is now president-elect. 

Following his populist rhetoric, I had anticipated the election outcome. It was my reaction that I had not anticipated. Donald Trump said he will be a president for all Americans, and he should. However, his administration choices, especially that of chief strategist, Steve Bannon, who is a white nationalist, is indicative of anything but being a president for all Americans. This is expected of Trump. What is not expected, however, is the deafening silence Trump’s choices received from fellow Americans who voted for him. I am yet to know of a single person who identifies as a Trump supporter who publicly voiced concerns about Bannon’s prospective appointment.

I chose to be American and I chose to be Iowan, but as I see many of my fellow Iowans stand silent before Trump’s choices, I find myself wondering if the smiles I see everywhere belong to hearts that no longer want me here. This is exactly how alienation happens.

My oath ceremony experience was a heartwarming one. In a room filled with diverse faces of those who are soon-to-be fellow Americans, a video of American people and places appeared on a large screen. Among them were Martin Luther King Jr., whose “I have a dream” speech inspired generations, and the Lincoln Memorial, where he delivered it. “America the Beautiful” played in the background. I looked at the faces of my soon-to-be fellow Americans and those on the screen, including President Lincoln’s face carved into Mount Rushmore. The America we chose to be citizens of and pledged allegiance to looked both diverse and inclusive. This is what I will hang on to. This is what I will always see.