Back Talk

First-Year Classes Go Abroad

This past spring, I and 14 fellow first-year students enrolled in a semester-long course of a lifetime. Origins of Liberal Education marked one of two pilot courses* in what I hope will become a long line of Global Learning Program (GLP) tutorials. The GLP tutorials aim to connect first-year students to the global community through the fusion of a semester-long class and course-embedded travel experiences. The program was made possible by the generous support of Trustee Susan Holden McCurry ’71 and the Roland and Ruby Holden Foundation.

Led by our two professors, Aysha Pollnitz, newly named assistant professor of history at Rice University, and Mirzam Perez, associate professor of Spanish, our class of fresh-faced first-years logged more than three weeks and 7,500 miles of unforgettable globe-trotting. 

Through our travels, we experienced the topic of our course firsthand. Suddenly, the concepts we discussed in class, which addressed how liberal education has shaped cultural, political, religious, and economic life, became tangible objects and experiences. 

The Origin of Liberal Education tutorial group gathers in front of the University of Salamanca

Our travels began during Grinnell’s spring break, when we abandoned our cozy classroom and headed across the Atlantic, straight to the cobbled streets of Rome. For two weeks, we scoured the limits of Spain and Italy, frequenting museums, architectural wonders, and historical sites — not to mention the occasional gelato stand (or two). 

In Padua, Italy, we stood on the ground level of the world’s first anatomical theatre, where live dissections were once taught, and reclined in the same sala magna where Galileo Galilei once hosted his astronomy lectures. In Florence, we gazed up at the smooth curvatures of Michelangelo’s “David” and gazed down at the city’s skyline from the top of Brunelleschi’s perfect Duomo, the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. 

The second portion of our travels spilled over into the first week and a half of summer vacation. Our class ventured to Mexico City, where we toured the remains of Teotihuacan, an ancient Mesoamerican city, and reveled in the beauty of Frida Kahlo’s studio at La Casa Azul. 

Four students ham it up in a leap on the top of the pyramid

With each new city and each new adventure, we saw a different part of our course come to life. At the University of Padua, we saw how the tenets of the liberal arts shaped the growth of one of Europe’s oldest universities. At the top of the Duomo, we observed how Brunelleschi’s interdisciplinary approach to architecture influenced his innovative design. And, from the steps of the Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacan, we witnessed the role education played in the development of one of Mexico’s oldest cities. 

As a class, we were fueled by genuine excitement — an excitement that only grew stronger with each new experience and each new academic connection. 

Megan Tcheng

Even today, long after I unpacked my suitcase and stored away my passport, I still feel a genuine, reverberating excitement. The Global Learning Program tutorial has shifted the way I view my education at Grinnell. It has made me consider the impact of ancient histories and foreign cultures. It has made me question the roots of my own experience. And, above all else, it has made me undeniably excited for my next three years at Grinnell.

From Secular to Chassidic Judaism

Becoming a Chassidic observant Jew was the furthest thing from my game plan as a free-spirited, liberal-minded Grinnellian back in the ’80s. I loved walking barefoot around campus, diving deep into philosophical discussions at the Forum, and hanging out underground at the Pub Friday nights. Here, in the middle of the vast cornfields of Iowa, lay fertile ground for an adventurous and meaningful life. Meeting people from across the globe, taking classes about any and every subject under the sun, and having professors who cared to give time and attention to each student was such a gift. My young mind opened to questions and controversies, always focused on making the world a better place.

After graduating, I moved to Berkeley, Calif., where I received a letter (life before the Internet) from my College boyfriend, David Feldman ’90, who was visiting Israel. He spoke about miracles, G-d, eating kosher, and learning from ancient texts. My once-partner in liberal-secularism had taken an unexpected detour — he was embracing religious Judaism.

Since I had never heard of a secular Jew becoming an observant Jew, I brought the letter to a rabbi that I found in the Yellow Pages. He told me that David was in a cult and advised that I go to Israel and get him out, as he was being brainwashed. Wow. That threw me for a loop — hopefully it wasn’t too late.

I boarded a plane for Israel, armed with a slew of antireligious books, feminist books, evolution books — whatever I could read and carry, I brought. When I met up with David, he already wore the traditional knotted fringes (tzitzits), covered his head with a kipa (yarmulke), and donned black boxes called tefillin every day. He was learning traditional Judaism based on an educational movement started by the Lubavitcher Rebbe to increase Judaic knowledge and practice among Jews worldwide.

Upon lengthy discussions with David, I realized that it was not a cult that he was following, but the ways of his ancestors, a tradition of strict laws carried down for centuries.

I enrolled in classes myself and spent my days and nights learning and arguing the authenticity of the Torah (Old Testament) with my teachers, rabbis and rebbetzins — as female teachers are called. My experience at Grinnell taught me how to meet intellectual challenges head on, with courage and open-mindedness. While the concepts were foreign to me as a secular-minded individual, I was open enough to explore the possibilities of this significant spiritual reality. It was such a paradigm shift that it was a several-year transformative journey.

Today, David and I are married and living in Chicago as committed Lubavitch Chassidim (a mystically minded form of traditional Judaism). As much as this faith-based, traditional path differs from the liberal path that I walked at Grinnell, I still consider myself a Grinnellian. I lead an adventurous life raising six children and engage in deep, philosophical discussions around our guest-laden Sabbath meals. Although I’m not dressed in the same clothes that I wore on campus, preferring a head covering and modest clothes instead, my Grinnell values have never waned. From Grinnell I learned the importance of making the world a better place, doing acts of kindness, and living life true to one’s values. These core traits I carry with me on my journey through life.

Risk Engagement for Colleges:

Grinnell is at the forefront of a new approach that colleges and universities can use to handle risk. Adapted from the enterprise risk management practiced in the corporate world, Grinnell’s model gives priority to academic values, not just the financial bottom line.

Why is Grinnell the right place to study risk?

The College has a tradition of taking risks. Grinnell College in the Nineteenth Century by Joseph Wall ’41 describes how the Iowa Band originally founded the College in response to “a dare tauntingly thrown at them” by a mentor they greatly respected.

When Grinnell attained national prominence in the 20th century, its rise in fortunes was also connected with risk. Trustees like Warren Buffett and Joseph Rosenfield 1925 multiplied the endowment through bold financial speculations. They were Grinnell’s “risk-taking pioneers of the 1970s,” wrote Alan Jones ’50 in his book Pioneering.

More recently, the board of trustees took a chance by appointing a president who acknowledged having little experience with liberal arts colleges. Raynard S. Kington arrived on campus in 2010 and asked his team of senior leaders, “What are our institutional plans and policies to manage risk?”

That early dare from a new president had no easy answer. But his question spurred leaders at Grinnell to develop and share a new approach to risk — one now embraced as a model by other liberal arts colleges.

A risk model that suits Grinnell

Apart from historical anecdotes, what makes this approach right for us? For one thing, a strong tradition of academic shared governance ensures that our risk categories won’t be overly “corporate.” Designed for financial services and businesses, enterprise risk management had to be translated into academic language and culture before it could truly serve a college.

Faculty leaders at Grinnell have a strong voice, so when administrators raise the idea that it’s time to analyze risk, the faculty can see to it that risks to the mission of teaching and scholarship take priority. Keeping academic values central remains a guiding principle in Grinnell’s “purposeful risk engagement” model.

As a college that welcomed diversity in admission pretty much from the beginning, Grinnell upholds diversity as a core value. A cautious attitude is common at many institutions of higher education, where administrators worry about greater diversity bringing new risks — embodied in anxieties about compliance, protests, and lawsuits.

At Grinnell we view diversity as positive and seek to identify (and engage!) risks that threaten what we value in a diverse community. Drawing strength from our history, we look beyond the dutiful surface of compliance and adherence to rules, and honor the spirit of educational opportunity behind laws like Title IX and ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), a spirit that affirms real values behind institutional choices and actions.

Risk management as a balancing act

Risk management often involves keeping two complementary risks in balance. New protective measures that increase security could make a simple process take longer. Attempts to gain consistency across campus can threaten the flexibility and autonomy that faculty, staff, and students rightly value. The obligation to keep certain records confidential can limit transparency in communications.

To resolve such risk dilemmas, we look for solutions that balance competing needs as well as possible, using the mission as a frame of reference. We keep in mind that the academic mission itself has two sides: a responsibility to preserve knowledge from loss and a drive to extend the frontiers of new knowledge.

The typical new startup company has no duty to preserve ancient records or to fight the permanent loss of the world’s languages, cultural artifacts, and traditional skills. A business can readily reinvent itself without concern for such consequences.

This difference helps explain why institutional change at a college or university may appear frustratingly slow and deliberative to those accustomed to the business world. It also explains why the corporate model of risk management had to be translated into a new approach that takes into account what matters most in an academic setting.