New Residence Hall Naming Honors Edith Renfrow Smith

Portrait of a young black woman in a board frame with a decorative borderMore than 100 years ago, a little girl named Edith would climb into her mother’s lap and beg, “Mama, tell me a story.”

Her mother, Eva Pearl Renfrow, would pull her daughter close and spin out family stories for her. Sometimes Eva Pearl told tales of dramatic escapes from slavery, such as the story of Edith’s grandfather, George Craig, who was sold on the auction block in New Orleans at age 14. He was so miserable, he put tobacco juice in his eyes to lower his value as a slave. It left him partially blind for the rest of his life.

But his plan worked. Craig was sold again, this time to a plantation in Mississippi where he served as valet to the master. The overseer there allowed him to escape — for a price. And so, Craig began his long, circuitous journey north to Iowa, where eventually he and his family would put down deep roots.

Edith Renfrow Smith ’37, DHL’19, who was born in Grinnell in 1914, couldn’t get enough of these stories.

“Oh, I loved to hear her tell them!” she says.

A Foundation for Change

Exploded floor plan of the CEQ shows C-shaped structure with unique first floor, interior of three residence floors with atria and a green roofThe stories of Renfrow Smith and her ancestors continue to be intertwined with Grinnell. In December, President Anne F. Harris announced that the College Board of Trustees had approved naming the residence hall in the College’s new Civic Engagement Quad (CEQ) in honor of Edith Renfrow Smith.

What is now the CEQ is the evolution of former president Raynard S. Kington’s idea of a downtown student residence. Renfrow Hall will not only provide needed apartment-style off-campus student housing, it also will serve as a reminder of the difference every Grinnellian can make.

The four-story, 125,000-square-foot CEQ, set to open in 2024, features a design developed in partnership with David Adjaye, renowned Ghanaian-British architect. He believes architecture can be transformational, bridging divides and building relationships. 

Adjaye calls Grinnell “an extraordinary college … producing unique citizens, unique students with the knowledge to be able to take on the big issues that are in the world.”

Artists rendering of a four-story building with two wings sited on a cornerarchitect’s rendering of the residence facility that will be known as Renfrow Hall

At the Crossroads

Older Black woman holds hand up while talking to a white woman in a white mask a painting of the Black woman in academic garb hangs behind them Edith Renfrow Smith ’37 and President Anne F. Harris during an October 2021 campus event celebrating the re-dedication of the Edith Renfrow Smith ’37 Student Art Gallery.

Set at the corner of Sixth Avenue and Broad Street, the CEQ will inhabit the intersection of the campus and the community, with strong ties to both. The complex will welcome both College and community members, offering shared spaces that invite dialogue, exchange, and collaboration.

Sixth Avenue might seem like the dividing line between the town and the College, but Renfrow Smith never saw it that way, says Professor Tamara Beauboeuf-Lafontant, Louise R. Noun Chair in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. Beauboeuf- Lafontant has conducted an extensive research project focusing on the experiences of Renfrow Smith. “That’s never been true for her,” Beauboeuf-Lafontant says. “She walked it. She crossed it. She made a path for someone like me.”

Thanks to the groundbreaking work of Edith Renfrow Smith, Black women faculty and students can thrive and succeed here as scholars, mentors, and leaders, Beauboeuf-Lafontant says. “I would hope that we would always want to do things in the spirit of Edith Renfrow Smith — to lead with kindness, to lead with self-respect, to lead with a sense that you can be a part of a small town and still make a big impact.”

Rebuilding Civic Trust

Edith Renfrow-Smith speaking at a podium“Take every opportunity to do your best,” Edith told the graduates at Grinnell College Commencement in 2019, when she received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree.

The world faces complex problems that won’t be solved without collaboration extending over divides and across boundaries, Harris says. Future generations will be called upon to work together to find solutions.

“This endeavor requires determination and optimism,” she says. “It requires a commitment to civic trust.”

At its heart, Harris says, the ideas and aspirations that gave birth to the Civic Engagement Quad encourage us to abandon our separate ideological strongholds to come together and both talk with and listen to one another.

A liberal arts education offers one of the best models for rebuilding trust in our communities, she adds. “The way forward is reflected in the ways we teach and learn at Grinnell, through research, deliberation, and collaboration.

“The CEQ will serve as a living laboratory, supporting teaching and learning for our students as they engage with the community and each other,” Harris explains. “These interactions will prepare them to participate as citizens and leaders, questioning, shaping, and furthering the common good.”

Through this project and the efforts of students, faculty, staff, and citizens, Grinnell — both the town and the College — can become a national voice for civic engagement and community collaboration in a rural setting.

An Undaunted Spirit

Edith Renfrow-Smith as a young woman in a dress with an embroidered collar and bodice and a choker Edith, age 16 or 17, wearing her Camp Fire necklace and uniform

The naming of Renfrow Hall is a fitting honor for Renfrow Smith and for her family, whose members rose from enslaved persons to college graduates in just two generations. Renfrow Smith’s life reflects the value she placed on education and the deep, ongoing conversation between College and community.

“As we thought about Grinnellians whose lives and accomplishments embody these values and who have served as a positive and undaunted inspiration to others, it quickly became clear that Edith Renfrow Smith was that alumna,” Harris says. “Renfrow Hall will reside in a space that connects the city of Grinnell and the College — carrying the name of the truest of true Grinnellians.”

Get an Education

Renfrow Smith’s mother was only able to complete the eighth grade but held education in the highest regard. She and her husband, Lee Augustus Renfrow, raised six children (Edith was the fifth), and they were determined that all would earn a college degree.

“Get an education — that’s all we heard,” remembers Renfrow Smith.

A Black girl in a white dress and tights stands outside of a house Edith Renfrow at her 1929 eighth grade graduation in Grinnell

When Edith was only 5 years old, her mother began inviting Black students at the College to the Renfrow home on Sunday evenings. These Rosenwald scholars, who had been recruited to Grinnell College through a partnership between the College and the Rosenwald Foundation, made a big impression on the little girl.

She began to dream of attending Grinnell College herself one day.

As a grade-school student, she walked to the then-new Davis School, where she delighted in weekend activities sponsored by Uncle Sam’s Club, a youth club founded and staffed by Grinnell students. They encouraged Renfrow Smith and opened her eyes to a world of opportunities.

Renfrow Smith also joined the local Camp Fire girl troop, led by troop leader Laetitia Conard (one of Grinnell’s first sociology lecturers and wife of Professor Henry S. Conard). Renfrow Smith and her family attended the Congregational Church every Sunday and once during the week, where she got to know many other Grinnell faculty and staff.

After graduation from Grinnell High School in 1932 (where she was recently inducted into the Hall of Fame), Renfrow Smith achieved her dream of matriculating to Grinnell College.

“Grinnell College was a part of our family from the very beginning,” Renfrow Smith says. “I wasn’t going to college unless I’d go to Grinnell College.”

A True Grinnellian

Edith Renfrow-Smith in academic robes Edith poses in cap and gown on her Grinnell College graduation day in 1937

But it wasn’t easy. Renfrow Smith worked her way through Grinnell as a secretary (she typed 60 words a minute) and lived at home to save money. In 1933–34, tuition was $275. She was the only Black student on campus at the time.

Renfrow Smith wasn’t about to let anything stop her from enjoying college life. “I was just part of the group, and I enjoyed all the group activities that we had at Grinnell,” Renfrow Smith says. She participated in women’s intramural dance, badminton, ring tennis, basketball, and field hockey. A talented athlete, she was inducted into Women’s Honor G as a senior.

As a member of Read Cottage, Renfrow Smith particularly loved the rituals of the formal Yule Log Dinner at the end of the fall semester. Women students, all in white dresses, gathered for the ceremonial relighting of the Yule log from years past. A cadre of white-coated waiters then served them a special holiday dinner.

Renfrow Smith also delighted in dancing the minuet in period costumes with her girlfriends at the Colonial Ball on Washington’s Birthday.

“Oh my, that was a time!” she says.

Grinnell Has Been My Life

After studies in psychology, history, and economics, in 1937, Renfrow Smith became the first Black woman to graduate from Grinnell College.

After graduation, she moved to Chicago to find work (she still lives there) and later married and raised two daughters. Renfrow Smith’s belief in education led her to become an elementary-school teacher, eventually rising to the level of master teacher. She retired in 1976 and spent the next 40 years volunteering at many organizations, including the Art Institute of Chicago and Goodwill.

In 2019, then-president Raynard Kington presided at the Commencement ceremony where the College awarded Renfrow Smith an honorary doctorate to a standing ovation from the graduates and assembled crowd. “Grinnell has been my life,” she told the audience. At 108, Renfrow Smith is the College’s oldest alum.

Focusing on the Good

Three Black women pose for the camera Professor and Louise R. Noun Chair in Gender, Women’s, and Sexuality Studies Tamara Beauboeuf-Lafontant, Edith Renfrow Smith ’37, and Feven Getachew ’24

We can all learn from Edith Renfrow Smith, Harris says. “She loves this place with a clear-eyed acceptance of its shortcomings and potential.”

Renfrow Smith continues to be an active participant of the life of the College. She has developed a close relationship with Feven Getachew ’24, an international student from Ethiopia whom she met through Beauboeuf-Lafontant’s research. For Getachew, Renfrow Smith is both an inspiration and a challenge.

“I think it’s very hard to live up to her legacy, but I think we can at least try,” Getachew says.

Renfrow Smith’s wholehearted love for her hometown and her College is unconditional. And she has never stopped believing that we can do better.

Her optimism, her resilience, her dedication to the common good, and most of all her love for Grinnell make the naming of Renfrow Hall in her honor the perfect choice. Renfrow Hall will serve as the embodiment of the enduring and evolving relationship between the College and the community and an enduring testament to an amazing Grinnellian.

George Drake and Grinnell College

Timeline Flag

Feb. 25, 1934

Born, Springfield, Missouri, to Alberta Grace Stimpson Drake and George Bryant Drake


Graduates Lyons Township High School, LaGrange, Illinois

Fall 1952

Matriculates as Grinnell College Baker Scholar


Excels as scholar-athlete; active and engaged across campus, develops lasting friendships with faculty and classmates; senior year leads cross-country team to its first conference championship and personally qualifies for national championships


A Phi Beta Kappa, George wins Archibald Prize for highest grades in his class


Fulbright Scholar, studies French Protestant history, University of Paris, France


Rhodes Scholar, studies modern British history, Merton College, Oxford University, England, receives B.A. and M.A.


Years under the aegis of the University of Chicago/Chicago Theological Seminary; B.D. (Divinity), 1962; M.A., 1963; Ph.D. in church history, 1964. Rockefeller graduate fellow

George in white jacket and black pants and Susan in wedding dress and holding bouquet The 1960 wedding of George Drake ’56 and Susan Ratcliff ’58 at Ladue Chapel in St. Louis.

When my father turned 80, I was working in Grinnell’s Development and Alumni Relations office. In that role, I discovered that an unanticipated job perk was alumni and Grinnell colleagues sharing stories about my dad and what he meant to them. What they told me emphasized how important relationships were to him and how carefully he cultivated them. As Dad’s birthday approached, I reached out to these individuals, encouraging them to write these accolades directly to him. The missives flooded in through mail, email, and even on Facebook. Over the next weeks, my father not only read each one, but, true to character, answered all that he could. Eight years later, as Dad entered hospice care at the end of his journey with pancreatic cancer, his granddaughter, Hannah Drake ’18, shared this news with the Grinnell community. A similar outpouring of messages came in, and we were able to read many of them to him during his final days.

Man and woman flank three smiling kids The Drake family, 1975, in Colorado Springs where all three children were born (LR: George, Melanie, Cindy, Chris, and Sue).

Common themes emerge from these messages. George Drake was a good listener. He genuinely engaged with each person, asking questions that allowed him to get to know them and allowed them to feel heard. He was responsive. He helped problem-solve. He pushed people to enhance their own learning and being. His humility endeared him to others. And the vast knowledge and intellect he shared was notable and appreciated. These sentiments were no surprise to his loved ones, but what struck us was how fully Dad was able to connect with so many individuals, even those he encountered only briefly. As I have absorbed this and observed my father getting to know people (most recently in hospital settings, whether the nurse on duty or the person cleaning his room), I know that Dad never met a stranger; from the moment of greeting, he immediately connected, learning from them as much as about them.

Family of eight pose in front of a tree and lake A new generation; their six grandchildren with George and Sue at their Golden Anniversary in 2010 (back row, LR: Nick, George, Sue, Danielle; middle row, LR: Lila, Sam ’25; seated, LR: Hannah ’18, Elizabeth).

The constant in Dad’s life, through which he cultivated many of these relationships, was Grinnell College. His life path was greatly impacted when he was recruited out of Chicago to this small Iowa school by Coach John Pfitsch. A self-described “indifferent high school student,” Dad remembered his father’s words when his parents dropped him off at the College. “George, I’m not worried about you making friends or having success in sports. I’m worried that you’ll flunk out.”

He took his father’s words to heart, knowing that college was costly ($1,300 annually in 1952!) and committed himself to being the student his dad didn’t think he could be. As Dad put it, “Grinnell turned me on. It was fun to work hard, and I loved the classes.” And he didn’t sacrifice friends or athletics in the process. His running prowess that got him into Grinnell continued to hold steady. Years later, at reunions, Dad’s classmates would tell me memories of sitting in the stands, hearing George Drake’s name called over the loudspeaker as they watched him effortlessly stride around the track.

Timeline Flag
Family and Early Career

Fall 1959

Reconnects with fellow Grinnellian Susan Ratcliff ’58, beginning a “whirlwind courtship”

June 25, 1960

Marries Sue Ratcliff at Ladue Chapel, St. Louis


Returns to Grinnell through Rockefeller grant to intern with chaplain, teach as instructor of history, serve as men’s soccer coach; Sue teaches at Cooper Elementary

1961, 1962

Takes a summer job as pastor of a small mountain church in Marble, Colorado, spending two consecutive summers in this role

Early 1960s

George and Sue purchase land in Marble and build a rustic cabin themselves, which becomes their home away from home almost every summer


Colorado College professor of history


Drake family grows by three: Christopher (Chris), Cynthia (Cindy), and Melanie ’92


Dean, Colorado College, oversees implementation of the distinctive Block Plan


Serves on Grinnell College Board of Trustees

Man and woman stand in front of the screen door of a wooden building The couple at their “home away from home,” a cabin they built together in Marble, Colorado.

There were many aspects of Grinnell College that were important to my father: learning from and later working with the professors, running track and cross country, being a trustee, succeeding as an administrator, and, of course, the years he spent as a professor. Yet the most important part of Grinnell to him by far was meeting my mom, Sue Ratcliff Drake ’58. They did not date as students. Mom always said he was “too smarty” for her, and she shied away because so many people were in awe of him. As fate would have it, he hitched a ride with her back to Chicago after a homecoming weekend. She recalls that he spent the majority of the ride hanging over the seat, “talking my ear off!” Soon after, he asked her out. Several months later, they were married — a partnership that lasted more than 62 years.

George and Sue stand arm in arm against a backdrop of meadows farms and mountains George and Sue, who taught in Lesotho during their Peace Corps service, pictured in southern Africa.

Even though Dad started his teaching journey at Colorado College, he remained close to Grinnell in spirit. While in Colorado, he joined Grinnell’s Board of Trustees; and, in 1979, when a trustee encouraged him to consider the presidency, he was honored but wary because of his own father’s experience. My grandfather had been president of Doane College in Crete, Nebraska, during the World War II era, and he struggled in that role, in part because he supported the notable Japanese population on campus when many others did not. My father sensed that his situation would be different. Having been a trustee meant he already had his finger on the pulse of the College and was aware of challenges he might face. So, this time, my dad didn’t heed his father’s warning but instead opted to take on the role.

Dad’s humility served him well as president, as did his way of connecting with others. He often described himself as a “pushover,” feeling he could be swayed easily to another opinion. But I’ve come to learn that this was not an apt description of his leadership style. He was an active listener who considered all sides when making decisions. He kept open office hours, meeting with students, faculty, alumni, and staff who requested his time. This sometimes meant he was delayed in coming home or getting to another meeting, but he remained fully present and rarely let on that he had other commitments.

Interactions with my father were not limited to his office walls. He was regularly spotted around campus. At the dining hall, he frequently joined students to chat with them while eating at their table. He attended various campus events, and his love of sports put him in the stands or on the sidelines at many games and meets. There is a rare student who doesn’t recall seeing Dad running or him greeting them while bicycling past.

Timeline Flag
Grinnell Presidency


Selected to serve as Grinnell’s 10th president and first alumnus president


During his tenure, Grinnell’s reputation as a liberal arts institution grows stronger; College is consistently rated a top national liberal arts college; endowment grows from $45 million to $300 million; diversity initiatives grow enrollment of Black students and Iowa students; Grinnell-Nanjing Exchange launches

May 4, 1980

Inaugural address; speaks of a vision of the “future in the past” and the College’s progressive ideals of service, its traditions of scholarship, academic freedom, and liberal dissent, and a purposeful future for Grinnell


Receives four honorary degrees — Colorado College, LLD,1980; Ripon College, LLD, 1982; Illinois College, LHD, 1985; and Ursinus College, LHD, 1988


Board of Trustees honors presidential service, creates the George Drake Professor of Religious Studies

George Drake in a light dress coat riding a bike while holding his briefcase in his right hand A familiar sight on campus; George biking past the North campus residence halls, circa 1980s.

Dad mostly went with the flow, even when, in typical Grinnell fashion, students would stage a protest or pull a lighthearted prank on him. Early in his presidency, a fake mailing went out to all first-year students inviting them to our house for an ice cream social. My sister and I, the ones home at the time, spent the better part of an hour politely turning away dozens of confused students. Our father was amused by this practical joke while simultaneously applauding the idea. The next year, he and my mom hosted a real ice cream social, which became an annual tradition.

George Drake in suit and Melanie Drake in a wedding dress The author and her dad on the day she married Tom Wickersham ’90.

When I decided to attend Grinnell, my dad was both overjoyed and wary. Still the College’s president, he worried he’d end up mired in some hot-topic issue that would suck me in as well. I, too, experienced both emotions. I knew enough students already to sense that they could separate me from who my dad was, but I also wanted to be distanced from the Drake name. Yet I kept coming back to Grinnell as my top choice. My parents had always told me to trust my gut, which I did. Four years later, I walked across the Commencement stage, proudly joining my parents as an alum. The Grinnell bond we share has been incredibly meaningful, and we’ve delighted at the fact that Mom and I both took classes from art professor Richard Cervene and Dad and I both lived on Younker’s third floor — my room was across the hall from where his was.

Timeline Flag
Service, Teaching, and Writing


George and Sue join the Peace Corps and serve in Lesotho in southern Africa; George teaches at a high school and Sue travels to regional schools training teachers.


George and Sue give their time and talents widely to the community through the library, United Church of Christ, the hospital, and Mayflower Community; George parlays lifelong love of singing into performing and fundraising with Shults & Co.


Resumes teaching history at the College on a full-time basis


Grinnell College Athletic Hall of Fame induction for Men's Track and Field, Men's Cross Country


Assumes Professor Emeritus status but continues his love of teaching on a parttime basis mainly through tutorial on campus and in Grinnell’s Liberal Arts in Prison Program at Newton Correctional Facility


Receives Grinnell College Distinguished Alumni Award; Sue is honored in 2008


Drake Community Library named in honor of the couple’s longtime dedication to the town's public library


Publishes Mentor: Life and Legacy of Joe Rosenfield


In the face the global COVID-19 pandemic, George reluctantly elects to stop teaching

Fall 2021

Publishes his final book Seventy Years in Academe: A Memoir


Despite pancreatic cancer diagnosis, George remains deeply involved and connected to the College

Oct. 15, 2022

George Albert Drake, a good man who lived richly and well, dies at the age of 88, in his Grinnell home surrounded by his loving family

While he was a successful president, Dad’s true career love was teaching. He was fully in his element when engaging with students. He continued teaching well into his emeritus status, each year asking students and colleagues alike to let him know if it was time for him to step back. In the latter years, as Grinnell continued to request his presence as an adviser and tutorial teacher, Dad’s only complaint was about technology, which outpaced his knowledge.

George sits near two students. His forearms rest on his thighs and he's leaning forward. A quintessential image of George, professor and mentor, talking with students.

When a global pandemic forced his hand, Dad stopped formally teaching, recognizing his limits with online instruction. Yet he never truly hung up his professor’s hat, remaining connected with students who often came by the house to visit. There are still students on campus today who have benefited from his tutelage. One even asked him for a recommendation letter this past fall.

Dad often said it was an honor to teach students, and this was most pronounced when he spoke of teaching in the Grinnell Liberal Arts in Prison Program. He loved these students deeply, celebrating their humanity, curiosity, and intellect. He kept up with alumni from these classes, even traveling with several of them to showcase the program at regional alumni events. One of the most meaningful conversations Dad had in his last days was with a student from this program who called to explain the incredible impact George Drake had on him. Dad was having difficulty speaking, but, at the end of that call, he told his student, “I’m listening.”

George wearing academic dress, arm in arm with Hannah who wears a robe and mortar board George delighted granddaughter Hannah when he made a surprise appearance to present her diploma at the 2018 Commencement ceremony.

In 2019, at age 84, my father authored a biography aptly titled Mentor about the legacy of Joe Rosenfield 1925, who committed much of his life to the college he loved so well. I had the unique privilege of observing Dad’s research and writing process. It energized him to delve into the story of this beloved man he had known and respected. I loved reading his early manuscripts and hearing the stories that didn’t make it into the book. A historian at heart with a great passion for Grinnell College, Dad was overjoyed to explore both interests in a book that also gave tribute to someone he admired.

Recently, my family rediscovered a recording of Dad teaching a Mayflower Community “bucket course” about Joe at the town’s Drake Community Library. I relished watching his lively storytelling of Joe’s deep and rich contributions to Grinnell. Anyone who had the pleasure of being taught by my father knows that he did not simply lecture. He engaged students, often knowing enough about them that he made personal connections to the subject at hand. By linking history to the present day, he brought relevancy to the topic while peppering it all with a healthy dose of humor.

Dad started the bucket course by reading the foreword, penned by Joe’s lifelong friend, Warren Buffett, who served on the College’s Board of Trustees with Joe. Listening to Dad read Buffett’s words describing Joe as “wise, humorous, generous, friendly, public-spirited” struck a chord. These are words often associated with my dad. Later, in the foreword, Buffett states, “Joe loved the Grinnell students as he loved the members of his own family.” This, too, parallels how my father connected with students. Growing up, we often had students at our dinner table, and some even stayed with us during College breaks, quickly becoming an extension of our family. Buffett ends by describing Mentor as “a story that could not have been written without a lifetime love affair between Joe Rosenfield and Grinnell College.” Similarly, this deep love of the College is embodied in the life of George Drake. As Dad states in his own memoir, Seventy Years in Academe, “I was very lucky in my choice of Grinnell and in Grinnell’s choice of me … I am a Grinnell College junkie.”

7 team members in matching track suits and an older man in a light colored suit Cross country team photo taken just before George broke a course record in 1953 (George, far left).

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?


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 background Monty 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.

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

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.

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

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.

Anne Harris and Angela VoosAnd 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.

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.

Commencement audience on beautiful sunny 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.

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.

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

Anne Harris and her family on inauguration dayAnd 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.

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

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