Rising High

Erin Whalen’s pursuit of educational equity drives the high energy and enthusiasm he brings to his work each day as assistant principal at RISE High, a project-based charter high school in Los Angeles.  Whalen ’12 realized that as a black, Hispanic, indigenous male, his educational experience was a rarity; and he became passionate about creating experiences for other youth in marginalized communities. 

Whalen attended a progressive pre-K–9 school in his native LA before graduating from Santa Monica’s New Roads High School. A Posse Scholar at Grinnell, he graduated with a degree in anthropology and joined Teach for America to teach middle school English in Miami before returning home to teach in a charter school in Los Angeles. 

These experiences, plus off-campus study in Cape Town, South Africa, confirmed Whalen’s stated desire to work for those who seek educational equity and justice.  

RISE, which stands for Revolutionary Individual Student Experience, was designed to meet the needs of students who have experienced housing instability or foster care, or for students who have found that the traditional school model simply didn’t meet their needs. Students come to RISE through referrals from social service agencies and community partnerships. 

“These are kids who often miss school to go to court or to meet with their social worker. RISE High meets students where they are, bringing educational equity and justice to them, with resources available on site,” Whalen explains.

RISE High has two sites, one in south-central Los Angeles located with social service agency A Place Called Home, which is, Whalen says, “aligned in mindset and ability to engage with students. Small environments are important to kids who have been through trauma and need to feel safe.”  

Last year’s pilot served 30 students, and this year there are48 students at the south-central LA location (which has capacity for 120) and 43 at the Hawthorne, Calif., location (with capacity for 50).  Both locations use in-person learning and online learning platforms to allow students to engage in real-world projects and gain credit for their life experiences.

“Given the hardships many of our students face with transiency and instability, we often find their credits are not an adequate marker of their preparedness for college or the workforce. There are no grades at RISE. We focus not on their seat time, but on chapters through life by building portfolios of their work from jobs, internships, and employable skill sets so they can thrive independently,” Whalen says. 

Funding for RISE High, part of the DaVinci Schools Partnership charter schools network, was provided by a $10 million grant from the XQ Institute, funded by the widow of Apple founder Steve Jobs. Whalen and Kari Croft, who is now principal at RISE High, became aware of the XQ Institute while associated with Teach for America. They talked to students in the foster care system and those experiencing housing instability about what school environment they needed to best support them and together with teachers, administrators, and industry partners, wrote the grant and charter petition to secure the $10 million grant that provides startup funding for RISE High, which could eventually serve 500 students. 

“The XQ grant was an intense competition and receiving the award was a huge dream. We based the proposal on what the students told us they needed to be successful. The XQ grant provides a launch point to respond to those needs,” Whalen says.

Erin Whalen ’12 working at a computer

Rising year-round  

Classes started Aug. 17 at the year-round school — year-round, Whalen says, because “these students need stability and services year-round, not just eight months of the year. 

“Our biggest challenge is tracking down our students’ transcripts and records. The larger educational system hasn’t done a good job of tracking and crediting transient youth. Many have the skills but are consistently put in the same classes year after year because they don’t meet the required ‘seat time.’ At RISE, we focus on mastery as a marker of success, not seat time.”

At the same time, the biggest reward, he says, is seeing the students from last year’s pilot return and rally around each other and help new students. “The more students take over, the better. The environment I’m trying to create is having productive conversations in the classroom about issues on campus and around the world. That’s what I saw modeled at Grinnell, and I want our students to have those experiences.”

There is no typical day at RISE High, given the students’ many background challenges. With flexible scheduling, students are offered a wide variety of electives, from IndepenDance taught by Whalen to life skills and social awareness taught by a student. Students are also part of an advisory family where they process challenges and build social and emotional competencies.

Grinnell principles at RISE

What resonates with the Grinnellian most at RISE High is that “students create the culture and curriculum; students are the voice for other students; that’s self-gov,” he recalls of his own campus experience. At Grinnell, Whalen helped start IndepenDance, a hip-hop dance group, and was a member of the Student Organization for Latinos/Latinas (SOL), monitor at the Black Cultural Center, and Posse liaison and summer intern.

“My strongest experience at Grinnell was the First-Year Tutorial. Here was a kid from LA trying to assimilate to Grinnell, and to have the one-on-one tutorial environment was exceptional. We became consistent friends similar to a Posse. 

“I came to Grinnell as a biology major and had also thought about law school for social justice issues. Then I fell in love with anthropology. Working with Professor of Anthropology Katya Gibel Mevorach was outstanding. Through cultural anthropology, we studied how we ignore equity; and it allowed me to look at different perspectives that I now use to create an engaging environment for RISE students,” Whalen says. As assistant principal, he is responsible for curriculum development and student culture.

Whalen himself plans a return to the classroom to begin work on an eventual doctoral program in educational leadership, “to continue to fight for educational equity at the district or national level.”   

Proof is in the students

Erin Whalen ’12 talking with a studentThe proof of concept for RISE High will be in the students’ successes, says Erin Whalen ’12.

“Given that we seek to serve students whom the traditional system has not served well, we often receive students who are older. We often find that regardless of their mastery of essential skills, their credits are not an adequate marker of their preparedness for college or the work force. We don’t actually use the terminology of grade levels in our community. We speak about a student’s progression through high school in terms of chapters through life. Chapter 1 being furthest from graduation with particular attention on foundational skills and Chapter 3 being closest to graduation with focus on college pathways or work preparedness.”

These students say Erin and RISE High are already making a difference in their lives. (No last names are used since the students are minors.)

 “Erin has assisted my transition to high school by providing me with the materials and opportunities I need to become the man I wish to be and by pushing me to the platform I need to satisfy my ambitions. He is very dedicated to all those around him and is always finding new ways to provide success to his peers and himself,” says Hiram, whose ambition is to become “the next black leader.”

Aracely, who attended RISE last year and is now a junior, says RISE “offers me a voice to speak my mind with no judgment from my peers. 

“Ever since I met Erin, he’s been nothing but supportive of me. Erin helps my problems inside and outside of school, giving me emotional stability and supporting my interest beyond high school in psychology.”   

Truth Detector

The defendant said it was self-defense. The prosecution called it murder. And former homicide detective-turned-private investigator (PI) Todd Troutner ’89 got the phone call, asking him to figure out what really happened. 

“My client was just arrested. You need to come up to the jail and take pictures to document any evidence that he was in a fight,” explained the criminal defense attorney. “Look for bruising and scratches.”

It was May 2012, and the case was Troutner’s first murder investigation as a PI. He’d worked dozens of violent crimes as a cop in Prince William County, Va., so he was thrilled to be back in the game. Troutner got in his car, drove to the Montgomery County Correctional Facility and began what turned into a seven-month quest to determine if the defendant, a 51-year-old Army veteran and security guard, had murdered his 23-year-old son. 

In his five years as a private investigator, admits Troutner, “It’s my favorite case, but it was a horrible situation.” Hired by the defense to see if the man’s claim of self-defense was true, he started with a jailhouse interview of the father and then watched the initial videotaped interview by the police. Finally, he went to the crime scene — an opportunity not every jurisdiction grants to private investigators. 

In this case, it was critical that Troutner examine the apartment where the shooting took place. He walked around and reinvestigated as if he were both evidence technician and cop, taking photos and measurements. “As I’m going through, I already knew the story so I had to make sure it made sense,” he says. He spotted a phone that was ripped out of the wall, for example, that matched the report. The prosecution’s theory was that the son was standing by a door at one end of a hallway when Dad deliberately took aim and shot him. Blood by that particular door and nearby carpet and tile supported that theory. 

But Troutner noticed blood farther down the hall, closer to where dad was standing when he pulled the trigger, which wasn’t mentioned in the blood pattern analyst’s report. That blood supported the defense’s claim that the son was shot when he charged at his father after threatening to kill him, a theory that police and prosecutors had dismissed. In fact, said defense attorney Steve Kupferberg, the father had been beaten and choked and grabbed his gun “as a last resort.” In the end, the verdict was not guilty. 

Kupferberg, who specializes in criminal defense and frequently works with Troutner, had been impressed with Troutner’s skills on a previous case, back when he was a cop. “I told Todd that if he ever got done with the police department he should speak to me about being our investigator. As far as I’m concerned, he’s the best in the business in the [Washington, D.C.] metropolitan area.” 

Todd Troutner ’89


A one-man show

People often think of the private investigator as the guy who follows cheating spouses; and there’s a segment of the industry that’s very good at that and works in teams, with cameras, recording devices, and other equipment. Troutner, however, operates alone and refers cases like that to other investigators. His main area is criminal defense work, from homicide and kidnappings to shootings and assaults, and civil cases, such as car crashes and work-site accidents. 

Troutner likes to say he reinvestigates cases, searching for witnesses or evidence that might have been missed, video footage that wasn’t looked at, and statements in police and other reports that, in his experience as a former homicide investigator, don’t add up. 

 “I tell people I’m a fact investigator,” says the soft-spoken Troutner. “I work for the defense attorney but I’m not taking sides. When I investigate I look at all the facts, not just the ones that support our case. You need to give the attorney all of the information so they can make good choices for the client.” 

The investigative process usually starts with a phone call from an attorney. Troutner gathers all the discovery the defense has — transcripts, photos, reports, recordings, affidavits — and comes up with his own plan for investigating the case. He often creates a to-do list for attorneys: Issue subpoenas for particular documents, send out a preservation letter to a store to keep a security video, get cell phone records, interview particular people.  

In other cases, he’ll mainly focus on paperwork. “I have a murder case right now with well over 2,000 pages of police reports, forensics, and transcripts,” says Troutner, who is licensed to work in Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. “You have to be able to digest documents and pick out what’s important and what’s missing, and you need to present the findings of your investigation in a written report to a client — usually an attorney — in a way that makes sense.” He’ll see what questions weren’t asked and who was or wasn’t talked to; he’ll corroborate statements and follow up alibis that weren’t pursued. “I know what an investigation is supposed to look like and include; and if police and other official reports don’t have certain things, or they cut corners or made leaps of faith, or got tunnel vision and focused on just one guy, I look into it.” 

There are good private investigators who haven’t been cops, he says, “but it’s a huge advantage when you’ve been one. You can read case files and see if it’s a good investigation.”

The best defense: A good PI

To Troutner, a private investigator is an essential part of an effective defense, yet “it’s a minute percentage of defendants that get one, so there are people going to trial without the best defense.” Many clients can’t afford a PI, or the court won’t appoint one, even if it’s an option. In some jurisdictions, he says, the prosecution isn’t required to hand the case file over to the defense — yet another critical reason for a good PI.  

Sometimes, however, Troutner finds that witnesses aren’t wavering, or they corroborate official reports. In that case, the attorney may go back to his client with the findings and say, “We can take this to trial but you’re going to lose.” At other times, Troutner’s work has persuaded prosecutors to drop charges.

“I really appreciate talented investigators, and Todd brings together a remarkable series of skills,” says Fairfax, Va., trial lawyer Peter Everett. “He’s really smart and a strategic thinker. He comes back and says, ‘What about this angle, or that theory?’ It’s so far beyond what most people do that it really stands out.” Plus, says Everett, Troutner is good at establishing a rapport. “You often get people who say they don’t want to talk. He connects with witnesses, and that’s really important.” 

The investigative approach he uses in civil cases is similar; a typical case is a car crash where Troutner is working for the injured party’s attorney. If the client says she suffered traumatic brain injury, Troutner asks witnesses how the injured party was acting; was she conscious, coherent, were there any obvious injuries? “You try to jog the witnesses’ memory,” he says. In other cases, he’ll look for traffic cameras or drive the route with a GoPro camera on the hood of his car to determine if a driver had an obstructed or clear view at an accident site. And he’ll review the accident report to see if something doesn’t make sense. “Some attorneys don’t realize that in addition to a report, it’s also important to get records of 911 calls from witnesses. I just had a case where I had to remind an attorney to get those.”  

Becoming Detective Troutner

Todd Troutner ’89 with flash lightPrivate investigator is Troutner’s third career (so far), though it follows in a logical chain. The self-described Navy brat was born in Guam, grew up in Rockville, Md., and attended high schools in Hawaii and Washington, D.C. With both parents originally from Marshalltown, Iowa, the family spent nearly every summer in Iowa. “On one of those summer trips I toured Grinnell, and I liked the feel of the campus and said, ‘I’ll go there.’”

After graduating with a political science degree, he moved to Washington, D.C. (at the time his dad was a police officer on a nearby naval base), to consider law school and work in politics. He ended up as a lobbyist for several large law firms, covering issues from transportation to international trade and software, and meeting with congressional staff and bureaucrats. “I was having a lot of fun in D.C., but after a while it started to be like Groundhog Day — the same legislation and the same hearings every two years. After doing that four or five times, I decided I couldn’t do it again and again.” 

No longer interested in law school, he decided it was time for something different. “I think my dad set a really amazing example of living a life of service, first with his [27-year] career in the military and then transitioning to police work — and demonstrating that money should not be the determining factor when deciding on what sort of job you’re going to take,” Troutner says. He knew there would be exciting aspects of police work, “but that’s not why I took a $15,000 pay cut while my wife was pregnant with our first child,” he explains. “I wanted to help and protect people. And my ultimate goal was to be a homicide detective, where I would be challenged to solve the most serious cases.”

From April 1999 to April 2011, Troutner was a member of the Prince William County Police Department. “I loved it,” he says. Troutner spent six years in patrol, then went into major crimes (property and white-collar crimes) for six months. After that he was assigned to the Violent Crimes Unit (VCU); and for four years he worked on robberies, rapes, murders, and other death investigations. 

“A lot of people don’t want to go to VCU because you’re on call and it’s disruptive to your personal life,” he says, but Troutner thrived. “I enjoyed it on a bunch of levels, especially the investigation part. You get to a scene and you have to figure out what happened. You talk to officers who are there first, you ask for witnesses, you canvass the area; you’re pretty much in charge because oftentimes it’s at night, so you’re relied on to take care of the scene. You could catch guys who were hurting people. You could come into someone’s life who was having the worst experience possible and be a steadying presence.” He spent time studying case law and the latest legal decisions, because “part of your responsibility isn’t just catching the bad guy, but doing it in a legally correct way so you don’t get the case tossed out.” 

However, the immense amount of overtime required to work violent crimes (the equivalent of three to four months a year) was leading to burnout, and Troutner returned to patrol, which after years of homicide investigations wasn’t that satisfying. “When you’re young every call is exciting, but at that point, I didn’t care about arresting people for weed anymore. It seemed like a total waste of time,” he admits. “It was the same types of calls all the time — domestics, car crashes. I was basically driving around 10 hours a night looking for drunks.” 

It was time to move on. He took a few months to think and decided he most liked the investigative aspects of being with the police. He put the word out and was hired by several law firms that had been impressed with his work as a cop; as time went on, Troutner’s PI business, Broadside Investigative Group, blossomed. 

Today, out of his Fairfax office, a white board charts the one to two dozen cases at a time that he works on. When phone calls come in, Troutner glances at the board to remind himself which case the call is connected to and what information he needs. In his mild Virginia accent, he’ll explain that he’s a former homicide detective, now a private investigator, looking into a case. 

Being a private investigator is incredibly rewarding, says Troutner. “The thought of an innocent person going to prison is horrifying to me, which is why I believe so passionately that the accused be provided the resources to present the best defense possible. I’ve learned that it’s much more satisfying keeping people out of jail than putting them in.” 

Taking a Chance on Me

When the recession hit in 2008, Rishi Misra ’01 parted ways with Deloitte, a large corporate consulting firm that had employed him for almost five years. This was a gamble not only because he had to find employment, but because the India native also had to restart the green card application process from scratch. If he couldn’t find a company that could sponsor his green card application, he’d have to leave the United States and possibly never return. Time was running out. 

In 2009 he landed a job with a startup in San Francisco that hired a small immigration law firm to help. Eight months later Misra had a number in the green card line, but by then the line wasn’t moving.

“It’s important to understand why that happens,” Misra says. “It’s because, in the year 1990, which is when the high-skilled immigration system was last updated, there weren’t that many Indian and Chinese nationals walking around with graduate degrees and five years of U.S. work experience. [In] 2013 or 2017, they’re all over the place. So, the lines for that category, and those countries in particular, are going to be incredibly long. Which is why someone who had come from Pakistan, or Sri Lanka, or Bangladesh at the same time I did, or applied the same time I did, would have been done well before I was done.”

Having to start the green card process over again made him think even more about how the U.S. immigration system could be improved. “Initially I thought there shouldn’t be per-country limits in the employment-based system,” he says, “because I felt like I was being judged based on where I was born.”

He sent a PowerPoint proposal to U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s (D-Calif.) office in California, and her staff invited him to come and present it. “I said, ‘Here’s the issue. I’ve been in the country for over 14 years and in this process for [5-plus years]. It doesn’t seem like this line’s going anywhere. Why am I being judged on my country of birth and not my contributions?’”

Feinstein’s staff told him that if you remove per-country limits, people from less populous countries won’t get a chance in the employment-based system because India and China would dominate the whole quota. Misra thought that was fair.

“One of the things I value about the United States is diversity of national origin,” he says. “I think that’s important for this country to keep, for its long-term competitiveness, for attractiveness to other countries, or other immigrants, really.”

So he wondered what else could be done to fix the employment-based immigration system. “The answer to me was quite fundamental. Why not just raise the bar so that these lines don’t get that long?” 

Intent on sharing his views about how to fix the system, in 2013 Misra started attending meetings held by FWD.us, a political advocacy group founded by Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and Reid Hoffman — the Who’s Who of tech — to modernize the immigration system and keep the United States competitive.

They invited him to speak on panels and meet with members of Congress. Misra was also invited twice to meet with the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy. “They sought my opinion on what could be done to streamline the high-skilled system,” Misra says, “and also what could be done to attract foreign entrepreneurs to build companies and create jobs here in the United States.”

Meanwhile Misra was still stuck in the green card line. So in 2016, he decided to apply for the “alien of extraordinary ability” category, an EB1 visa. 

This is the fastest line and has tougher criteria to qualify. Some of the 10 criteria are reserved for artists, entertainers, and athletes. Misra applied for five criteria, including making original contributions of major significance to his field. 

“I think that’s a great thing because it doesn’t measure me on contributions to any single company but measures me on contributions to my field, which in a sense are my contributions to the United States,” he says. “I had to have people that I didn’t even know vouch for the fact that the work I had done, in building a company and creating jobs, among other accomplishments, were of major significance. It had to be completely objective and unbiased,” he says. He had to meet three of the 10 criteria to qualify and thinks he got four. 

In October 2016, Misra was granted a green card and looks forward to becoming a U.S. citizen by 2021. 

Challenges of the H-1B visa 

Unlike the EB1 visa that Rishi Misra qualified for based on his individual accomplishments, the H-1B is employer-based. Companies in the United States apply for these visas on behalf of workers they want to hire because they have specialized knowledge, typically in science, engineering, or information technology, and a bachelor’s degree or its equivalent. 

Misra worked on an H-1B visa for 12 years because his first employer didn’t follow the green card application process as well as it might have. They parted ways and he had to find another employer who could start the process over. 

Misra says, “The high-skilled visa is pretty controversial. One of the issues with that visa is the quota is limited to 65,000, and then another 20,000 for people with U.S. graduate degrees. Most of that quota is taken up by a handful of companies, and when you look at who those companies are, all those companies have outsourcing as a significant business component and revenue source.

“So when I looked at that, I was like, ‘Why are we giving most of the visas to companies that are taking jobs overseas? And these entrepreneurs, who could potentially create jobs in the United States, why are we depriving them of visas?’ I think that part of the system needs to be reformed as well.”

Focus on Biomedical Engineering 

Rishi Misra ’01 was very good at physics in high school, so when his high school physics teacher told him to apply to Grinnell, he did. He was also interested in engineering, so he pursued a 3-2 program in biomedical engineering at Washington University in St. Louis, transferring after his third year at Grinnell. He earned his B.A. in physics from Grinnell, a B.S. in biomedical engineering at Washington, and then an M.B.A there too. 

One reason Misra wanted to stay in the United States was to do something innovative in biomedical engineering, which he couldn’t do back home in India. Bangalore has since become India’s version of Silicon Valley, but when Misra was looking for work in 2003, it wasn’t yet.

Misra has worked for a handful of companies, always seeking new opportunities to challenge himself. He’s passionate about preventive medicine. For the past four years, he worked on “this pretty innovative product that takes data from a patient's medical record, plugs it into a very sophisticated mathematical model, and predicts their risk of chronic conditions — like heart attack, stroke, diabetes, things like that — and helps doctors work with those patients to reduce that risk.”

In June he took a new job with a startup funded by Boston Consulting Group’s Digital Ventures arm and the American College of Cardiology. He says they’re “doing very cool things with data, measured by a noninvasive device that’s just kept under someone’s bed. It takes data from a patient’s heart to again try and predict when something bad is going to happen and prevent that from happening. Because when a patient has that first event, their life changes, and we want to make sure that first event’s avoided.”


Cheers to 50 Years

Developing a magazine is not accomplished overnight. Or even in a year — especially in the midst of many other projects, like news releases and student recruiting brochures and an existing alumni newspaper. Nine years before The Grinnell Magazine debuted in the winter of 1967–68, Ruth VanBuren Prescott proposed that the College publish a magazine.

Prescott, an Iowa native and Cornell College alumna, came to Grinnell in 1944 after several years as a newspaper reporter and editor in Bangor, Maine. At Grinnell she served as editor of the Alumni Scarlet & Black (AS&B), a four-to-eight-page newspaper published for alumni six times a year. It was one of her many responsibilities in the College’s information services office.

In 1958 Prescott proposed to Grinnell’s Alumni Association Board of Directors (precursor to today’s Alumni Council) that the College stop publishing its newspaper and start publishing a magazine. It’s not clear if Prescott made the proposal on her own initiative or if she was asked to by someone else, such as then-President Howard Bowen

During her presentation to the alumni board, Prescott showed several magazines published by colleges similar in size to Grinnell to demonstrate the “attractiveness of the cover design, the quality of content and readability, and the eye appeal of this format.” About half the alumni board members liked the idea. The other half thought the newspaper was fine. “No formal action was taken,” according to the board minutes.

A few years later, in 1962, Prescott presented a paper, “For Alumni: Magazine or Newspaper — Which or Both?”, at a conference of college and university communications professionals. “A newspaper has seemed right to Grinnell since 1940, when it was started as a replacement for a rather sorry magazine-type periodical,” she told the audience. She thought it was “better to have a good newspaper than a poor magazine.” 

Magazines that “are the badly conceived, badly edited, badly printed results of the we-must-have-a-magazine-because-it’s-the-thing-to-do trend” especially irked her. She disdained “intellectual content” that was inappropriate for the institution and the alumni audience at the expense of material better suited to the “primary editorial purpose.” And fancy typography and design? “The editor had better be sure that his design serves a functional purpose for his readers, that it is not merely distractive instead of attractive,” she said. 

“One of these days,” Prescott mused, “I suspect we will start a magazine — and drop the newspaper. But when we do, I hope we will be sure of these basics: a frequency of at least six issues a year; enough pages in each issue to make the book worth picking up; smart, simple design; an editor of extraordinary competence and few other responsibilities; and, of course, enough money to do a proper job. Above all, it should be Grinnell’s, not an imitation of anybody or anything, and certainly not an attempt to compete with the Atlantic Monthly or the Saturday Evening Post or Life. We would hope to continue doing what we try to do with our newspaper, to give our alumni what we uniquely can give — information, interpretation, communication, even rapport — the true reflection of their college.”

By all accounts Prescott was a strong-willed, feisty woman (a retired Grinnell administrator who knew her well describes her as a “hard-ass”). She wanted Grinnell College to publish the best periodical it could afford. In 1966, she wrote a memo to then-President Glenn Leggett listing three things that a “first-class” magazine requires:

  • Money for art, photography, and distribution costs, in addition to staff salaries
  • Time for preliminary planning (“perhaps as much as a year”) and the “permanent equivalent of at least a half-time person”
  • Editorial expertise 

About editorial expertise, Prescott continued, “The present AS&B editor and her colleagues do not feel qualified to assume full magazine responsibility without a sizable amount of additional technical training, nor is the present staff large enough to absorb the considerable extra work a magazine would entail.”

Why did an editor with 25-plus years of experience — not only in newspapers but other college publications as well — not feel qualified to edit a magazine? And what did she think when someone without professional editorial experience got the job? One can only surmise. Prescott was a whiskey drinker, so perhaps she knocked back a few after work and got on with things. 

Although she didn’t have the head job on the new magazine, Prescott’s role as managing editor was instrumental. She used her expertise in copyediting and print production in an era when pages were literally pasted up. 

The magazine’s inaugural editor, Dean of Men S. Eugene Thompson ’58 (deceased), bade adieu to Grinnell in 1968 after editing three issues. He left to take a similar position with Whitman College in Washington state. He wrote to Prescott, “I’m having a delightful time, though doing everything single-handedly, including design (liberally and unashamedly borrowing Quirk’s ideas), and learning fast.” He shared a copy of his new Whitman magazine. It looked remarkably like The Grinnell Magazine, from the typography to the spot color to the paper stock.

Prescott was livid. Grinnell had paid John Quirk — Grinnell’s freelance design consultant — several thousand dollars for his work. She wrote to Thompson, “I fear you have just made history in the field of alumni publishing. But not in a way of which you will have reason to be proud. I — as well as numerous others here and our designer and our printer away from here — am completely appalled at your unethical and unprofessional theft of the total design and format of The Grinnell Magazine for your first issue. … I can only suppose that you must have been ignorant of the nicety that this sort of thing is just not done, but it is still inexcusable on any basis.” 

One can imagine the profound embarrassment Thompson must have felt on receiving Prescott’s letter. He’d accepted the part-time role of magazine editor on top of his responsibilities as dean of men at Grinnell, likely a challenging job by itself in the late 1960s. Before that he’d been a high school teacher. The editing bug must have bitten Thompson, however, because he spent the rest of his career working in college communications.

Prescott worked with three other editors before retiring from her job as associate director of college relations. She helped hire her own replacement, Gayle Burdick, who recalls the job interview. 

“Ruth asked if I was married or single,” Burdick says. “I told her, ‘You know, Ruth, it’s none of your damn business. If you really need that information for me to work here, I don’t want to work here.’  That’s when Ruth knew I had a spine and could handle the job.” Burdick laughs. “She told me how to do the rest of the interviews.”  

They worked together for a short period before Prescott’s retirement in 1978. “She basically made it possible [for me] to do the job,” Burdick says. “She was a force.” 

Our Gift to You

Reveal a map by Kevin Cannon ’02, in celebration of 50 great years. 

When Work Doesn’t Work as Well as It Could or Should

If you’re like the majority of Americans, you’re probably not too thrilled with your 9-to-5 grind. (That may start with the fact that your 9-to-5 grind is actually closer to an 8-to-6 — or even 24/7 — grind.) 

According to a 2014 survey by the nonprofit research group Conference Board, a full 52.3 percent of us are unsatisfied with our jobs. 

And that dissatisfaction extends even to Grinnell alumni — smart and driven people who might otherwise seem to have every advantage in the workplace today.

So what’s going on, and how can we fix it? In this story, we talked to Grinnellians who are zeroing in on the problems of, and the solutions for, today’s working world. 

Cartoon showing two women in a cubicle trying to have a private conversation but several others are leaning over the cube walls to listen

Open office or closed doors?

Office design can help or hinder our work. Paula Briggs Fracasso ’89 shares ways to understand your office space’s strengths and overcome its weaknesses.

The freewheeling atmosphere of Silicon Valley startups hasn’t just led to billion-dollar behemoths like Uber and Airbnb; it’s also influenced office design from coast to coast.

These days, office designers everywhere are taking their cues from fast-growing tech companies. You’re probably familiar with the look, and you might spend your weekdays in something just like it: Such offices favor wide-open spaces over individual offices with actual doors, polished concrete over industrial-strength carpet, and incandescent bulbs over headache-inducing fluorescent lighting.

Unfortunately, the covetable look doesn’t necessarily translate to productivity or employee satisfaction, says Fracasso, an executive coach. “I’ve worked with people at Fortune 500 companies who make well over six figures a year who admit that the only place they can have private conversations is in the parking lot,” she says.

Yet buttoned-up workplaces where every office has a door, and maybe even a lock, might not be much better. After all, such layouts likely speak volumes about the office’s interest in collaboration and camaraderie.

In the end, Fracasso says, great design focuses on how people in the company actually work best — and translates that into spaces that work. In general, that means a more thoughtful mix between public and private spaces. “It never makes sense to design an office based solely on what looks cool in a magazine,” she says. 

Take action: Stuck in one office-design extreme or the other? There are always workarounds. Fracasso offers two:

  1. For open spaces, “library rules” for the first couple hours of the day can help people stay focused on deep work.
  2. Remote offices can get a boost with “virtual social hours” that promote interaction even among faraway colleagues. “Office design has a huge impact on company culture,” she says. “The goal is to inject a little bit of humanity in these environments.”

Cartoon of a stressed out guy staying late at work, eating junk food, and reading "How to Get an Edge at work"

When knowledge isn’t power

Our own terrible habits may be to blame for our bad attitude and poor performance at work, says Billy Strean ’86. What does it take to change them?

Speaker and performance coach Strean often works with high-level executives who are desperate to get an edge in their work — but all too often, he says, they’re looking in the wrong place. “People are willing to do so many sophisticated and expensive things to perform at a higher level, but they might not be doing the fundamental things that would help them: sleeping, eating well, drinking water, getting exercise,” he says. “They’re trying to build a house on a really shaky foundation.”

This might sound like old news. After all, most of us understand that we shouldn’t be binge-watching Orange Is the New Black until 2 a.m., and few of us feel great about the fast-food lunches we eat at our desks. Even Strean admits he’s guilty. “When I work in front of a 27-inch computer screen right before bed — I might as well be sitting in front of the sun. Should I really be surprised that I can’t go to sleep an hour later?” he jokes.

Your brain is sabotaging you: Intellectually understanding that we need more sleep and more exercise won’t make us change, and reading this article might not do much for you, either. 

One thing that might make you change a habit is an emotional gut punch. “Most people don’t analyze their way to change,” says Strean, echoing the ideas of Harvard professor and consultant John Kotter, who argues that when people see something that has them feel something, then they change.

In other words, reading one more fact-packed article about the benefits of sleep won’t lead you to a good night’s sleep that will help you on the job. But seeing how much better you feel and how much more effectively you work? That might cause you to see the potency of the issue — and lead you to set aside your late-night Netflix binges for good.

Is it time to toss the organizational chart?

Strict hierarchies may be dragging all of us down, says James Jennings ’87.

As one of the world’s first management consultants in the early 20th century, Frederick Winslow Taylor offered plenty of theories about how to make workers on the factory floor more efficient. One of his biggest ideas? Divide the work up so that managers do the thinking and planning while the workers perform the tasks.

In many cases, Taylor’s principles did lead to greater productivity and — perhaps more important to company owners — bigger profits. But as more companies adopted his approaches, including many firms that didn’t focus on manufacturing, their effectiveness dwindled. Even worse, the side effects were devastating, says Jennings, founder of @1, a company that helps individuals and companies build better systems to do better work. 

“People lost a sense of ownership in the work that they were doing when they were simply told what to do,” Jennings says. “The idea, in this economy, that there are a small number of people who know what the answer is and everyone else should just do what they say is obsolete.”

You’ve probably experienced a version of this in your worst jobs. You feel like you’re little more than a cog in a machine. In the end, it might not even be good for productivity, says Jennings. “The people who are assembling understand assembly better than the people who are watching it. There’s value to the experience of doing the work.” In other words, technicians in every field have plenty of insights that their managers would be wise to heed.

Illustration of a blue ribbon that says "Good Job!"So what’s the best way forward? Jennings argues that giving workers at every level more agency and discretion in their work can make a big difference not only in worker happiness but also in the progress of an organization.

Such approaches have already been proven in some organizations. Online retailer Zappos, for instance, famously tossed the word-for-word scripts that are typically used in customer service calls so that that employees could use their creativity and empathy to solve callers’ problems. 

Jennings, too, saw benefits to this approach. Years ago, while working as a manager at Keurig, he called meetings with his entire team — from sales to accounts receivable to delivery — and found that some profitable but unpleasant clients were bringing everyone in the division down. “When people on the team started talking to one another, they realized that certain clients were horrible to everyone — demanding discounts from sales people and leaving customer service reps in tears,” he says.

Together, they came up with the solution to drop the most disagreeable clients, even if it meant lost revenue. “And it turned out when people didn’t dread those parts of their job, they did better,” he says. “We ended up improving customer satisfaction, employee satisfaction, and growth rate.”

The point, says Jennings, is that he wasn’t a hero. The collaboration his team did, and the authority they all had to make good decisions, drove the team to success in the way Jennings couldn’t have done on his own. “It’s important to build a culture that allows for more discretion in decision-making,” he says. “It’s time to start democratizing information and power.”

What to ask before you take that new job

The answers could determine how satisfied you’ll be in the new role.

Job interviews are a two-way street. Just as employers want to get a good sense of a candidate through good questions, candidates should be doing some tire-kicking of their own. Because companies are well-versed in putting their best foot forward as they describe the work, the perks, and the growth opportunities of a given position, candidates should be asking questions to uncover the deeper truths of an organization to see if it will truly be a good match.

Alison Hayes ’87, who has worked with James Jennings at @1 and has long been interested in what makes a company good for employees, suggests a few questions that can provide needed insight for a job candidate:

Q. How is great work recognized? 

A. A Starbucks gift card or a superficial “good job” from the boss? “Ask people to describe a time they did work they were really proud of and how that was recognized,” says Hayes. “‘It meant a lot to me when my boss …’ is a good sign.”

Q. What does feedback look like? 

A. It should go beyond annual reviews. “You don’t want someone who tells you once every 12 months if you get a thumbs up or thumbs down,” she says. “You want to know if you’re on the right track so you can proceed confidently or adjust in the moment — not six months after the fact.”

Q. How much time do employees spend using their best skills? 

A. Anyone who says 100 percent is lying — even the best jobs have crummy parts — but the ratio should be something you’re comfortable with. “If people say 80 percent of their work is administrative and they spend just 20 percent doing the work they’re excited about, that’s a red flag,” she says.

Q. Can employees safely challenge themselves? 

A. You’ll want to be confident not only that you’ll have a chance to take on projects that stretch your skills, but also that your boss and company will have your back even if your best efforts fail. “You want to know that if you push yourself hard and take risks, you won’t be cut loose if you occasionally fall down,” she says.

Why the “just a job” mindset can be devastating

Indifference about your work is likely to have consequences that spill into your off-hours.

Plenty of people are working for the weekend. Clocking in and clocking out is just a way to pay the bills, not part of a larger sense of identity. 

But could that “just a job” mentality have troubling consequences? Jim Asplund ’88, chief scientist of strengths development for Gallup, says that research done by his firm suggests that a job we don’t love could have a powerful effect on our stress levels and overall happiness. Here’s how:

Twenty-one percent of all Americans say they use their strengths to do what they do best for fewer than three hours per day. They are far more likely than those who use their strengths four or more hours per day to report that they are experiencing worry, stress, anger, sadness, and pain.

Asplund says, “We thrive when we’re doing things we’re inclined to do anyway. Even if we know we can do things that come a little less naturally to us, [this work is] less likely to energize us and allow us to do the kind of work that makes it feel like time is passing quickly.”

The more hours per day that adults believe they use their strengths, the more likely they are to report having ample energy, feeling well-rested, being happy, smiling or laughing a lot, learning something interesting, and being treated with respect. 

“Not only are you more productive when you’re working in your areas of strength,” Asplund says, “you’re happier, too.”

Cartoon of a big dude with flower tattoos working at a burger joint and gazing longingly out his window at a florist truck

Make your current job your dream job

We may all fantasize about a dream job where we know we’d flourish, but the reality is that many of us are tied to the one we’ve got. Maybe we’ve got loans to pay off or nearby family who’d be devastated if we left. Maybe the job we’ve got is actually pretty good, once we consider the alternatives.

Even if you’re not planning to jump ship to a new job, there are steps you can take today to feel happier and more purposeful in your work, says Mark Henry ’05, global talent development manager for Aon Corp. “Employees should be able to find new challenges and experiences at work that make them feel fulfilled,” he says, “especially Grinnellians, who are curious about the world and like to think a little bit bigger about things.”

1. Start with a positive attitude. 

Incompetent bosses and lazy co-workers are infuriating, but griping about every last detail of your day-to-day tasks won’t endear you to the people who can help you most. “You can’t let your inner kindergartner come out,” says Henry. 

2. Find ways to eliminate the tasks that bog you down. 

Start with an accounting of your daily activities, tiny details included. If there are projects that you find particularly draining, think creatively about how you might get them off your plate. “You might find that there are ways to streamline certain processes, hand them off to people who like them or are more equipped to deal with them, or remove processes altogether,” says Henry. With the right positioning, you can show how replacing the tasks you loathe with ones you love will lead you to do better, more high-value work that will benefit your organization. 

3. Dig deep on your interests.

There are an almost infinite number of self-assessments that you can take, but you can start simply by paying attention: When do you find yourself so engaged that you lose track of time? If you feel those moments don’t exist for you in your current job, a co-worker or friend can help. “Ask people around you when they have observed you at your best, or when they see you truly light up,” says Henry. “They can often see things about you that you can’t see yourself.”

4. Connect your interests to the company’s or boss’s goals.

Does your list of strengths connect up with some larger company objective? Can you make the case that the things you want to pursue in greater depth will lead to higher profits, improved product quality, or faster response times? Such results will likely be music to your boss’s ears. “Move away from simply saying ‘I want this, I want that,’” says Henry. “Figure out a way to make your passion something that your company can’t afford to be without.”

5. Find your own vision. 

On a day-to-day level, it can feel like all you’re doing is sending out emails or creating PowerPoint slides, but if you can connect the daily work to something larger — whether it’s the mission of the organization or just making the lives of co-workers a little bit easier — it can lead to a sense of purpose. Just as a bricklayer who sees her work as building cathedrals instead of stacking bricks is more likely to be satisfied, finding your own purpose is likely to lead to greater work happiness. “Find your cathedral,” says Henry.


Improving Accessibility for People with Hearing Loss

Until Grinnell College installed a hearing loop in Herrick Chapel, Linda Bryant, the College’s organist, used her smartphone to turn off her hearing aids before performing so that the overtones from the organ didn’t cause unpleasant sensations in her ears. 

“I then used the phone to turn them on when people were speaking, but I heard mumbling and only understood a word here or there. That meant I was always guessing when it was time for me to play at the end of a ceremony or worship service, and hoping I got it right,” she says. “When people were speaking at the pulpit or anywhere in front of me, I could not understand what they were saying. I thought it was the way things were.”

Thanks to the work of Juliette Sterkens and the College Accessibility Committee, things aren’t that way anymore. Sterkens, a Wisconsin audiologist and the Hearing Loss Association of America’s hearing loop advocate, visited campus in the fall of 2015. She delivered a lecture on hearing loop technology and advised on where hearing loops might be installed on campus.

A hearing loop is a wire, or an array of wires, that encircles a space and connects to the sound system. The loop transmits the sound electromagnetically to the telecoil (T-coil) in a person’s hearing aid or cochlear implant. If a hearing device does not contain a T-coil, there is an option to wear earbuds connected to a “loop listener” device. Portable loops also exist, allowing the benefits of a looped room within a few feet of the box.

Installation of hearing loops is complete in parts of the Charles Benson Bear ’39 Center for Recreation and Athletics, Burling Library, Joe Rosenfield ’25 Center, Robert N. Noyce ’49 Science Center, Harris Center cinema, and Herrick Chapel. Countertop hearing loops have been installed at the P-Card office, the entrance to the Marketplace, Pioneer Bookshop, conference operations, and the Bear Center information desk.  

The College also uses portable loops for Commencement and Faulconer Gallery talks and has small ones available for checking out from the Office of Accessibility and Disability Resources and the Center for Religion, Spirituality, and Social Justice.  

Sterkens notes that people who use hearing aids hear best when they are close to the source of the speech signal when there is minimal background sound, and when they are able to see the person speaking. When the conditions are less than ideal, the user’s ability to hear is compromised. More technologically advanced hearing aids do not improve these conditions, since all microphones inside the aids have a limited effective range. When a user turns up the volume on the hearing instruments, the background noise will become louder. Hearing loops deliver sound directly to the hearing aid without the deleterious effects of distance and background noise, and the user enjoys hearing speech with great clarity. 

With a hearing loop, Sterkens says that in effect, “The microphone on the lectern becomes the microphone for the hearing aid.” Other common types of hearing technology, FM and infrared, are essentially unusable for a person with hearing aids, since they require the wearing of earbuds. Because a hearing loop connects with the telecoil in a person’s hearing aid, cochlear implant, or “loop listener” (a box with earbuds that pick up the electromagnetic waves clearly), the delivered sounds are perfectly customized to a person’s specific hearing loss every time. 

Linda Bryant sitting at the organ in Herrick Chapel

As Bryant prepared to play at a ceremony in Herrick Chapel in the fall of 2016, she removed her hearing aids, replaced them with the earbuds, and activated the loop listener box to pick up the hearing loop. The results blew her away.

“For the first time, I understood President [Raynard S.] Kington. I understood everything. The difference was magnificent. It took the uncertainty out of the situation.” She was also relieved the organ kept her out of view. “I was sitting there with tears running down my face. It was just really exciting.”

Grinnell resident J.R. Paulson shares in the excitement. A physician of 35 years, Paulson is a hearing aid user himself and attended Sterkens’ lecture on campus. “I learned a number of things that I didn’t know as a physician and had never learned in medical school.”

He is able to determine a major difference in sound quality if a room is looped or if it is not. He encourages his patients to try it for themselves. “Whether it’s our schools, churches, or business venues, every place it’s happened, it’s been remarkable.”

Advocates on campus hope that hearing loops will be installed in more locations in the future.

Hearing loops provide easy listening that is dignified and free of fuss, and are not just for those with hearing loss. A study conducted at the University of Northern Illinois revealed students who did not have hearing loss enjoyed wearing the earbuds and loop box — which can be controlled using a smartphone — to achieve better comprehension in lectures.

Sterkens believes if all people realized how much better they could hear in a loop, everyone would use it. The technology has existed for more than 40 years but has yet to go mainstream in the United States. “I’m absolutely convinced that this is the way to go for people who are hard of hearing, and the stories that come out prove me right,” she says. “When Grinnell does this, they raise the bar for other colleges.”

As for Bryant, she’s looking forward to her next performance. “When you live with hearing loss, you don’t know what you’re missing,” she remarks. “You don’t know there’s something that can fix it, so you learn to live with it. In this case, it was fixable. I’m very grateful the College chose to fix it.”

What’s Important (or not) About College Rankings

U.S. News & World Report first published its list of “Best Colleges” in 1983. Today, a profusion of commercially published rankings enthrall and mystify consumers every fall. For high school students and their parents, rankings by venerable sources like U.S. News, Money, and Forbes ostensibly provide objective guidance about academic reputation, affordability, and other supposed measures of college quality and accessibility.

For the colleges themselves, rankings can be both a headache and a useful measuring stick. Some institutions have noisily boycotted the annual ritual of lobbying for positive peer assessments, which play a big part in reputation ratings. An infamous handful have been caught trying to game the system by cherry-picking data or just plain lying. 

The great majority — Grinnell included — take a more reasoned approach, because even though the data are sometimes questionable and the methodologies imperfect, the lists are not going away. “Like it or not, rankings matter,” says Randy Stiles, Grinnell’s associate vice president for analytic support and institutional research. 

How students perceive rankings

Stiles points to research by the Art and Science Group that says 72 percent of traditional students pay at least some attention to rankings. Seven out of 10 students report that they discuss rankings in person or on social media, mostly with parents and friends. 

What’s more, college test scores are predictive of students’ attitudes and behaviors with respect to rankings. The 2016 poll reveals that students with ACT test scores of 28 and higher are apt to care more about the prestige associated with higher rankings. But students whose scores are 21 and lower are likely to give rankings more weight in choosing a college. 

Incoming Grinnell students seem to bear out that research. While their average ACT score of 30 may indicate awareness of the status that a lofty ranking commands, it also appears to signal greater discernment with respect to the importance of rankings in relation to other factors. Stiles says annual surveys of first-year students show that rankings in national magazines show up about halfway down the list of their top 20 reasons for enrollment. 

“Year after year students report the main reason for coming to Grinnell is the College’s academic reputation,” Stiles says. “Number two on the list is financial aid, which is not surprising because there is very generous aid given here.” 

Rounding out the top five reasons are the size of the College, the ability of graduates to gain admission to top graduate programs, and graduates’ prospects for getting good jobs. 

illustration showing a huge bar chart with tiny people on platforms and a spiral staircase examining its details

Perception versus reality

It could be that student perceptions are formed at least in part from rankings, and Stiles emphasizes that Grinnell does exceptionally well in systems that give considerable weight to academic quality and reputation. The challenge for data analysts is to balance those perceptions with what rankings are really saying about college quality, given that each system calculates performance differently.

Stiles says Grinnell’s approach to making sense of the complexities of college quality is to use “multiple lenses” in comparing and benchmarking performance against similar institutions, or what are referred to as the “peer 16.” That includes a review and in-depth analysis of seven different systems plus Princeton Review every year. 

“Our philosophy is not to manage to these systems,” Stiles says, “but to be informed by them, to be able to answer questions about them, and educate anybody who has an interest in what rankings have to do with the whole world of higher education.”

Stiles’ team studies not only Grinnell’s rankings within each of those systems but also the rankings of those peer liberal arts colleges in the Midwest and on the East and West Coasts. A daunting task, it requires knowing how each system works and what makes some more meaningful than others. 

How rankings actually work

“What these ranking systems all do in one way or another,” Stiles says, “is put together some collection of schools — liberal arts colleges, research universities, publics, privates — and rank them all on one long list. Then there is some collection of measures that are given some collection of weights. All of that gets added up into an overall score, from which is produced an ordered list.”

What makes one set of rankings more influential than another depends to a large extent on commercial reach. “Readership matters a lot,” Stiles says. “Some of these things have a lot of readership, and people give greater credibility to them. Others, not so much.” 

Making sense of college rankings would be easier if all of the rankings systems produced similar results. In many cases they don’t, and Grinnell is a perfect case in point. Last year, Grinnell was No. 19 among national liberal arts colleges in U.S. News rankings. In the other systems that Stiles tracks, the College came in at No. 19 also on Washington Monthly, but at Nos. 73, 9, 156, 31, and 54 on other lists. 

 “U.S. News puts a big emphasis on reputation and resources,” Stiles explains. “Forbes claims to emphasize outcomes or ‘output over input.’ Kiplinger’s is about best value. Money, not surprisingly, is about affordability and the salaries of graduates. The New York Times Access Index emphasizes the percentage of Pell students and the economic diversity. College Factual is outcomes-focused. 

“These days, there is more and more talk about outcomes,” Stiles continues, “and when people say outcomes in these systems, they’re talking about graduation rates and salaries more than anything else.” That’s an important distinction, he says, because rankings that weigh earnings heavily can skew data unfavorably for graduate students whose higher incomes materialize on a longer timeline. 

Also, not all systems are equal in terms of their own development. Stiles says Forbes’ ranking of Grinnell since 2008 has fluctuated by “an incredible variation” of 80 points. “I can guarantee you Grinnell didn’t change that much between 2008 and 2012. But the system changed, as did the way people were using it and the way it was managed. So it’s important to remember that the systems themselves need time to mature and achieve stability.” 

illustration of several people reading over the shoulder of another reading a newspaper called College Rankings

Rankings that resonate

Among all of the annual rankings, U.S. News’ “Best Colleges” remains the source that students use most widely to compare academic quality among 1,800 U.S.-based schools. “People pay most attention to U.S. News,” Stiles says. “It gets a lot of readership.”

In the U.S. News system, the categories given the most weight are reputational assessments by counselors and peers (22.5 percent), graduation/retention rate (22.5 percent), and faculty resources (20 percent). Student selectivity rank is next (12.5 percent), followed by financial resources (10 percent), graduation rate performance (7.5 percent), and alumni giving rank (5 percent).

Stiles says the key take-away from the 2017 U.S. News rankings (released in 2016) is that Grinnell’s overall rank of 19th is stable. “In fact we’re improving lately in overall rank. We have a great academic reputation,” Stiles says. 

“We’ve also become much more selective,” he says. “Just a few years ago Grinnell was 38th among liberal arts colleges for selectivity. Now we’re ninth in that category.”

To illustrate the seven-year data lag that can occur in published rankings, Stiles points to a blip in attrition among the student group that came to Grinnell in the fall of 2012. “That cohort will have a negative impact in our graduation rate when U.S. News rankings are published in 2019,” Stiles says. “We know that’s going to happen, and we’re working hard on graduation/retention as part of the quality initiative that’s connected to the upcoming accreditation review.”

Still, all ranking systems do not use the same measures, and a large readership for U.S. News does not necessarily make it the last word in college quality. Stiles says one of the more discriminating ways to view rankings is in how a system resonates with a college’s core values. One that gives particular weight to criteria consistent with Grinnell’s values is Washington Monthly’s ranking of “Best Liberal Arts Colleges.” 

Washington Monthly’s primary factors are social mobility, research, and service, each of which counts for one third,” Stiles says. “There are lots of details beneath those major categories, but the point is that different systems attribute different weights to measures that are relevant for what’s going on at a college.”

Breaking into the top 10

Everybody wants to be No. 1, or close to it. Human nature dictates that college graduates who encounter a list of best colleges will almost certainly want to know how their own alma mater stacks up. The question is, should Grinnell be content with being No. 19? What exactly would it take to be No. 15, or No. 12, or even third? Stiles explains:

“When you add everything up in the U.S. News system, schools will score numbers in their overall tally of about 70 to 100. The top 10 schools — and there is a lot of variation in the top 10 — go from a score of 100 down to about 87. Among the next 10, there’s a variation of only two points.” Grinnell’s overall score in last year’s U.S. News rankings was 85, tied with the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

“If this were a road race, you would see the first 10 runners spread out,” Stiles says. “Right behind them would be another 10 in a clump, which is where Grinnell is. In the one-to-10 range it takes a big change to make a move, but even a small move in the overall score in the 10-20 range could move us six or seven places.” 

It’s about culture

While Stiles’ job is to analyze rankings from an institutional perspective, his insights are just as valuable for parents and prospective students who are staying up nights trying to decode the latest list of “best colleges.”

Stiles prefaces his advice with sociologist William Cameron’s famous quote, which he says is applicable to any consideration of college rankings: “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” 

“Remember that the data lags,” Stiles says. “Also, cumulative earnings matter; rankings based on graduate salaries five years out do not tell the full story for a college like Grinnell that produces a lot of graduate-degree candidates. 

 “Look at a variety of rankings as a first filter in choosing a school,” Stiles says. “Culture and fit are so important that you’ve got to do a campus visit and check out several institutions to really know. The peer 16 are all fine colleges, and Grinnell is very highly regarded in that mix. You almost can’t go wrong with a liberal arts education at any one of these schools, but it is culture and context that really matter.”

Alumnus creates long-term ties mentoring Grinnell interns at TIAA-CREF

In the globally competitive job market, quality summer internships markedly differentiate college graduates. Résumés that include student experiences at top companies tend to get the attention of talent acquisition specialists faced with evaluating otherwise similarly qualified candidates.

For Grinnell students, summer internships at TIAA-CREF Financial Services are the gold standard for superior learning opportunities. Since 2000, several Grinnell students have been fortunate to be accepted there each year. Not only do students discover an opportunity to develop their skills and career paths in meaningful ways, they find that much about the experience is distinctly Grinnellian. 

Values that resonate

Michael Kahn ’76 is senior managing director of corporate strategy and development at TIAA-CREF in New York City. He sponsors, mentors, and works closely with the majority of Grinnell interns, whether their student experiences are in midtown Manhattan or at another major TIAA-CREF campus, such as Charlotte, N.C.

 “TIAA-CREF is a particularly great environment for Grinnell students,” says Kahn, who was elected to the Grinnell College Board of Trustees in May. “We’re a mission-driven organization. We exist to serve those who serve the greater good, which aligns well with how Grinnellians think about what their role in the world will be. 

“We are really good at what we do, whether it’s broad financial services or sophisticated asset management,” Kahn says. “We’re aligned with the interests of all our clients and we produce great outcomes, so TIAA-CREF is a company that has values and capabilities that resonate with Grinnellians.”

Challenging opportunities

Most important for students is that internships offer real substance, and Kahn says TIAA-CREF interns regularly work on assignments that not only are important to the company, but that constitute challenging student learning opportunities. 

“Internships at TIAA-CREF typically involve working with senior level staff,” Kahn says. “Students are not buried deep in the organization. They actually get to work with people from whom they can learn a lot and who are really accomplished. I’ve even had students working on launches of new lines of business, which is something that interns would almost never get to do anywhere else.”

Success stories

David Jutrsa ’15 was a Grinnellink summer intern at TIAA-CREF in 2013. “David worked on a potential major acquisition,” Kahn says. “It was a big deal, and it was complicated. As an intern you’d think you would never get near something that interesting, but he got to work with the core team and was in meetings with our most senior staff.”

Jutrsa recently accepted a research assistant position with the International Monetary Fund. “The TIAA-CREF internship exposed me to the world of business and really solidified my interest in finance,” Jutrsa says. “I would definitely recommend any Grinnellink internship with TIAA-CREF to students looking to break into these fields and connect what they learn in classes to the professional world.”  

Natalie Duncombe ’15 also was a Grinnellink intern at TIAA-CREF in 2013. She says building a mentor relationship with Kahn was the most valuable aspect of her internship.

“His advice throughout the summer helped me get the most out of my time at TIAA-CREF, and he continued to help me with recommendation letters, as well as career, résumé, and interview advice,” Duncombe says. “Without him and my time at TIAA-CREF, I don’t know if I would have been as successful in securing my economic research assistant position at the Federal Reserve Board of Governors in Washington, D.C.”

Defining mentorship 

Megan Goering ’08, who interned at TIAA-CREF in 2006, says, “Interning with Michael defined the role and value of a mentor for me. At the time, I was really opening to discovery and my own personal capacity in a new way, and Michael’s example seeded lessons for me that continue to unfold nine years later.

“The consciousness, creativity, teacher and learner’s spirit, and deep dignity and value Michael has for people shown through his work in a way that continues to light my path,” Goering says. “Michael’s way is soulful, honest, connective, endlessly creative, accountable for human principles, and just. There are good people in finance, and because of Michael’s extension of his work through mentorship, perhaps there will continue to be more.”

Dolan Talukdar ’05 was a student intern at TIAA-CREF for two summers, in 2003 and 2004. She says she watched the program evolve into one tailored to develop students’ skills for a job in finance. “Having witnessed the partnership’s initial progression under Michael, I am not surprised to see that it has become a mainstay at Grinnell,”  Talukdar says.

“From day one Michael came across as warm, quietly intelligent, and genuine,” Talukdar says. “His management style convinced me that it was indeed possible to be an empathetic yet successful leader in finance, and I have tried to emulate his approach in my own career.”

Talukdar says she still considers Kahn her “go-to mentor” and tries to renew the connection whenever Kahn’s work brings him to London, where she currently lives and works. “We have wonderful conversations about Grinnell and TIAA-CREF’s consistent collaboration with the school,” she says. 

Alums make the difference

Kahn says he firmly believes that having engaged alumni involved in the internship process makes a big difference in the quality of student work experiences. He typically maintains close contact with students at TIAA-CREF, talking with them about their assignment and helping them think about how the internship can prepare them for a career. 

“Having a Grinnell alum as an advocate in an internship situation brings additional value beyond the work assignment itself,” Kahn says. “The College already does so much to prepare students for great things in life, and our internships are an excellent example of how Grinnell extends the community beyond the prairie to places like midtown Manhattan.

“I’m passionate about Grinnell, and I’m passionate about giving back to Grinnell in any way I can,” Kahn says. “One of the best ways I believe I can do that is by being a resource to current students, as well as to younger alumni who may be early in their careers and looking for that type of guidance.” 


Meals from Global Learning Program trip to China

A small collection of images captured by Justin Hayworth, College photographer and videographer during the recent Global Learning Program trip to China. 

Family style meal in ChinaNoodles with fried eelChina DishesChina dish with shrimpDuck Tongue






Chicken soup with head and feetBeef with peppers

Squirrel Fish

Vegetarian dish with tofu, mushroom, and noodles

Dish of baby octopus Lotus Root and Bamboo Shoots

How the Drakes Met

Sue Ratcliff Drake ’58, a native Minnesotan, graduated from a high school class of nearly 450 students. She didn’t know half her classmates, so she wanted something smaller. She applied to Grinnell because it was more intimate than the University of Minnesota. 

“I didn't visit ahead,” she says, “I just applied, and in those days they took anybody, because I have to admit, I'm not the greatest student. I have fun. I had to work hard for my grades but enjoyed knowing everyone and participating in the special activities. 

 “I knew of George Drake because he was a big deal on campus,” she says. He was a runner and made a bid for Student Council president.

“In those days,” Sue says, “you dated a lot of different people. I dated his roommates.”

But she never even said hello to George.

In the fall of 1959, Sue was teaching second grade in Hinsdale, Ill., a western suburb of Chicago. She persuaded her roommate, Nancy, to drive to Grinnell with her to go to homecoming. They met one of George’s college roommates on campus, and he invited Sue to the homecoming dance.

“I said, ‘Sure, but I've got my friend here.’ And he said, ‘Well, George Drake is here. We'll just double.”

During the dance, George learned that Sue had driven from Chicago in her ’51 Plymouth. He had taken the train, so he asked if he could get a ride back with them.

“About two weeks later,” Sue says, “he called me up and asked me out. So, that's how I met George. That was in October. By February we were engaged, and in June we were married.”