Feature

Lessons from Plants

Beronda Montgomery reviewing flowers in a field

Montgomery says her earliest memories of plants include her mother, her grandmother, and her aunts, who all shared an extensive knowledge of and love for plants.

When Beronda Montgomery was growing up in Little Rock, Arkansas, she and her older brother and sister spent the long, hot summer days exploring the wild places where plants grew and thrived, largely ignored by humans. “It was the rhythm of our summers,” Montgomery says.

Although they left the house with packed lunches and their mother’s warnings ringing in their ears (“Don’t eat anything!”), the patches of wild blackberries were irresistible.

When they got home, their mother would ask, “Did you eat anything?” They would reply, “No, Mama, we didn’t eat anything.” They didn’t quite get away with it, though. “My brother and sister, being older, were careful, but I would come home with blackberry stains all down my shirt,” Montgomery says.

And so, the lessons began. “She realized she had to teach us really early how to distinguish what was good to eat,” Montgomery says. They began to learn about plants and how to stay safe in their environment.

At that time, Montgomery says, she didn’t fully appreciate her mother’s knowledge of and love for plants, or her incredible green thumb. “I really did not understand my mom’s curiosity with plants. They looked like they were just sitting there,” she says.

Welcoming a New Dean

Montgomery, who is Grinnell’s new vice president of academic affairs and dean of the College, is also a scientist focusing on biochemistry, molecular biology, microbiology, and molecular genetics. In addition, she is the author of Lessons from Plants, a book that explores the surprising lives of plants. Plants move, they make decisions, they take actions, they cooperate, and they communicate, mostly unseen and unappreciated by people.

fingers holding up a smooth blue aster bloom with rest of plant visible in the background

Montgomery examines a smooth blue aster blooming on the Grinnell campus. The aster is native to the prairies of the Midwest and attracts many pollinators.

As an author, Montgomery blends her keen understanding of ecosystems with her gift for storytelling, reflecting on how we can apply what we learn from plants to our lives, from the personal to the professional.

And perhaps, even to the life of Grinnell College.

A Passion for Plants

Montgomery had originally planned to be a lawyer. When she took a plant physiology course almost by accident because it was the only course that fit in her schedule, Montgomery got swept up in her professor’s passion for plants.

She went on to earn a doctorate in plant biology from University of California-Davis, conducting research focusing on how plants respond to light and nutrients. After a postdoc in microbial biology, Montgomery joined the faculty at Michigan State University.

It wasn’t until she was well into her study of plant science that Montgomery reflected on the impact of the time she had spent with her mother and how much she had learned about plants just by watching and listening.

The Importance of Light

Beronda Montgomery holding a potted plantMontgomery remembers being astonished by a photo of two genetically identical plants growing in identical conditions, with just one difference: one was growing in the light, the other in darkness.

“They were completely different,” Montgomery says. The plant in the light thrived; the plant in darkness struggled.

“What’s going on around them really determines whether they have success or not,” she explains. “That has changed the way I think about myself as a teacher, mentor, and leader.” For biological organisms with similar potential, success or failure depends on the environment.

For example, children who go to school without breakfast often can’t focus in class. It’s easy to assume that they aren’t as capable as other children; however, we should be thinking about what’s happening around them, which factors in their environment might be keeping them from living up to their full potential.

“Humans are just biological organisms,” Montgomery says. “We are subject to the principles of the universe like anything else.” And yet, she adds, we often don’t apply lessons from the natural world to ourselves. In the process, we miss out on what can be learned about how we see ourselves and our interactions with others.

In the biological world as well as our own, these reciprocal relationships result in more resilient communities.

The Three Sisters

Grouping of an ear of corn, a squash, and beans in a podOne example is the “three sisters” approach to growing crops — an indigenous farming practice that has inspired Montgomery. The three sisters are traditionally corn, beans, and squash, grown together for the good of all three.

Corn is the first sister, and as all Grinnellians and Iowans know, it grows tall.

The second sister, beans, grows on a vine that uses the tall cornstalk for support. By growing up rather than staying low to the ground, the beanstalk can better access sunlight. In return for that support and protection, the bean plant transforms nitrogen into a liquid fertilizer shared with the corn.

The third sister is squash, which forms a ground cover that protects the soil from drying out and prevents weeds from gobbling up resources. The squash gets some of the nitrogen fixed by the bean plant, as well as some of the shade provided by both sisters. “There’s this kind of reciprocity, and they do indeed grow better together than if they were growing in isolation,” Montgomery says. When eaten together, the three sisters also provide complete nutrition.

Montgomery cultivates the principles of the three sisters in her work as a teacher, leader, and mentor. We do better when we work together in communities, she explains — just like the three sisters. By building coalitions with others, we nurture and support each other to develop stronger individuals and communities.

Competing Demands

Beronda Montgomery in a face mask at a Grinnell College lecture speaking to an audience

During a recent Scholars’ Convocation, Montgomery spoke about the indigenous farming practice of growing corn, beans, and squash together for the mutual benefit of all as a lesson from plants about the value of cultivating a community of reciprocity at Grinnell.

Like many of us, Montgomery has felt pulled in many directions by the demands of a busy life competing for her time and attention. Inspired by the three sisters, she began to see that different aspects of her life could exist in reciprocity. Her teaching could feed her research, and research could enrich her teaching and service.

She also thought about how the three sisters could apply to her role as a mother. Perhaps there were opportunities to include her son in her work? By bringing him with her to the greenhouse, for instance, he could learn about plants while they both enjoyed time together.

“For me, that was really transformative because I started to see if I was spending one hour doing something, it was actually enriching several parts of my faculty life.”

As a leader at Grinnell, Montgomery says she looks at faculty, staff, and students as the three sisters. By examining the competing commitments in our lives and considering how they can enrich each other, we can gain a new understanding and mutually beneficial approach to work and life, Montgomery says.

“How we actively think about the work we do to enrich the classroom also changes or impacts other parts of life,” she says. “I think there’s a lot of work that can happen when we understand this interdependence.”

She hopes these principles, learned from indigenous cultures and plant communities, can allow her to contribute meaningfully to the common good and the thriving community of Grinnell.

So Many Things to Learn

Montgomery says one of the happiest outcomes of her career as an academic has been the permission it gives her to be a lifelong student. “I have always loved being a student, loved learning,” she says. Opportunities to mentor students and younger scientists, along with her love for writing, have combined to create a rewarding life in higher education and research.

“In many ways, being a professor is a way for me to stay a student forever. Being an administrator is also about asking questions,” Montgomery says.

“It really is a wonderful life. So many things to learn!”

 

What Would a Plant Do?

Cover of Lessons from Plants by Beronda MontgomeryGrinnell College’s new dean, Beronda Montgomery, combined her love of plants and her love of writing in a book titled Lessons from Plants (Harvard UP, 2021), which explores the ways that plants live vigorous, creative lives. Plants’ transformative behaviors help them survive in a constantly changing, often unfriendly world. They move, act, and communicate, and their actions and adaptation skills offer valuable insights for humans as well. Montgomery encourages readers to think differently about plants and to consider how we can learn from their example — what would a plant do?

Montgomery, who is also the vice president of academic affairs, says that talking with her about plants is the best way to get to know her. “I do love them,” she says. “I’m really thrilled to be able to share some of this.”

Montgomery discussed her book with host Marshall Poe ’84 on Grinnell’s Authors and Artists podcast, which showcases Grinnellians’ latest creative work. You can find it on your favorite podcast site or at New Books Network (search for “Grinnell”); or visit the College’s podcast page.

In addition, you can buy a copy from Grinnell’s Pioneer Bookshop, 641-269-3424.

 

Title IX Lives

Trading card with ViaAnn Beadle '67, Las Cruces, New Mexico, and golf ball iconViAnn Beadle ’67

Sport: Golf

A standout golfer from an early age, ViAnn Beadle ’67 was winning tournaments by age 13. But when she entered Grinnell — nearly a decade before Title IX became law — she had few opportunities to make the most of her talents. She practiced — but did not compete — with the men’s golf team. (She nonetheless made enough of an impact to nab the center spot in the team photo.) “I played intramural basketball and volleyball, but we did not have coaches to teach us the game,” she recalls.

Beadle was a Grinnellian through and through, both during her student days and beyond: “I was an active political protester,” she says. “I got tear-gassed in Chicago and participated in national protests against the Vietnam War while I was in graduate school.”

In many ways, the progress since her student days has been stunning, and she is thrilled that today’s students can easily do what she once wished was available to her. “I am happy that women today can play golf competitively and participate in other sports representing Grinnell College,” she says.


trading card with Kit Wall ’77, Benicia, California, and winged foot icon Kit Wall ’77

Sport: Tennis, Cross Country, Track and Field

Kit Wall ’77 remembers that Title IX was “brand-spanking new” when she graduated from high school in 1973. When she arrived at Grinnell, she was determined to make the most of it. She lettered in tennis and admits that just being on the court was a thrill. “It was amazing that we could play,” she marvels.

She took plenty of coursework in the physical education department, including techniques of coaching as well as athletic management and training, where she was often the only woman in the room. John Pfitsch, a longtime coach and faculty member synonymous with Grinnell sports, noticed her interest and recruited her to run the College track and field meets.

When Pfitsch began looking for a head coach for the Title IX-mandated women’s cross country and track teams, he turned to Wall. Though she had never competed in either sport, Pfitsch knew she was trusted by students and well-schooled in the events. She became the inaugural head coach for both women’s teams.

Today, as owner of Kit Wall Productions, a public policy consultant and producer, Wall continues to lean on the skills she gained from her work in athletics. “I learned creative visualization, negotiation, how to manage people, and how to organize events,” she says. “These are skills I use every single day.”


trading card with Veronika Platzer ’87, North Pall Beach, Florida, and winged foot iconVeronika Platzer ’87

Sport: Track and Field

Veronika Platzer ’87 is the most decorated female athlete in Grinnell’s history — a three-time national champ in the discus and 10-time All- American. But when she went to her first NCAA national track and field meet, she had some surprising concerns. “They didn’t have a uniform for me,” she recalls. She settled for a shirt from the school bookstore.

Platzer rarely saw herself in the image of celebrated athletes at Grinnell; the trophy cases were filled with images of men. But to her, it was motivation. “I thought to myself, well, it’s got to start somewhere. My picture is going to be in there.”

It is.

Platzer, now an associate head coach for a club rowing team in North Palm Beach, Florida, still gets a thrill thinking about the Grinnellians who look at the trophy cases today and see women who inspire them to succeed. “They don’t just look at me, they look at a bunch of women. They can relate to them. They can say ‘her biceps look like mine,’” she says. “How freaking cool is that? It’s the best part of being successful.”


Trading card with Jenny Wood ’92, Des Moines, Iowa, and soccer ball iconJenny Wood ’92

Sport: Soccer

Born shortly before Title IX became law, Jenny Wood ’92 has lived through the full spectrum of changes in women’s athletics. As a young soccer player in leagues with no girls’ teams, she played on the same teams as the boys, where she competed just as well as her counterparts, often to the chagrin of the boys’ parents. It was just one of the myriad challenges of playing in poorly resourced leagues, which featured sloped fields. “Sometimes, we had to decide if we wanted to go uphill in the first half or the second half of the game,” she says wryly.

She brought her hard-won soccer skills to Grinnell, where she was a four-year MVP and the first Iowan to earn All-America recognition from the National Soccer Coaches Association of America. In 1998, she was named head men’s soccer coach at Grinnell, the first time a woman had served in the role.

Today, as chief operating officer of the Iowa Soccer Association, she continues to champion progress. “Women coaching boys’ and men’s teams and leading sports organizations must become normalized,” she says. “Boys and male coaching colleagues must have exposure to women in coaching and leadership positions, particularly in an all-male setting. Progress for women in sports won’t be made if women are excluded from coaching opportunities and leadership positions.”


trading card with Dee Fairchild, Grinnell, Iowa, and whistle iconDee Fairchild

Role: Grinnell College Athletic Director

When Dee Fairchild landed Grinnell’s athletic director job in 1986, she was one of the first women in Iowa to lead both men’s and women’s athletic programs. But she was never content just to be among a pioneering cohort: she also aimed for impact.

During her two-decade tenure, an average of one-third of the student body participated in varsity athletics. She improved the indoor and outdoor facilities and hired many of the most beloved coaches at Grinnell. She also stayed true to the Title IX ethos: “I am proud that we added women’s soccer and women’s golf without thinking we had to drop a men’s sport, like many colleges did,” she says.

She retired in 2014, when in recognition of her career at the College, she became one of just a handful of non-alumni inductees into Grinnell’s Athletic Hall of Fame.


“I thought to myself, well, it’s got to start somewhere. My picture is going to be in there.” — Veronika Platzer ’87

Trading card with Tai Duncan ’04, Chicago, and basketball iconTai Duncan ’04

Sport: Basketball

Grinnell Athletic Hall of Famer Tai Duncan ’04 racked up her share of accolades during her time at Grinnell, including All- Conference awards for both her academic and athletic performances.

Today, Duncan is vice president of community integration at Cresco Labs. As she looks back at the sports moments that mean the most to her, she is grateful for the memories of her playing days, full of friendships and life lessons, but also cherishes the 11 years she spent as a high school girls basketball coach. “Helping girls grow confidence in their bodies, find their voices, bounce back from injuries, support their teammates, and make their families proud by their sportsmanship — these are the things I loved about coaching and why it is one of the great loves of my life.”


Trading card with Sabrina Tang ’23, Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin, and tennis racket and ball iconSabrina Tang ’23

 

Sport: Tennis

On the tennis court, Sabrina Tang ’23 has been nearly unstoppable. This past spring, Tang became the first Grinnellian to win an opening round singles match at the NCAA tournament. The senior is one of just two players in the team’s history to earn All-American honors.

Off the court, Tang’s accomplishments are just as impressive. Tang is a double major in biochemistry and French with a neuroscience concentration, has played in a violin chamber ensemble, and currently plans to go to medical school.

Perhaps more than many current athletes, Tang is also acutely aware of the evolving importance of Title IX. “As a nonbinary person, I am grateful that Title IX protects against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity,” Tang says. “It is important that all students have access to an affirming environment to enjoy an extracurricular that can enrich their college experience.”


“Without Title IX, I wouldn’t have the same equal opportunities that I have today.” — Lauren Chen ’24

Trading card with Lauren Chen ’24, Manhasset, New York, and golf ball iconLauren Chen ’24

Sport: Golf

Lauren Chen ’24 had never heard of Grinnell College when she got an email out of the blue from David Arseneault, head women’s golf coach.

Today, her name is cemented in the school’s record books; her tallies have put her among the top handful of golfers in the program’s history. She’s competed at the NCAA championship and twice earned first-team All-Conference honors. Chen was named captain of the women’s golf team this year and is the Student Athlete Member (SAM) for the women’s golf team. The economics and history double major also serves as outreach coordinator of the Diversity and Inclusivity Club of Economics. When she graduates, she hopes to pursue a business career.

Chen says she’s grateful for what Title IX has made possible. “Without Title IX, I wouldn't have the same equal opportunities that I have today,” she says.


Trading card with Sam Chu ’24, Redwood City, California, and softball iconSam Chu ’24

Sport: Softball

Third base player Sam
Chu ’24 was in the middle of a chemistry lab when a football player strode over and praised her dazzling performance at a recent home game he’d attended. She accepted the compliment and was reminded anew of the many reasons she loved competing and studying at Grinnell. The easy mingling and support among students performing at the highest levels in both athletics and academics felt inspiring and joyful.

Chu has been recognized numerous times for her performance on and off the field, including being named to the College Sports Information Directors of America Academic All-District Softball Team. She is a double major in chemistry and computer science.

For Chu, Title IX means she can pursue her goals without compromise. “Title IX means that I am protected in both the academic and athletic aspects of my life,” she says.

Fueling the Next Generation of Women’s Success in Athletics

 basketball, tennis, golf, soccer, track and field, and softball icons

For as much progress as women have made in athletics since the passage of Title IX, stark differences remain, says Jani Springer, assistant athletic director for diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Recent surveys, for example, suggest that just one-third of all head coaches are women. Despite progress for women in assistant coaching roles, they face challenges moving into the top spot. “Research suggests that people see assistant coaching as a ‘more caring’ role, and those roles get defaulted to women. Then, these coaches aren’t getting the skills they need to become head coaches, because they’re serving in such a different capacity,” says Springer.

With the help of a new Women’s Sports Foundation grant Springer landed, Grinnell will be able to support the growth of Kristland Damazo, assistant volleyball coach. Damazo will get a range of training opportunities to prepare her for a head coaching role in the future.

Springer says that the grant provides an opportunity that aligns both with the mission of Title IX and Grinnell. “At Grinnell, if you’ve got a goal, we want to support it,” she says. “We’ll give you the resources to be successful.”

 

 

Building the Humanities

Broken English scuplture with group of students walking past

Broken English, a monumental sculpture created by Gregory Gómez ’80, graces the HSSC plaza. Read vertically, the sand-cast bronze letters around the circumference repeat the first few lines of W.B. Yeats’ poem, “The Second Coming.” The sculpture was a gift to the College from John B. Chambers ’77. Read more about the inspiration for the art and the friendship between the artist and donor.

With its formal dedication on Oct. 1, 2022, the Humanities and Social Studies Center (HSSC) at 1226 Park St. is now an official part of the Grinnell campus.

However, the three-story, 196,600-square-foot facility, designed with input from faculty, staff, and students, has been a part of the landscape since construction of the first phase was completed and the first classes were taught in its classrooms in spring 2019. The COVID-19 pandemic that forced campus to shut down in 2020 necessitated postponement of grand opening and dedication ceremonies for the building and delayed recognition and utilization of the HSSC’s full potential.

As students began the return to campus last year, and then in full force this past spring, the HSSC demonstrated its full capacity as a gathering place that facilitates teaching and learning, inspires collaboration and exploration, spurs creativity, and brings focus to the College’s commitment to the humanities and social studies and the importance of a liberal arts education.

“The HSSC is designed to inspire people,” says Caleb Elfenbein, professor of history and religious studies and director of the Center for the Humanities. “It is beautiful, inviting, and stands as a real statement of the values of this community. I’m entering my 13th year here, and being able to walk into the building’s magnificent public atrium and into those classrooms, which are amazing spaces in which to use a variety of pedagogical approaches to facilitate humanistic learning — it’s all just so inspiring.”

Why the Humanities?

 karla=

Professor of Sociology Karla Erickson teaches her popular Sociology of Robots artificial intelligence class in the HSSC, where students can study the logic of devices, robots, and algorithms, as well as their implications for the humans who use them, in a hands-on environment.

Studying the humanities helps us determine what is important in our lives and our communities. It helps us make connections with other people and cultures; to discover our similarities and celebrate our differences.

It’s a means to gaining knowledge and taking action to create a more just and equitable society. In short, it helps transform students into Grinnellians.

“Culturally and politically, the value of the humanities has been under question for some time,” says Elfenbein. “The creation of the HSSC, with its focus on the humanities and humanistic social studies, particularly in the current cultural climate, is a significant statement on Grinnell’s part. It demonstrates our commitment to the humanities and our recognition that they are a crucial part of a liberal arts education and an important part of preparing students for citizenship, meaningful professions, and fulfilling personal lives.”

The commitment to advancing humanities education garnered major validation and financial support just as the HSSC was coming online in early 2019, when the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation awarded Grinnell College a $1 million grant for a “Humanities in Action” project. The Mellon grant is focused on curricular reform, community engagement, career development, and other efforts to highlight the vitality and importance of the humanities, the humanistic social sciences, and the arts in the public sphere. Ultimately, the HSSC and funding such as the Mellon grant will enable students to take amazing new classes that could change the way they think about their education.

But the study of the humanities is important not only for its lofty ideals and introspective questioning. By some estimates, current college students will change careers five to seven times over the course of their professional lives. A well-rounded understanding of the humanities and possession of the so called “soft skills” learned through the study of philosophy, literature, history, and the other humanities is a great asset in a world that requires multitasking across disciplines and knowledge across multiple fields.

While she was studying political science at Grinnell, Gwenna Ihrie ’15 was part of the multidisciplinary planning committee for the HSSC. She recalls the process as one that considered equally the opinions of all members of the committee, whether a vice president or a student.

“I felt it was important for students in the humanities to have their own spaces to collaborate, to think about their work, and have resources and support systems that were easily accessible and specifically for them,” she says. “I think that focus was very important and said to humanities and social studies students: ‘You are not forgotten, and you are important on this campus.’ It's also important because we are a school that was founded on the principles of social activism, and many students enter careers and lead lives with a social justice component that is a direct result of studying the humanities.”

Designed for Teaching and Learning

Students preparing food in commercial quality kitchen

It’s not surprising that The Marcus Family Global Kitchen is a very popular hub of activity in the HSSC. There, students can get hands-on practice preparing foods of a region they are studying while also exploring the potential of food for global engagement and transformation.

With an award-winning design (see HSSC Recognized for Continuing Architectural Excellence at Grinnell) that incorporates natural light, serpentine walkways, and myriad spaces for casual or formal get-togethers, the HSSC is often described in purely aesthetic terms: Beautiful. Inspiring. Comfortable. Warm. Inviting.

Though completely accurate and appropriate, these words paint only a partial picture of the space, which Grinnellians also describe as: Useful. Practical. Smart. Adaptable.

These aspects of the building, as much as its aesthetic components, were intentionally and purposefully incorporated into its design from the early stages of planning, and aptly translated into reality by the architectural firms of EYP Inc. of Boston and OPN Architects of Des Moines, Iowa, and the building’s primary contractor, McGough Construction of Minneapolis.

“It’s beyond anything I could have imagined or dreamed of when we were first planning and thinking about the building,” says Ihrie. “I’ve walked through it, and it brought a tear to my eye as I thought about all the opportunities that would be available for students that we didn’t have access to. I just think it’s amazing — the flow, the architecture, and just the grandeur of the building. It’s kind of prairie humble in that it accomplishes a lot without feeling like it’s a lot.” But it is a lot.

The HSSC features four pavilions — two new and two renovated — joined by a central, three-story atrium with connecting bridges at floors two and three. The historic Alumni Recitation Hall (ARH) tower dominates the atrium, which adjoins a café, the Institute for Global Engagement (IGE), and the Data Analysis and Social Inquiry Lab (DASIL). There are 39 technology-rich classrooms and inquiry labs, offices for humanities and social studies faculty members, meeting rooms, study nooks, research labs, a teaching kitchen, and more.

“Remarkably Outfitted and Highly Flexible”

Three students in N95 masks at a bank of computers

Flexible, technology-rich HSSC classrooms with ample room and moveable furniture make it easy for students to move from whole-class discussion in the middle of the room to group pods for computers on the edges, encouraging collaboration and information sharing.

“In previous years, we had a little bit of shortage of classrooms, but mostly the problem was that rooms were too small for the number of students,” says Dack Professor of Chemistry Jim Swartz, a co-leader of the HSSC Project Leadership Team. “Classrooms have previously been designed based on an educational paradigm in which students sat still and listened to somebody talk at them. Any kind of active student engagement was made difficult by the classrooms where students had to sit in chairs like sardines.”

In comparison to classrooms from that bygone era, Swartz describes the HSSC, with all its technology, roominess, and adaptability, as “remarkably outfitted and highly flexible.

“I just came from a room with six D-shaped tables where students sat around the edges with computers,” he says. “They faced one another and had access to a big-screen monitor to share information with each other. This allows them to search for information privately, then share it on the large screen so everybody can see it and simultaneously have a face-to-face discussion. Then students can move to a set of tables with all students in the class. With this flexibility built in, you can do quite different kinds of pedagogies within the same classroom.”

This easily accessible technology and flexibility for students and professors alike is a welcome adjustment for Mirzam Pérez, professor of Spanish, who finds the HSSC classrooms to be more technologically predictable and uniform and pedagogically more flexible and adaptable than any she’s previously taught in.

“I can weave myself among the students with ease and I can supervise and fully interact and engage students,” she says. “When students ask questions, I can be there immediately and have access to boards on all four sides of the room to share information. I also use a lot of video and audio and I can toggle between videos or have two screens going at the same time. These classrooms allow me to do those things without fumbling and looking technologically challenged while trying to make things work. It’s just so much easier, and that part of the work that used to give me so much stress is just gone. The spaces are great. I mean, they’re modern, they’re ample, they’re beautiful. They just feel really complete.”

More Than Classrooms

view of exterior brick work exposed to interior atrium from an elevated walkwayThe HSSC, for all its updates and beauty, is still only as useful and effective as the people and programs that inhabit its space. Since its opening, the building has become a center for the Grinnellian spirit of inquiry and commitment to teaching and learning.

In addition to flexible, technology-infused classrooms, the HSSC is home to 145 faculty offices and dedicated research spaces grouped into five interdisciplinary neighborhoods that encourage multidisciplinary collaboration, active inquiry, student research, and “intellectual collisions.”

“These ‘neighborhoods’ make a difference in the way we operate and help facilitate a sense of community in a new way,” says Todd Armstrong, professor and department chair of Russian. “On a campus like Grinnell’s, you would think it wouldn’t be too hard to see other people and meet other people. But as the semester gets busy, unless someone’s on your pathway, you just wouldn’t see very many people. Now, we’re always seeing each other because we’re sharing space and having those serendipitous moments of connection and chance conversations that can build into really interesting things.”

The HSSC also serves as a home to many other initiatives and endeavors that are equally important to the College’s commitment to the liberal arts, to the humanities, and to educating citizens for active participation in democracy. Among them:

  • The Grinnell Institute for Global Engagement (IGE) helps both students and faculty develop a greater understanding of the world through international travel opportunities, globally focused research, off-campus study, intensive language learning, and other short- and long- term experiences that advance Grinnell’s global learning goals.
  • The Data Analysis and Social Inquiry Lab (DASIL) provides software training, experiential learning opportunities, student and faculty workshops, and in-classroom assistance to help students and faculty make better use of data so they can fully incorporate it into their research and classroom work.
  • The Marcus Family Global Kitchen facilitates conversation, inquiry, community, and engagement through the study, preparation, and consumption of food.

Armstrong established a student team that helped develop a plan for the global kitchen that positions it to explore the role food plays in the human experience. He taught the first course in the kitchen in spring 2020.

“It's a remarkable venue in which to build community,” he says. “Everybody has a food story, and everybody can engage in that and then prepare and share food together. It’s really a high-impact kind of activity and it puts a premium on innovative learning and teaching and on our connections with the community.”

Though speaking of the global kitchen specifically, Armstrong’s thoughts reflect the campus buzz about the HSSC as a whole. There is widespread appreciation for the potential this building has already demonstrated to inspire effective teaching and learning at Grinnell.

“I keep pinching myself that this all came to pass,” he says. “There’s this sort of energy that you can sense here in the heart of the building. Students and everyone else who uses the space come out with a bounce in their step, and that’s really gratifying.”

HSSC Recognized for Continuing Architectural Excellence at Grinnell

Speaker at podium in front of audience gathered in multistory atrium

Grinnell College was recently honored by the Iowa Architecture Foundation for its sustained contributions, vision, and leadership in architecture and planning for more than 50 years, culminating in the Humanities and Social Studies Center.

The selection committee wrote of Grinnell:

“Going back to the 1960s, Grinnell College has consistently sought to employ some of the best American architects to add to what was already an idyllic campus. In 1999, the College employed Shepley Bulfinch Richardson and Abbott (Boston), to create a campus master plan that has been more recently updated by OPN Architects (Des Moines, Cedar Rapids). Over the past 12 years, the College has executed four extraordinary buildings within the context of this master plan, including the stunning Humanities and Social Studies Center, which unifies and greatly adds to two landmark buildings — the 1917 Alumni Recitation Hall and the 1905 Carnegie Hall — to create an immersive, tech-rich environment in which flexible and adaptable design fosters working synergies among students and faculty by supporting active, collaborative learning.”

Learn more about the HSSC learning spaces named in honor of partners to the College who, through their gifts, help shape and elevate the educational experience at Grinnell.

A Wide-Open World of Opportunity

When Kathy Clemons-Beasley ’95 was considering her options as a prospective first-generation college student, there was a lot she didn’t know.

For instance, how do you choose a college? Her father had refused to pay for her education unless she attended a state university near her home, but her heart was set on Grinnell. Was it better to accept her father’s offer or commit to her dream school? She opted for the latter.

“Going to Grinnell was an act of defiance — I wasn’t going to let my father tell me what to do,” she laughs.

Clemons-Beasley says she’s still happy she made her own decision to choose Grinnell for her French and women’s studies majors. “I do feel proud that I took that jump. I didn’t let that fear get in the way of me doing something I wanted to do.”

Today, she is a senior leader at BlackRock, a global financial services firm. She’s also a member of the Leadership Council for Grinnell’s Donald ’25 and Winifred ’27 Wilson Center for Innovation and Leadership, where she serves as a mentor for current students and an adviser for the center’s annual hackathon, known as HackGC. Clemons-Beasley has been a frequent speaker at the center’s Diverse Paths of Leadership and Innovation Speaker Series. Through her work with the Wilson Center, she’s helping current Grinnell students reimagine their futures and “take the jump.”

The Wilson Center for Innovation and Leadership

Monty Roper and Jeff Blanchard with tools hung on the wall in the backgroundMonty Roper (left) and Jeffrey Blanchard in the Stew Makerspace, a collaboration with the Grinnell Arts Council that provides space, tools, and guidance for students and community members.

The Wilson Center is Grinnell’s hub for initiatives designed to develop students’ leadership skills and support them in finding meaningful futures. Wilson Center programs help students strengthen key skills at the intersection of leadership and innovation, such as a willingness to experiment, courage in the face of potential failure, and the ability to deal with ambiguity. The center offers courses in entrepreneurship, leadership strategies, innovation, and pitch competitions; leadership workshops; programs that connect students with alumni mentors, such as Clemons-Beasley; and the popular Creative Careers: Learning from Alumni.

Helping Grinnellians imagine a career they hadn’t previously considered gives Clemons-Beasley immense satisfaction. “I love it,” she says. “I feel really lucky to be able to help people think differently about what they might focus on.”

For instance, she says, Grinnellians searching for a social justice-oriented career might look at BlackRock and think, “Oh, investments — bad.” She encourages students to think of industries like financial services in a different way. For instance, by working at BlackRock, a Grinnell graduate could support corporate diversity efforts. Clemons-Beasley herself is involved in racial equity work to improve the experience of underrepresented professionals at BlackRock.

“What we do matters, and if we can make change, then the change will go elsewhere,” Clemons-Beasley says. She’s thrilled to help students explore new, often unexpected ways to make a difference in the world and to promote the common good.

“I like opening up students’ eyes to things like that,” she says.

Opening students’ eyes to possibilities — that could be the elevator pitch for the Wilson Center.

Created in the 1980s with a gift from life trustee Donald Wilson 1925 and Winifred Read Wilson 1927, the program originally brought speakers to campus from business and industry. The Wilsons wanted to stimulate “the intellectual life of both the campus and the town of Grinnell” and to connect students with alumni and other people in the world outside academia. The center has continued to grow into a vital part of life at Grinnell by sponsoring innovative curricular and cocurricular programming.

Making a Difference

About 20 years ago, when Doug Caulkins, professor of anthropology, took over the Wilson program, he envisioned expanded programming better attuned to today’s students. He wanted more students seeking to create social change to look beyond the nonprofit world when they thought about careers and to understand that there are lots of ways to make a difference.

Caulkins proposed engaging alumni as living examples of the world of opportunity waiting for students post-Grinnell. He launched the perennially popular course Creative Careers: Learning from Alumni, in which Grinnell graduates describe their career paths and lessons learned along the way. By sharing their stories, alumni could demonstrate that an innovative and socially responsible career can exist anywhere.

“Students tend to trust alumni since they all share a common culture,” Caulkins says. His big ideas have helped inspire the leaders of the Wilson Center today.

The Grinnell Drift

Jeffrey Blanchard, associate professor of mathematics and statistics, has served as Wilson Center director since July 2021.

He took over a program that had expanded and evolved under Monty Roper, associate professor of anthropology, who led the center for six years. “Monty Roper had a clear vision, which he developed to create this outstanding program on innovation,” Blanchard says.

Students don’t need to know exactly where they’re headed after college — it’s OK to meander from one opportunity to another. In fact, Roper says, there’s a name for that: “the Grinnell drift.”

After graduation, Grinnellians often spend a few years trying out different careers. This doesn’t reflect a lack of focus or ambition — it’s a continuation of Grinnell experimentation. The drift can be part of a journey that leads to a career that’s really engaging.

Blanchard is enthusiastic about carrying the center’s work forward. “It’s a place where I thought I could serve the College well,” he says. As a former U.S. Army officer, Blanchard is particularly interested in leadership. He hopes to further bolster the leadership development programming at the Wilson Center.

Living the Grinnell Drift

As a child, Ghana native Carlton Segbefia ’21 dreamed of starting his own small business. He still harbors that dream, although he hasn’t decided what type of business to launch. For now, though, the computer science and sociology double major is happy in his position as an analyst and software engineer at BlackRock.

Segbefia is living his own version of the Grinnell drift. He hasn’t given up on the idea of owning his own business. “I’ll just work toward making sure that whenever I figure something out, I can do it,” he explains.

At Grinnell, Segbefia participated in many Wilson Center programs: HackGC, Pioneer Weekend, and more. He met Clemons-Beasley through her work as a hackathon adviser. Segbefia also worked for the center and helped develop and run the Stew Makerspace.

Later, when Segbefia interviewed at BlackRock, he turned to Clemons-Beasley for guidance. She was able to advise him about the company culture, information that can be difficult to find as a job seeker.

“What she told me ended up being exactly what I needed to hear,” Segbefia says. He accepted the job — and loves it.

They both work in the company’s Atlanta office, and Segbefia says it was great to know there was a friendly face at his new workplace. “The first time we met in the office, she gave me such a huge hug. It was so welcoming,” he says.

A Dopamine Hit

What motivates alumni to get involved with students through the Wilson Center? Part of it is the joy they derive from being helpful, says Robert Gehorsam ’76, an adviser to startups. He is also a consultant working with mission-driven organizations seeking to align their vision with actionable strategies and operational plans and the Grinnell Alumni Council president. He is a frequent speaker with the Wilson Center’s Learning from Alumni series and mentors students one on one. Gehorsam remembers when a student asked him, rather sheepishly, for an introduction that might help her land an internship.

Gehorsam could tell the student was uncomfortable asking for help. He offered a different view. “Let me explain — do you have any idea of how deeply gratifying it is for alumni to be asked to help? It’s not transactional. It’s like this great dopamine hit.”

He also offers a bit of perspective to students (and their parents) who may worry that a liberal arts degree might not lead to a rewarding career. A Grinnell education is invaluable in the world of work, far beyond any particular major or concentration, he explains. The value is in how students learn to communicate, collaborate, and just be curious.

Lukas Roscoe and Robert Gehorsam laughing together at outdoor table

Lukas Roscoe (left) talks with his alumni mentor, Robert Gehorsam. “Robert’s awesome,” Roscoe says. “He just had a ton of good advice.”

‘You Could Have Paid Me Zero’

However, Gehorsam says he also benefits from working with students through the Wilson Center. Putting together presentations for students offers an opportunity to think about his own career, he says, and the long, strange trip it’s been.

As a new graduate, he started out in the book publishing world of New York City, where he earned the princely sum of $9,000 a year — barely enough to get by, even in the late ’70s. But the perks were great: free movie screenings, lunches with famous authors, and more. “You could have paid me zero,” Gehorsam laughs.

He moved on to diverse fields such as computer games and digital media; he now advises a range of startups in artificial intelligence, education, games, music, and virtual reality. It’s been an amazing journey. “How does that happen? Is it just random?” he asks. Talking to students about his path is a way of making meaning out of his own life story.

Gehorsam also hopes his story gives students confidence that they, too, will find their way to a meaningful career. It’s reassuring, says Lukas Roscoe ’23, one of the students who has connected with Gehorsam. “Robert’s awesome,” Roscoe says. “He’s done so many different things throughout his career. He just had a ton of good advice.”

Gehorsam was able to help Roscoe line up an internship while he was studying abroad at the Stockholm School of Economics in Sweden in fall 2021. The third-year economics major says it was his best semester yet. Roscoe reached out to Gehorsam while he was abroad. “Robert was able to connect me with a technology accelerator [in Stockholm], where I ended up interning for a few months.” Roscoe says.

Their relationship is ongoing. “I see him as someone that I can reach out to for advice — he’s always been there for me,” Roscoe adds.

These close relationships between students and alumni are emblematic of the work of the Wilson Center, which offers alumni the opportunity to repay the kindnesses they received for the benefit of the students of today, “paying it forward” for the good of future generations of Grinnellians and the greater good of society and the world.

Imagine the Possibilities

Speaker on stage with TEDx Grinnell College sign in the backgroundThe Wilson Center sponsors dozens of activities, programs, and spaces. Between 20 and 25% of students participate in at least one Wilson program every academic year; in 2020–21, more than 130 alumni volunteered, either in person or virtually. Here’s a sample of what’s going on:

  • SPARK — an innovation challenge to solve social problems in the Grinnell community or in students’ home communities.
  • Stew Makerspace — a workshop with tools, 3-D printers, and more, co-sponsored by the Wilson Center and Grinnell Area Arts Council.
  • TEDxGrinnellCollege — an official TEDx experience.
  • Pioneer Weekend — a pitch competition for students to showcase ideas for a business or nonprofit plan.
  • Diverse Paths of Leadership and Innovation — a speaker series and course.
  • HackGC — teams of Grinnellians collaborate, innovate, and build a solution to help alleviate a social justice issue.
  • The Moth@Grinnell College — a collaboration with The Moth Radio Hour

 

20 Reasons to Love Grinnell

Outsiders tell us there are lots of reasons to love Grinnell.

Forbes calls us one of the best liberal arts schools in the nation. We’ve been named a “Hidden Ivy.” And U.S. News & World Report doesn’t just rank us among the best of the best — the publication also lauds Grinnell for its teaching and its innovation.

We agree with their praise. But if you’re someone who’s spent years of your life on campus, you know that there are so many other reasons to love Grinnell beyond the rankings and superlatives.

So, whether you’re inspired by the social justice mindset that’s woven into Grinnell’s DNA or simply delighted by the beauty of campus, we invite you to read the tiny love letters from alumni, faculty, and staff on the pages that follow to learn the reasons they love Grinnell.

We hope their reflections will remind you of the best parts of your own experiences at Grinnell. And we hope you will share the reasons you love Grinnell, too.


We want to know your reason to love Grinnell. Send us your story at magazine[at]grinnell[dot]edu.


Cartoon many in face mask with fists up in a fighting posture1  Because we fight the good fight.
I am proud of the College’s long tradition of social justice activism, from J.B. Grinnell’s work with the Underground Railroad and his efforts to support the Meskwaki land purchase, to the Social Gospel movement in the late 19th century, to the work of Grinnellians in the New Deal, to the multifaceted activism of the 1960s, to divestment efforts, to the Innovator for Social Justice Prize.
– Jon Andelson ’70
2  Because we understand that everyone contains multitudes.
I have had professors who were aware of the civil war in Ethiopia and sent me notes asking how I was doing and how my family was. My professors have been encouraging and understanding. Having people who genuinely care for me is empowering.
– Feven Getachew ’24
3  Because Grinnellians are worth staying up for.
Some of my favorite things about Grinnell? Midnight debates in James’ first-floor lounge. Pushing couches together to make a “couchbed.” Swerving from passionate political discourse to who is surviving the next Game of Thrones episode. I loved the times when the lounge was filled with laughter way past a healthy bedtime.
– Eileen Fordham ’17
4  Because Grinnell will always remind you that there is more to life than just the daily grind.
No matter how your day goes, you can always expect a beautiful evening with a magnificent sunset.
– Shrey Agrawal ’24
illustration of stylized heads in a variety of colors and backgrounds each with a small icon indicating something such as and ear, brain, eye, etc. Because Grinnell makes extraordinary experiences possible for all its students.
I love that Grinnell’s commitment to providing financial aid beyond just tuition and fees meant that I could take advantage of aspects of the Grinnell experience outside the classroom. As a student, I had the opportunity to take part in two study tours abroad: one in Paris, one in Greece. The only reason I could take advantage of those opportunities, which opened my eyes to new viewpoints and educated me in an entirely different way than the classroom, was financial aid. Because Grinnell is able to meet the full financial need of its students today, it is changing the lives of many people — like the teenage me.
– Angela Onwuachi-Willig ’94
Because the bubble is real.
I marvel at the restorative power of being in the “Grinnell bubble” — life slows down for me while i’m there. I like roaming the campus by myself so I can pause, reflect, and connect with all the memories I have from my student days.
– Ryann Haines Cheung ’93
Because working (very) late into the night doesn’t have to inspire despair.
The Spencer Grill was always my favorite spot to hang out and study on campus. An iced chai and mozzarella sticks are the best brain food I can think of. Because I'm a night owl, it was an added bonus that I could stay as late as I needed to, enjoying a special kind of unspoken solidarity with the few others finishing assignments up at 3 a.m.
– Conner Stanfield ’21
Because we know that “flyover country” is breathtaking.
I was on the cross country team at Grinnell, so I spent a lot of my time outside of class running campus loops and on the outskirts of town with my teammates. To this day, my favorite route is still Penrose. I love approaching the intersection of Penrose and 16th Avenue. There’s a slight uphill at the turn that feels climactic when you run it at sunset. Even if the temperatures are biting and the wind is wicked, the beauty of the sunset in front of me, the College on my left, and the cornfields to my right always feels freeing and picturesque.
– Rachel Whitfield Arseneault ’10
Illustration of a jazz band and singer Because lessons from the classroom come to life outside it.
I got to know friends in the kitchen as part of Todd Armstrong’s “Comrades in the Kitchen: Russian and Soviet Food and Culture” tutorial. There is something truly magical about coming together to cook a meal and share that creation. It wasn’t long before the 14 of us were connecting in the kitchens across campus well outside of tutorial hours. The last night before winter break, two of our Chinese classmates taught us how to make dumplings. On a whim, we decided to share our dishes with Professor Armstrong, who, by total coincidence, also happened to be making dumplings at his home. What followed was a beautiful exchange on his porch on a frigid December night. I will treasure this memory and the people I shared it with for the rest of my life.
– Nicholas Lampietti ’25
10  Because we find our people here.
I love being able to chill in the HSSC (Humanities and Social Studies Center) rooms with a group of friends. Basically, any time that we aren’t eating or in class, we can just exist in the same place, either studying or chatting.
– Shabana L. Gupta ’22
11  Because Grinnellians are inclusive.
As an international Latino student, I was really scared about not being accepted. But Grinnellians don’t discourage you or make fun of you. They support you and have fun with you.
– Patrick Sales Garcia ’25
12  Because it’s always possible to find quiet amid the bustle.
I love to walk the winding, tranquil path from the bear center to Burling Library.
– Andy Hamilton ’85
13  Because every space is alive with the energy of Grinnellians who came before.
My favorite spots are Roberts, Flanagan, and the acting studio. Directing actors in productions has been a highlight of my time here. The talent I have seen in play after play is truly remarkable. When I walk into one of these spaces, my memory is charged with these past productions, sometimes from 40 or more years ago.
Illustration of two students with backpacks– Sandy Moffett
14  Because we focus on what really matters.
I graduated in 1957. I especially valued the spirit of the campus — a community of varied students, grateful and eager for a good education, and some fun, helpful, wonderful faculty and staff. Forty years later, the College asked how best to celebrate Grinnell’s 150 years. My group vehemently wanted no lavish parties. Instead, most responders wanted the budget used for projects to help others. Now, all these decades later, the superb Wall Service Awards exist.
– Marilyn Clarke Sippy ’57
15  Because our oldest living alumna represents the best of Grinnell.
Why do I love Grinnell? Edith Renfrow Smith ’37 (the first African American woman to graduate from Grinnell College; she was awarded an honorary doctor of humane letters at the 2019 Grinnell College Commencement). She sees the good in every person and situation and refuses to waste any energy on negativity. She embodies all the best that Grinnell has to offer.
– Monique McLay Shore ’90
16  Because we learn to see the bigger picture here.
I remember graduating from high school thinking, “I know I need to go to college, but I am not sure why. I think I already know everything I need to know to get through life.” A short four years later, on the eve of my graduation from Grinnell, I remember the exact opposite sentiment running through my head: “I am never going to live long enough to learn all of the things I want to learn.”
– Heidi Eggert ’95
17  Because campus is a beautiful setting for breakthroughs.
As I have learned more about the benefits of walking for thinking, I have often invited students to take a walk with me around campus to talk about assignments, advising, or life. Weather and time permitting, I particularly enjoy walking with students on the northern edge of campus, past the Les Duke track, the Grant O. Gale Observatory, and Hamburger Hill. After our walking office hour, I ask them to reflect on how they feel, and they always say they feel more awake, less stressed, and able to think more clearly.
– Henry Rietz ’89
18  Because Grinnell can rewire your brain in the most beautiful ways.
Illustration of a woman's head with a white streak resembling a driveway and house and flowers at the crownI come from Kolkata, India, a city of 15 million. Growing up in a low-income family with limited resources, I developed a tendency to fight for everything I wanted. Grinnell was the first place where strangers were genuinely invested in my success. Nobody hides opportunities from anyone, and the College puts its endowment to good use. Everyone can get what they desire and be happy. I was so surprised when I instinctively told some of my peers to apply for an internship that I also wanted. This community helped me get rid of my past cynicism. Grinnell gave me a taste of how satisfying and uplifting communal growth feels.
– Evaan Ahmed ’23
19  Because there’s something special about seeing a Grinnellian where you least expect it.
After spending hours in pre-op, lymph node mapping, and waiting, I was wheeled to surgery by a young anesthesiology resident. We were chatting about how long he’d been in Seattle and where he went to medical school. I asked where he went to college, and you can imagine my grin when he said, “a little college in Iowa that nobody has ever heard of.” He told me how transformative the years at Grinnell were for him. I told him about participating in a nude demonstration against Playboy magazine. We were instantly bonded. He did wheelies as he pushed my bed toward the surgery, the two of us laughing together.
– River Malcolm ’69
20  Because when you know, you know.
Whenever I see someone around town wearing a Grinnell clothing item or learn someone went to Grinnell, a smile always comes to my face.
– Rachel Fritzell ’20

The Inauguration of President Anne Harris

Beneath promising, blue skies on Saturday, May 7, 2022, Anne F. Harris was formally installed as the 14th president in Grinnell College’s 175-year history. The day was rich in the pageantry and tradition befitting such an occasion. It also was filled with joy, laughter, and endearing moments, such as the readings each of her three children contributed to the ceremony.

faculty processing into commencementDe facto, most inaugurations happen at the start of a college president’s tenure. Pandemic restrictions and delays led to this inauguration happening after President Harris had “already been doing the job for one year, 10 months, and 7 days,” as noted by Board of Trustees Chair Michael Kahn ’74.

The delay didn’t lessen the spirit of celebration; it may have made it sweeter. The day seemed more like a gathering of friends, who spoke not just to aspirations for the future but also to lived experience. Among ceremony highlights was a reading of the Mary Oliver poem, "Wild Geese," given by President Harris' daughter.

President Harris’ address, with her moving pledge to foster, maintain, and steward Grinnell’s mission and make it all that it can be, brought the crowd to their feet. After that, it was time to just enjoy the company of family, friends, mentors, partners, guests, and the faculty, staff, students, and alumni of the Grinnell College community.

The photos and speech excerpts (condensed and lightly edited) following give a taste of the day. Go online to experience the full feast for yourself — watch the video, read transcripts, and download the program.

A modern college presidency is as challenging and complex as it is rewarding. And Anne brings humility, intelligence, integrity, courage, and fortitude in tackling even the most difficult challenges. Anne is also profoundly guided by principles of social justice, equity, and inclusiveness. As is true of many Grinnellians, Anne acts on the things she believes in.
Michael Kahn ’74, chair of the Board of Trustees

Anne Harris and Michael Kahn in academic regaliaAn inauguration gathers us to look to our future together.

We do so within a shared past — all of us. But these past two years give us occasion to ask: What does it mean to look to the future within a shared past?

It is never too late for a community to look to its future and affirm what it believes in; it is never too late for a person or a country to begin again. Indeed, beginning again is one of the deep-seated practices of this college, one of the rhythms of knowledge. What will we bring into our future this time?

I have three commitments to share with you in response to that question; these are three hopes girded by resolve, three deeply-held beliefs, three wellsprings for what we can do together.

My first commitment: that the future of a shared past calls on us to both see and safeguard imagination. To recognize it and nurture it, within ourselves and others. To install those structures and places and times and policies and habits that foster imagination. That let us see what is possible in our work: in our ability to trust and to create trust, so as to build enduring foundations and vibrant knowledge for the more just and equitable society to which Grinnell College harkens.

The leadership she exhibits has a humanity to it — something that is rare, unexpected, and appreciated. Anne leads with empathy and compassion, with care and love for what we do and what we stand for.
Lester Alemán ’07, alumni council president

A second commitment, a second belief: that the future of a shared past calls on us to acknowledge that a shared past is not the same past. That, in the complexity and intersectionality of experiences and identities, events are chronicled one way and remembered another; that the same event can be experienced in distinctly different ways; that pasts are multiple.

And so we must make room — we must hold space — in our curriculum, in our programming, in our networks, in our communications, in our narratives, and in our own telling of the past (and future!) of the College, for the very differing experiences, memories, languages, and identities that have enlivened this institution — that have given it meaning, and purpose, and direction.

As Anne would put it, “critique is care.” President Harris turns crisis into rich conversation — not just about the best path forward but the best path forward, together, and resulting in a strengthened community.
Vida Praitis, chair of the faculty, professor of Biology

Anne Harris and Angela VoosAnd so to my third commitment: that the future of a shared past calls on us to steward our dwelling places. The knowledge we discern, the actions we take, the times we speak up, the initiatives we undertake, the resources we budget, the deliberations we engage, the futures we dream — all shape those of our peers, our colleagues, our friends, our visitors, and our many interlocutors. We are like to a democracy, simultaneously inhabitants and stewards of this College: as we live and work here, we shape the shared experiences and thus the future of this College and the society it shapes.

And so we can talk of and act on what we usher in together — at the College and in society — on the other side of a threshold on which we stand. Inspired by John Dewey and his claim that “democracy must be reborn with each generation and [that] education is its midwife,” I think of the threshold across which education ushers in democracy and of our stewardship of this dwelling-place, this College, as it engages in that crucial and perpetual emergence. Dearest Grinnellians, I stand before you today, on the threshold of this future of a shared past, with these three commitments: to foster imagination, to maintain the multiplicity of experiences, and to steward our dwelling places.

Commencement audience on beautiful sunny dayI pledge to do my utmost in our continued cocreation of this College to build and claim with you all that we hold in trust: the vitality of this College, of our mission, and of each other. On this inauguration day, in this moment that has gathered us to look to our future together, I affirm to you that it is the honor of my life and will be the dedication of my energies to serve and steward this institution in all that it makes possible and all that it can be. Join me — and let us perpetually inaugurate Grinnell College in all we do.

Anne’s qualities of leadership and her extraordinary ability to motivate, inspire, and move all those with whom she openly and joyfully engaged have made her such an outstanding leader.
— George Moose ’66, Trustee

And so to my third commitment: that the future of a shared past calls on us to steward our dwelling places. The knowledge we discern, the actions we take, the times we speak up, the initiatives we undertake, the resources we budget, the deliberations we engage, the futures we dream — all shape those of our peers, our colleagues, our friends, our visitors, and our many interlocutors. We are like to a democracy, simultaneously inhabitants and stewards of this College: as we live and work here, we shape the shared experiences and thus the future of this College and the society it shapes.

Anne Harris and her family on inauguration dayAnd so we can talk of and act on what we usher in together — at the College and in society — on the other side of a threshold on which we stand. Inspired by John Dewey and his claim that “democracy must be reborn with each generation and [that] education is its midwife,” I think of the threshold across which education ushers in democracy and of our stewardship of this dwelling-place, this College, as it engages in that crucial and perpetual emergence. Dearest Grinnellians, I stand before you today, on the threshold of this future of a shared past, with these three commitments: to foster imagination, to maintain the multiplicity of experiences, and to steward our dwelling places.

Her ability to be personable with strangers with such openness creates almost a magnetism, as you can see people gravitate to her immediately. Anne is concurrently down to earth while dreaming big for what’s next.
— Julie Gosselink, trustee and president of the Claude W. And Dolly Ahrens Foundation

I pledge to do my utmost in our continued cocreation of this College to build and claim with you all that we hold in trust: the vitality of this College, of our mission, and of each other. On this inauguration day, in this moment that has gathered us to look to our future together, I affirm to you that it is the honor of my life and will be the dedication of my energies to serve and steward this institution in all that it makes possible and all that it can be. Join me — and let us perpetually inaugurate Grinnell College in all we do.

Lost Seasons and New Beginnings

Kouchi swinging a golf clubIn the spring of 2020, the Charles Benson Bear ’39 Recreation and Athletic Center was silent. There were no clangs of weights hitting the fitness center floor, no music booming from the locker rooms, and no thud of footsteps on the track. The College had canceled spring seasons because of the pandemic. The NCAA and Midwest Conference took their own protective measures. Eventually, fall 2020 seasons were canceled as well. Some athletes were able to return for spring 2021 seasons, but those were by no means typical seasons. “It just kept getting pushed back and back,” remembers Danny Carter ’21 (football).

During the remote year, Nat Jordan ’21 (football) says, “I remember daydreaming almost every day about the first day being back at practice.” That day finally came in fall 2021. Fog was in the air, and dew was on the freshly cut grass. Jordan arrived at Rosenbloom Field early, sat down, and “took it all in and really thought about what we’d been through and what it meant to finally get back on the field.” Athletes had been through a lot. They had changed during their time apart, and their approach to athletics had changed with them.

Getting by, Making Do

Grinnell men's soccer team between playsEven without most of the elements that make athletics what they are, student-athletes and coaches persisted during the 2020–21 academic year. Brian Jaworski, head men’s soccer and golf coach, remembers thinking, “We only get one chance to respond to this.” So, athletes trained the best they could with what they had available. “At one point I had a crowbar and tires on each end, and I was doing overhead presses in the driveway,” says Jordan.

Much of athletes’ training, however, requires physically being with their teammates. “Talking can only do so much, especially in a sport that’s reliant on cooperation at a physical level,” says Payton Lowrey ’22 (volleyball). Teams did train together through video calls, but Kate Tomczik ’22 (basketball) says it did not compare: “You’re all just in your bedroom on carpet doing abs, not anything related to basketball because you can’t dribble and do all of that on a Zoom call.” Remote athletics did not have what Andy Hamilton ’85, director of athletics and recreation, calls the “wholeness” of in-person athletics.

New Excitement and New Challenges

Woman diving for volleyballIn the fall of 2021, students were back on campus and athletic programs were much like they were before the pandemic. Below the surface, however, much had changed. To start, many athletes had more energy than ever. “People were elated to come back together,” Hamilton says. When the basketball season began, Dave Arseneault Jr. ’09, head men’s basketball and women’s golf coach, remembers asking himself, “Was there always this much energy?” There was always a lot of energy, but a year of remote athletics meant there was even more stored up. “It gave me a good perspective. When I was back, I appreciated it a lot. I was really excited to be there,” says Nina Kouchi ’22 (golf).

“Having something that you love taken away for so long makes you more grateful for … the people that make this possible for us.”

Nat Jordan ’21

Despite the excitement, the return to sports is presenting some unique challenges. Athletes who last participated as second-years are now team leaders, without having the time they normally have to develop their leadership skills. “Leaving campus as a second-year and coming back as a fourth-year basketball leader was incredibly difficult,” Tomczik says. And, rather than teams incorporating one class of new college athletes, half of most teams had never participated at the college level.

With so many athletes new to the team, team cultures had to be redefined. Even the athletes who were not new to the team had changed since they were last together. Lowrey says defining team culture “was something that was really important but was also really difficult because we ourselves didn’t even understand how we had changed as people.” Athletes worked to define their team cultures, and they discovered those cultures were noticeably different from before.

Cultures of Gratitude, Empathy, and Community

Sofia Ahooja playing basketballHaving experienced life without it, many athletes were more grateful for athletics. “I learned to appreciate how fun it is to be in a competitive, hardworking environment with a large, diverse group of people working toward this same goal,” says Jasper Yang ’21 (soccer). That feeling extended to all the parts that make athletics whole. “Having something that you love taken away for so long makes you more grateful for … the people that make this possible for us,” says Jordan. That gratitude fueled some athletes to give even more, to work even harder. “There was a special excitement and a realization not to take it for granted, and I think that helped us ultimately,” Yang says.

There was also more of a shift toward empathy this year. “Every one of us at Grinnell probably experienced some sort of loss because of COVID,” Hamilton says. And especially knowing those losses all looked different, he explains, “empathy needed to be the force this fall.”

That meant students having more empathy toward each other but also being kinder to themselves. Many athletes were more open about how they were doing mentally and what they needed because they had to confront those questions during the pandemic, Lowrey explains.

For Kouchi, that meant putting less pressure on her performance. “I think it helps to go in thinking that I really want to do my best, but if that doesn’t happen, we’ve all been in a pandemic; that’s completely understandable too,” she says. That perspective helped her relax and actually contributed to her success.

Grinnell swimmers watch their teammate from the side of the poolMany student-athletes also discovered their relationships and sense of community were the most valuable parts of sports for them. “I don’t think I really realized that until it was taken away from me,” says Carter. “I found myself missing my friends and teammates and those interactions with coaches and working toward a common goal more than I did actually being on the field,” he continues.

Jaworski saw this play out in what team members prioritized. “They elevated the team beyond themselves,” he says. Arseneault observed a similar trend. “The atmosphere during our practices this year, the support, the camaraderie, it has been spectacular,” he says. A perfect example of this was how seniors on the women’s basketball team who would not participate in another season still worked to maintain team connections. “They didn’t have to stick around, but it speaks to the bond that women’s basketball has and their need and want to help the next class improve,” says Sofia Ahooja ’22 (basketball).

“The atmosphere during our practices this year, the support, the camaraderie, it has been spectacular.”

Dave Arseneault Jr. ’09

Savoring Each Moment

Grinnell football player protecting the ball while runningThough this academic year has been a big improvement over the last, the seasons have still felt uncertain for athletes. “We were nervous for the majority of the season that one [COVID-19] case could happen, there would be an outbreak, and then all of a sudden our season would be over,” Yang says.

The uncertainty has been difficult, but athletes are doing their part to reduce the likelihood of transmission. “There’s no question about following the protocols; they’re doing it,” says Hamilton.

With the possibility of their seasons having to change at any time, athletes are savoring each moment. Jaworksi reflects on his team’s season: “They realized that soccer could be taken away from them at any moment, and they didn’t take any day for granted.”

To an outside observer, the Bear Center now looks and feels much like it did before the pandemic. To athletes, however, the sunsets through the fitness center windows are more vibrant, the concession lounge couch cozier, and each moment together more precious.

Innovation, Inclusion, and Accessibility

College, perhaps by its very design, can be difficult at the best of times. New ideas, new friendships, and new spaces all pose challenges. Overcoming those can be part of the process of learning and growing and realizing one’s own potential.

Sometimes, however, the challenges a student faces are not only unintentional, but in opposition to the process of learning. They have the potential to thwart even the best and brightest student. When such obstacles remain, often unknown or unrecognizable to much of the campus community, they can seem impossible to overcome.

An English language and literature major, Rebecca Hsiung ’19 often found herself struggling in the classroom with things most students take for granted. In addition to the challenging coursework and assignments she worked on with her peers, Hsiung also found herself grappling with speech, vision, and coordination issues, a direct result of the classroom environment.

“Classroom lighting was a big challenge for me,” says Hsiung. “Like many people with migraines, the brightness and quality of light in a space can trigger or intensify symptoms. During my most severe episodes, the type of lighting in my classrooms could make or break my ability to attend class on any given day.”

Whether on campus, in the workplace, or in the community, facing and overcoming issues such as these is an everyday occurrence for individuals with disabilities. While the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires organizations to comply with some standards of accessibility, many aspects of building design and construction remain inequitable and a hindrance to disabled persons.

Human-Centered Design

Recognizing the extra challenges those with disabilities face, Professor Emerita of Political Science Eliza Willis and Autumn Wilke, assistant dean for disability resources, launched the Innovation Inspires Inclusion project in 2017. Funded by a grant from the Innovation Fund, the program creates leadership opportunities for students with primary or secondary experience with a disability to use those experiences to create an environment on campus — and beyond — that truly allows people of all abilities to do their best work.

Miho TatsukiMiho Tatsuki ’20

“The Innovation Inspires Inclusion program is incredibly important to the College,” says Wilke. “Having students with disabilities identify barriers they encounter and then offer solutions that can be made on a structural level is essential to creating an equitable environment on campus.”

The pilot program hired several students to serve as “access user experts,” who would explore campus and research solutions for potential problem areas. Students received training in this practice through a weeklong visit to the Institute for Human Centered Design (IHCD) in Boston over the 2017 spring break.

“I’ve always been interested in making spaces more accessible, and I felt the voice of people with disabilities from ethnic minority backgrounds have not been well represented,” says Miho Tatsuki ’20.

“I thought by pursuing the access user experts position, I would increase the representation of people with disabilities from diverse backgrounds.”

During the visit to the IHCD in Boston, Tatsuki and her peers spent time at the center studying the concept of human-centered design and later explored college campuses around the city to put their newfound knowledge into practice.

“I learned a lot more about accessibility and inclusive design,” says Tatsuki. “Exploring the city and other campuses really let me see what is and is not working. I really came to understand better how people with disabilities learn to adapt to environmental challenges and how this user expert method encourages us to be critical of the existing design and how spaces can be improved.”

Knowledge Into Action

The goal of the Innovation Inspires Inclusion program is to create an environment that allows people of all abilities to do their best work, using universal design principals to remove as many barriers as possible and make accommodations for disabilities when needed.

So it was more than just an academic exercise that instilled participants with knowledge; the IHCD visit was designed so that access user experts would return to Grinnell and combine this knowledge with their personal experiences to discover obstacles on campus and find workable solutions to them.

“We took what we learned in Boston and then conducted reviews of on-campus spaces and buildings and created reports that we presented to the administration and then changes were actually made,” recalls Rachel Fritzell ’20.

Rachel FritzellRachel Fritzell ’20

One such review involved exploring where benches were placed on campus and if their placement was adequate for someone with a disability.

“We conducted a walk-through and found there were really long stretches on campus where there would be nowhere to sit down, and that makes it difficult for someone with a physical disability,” says Fritzell. “We documented our findings and made a recommendation to break up those stretches and suggested good places to put additional benches. It was really exciting that these changes were made, because they really are helpful; and it was good to see something practical come out of our efforts.”

The group also made recommendations to address the lighting situation that vexed Hsiung as a student.

Someone with low vision might benefit from really bright lighting, but some people who have migraines find that triggers their condition. The access user experts were able to make sure that adjustable lighting was installed in the new Humanities and Social Studies Center (HSSC), which opened in 2019, so it’s not just one size fits all. The brightness level can be adjusted in most rooms to better meet the needs of those using the space at the time.

“We learned a lot on the trip to Boston and the students returned with an enthusiasm to make necessary changes on campus,” says Wilke. “Putting their knowledge to work, they conducted a review of spaces on campus and offered real, practical solutions to the issues they discovered, of which many have now been addressed because of their work.”

This consideration of universal design and access on campus may help permanently shift the paradigm and change how the College thinks about these issues going forward. And the knowledge and concern these students took away from the experience not only led to specific changes that will have a lasting impact on campus but also had impact that continues to resonate in their own personal and professional lives.

“All of the students who attended the original training in Boston have now graduated, taking their learning with them to their careers post-Grinnell,” says Wilke. “However, before they left, they were involved in training the next team of access user experts, creating a sustainable program on campus.”

“We took what we learned in Boston and then conducted reviews of on-campus spaces and buildings and created reports that we presented to the administration and then changes were actually made.”

Rachel Fritzell ’20

Advocates for Inclusion

“The experience made me really passionate and opened my eyes to just how much I could do and help by being involved, says Fritzell. “I left Grinnell wanting to do more and engage in more opportunities, whether it be as a user expert in the future or anything else having to do with helping others with disabilities.”

When she began a job at Morningstar Financial in Chicago, where she is now a marketing associate, Fritzell found that the company had an employee resource group for learning disabilities but not for physical disabilities. She immediately reached out to the head of her program and suggested creating one.

“This was in my first month of starting at Morningstar,” she recalls. “Since then, we expanded the group, and I’m now part of the leadership. It’s just made me so much more open to talking about things. I’m more open about my disability now. People can tell I have a disability, but I used to just get so awkward when asked about it. But now I’m ready to tell people more about it and how it impacted my life and to use my knowledge and skills to help others.”

Her Sentiment Is Echoed by Other Participants in the Program.

Tatsuki, who graduated with a degree in psychology, is now living in Okinawa, Japan, working at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology studying ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder); she has applied to enter a doctoral program.

“As I’m pursuing clinical psychology, I hope to make mental health care space more accessible and welcoming using the principles of universal design and inclusive design,” she says. “Part of this is as simple as not assuming someone doesn’t have a disability and not making assumptions about people and their access needs until you talk with them about it.”

Hsiung adds, “Because of the rich experiences I had at Grinnell, disability advocacy will always be an important part of my life and career. This and other disability-positive experiences that I had led me to pursue a career in inclusive education and to advocate for creating learning environments that are fully accessible to all students and challenge negative conceptions of disability.

“Having a disability is usually seen as a liability or something to be pitied. Many people don’t realize that disability can be a powerful source of joy, community, and commitment to making the world more equitable and inclusive for everyone. This entire experience really helped me embrace that idea.”

Rebecca Hsiung

“Having a disability is usually seen as a liability or something to be pitied. Many people don’t realize that disability can be a powerful source of joy, community, and commitment to making the world more equitable and inclusive for everyone."

Rebecca Hsiung ’19

The Great Awakening

The numbers have been staggering: In 2021, an average of 3.8 million American workers left their jobs every single month, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Workers are quitting at twice the rate that they were just a decade ago, leading pundits to dub the trend “the Great Resignation.”

The reasons behind the trend are myriad: Many have left the workforce entirely to retire early, take care of family members, or to address their own health after two years of a grinding pandemic.

Others, including Grinnellians, have used this time as an opportunity to do wholesale reassessments of their careers. For many, these past two pandemic years helped illuminate not just the problems with the trajectories they were on, the years helped them see that another path was possible. In many cases, they’ve left stressful and unsatisfying jobs in favor of jobs that feel more aligned with their values and needs.

In other words, they haven’t simply been part of a great resignation; they’ve been part of a great awakening.

Mark Peltz, the Daniel ’77 and Patricia Jipp ’80 Finkelman Dean for Careers, Life, and Service, says that Grinnellians tend to be particularly adept at this type of career change. “A Grinnell education helps students identify, define, and clarify their values, strengths, and interests,” he says. “This self-knowledge and awareness is essential not only when considering professional opportunities, but also for gauging when it’s time for a change.”

In the five stories that follow, alumni share the complicated and important lessons of changing jobs and careers at this extraordinary moment.

Lesson 1

It’s Okay Not to Know Exactly What’s Next.

Meagan McKinstry ’16 seemed to have her life all mapped out. She’d wanted to be a lawyer since middle school. After Grinnell, she went to law school, secured internships linked to her interest in landlord and tenant law, and passed the bar. In late 2020, she launched her career as a staff attorney at the COVID Eviction Legal Help Project, part of the Volunteer Lawyers Project of the Boston Bar Association. She had executed her plan perfectly.

She was thrilled, at least initially. “For a while, it was just cool to be learning so much and to be getting paid for my work,” she says.

Illustration: Woman making OK sign with stars and arrowsBut for all the things she knew she’d love about being a lawyer — reading, writing, and making a real difference to people on the margins of society — there were also parts that made her work feel untenable. For one thing, the stakes were enormous; no matter how hard she worked, failure meant that a client literally could end up homeless. Not only that, but the work was adversarial in a way that felt all-encompassing. “I recognize that there is conflict in any job, but litigation by its very nature centers on conflict,” she says. “While I could handle adversarial interactions, I didn’t want to. I’d prefer to work collaboratively rather than confrontationally.”

By the fall of 2021 — as colleagues left the organization, her workload skyrocketed, and her mental health deteriorated — she knew she had to leave. And she did. She began seeing a therapist and has been exploring other options both within and beyond the legal profession.

For now, she says, she wants to remain compassionate to herself and make decisions that feel healthy as she continues to network and apply for jobs. “I’m trying not to get bogged down in feeling like I need to select the ‘perfect’ path,” she says.

While she’s the first to say she wouldn’t want to relive the past stressful year, she also acknowledges that without the acute stresses presented by COVID-19, she could have spent years in roles that were fundamentally a bad fit for her strengths and skills. “Without the stresses of the pandemic pushing me over the edge, I could have easily been one of those lawyers who stayed long-term and continued to tolerate conditions that weren’t a good fit for me,” she says. “As difficult as it [has been], I’m grateful that I had the extra push that forced me to confront reality now, instead of years down the road — or worse, never.”

Lesson 2

Your New Job Can Be Better — Without Being a Dream Job.

Benjamin Cantor-Stone ’07 had been working in collections management roles at museums and historical societies for more than a decade when COVID-19 hit. The pandemic wreaked havoc on his field — and helped Cantor-Stone realize it was time to find something new.

Even before COVID-19, jobs in his field had been tough to come by. He was often competing against more than 150 candidates when he applied for positions. Predictions that more a third of museums might shut their doors permanently in the wake of the pandemic made him even less optimistic about the future. More than that, he was tired of feeling lonely at his job. “I had spent so much time in the back rooms of a museum, basically by myself,” he says. “I missed having a community.”

Illustration: Man sitting in armchair with laptop open and cat sleeping on the back of the chairSo when he learned that his brother was succeeding in a project management role, he was intrigued. Cantor-Stone did his research; jobs in the field were plentiful and forecasts for coming years looked promising. The roles would allow him to work more closely with lots of people. And the skill sets he brought to bear in his collections management role — a good mind for details and complex systems, for example — might be just what he needed in project management, too.

To prepare, he spent a year getting a certificate in project management from a community college. Recently, he landed a job at a firm that designs, manufactures, and installs cabinets and interior trim. “I was able to convince them that, despite my unconventional background, I was worth taking a chance on,” he says.

Cantor-Stone loves a lot about his new job. He enjoys being a part of a team, having more job security, and knowing that plenty of options are available to him moving forward. “Is it a perfect fit? Not necessarily,” he acknowledges. “But it is a comfort to know that I don’t have to look for work. That gives me peace of mind.”

“In academia, they call it ‘publish or perish,’ and it’s really high-stress. If I wasn’t working, I felt guilty. I hadn’t taken a whole Thanksgiving weekend off in 15 years, because I was always grading.”

– Kate Anderson ’02

 Lesson 3

Finding Your “Dream Job” Might Also Be About Building Your “Dream Life.”

Kate Anderson ’02 had been thinking for years about leaving the academic world.

While she’d been productive in her decade as an assistant professor in the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University and as a visiting professor in the Department of Informatics and Networked Systems at the University of Pittsburgh, the lifestyle had been a grind. “In academia, they call it ‘publish or perish,’ and it’s really high stress,” she says. “If I wasn’t working, I felt guilty. I hadn’t taken a whole Thanksgiving weekend off in 15 years, because I was always grading.”

She knew she had a job that many envied, but she also knew she wasn’t happy in it. And in 2020, when the budget for her position as a visiting professor dried up as the pandemic raged, she decided to make a shift. She was ready to close the door on the academic world for good.

She ultimately landed a role as a senior methodologist at Interos, a company that helps organizations assess their supply-chain risks. Instead of studying labor market networks, which she did as an academic researcher, she now analyzes supply-chain networks. While she enjoys the role and works hard at it when she’s on the clock, she also loves the life she can build beyond her job. “I pick up my kids every day at 3. I built a woodworking workshop in my basement because now I have time to do that,” she says.

And for the first Thanksgiving in her new job, she took the whole weekend off. “It was a revelation,” she says.

Lesson 4

You Can Mourn Losses Even as You Make Positive Changes.

Illustration: Serene woman with eyes closedIn January 2020, after 11 years of working at the Irving S. Gilmore Music Library at Yale University, Emily Ferrigno DiLeo ’97 made the leap to a new role with a pop music sound archive at a state university in Ohio. It was a big move; to take the job, she moved her whole family — her husband and young twins — hundreds of miles across the country.

To say that timing was not exactly fortuitous was an understatement.

Within six weeks, her job went remote, the preschool her kids attended closed its doors, and her efforts to forge new friendships got put on hold. And she realized that the workplace she’d uprooted her entire life for was toxic. “I couldn’t hold all those things,” she says. “It was breaking me. I just couldn’t do it,” she says. Something needed to change.

Her next move? “I did things the typical ‘me’ way,” she says, which meant planning meticulously for her transition. She gathered with a handful of her colleagues to discuss the book Designing Your Life. She hired a career coach, she began networking, and she stashed as much money as she could into a savings account.

Ultimately, she left the academic library world in favor of a remote contract position in user experience research with the media company Thomson Reuters. The role allows her to use the research skills she built in her previous positions while tripling her previous academic salary. “I can hire a cleaner,” she says with no small amount of joy. “I can pay for the expensive preschool that my kids go to, since the other one closed.”

Still, she admits that the transition, while positive in many ways, hasn’t always been easy. “Academics feel passionately about the thing they study; it’s personal — it’s your identity. So if my identity isn’t pop music, what is it?” She misses campus, too — a space and community that’s possible to build a life around.

Even if all the pieces haven’t fallen into place yet, she more fully understands what she values and what she wants. And she sees more opportunities on the horizon. Remote work offers the possibility of moving closer to her sister and mom in Dallas, and side gigs might fill gaps she feels in her sense of identity.

There may be no perfect job or perfect time to change, but that doesn’t mean you need to stand still, says DiLeo. “If you want to make a pivot,” she says, “just start pivoting.”

“If you want to make a pivot, just start pivoting.”

– Emily Ferrigno Dileo ’97

Lesson 5

You Can Change Your Priorities — Then Pursue Them With Joy.

Over the course of a thriving career in industry — highlights included developing the MIME protocol that allows users to send email attachments, launching successful startups, and running a research program at IBM — Nathaniel Borenstein ’80 and D.Sc. ’13 focused on any number of different things: impact, intellectual challenge, money.

But a brutal and life-altering 2020 changed everything. His oldest daughter, Shana, died unexpectedly. His son-in-law, Mike, died after fighting brain cancer for 13 years. And he faced a massive, high-risk heart surgery of his own. “My family was swamped in grief,” he says.

Borenstein himself was so uncertain about the outcome of his potential surgery that he put his affairs in order. But when he joined a clinical trial, he had what he calls “a medical miracle.” Not only did surgery become unnecessary; it left him feeling healthier than he’d ever felt in his life. “It felt like I had been given a second chance,” he says.

Illustration: man with flowers bursting forth from the top of his headWhile he could have retired early, he decided instead to seek a new job that allowed him to focus on something new: fun. He recently joined the University of Michigan’s School of Information, where he’ll teach, work with graduate students, and finish a book he’s been working on.

As an extrovert, he’s thrilled about the opportunities to work with young people, rather than sitting behind a screen. He sees opportunities to make the most of the skills he’s gained over nearly a half-century of work by mentoring and guiding the next generation of innovators.

Without economic pressures or worries about building a career, he can enjoy the role in a way that has often been difficult in the past. “The world seems almost as full of possibilities for me now as it did when I graduated from Grinnell in 1980,” he says. “For the first time in years, I feel like my best days may still be ahead of me.”


Tell us about your own career “Great Awakening.”

Adapt, Change, Think Differently

As students, faculty, and staff returned to campus in August 2021, eager for a “normal” year — or as normal as it gets given that the coronavirus pandemic is still with us — the ways in which the dramatic changes and challenges of the past 18 months affected our community have become more apparent. While initially the behind-the-scenes work was primarily done to help keep everyone as safe and as engaged as possible, it soon became obvious that some of these changes will continue to be of benefit to Grinnell in the long run. Here is a quick look at some of the actions of the past year and a half and their impacts.

students in cloth masks and face shields talk in class

Keeping the focus on people

Imagining disaster scenarios and how to respond to them “is not always seen as an optimistic role,” says Heather Cox, director of emergency management and risk mitigation. Her attention to plans, exercises, and improvements helped Grinnell address the many different challenges presented by the pandemic.

She compares the effort to leading a band. She doesn’t have to know every note the saxophone plays, but she knows when it’s supposed to play.

In spring 2020, the focus was on getting students home safely and effectively teaching and working remotely. Over time, though, Grinnell's response evolved. For the 2020–21 school year, the focus shifted to allow some students back on campus for 7.5-week terms, while many others continued learning from a distance.

For Cox, who’d started working at Grinnell a little over a year before the pandemic, the experience has caused her to rethink her approach to emergency response. “Trying to have a cookie-cutter operations plan doesn’t work for Grinnell,” she says. What was more useful was identifying people with the skills needed, regardless of job titles. “People got to partner differently,” she adds. “They built new relationships. Hierarchies came down. Silos came down.”

Going forward, Cox knows Grinnell is better prepared. One thing that hasn’t changed: “The focus on people is what the College does very well.”

Dining gets creative

The staff in Dining Services may well have experienced the most changes to operations during the pandemic. The critical nature of food service demanded that they be creative in order to keep students and staff safe.

Their methods of serving food changed several times: from “grab-and-go” meals to meal delivery outside students’ residence halls to masked and socially distanced students picking up food inside the Marketplace.

Dining staff prepare boxed servings of food for clients

Changes occurred behind the scenes, too. Before vaccines were available, they reorganized their staff so that they worked in teams — nine or 10 people per team. The team approach allowed for more physical space between workers since fewer staff members were working at any one time. If one person on a team tested positive, another team could step in and take over while the first team quarantined, which happened once.

During the 2020–21 school year when fewer students were on campus, cooking for 10–12% of the typical number of students was a major change. Scott Turley, executive chef, says, “I think it pushed us to put together menus that could carry out well and still be very edible after they’ve been in the container for maybe as long as a half hour or so. It also pushed us to change the way we think about production, because the cooks were used to cooking loads of food as fast as we can go.”

Helping faculty and students go virtual

For Grinnell, the pivot to teaching fully online in spring 2020 and throughout 2020–21 posed significant pedagogical and technological challenges to academic continuity — especially for faculty and students unused to an online learning environment.

“The transition was ultimately successful, but not without struggle,” says Mo Pelzel, director of academic technology and head of the Digital Liberal Arts Collaborative (DLAC), a unit within the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Assessment.

DLAC staff ran virtual workshops and town halls for faculty to discuss the nitty gritty of online teaching, such as how to engage students, design assignments, estimate workloads, and more. Training was also offered for the College’s learning management system and other platforms and applications. DLAC partnered with other departments, such as Information Technology Services, to make new software applications available for faculty and students to use online.

“We encouraged faculty and students to adopt an approach of technological simplicity and minimalism,” Pelzel says.

During the pandemic, faculty and students increased their digital literacies and skills out of necessity, but Pelzel also sees a silver lining. Some of the positive gains can be carried forward. “We can become more thoughtful about incorporating digital and online practices into teaching and learning.”

For example, he says, online conversations can be a helpful addition to classroom experiences because they “can allow for more composed and reflective discourse and give students who may be more shy in the classroom a better opportunity to make their voice heard.”

Maintaining connections

Development and Alumni Relations (DAR) staff love helping foster alumni ties, so when in-person events were wiped off the calendar during the pandemic, they got creative about helping people feel connected to Grinnell.

The public phase of Grinnell’s largest fundraising campaign launched in October 2019, just a few months before the virus started its march around the world. Staff had to radically rethink the campaign strategy and shift conversations online. To keep Grinnellians feeling connected, they created a series of videos in which individual alumni told their own powerful stories about the impact Grinnell has had on their lives.

Major events such as Alumni Reunion and Alumni College were completely rethought and then went virtual. In some cases, participation rose. Alumni College usually attracts about 100 people in person. Online in 2020-21, more than 1,100 people participated in some part of it.

DAR also hosted a few new events virtually, such as a trivia tournament, an alumni geography bee, and an alumni spelling bee. The virtual spelling bee attracted 65 alumni participants in the preliminary round. The championship round, with 15 alumni spellers, was livestreamed. “It was a nail-biter!” says Jaci Thiede, vice president of development and alumni relations. All three events will become annual online events.

“Virtual works for a lot of people,” Thiede says. She anticipates DAR will continue using virtual events as a way of keeping Grinnellians connected.

Addressing financial needs and recruiting

Investing in Students

$3.7 million
awarded through grants


$2.5 million
financial aid awarded to meet new financial need


$2.5 million
allocated to support technology

“Our staff had to quickly adapt to an entirely new way of approaching their work,” says Joe Bagnoli, vice president for enrollment and dean of admission and financial aid. “Admission relies heavily on in-person interaction and relationship development, and we had to find ways to achieve this through virtual encounters.”

Financial aid staff helped distribute special aid, including a COVID-19 Response Grant of $2,500 for every eligible student, in response to the pandemic. A total of $3.7 million was awarded through these grants and an additional $2.5 million in financial aid was awarded to meet new financial need among student families that was not covered by the Response Grant. Additionally, 50% of work-study awards were replaced with grants ($1 million), and more than $2.5 million was allocated to support technology, designated funds for emergency use, and to offset new living expenses for students who returned home unexpectedly. In total, the College invested more than $10 million in unscheduled financial aid to help students and their families weather the initial storm of the pandemic.

When it became clear that the pandemic comet would have a long tail, the College decided to eliminate student loans for new and continuing students eligible for need-based financial aid, replacing loans with grants and scholarships. This no-loan initiative, endorsed by Grinnell College’s Board of Trustees, became effective Fall 2021 for all new and continuing students eligible for need-based financial aid. The no-loan initiative will allow most Grinnell students to graduate debt-free and has implications far beyond the pandemic.

To engage prospective students who could no longer visit campus in person, the admission and financial aid staff developed a comprehensive suite of virtual materials targeting every phase of the college search process. This included on-demand content like videos highlighting student life, academics, and the town of Grinnell as well as virtual, interactive content such as staff-led information sessions, interviews, and high school visits; live virtual tours led by current students; and virtual half-day programs that mirrored large-scale on-campus visit programming. A test-optional admission practice was adopted for two years in response to test center closures. The sum of these efforts and the agile response of everyone in the enrollment division was remarkable.

Fall 2021 saw a record-breaking number of first-year applications (10,513) and the lowest admit rate in the College’s history (10.5%). The 2021 enrolling class, in addition to representing a variety of interests and talents, comes from 31 different countries and 47 U.S. states; and students who identify as Black, indigenous, and other people of color make up 27% of the new class.

“Our team exhibited tremendous commitment, flexibility, work ethic, and positive attitudes over the past year and a half,” says Bagnoli. “It was clear that everyone cared deeply about our prospective students throughout this pandemic and wanted to help them through an unprecedented college search and application process.”

Bolstering community and community health

With many students no longer on campus, the Office of Student Affairs had to quickly adjust and reimagine much of its work to ensure the needs of students were met as they adapted to online learning or radically altered in-person classes — often in learning environments that were far from optimal.

“For a student-facing division dedicated to engaging students and their learning outside the classroom, the pandemic presented many opportunities to consider how we do that,” says Sarah Moschenross, vice president of student affairs. “It was definitely odd not to have all of our students on campus, but our work felt more relevant than ever. We worked in close partnership with our academic and professional colleagues in considering the student experience and how we would approach the year, collectively, for the College.”

professor in face mask addresses student in lecture room in front of black board

Student affairs established a student advisory group to work with the office in partnership as they made decisions affecting students. That group worked alongside staff and faculty to innovate, prioritize equity, and think through every decision and possible unintended consequences. Staff also worked to move their cocurriculum online to continue providing academic support, developing identity, and creating a sense of belonging and connection in a virtual world.

The Center for Religion, Spirituality, and Social Justice kept the food pantry and lending library afloat while also finding ways for students to worship together virtually and eventually in person and socially distanced. The student involvement team pivoted to virtual program offerings to provide students social time together after classes. The intercultural affairs team kept important and established groups like the Black Womxn’s Group and Men of Color Empowered and Engaged together by meeting virtually and continued to bring programming to the community throughout the pandemic. New Student Orientation and Parent Orientation were both moved to an online format, as well as a number of webinars that helped the office reach more students, parents, and families than it could have in person on campus.

Many team members also remained on the ground every day with students, faculty, and staff, including the Student Health and Wellness (SHAW) team, campus safety, and residential life. For that to happen, the office needed to quickly rewrite protocols with a public health lens and to create procedures for establishing and operating a testing clinic to monitor for COVID-19 exposure in the campus community before vaccinations were widely available.

Mental health counselors and nurses remained available and continued to see students throughout the pandemic, though most did so in a virtual format that was quickly introduced when students had to leave campus. They also expanded access by partnering with Virtual Care, which allowed students living domestically to have 24/7 access to physicians and mental health experts no matter where they were located.

“I think it has to be said that the staff gave all of themselves to this endeavor,” says Moschenross.

masked and gowned graduates celebrate commencement

Strengthening ties with neighbors

The Office of Community Enhancement and Engagement worked collaboratively with partners on campus and in town to help ensure the collective resources of the community were leveraged toward the common goal of providing relief and support for the city of Grinnell.

“At the very beginning of the pandemic, our office began pulling together other local funders in the community to meet weekly and get a sense of what everyone was being asked for and how we could coordinate to best support emerging community needs,” says Monica Chavez-Silva, vice president of community engagement and strategic planning.

To provide assistance to medical workers in the community, the College contributed to UnityPoint Health Grinnell Regional Medical Center’s Health Care Heroes Fund and also helped provide safe housing options for health care workers in houses that students were no longer occupying.

Reaching out directly to residents of Grinnell with food assistance programs was also a priority. At the beginning of the pandemic, local volunteers and organizations including Grinnell College formed the Grinnell Food Coalition to address immediate food insecurity. The coalition created free vouchers that could be used to pay for food at any local grocery store. In addition to the approximately $324,000 worth of grocery vouchers distributed to community members, more than 100 volunteers handed out nearly 7,300 boxes of food (with an estimated $275,000 value) to families free of charge. In total, nearly $600,000 worth of food was distributed at no cost to recipients.

As the College continues with an in-person school year after such a long period of separation and hardship, the Office of Community Enhancement and Engagement continues to collaborate with partners to support the community. The new #GrinnTogether initiative hopes to encourage the community to come together with kindness and empathy to rebuild social ties following the incredible challenges of the past year. An event calendar, directories, and a list of community resources can be found at GrinnTogether. [Ed. link removed as the site has been removed from the Grinnell Chamber of Commerce. July, 27, 2022]

two participants at front of empty classroom record lecture for students

Lessons learned

While the pandemic created myriad problems and challenges for the College and the community of Grinnell, it also created unexpected opportunities for Grinnellians to step up and make a difference.

Whether it was assisting students in developing the skills needed to learn in a new format, encouraging and supporting faculty who reinvented their teaching methods, or helping community members stay healthy and connected, College leadership, faculty, staff, and students took action that helped address the pandemic’s immediate challenges. And, true to form, they did so with purpose, passion, and a tireless dedication that kept our academic community not only moving but evolving and growing in ways that will impact the College for generations to come.