Grinnell's Prairie

Drive down Interstate 80 to exit 173, head north for 100 yards, and take the first gravel road on your right. After about a mile and a half of rolling prairie, you’ll come across a sign with the College’s familiar red laurel leaf: Welcome to the Conard Environmental Research Area (CERA). 

Though CERA is just 11 miles from the town of Grinnell, the College’s sprawling field station feels worlds away from the bustle of campus. Just beyond the low-slung, LEED-certified laboratory and a couple of small administrative buildings, 365 acres of prairie, savanna, wetlands, and oak forest beckon. 

Grinnell College acquired CERA in 1968 and named it for the late Henry S. Conard, internationally recognized botanist and beloved Grinnell professor. In the 49 years since, students, faculty, and staff have worked to preserve, restore, and learn from its complex ecosystems. 

Biologists, birdwatchers, artists, and ecologists alike value CERA for its beauty, vibrancy, and immersive learning opportunities. Through these photographs, we invite you to experience CERA in a year — without getting your car stuck in the mud, which may or may not have happened to the author.

CERA plantlife in the summer

Grasshopper on yellow flower

Lightt snow on the ground in January

Winter plantlife

Snowy trail at CERA

CERA in the fall

White flowers blooming in the spring

Yellow flowers in the prairie

Fall colors on the trees at CERA

CERA in the fall

Plantlife at sunset in the fall

Grass burn in the spring

Studying Arabic for Fun

When I told my coworkers last fall that I was taking Beginning Arabic I, their eyes grew round and they said things like, “You’re brave,” or “Whew! Good luck.” I thought they were joking. 

Okay, sure, Arabic uses a different alphabet and it reads from right to left. And my 49-year-old brain is not as willing to memorize vocabulary as it once was, or perhaps it’s just more cluttered than it was at 19. But I was not the least bit nervous about taking Arabic. In fact, I was ridiculously excited. Learning new things is so much fun and I particularly like language. It’s such a window into different ways of thinking; and as a writer, I am always fascinated by how others think. Because I was a French major at Grinnell, I also felt confident in my ability to learn Arabic. Perhaps too confident. 

On the first day of class, 15 or 16 students crowded inside ARH 322, a small classroom with three tall windows overlooking Park Street and two walls filled with chalkboards. We sat in two messy, nesting semicircles, facing the widest chalkboard. At 1 p.m., Mervat Youssef, associate professor of Arabic, strode into the room speaking Arabic. Alarm flickered across people’s faces.

Mervat pointed at herself and said, “Issmee Mervat.*” She swept an arm around the room, as though gathering us all in like a flock of chicks. “Issmee,” she said again, beckoning us with her hand to speak. “Issmee,” we repeated and inserted our own names. It sounded a lot like “It’s me, Michele.” One word plus our own names? We could do this.

 “I really liked [Arabic] from day one when we were being made to feel uncomfortable,” said Moises Herrera ’19. “She just started talking and we didn’t know what she was saying and eventually we got the hang of it.”

The first day “felt like someone had picked me up and dropped me in Egypt,” said Cora Touchstone ’19, a transfer student from Georgia who took Arabic “on a whim.” It gave her a bit of a panicky feeling. 

Cora Touchstone ’19 practices her Arabic alphabet on the chalkboardOther students may have felt some panic too. On the second day of this five-day-a-week class, there were more empty seats in the room. By day three, the class was about two-thirds the size it was on day one. A Grinnell High School freshman stuck it out for two weeks; I suspect the heavy load of homework got to him as it was already getting to me. Two hours a night — are you kidding me?

Introducing our Arabic teacher

Teaching her native language was not in Mervat Youssef’s career plan. She was a radio journalist in Egypt before coming to the Midwest to study journalism and mass communication. She was finishing her dissertation at the University of Iowa in 2007 when she first heard about Grinnell. She was invited to read some poetry of Muḥyiddin Ibn ’Arabi, a Sufi mystic, as part of a celebration of the three Abrahamic traditions. “I was smitten [with Grinnell],” she said. 

Grinnell was apparently smitten too, because the event organizers told her the College was planning to start an Arabic program and invited her to apply. Arabic had been offered as a language through the Alternative Language Study Option since 2003 and was growing in popularity.

Yet Mervat wasn’t convinced teaching Arabic was in her future. “That’s not what I had in mind when I ended up in grad school,” she said. “I wanted to teach journalism.” Her dissertation adviser pointed out that she was already doing Middle East studies (her dissertation was about how Arab Americans were negotiating their Americanness on opinion pages), that she was bilingual, and that Grinnell is a great place. 

She also knew a Grinnellian, Sarah Burke Odland ’97, who was in the same doctoral program. “She was fabulous, very smart, and I always admired her,” Mervat said. “I thought, oh my gosh, if the students are like Sarah Burke, life would be good.” 

In fall 2008, Mervat began teaching Arabic on a two-year contract. “I thought this was a great opportunity,” she said. When the position was advertised as tenure-track, she applied. She earned tenure in 2016. “I came and I stayed.” 

The former journalist didn’t study how to teach a foreign language. “I think my teaching is reflective of how I learned,” she said. She learned English through immersion while attending a Catholic elementary school in Kuwait, where she was born and grew up. She learned German in high school the same way. “I’ve been inspired by all the great teachers that I had,” she said. One of those teachers was her father.

“I remember vividly how he taught us to swim,” she said. “He got some empty bottles of Pepsi. They’re plastic so they floated. He told us that if he wraps them around us, just two of them, they would make us float. So when we swam, we thought that we were being held with the bottles. Then he took one off and took the other one off, and we were swimming. I don’t think he lied to us because he showed us that it floats. But in our brains we can’t understand the physics behind it, so we got the confidence to just jump. And that became my main thing in teaching. Start speaking.”

Learning from scratch

We spent the first two weeks learning to read, write, and pronounce the alphabet. I was reminded of how random our English letter signs are for the different sounds we use. Arabic is wonderfully phonetic. For example, there is a single letter for the “sh” sound that in English we find in “dish” and “nation.” 

To my American ears, some Arabic letters sound quite similar to each other, like a “tuh” sound that’s made next to your teeth versus a back-of-the-tongue “tah” sound. Consequently, my spelling ability, once a forte in English, is less so in Arabic. The letter that probably bedevils me more than any is one we don’t have in English. “Ein” has a guttural, back-of-the-throat sound.

Besides learning how to pronounce all these letters, we also learned to write them. Arabic is written exclusively in a script form, but not all letters connect to each other. So each letter has four different ways of appearing in text, depending on whether it’s at the beginning of a word and connects to a letter after it, or if it’s in the middle, the end, or by itself. “Ein,” for example, looks very different depending on its place in a word.

To further complicate my spelling efforts, some letters have precisely the same shape as other letters. The only difference is where the “cookie,” a dot about the size of a period, is located. A “B” sound has a single cookie below it while the “N” sound has a single cookie above. I still occasionally misplace my cookies and create words that make no sense. 

Learning to read in Arabic felt a bit like being in first grade. Mervat wanted us to sound out the words, one letter at a time. “Cover and release,” she said, over and over. Covering the later letters in the word helped us focus on the pronunciation of each individual letter. 

We quickly graduated to learning vocabulary. Grammar came along for the ride. Even on the first day, though I didn’t realize it at the time, Mervat was subtly introducing us to grammar. After we practiced saying, “Issmee” plus our names, she introduced the question that would elicit that answer. “Mah issmookah?” she said to male students and “Mah issmookee?” to female students. It wasn’t until many weeks later that we formally learned about the suffixes used to indicate the gender of the person being addressed.

The immersion approach to learning a language was new for me. I learned French a few years before that shift in language pedagogy occurred. Mervat is very good at acting things out and explaining things in Arabic with simple words in ways that we all could understand. To convey the plural version of a noun, for example, she’d tick off on her fingers its singular form, “weh-LEYE-uh, weh-LEYE-uh, weh-LEYE-uh,  weh-LEYE-uh, weh-LEYE-uh,” (it means “state”) and then give us the plural form, “wi-LEYE-uh-tuh” (“states”). 

Class itself was intense and fast-paced. “You constantly have to be focused and I really like that in Mervat,” Moises said. “She really knows when someone’s lost their train of thought.” 

“You can’t get by without being fully engaged,” said Sarah Cannon ’19. “It’s the only class where I was actively learning the whole time.” She also found the class “exciting because it was 100 percent new.” 

I thought when I enrolled that I’d be able to practice with my husband. He studied Arabic intensively for nine months in 1971, when he worked for CIA, but he has forgotten a lot and doesn’t know how to read it at all. When I practiced reading aloud to him, he often couldn’t understand me because he learned the Lebanese dialect, which has different vocabulary and was not the dialect spoken in Morocco where he was stationed. When he’d hear a word he didn’t recognize, he’d say, “That must be Egyptian Arabic.” I’d say, “No! It’s modern standard Arabic.”

What I didn’t anticipate was all the studying required. Mervat wasn’t kidding when she said two hours of studying per hour of class. I confess that I didn’t study that much every night, especially after fall break. Sometimes I did the minimum to complete the homework rather than follow the suggested study method: Listen to the vocabulary words, write each one three times while saying it out loud, then use it in a sentence. I discovered that it’s an effective study method, but not quick. 

Nor did I attend the Arabic language lab, which was held from 7 to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday. I’m sure it would have been helpful because Tarik Taghzouti, the Arabic language assistant and Fulbright scholar, was very helpful both in class and during his office hours. Back home in Morocco, he’s a secondary-school English teacher. His expertise in breaking down concepts into simple bits was evident when he explained to me, in Arabic, how possessives work. 

A humbling experience

Mervat Youssef, Michele Regenold ’89,  Sarah Cannon ’19, and Ankit Pandey ’20 discuss the class assignmentEven though I was auditing the class, not taking it for credit, I did virtually all of the homework and took all of the quizzes and tests. I wanted to see how much I was learning and try to keep up. 

But oh my, what a humbling experience to be the slowest student in the class. My French was more of a hindrance than a benefit. It was like an old dog who’s annoyed by the introduction of a new puppy and keeps trying to insert itself when I was searching for the Arabic words. On one quiz, a fill-in-the-blank question was looking for “with whom,” and all that would come to me was “avec qui,” the French, instead of “mah men.”

Right before fall break, Mervat mentioned the final presentations that we would do the last week of classes. We had to work with a partner and present — all in Arabic — for 10 to 15 minutes. 

I wavered. Surely I had enough material to write a story about the class. I didn’t need to do a presentation, did I? Especially since I wasn’t being graded. Plus, I didn’t want to drag anyone else down with me. 

And did I even have the stamina to stick with the class through the end of the semester? After all, I work full time. I have a husband, a dog who likes to go running, and no dishwasher. I’d rather work on my young-adult novel than use “ahhm” (paternal uncle) in a sentence. Studying each night was already more than I’d bargained for. Planning, writing, and practicing a presentation with a partner?

I finally decided to suck it up and do it. One day in class I asked Moises if he wanted to work together. To my surprise, he agreed. We had been frequent partners for in-class activities so I already knew him to be diligent and motivated and unafraid to speak Arabic. I told him I wouldn’t let him down.

Given our fairly limited vocabulary, I wasn’t sure what we could talk about for 10 whole minutes. So I suggested we pretend that it’s 2026 and we run into each other at a coffee shop in Grinnell and catch each other up on ourselves, our classmates, and teachers. He agreed. And that gave us license to make up virtually everything we presented. We didn’t know too many words for professions, so most classmates became teachers, one became an army officer, two became translators — Moises assigned himself to the United Nations. I remained a writer. We also gossiped about our classmates’ love lives. We made our audience laugh. That was reward enough.

Overall, taking Arabic was incredibly fun and mentally stimulating. It was probably more challenging to my ego than I would have liked, but it was a thrill to experience something new again. 

“Are your brains exercised yet?” Mervat asked every day at the end of class. Yes, yes they are. 

*Mervat Youssef is vehemently opposed to the use of transliteration in the learning of Arabic. We never used it in class. I’m using my own version of it here to give readers a sense of the language’s sound.

How Arabic became part of the curriculum 

Arabic got its start at Grinnell thanks to student demand. In 2003, several students came to Dan Gross, then coordinator of the Alternative Language Study Option (ALSO) program, and asked for it. 

ALSO is Grinnell’s self-instructional language program — students learn reading, writing, speaking, and understanding skills using textual and online audiovisual materials. ALSO students are tested by an outside evaluator, an instructor from another institution. One requirement for a language to be offered through ALSO is that a fluent speaker, often a fellow Grinnell student, be available as a conversation partner for the students to practice with three hours per week. 

When Arabic was initially requested, a student from Alexandria, Egypt, was on campus and provided that support. 

Arabic was offered through ALSO until 2006. Then the College tried a distance-based program for two years. “It was awkward and slightly clumsy,” Gross says, “and too slow for Grinnell students.” So the College decided to make Arabic part of the regular curriculum.

Fit for Life

Intercollegiate athletics programs that play full schedules in front of big crowds in fancy arenas are a fact of life for college women athletes today. It’s a far cry from when college sports teams for women meant recruiting their own players and even coaching themselves.  

The landscape has changed radically since the 1972 Education Amendment and the 1979 Title IX policy interpretation specific to gender equality in intercollegiate athletics — so much so that students today would no doubt consider the athletic options for women just two generations ago incomprehensible. 

With no formal “varsity” athletics program during the post-World War II/pre-Title IX years, women at Grinnell relied on their tenacity and resourcefulness, the skills they brought to college with them, or all of the above. Intramurals, extracurricular recreation, and club teams were the main outlets for satisfying the competitive urge.

Then there were the physical education requirements. Dreaded by some, easy for others, curricular P.E. demands for both women and men were meant to promote lifelong well-being. Or else. Not getting a diploma because you couldn’t swim or do sit-ups was a legitimate fear in the 1950s and ’60s.  

To the question of whether the penalty fit the crime, Bobbie Segrest Froeberg ’58 might be offering a common-sense debate-stopper or testing the interviewer’s naiveté: “At least,” she says, “we weren’t going to graduate somebody who was going to drown.” 

Either way, we might deduce that many women of the era were cheerfully practical about graduation requirements, including those that involved physical fitness. Certainly the athletically inclined wrung every drop out of whatever recreational opportunities they found or created. Still, it seems fair to ask if at least some female students of the day didn’t openly regard the “athletic program” as unfair or deficient. 

“It’s not so much that I didn’t regard it that way,” says Kate Scanlan Budlong ’64, “it’s that I didn’t regard it at all. It wasn’t something that was on the front burner. Besides, that’s not what I was there for. I was a physics major. I was busy.”

Not so busy that she didn’t make time to play field hockey and volleyball and participate in White Caps synchronized swimming. But Budlong’s perspective on athletics had been shaped by widely divergent experiences earlier in her life.  

Shocking difference 

“When I was about nine years old, my family moved to France,” Budlong says. “The schools there were not coed, and athletics for women were vigorous. We did track, basketball, volleyball, a lot of stuff.”

When her family moved to Houston in 1958, Budlong says the difference was shocking. “There were no women’s athletics. In Texas, the boys played football and the girls did cheerleading. That was it.”

At Grinnell, Budlong says, “Women were getting antsy in terms of revolting against things like women’s hours, which were pretty severe, and the rules being different socially for women than for men. But [they weren’t] going around worrying if the athletics program was adequate. 

“There were plenty of things we could do if we wanted to take a break from studying, and the point of the exercise was the studying,” Budlong says. “We had plenty of other fun. There were all kinds of opportunities.”

Budlong says one reason White Caps was so enjoyable was that there was no pressure to compete. “We did it for the pure enjoyment of the game,” she says. “Of course, you needed a certain amount of swimming prowess. We had a ball, but we worked really hard. Some of it is difficult.”

How so?

“You try swimming on your back with one leg vertical. It’s not easy,” Budlong says. “Every now and then I still do some water ballet moves in the pool just for the hell of it, because they’re fun to do.”

Connie Sloop Archea ’67 brought considerable skill to White Caps after competing on a swim team and lifeguarding prior to college. She admits that the extracurricular activity was a bit of a “consolation prize” compared to competitive swimming.

“I’m not sure synchronized swimming was even considered a sport at that time,” Archea says. “It certainly was not an Olympic event. We would have laughed at the idea. Still, I had fun doing it.

“I don’t think we really questioned why there were no competitive varsity sports available for women,” Archea says. “That’s just the way it was.”

Splash of irony

The lack of a formal stage for women’s sports didn’t prevent the men’s coaches from appreciating athleticism when they saw it. When men’s swimming coach Irv Simone noticed Archea in the pool, he directed his team’s attention to what she was doing. “He told them to watch my freestyle stroke because that’s what it should look like,” Archea says.

“At the time I took it as a compliment and only later realized the irony of a woman who didn’t have the opportunity to swim competitively demonstrating a stroke to those who did,” Archea says. “Times have really changed, thank goodness.” 

Some sports were not available to women in any organized format. ViAnn Beadle ’67, having won the Missouri girls’ state golf tournament at ages 16 and 17, was allowed to join the Grinnell men’s team. “The coach [local golf club pro] never let me compete in any intercollegiate matches, but at least I got to play at the country club,” Beadle says. “I did make the team photo in the yearbook.” 

ViAnn Beadle ’67 poses with the Grinnell men's golf teamBeadle competed as an individual in two Midwest invitationals for college women. “In 1964 it was at the University of Minnesota golf course, and I drove up with a P.E. professor to play it,” Beadle says. “She wouldn’t let me drive up there on my own. In loco parentis ruled and women were locked up in the dorms at midnight. 

“The next year it was the University of Illinois and I played pretty well — I think I placed,” she says. “It was a much more fun time. I completely ditched her and spent most of my time with players from other schools.” 

For Iowa girls whose high school choices had been limited to half-court basketball, Grinnell’s intramural sports and P.E. classes opened a new world of possibilities. “Grinnell had lots of sports for women,” says Nancy King Hobert ’59, who was also in White Caps. “I thought I had died and gone to heaven with the variety of sports they offered.” 

Even some who had come from more extensive high school athletic programs were impressed. Fencing and archery classes were favorites of Kay Jones Rencken ’62, as was intramural volleyball. “We played it differently than it is done today, and I think it was more fun when we could ‘set it up’ for ourselves,” she says. “We had a pretty good team.”

Rencken says she was particularly intrigued by a sport she’d never even seen before coming to Grinnell — field hockey, which at that point was an intramural option. “Practically everyone I’ve talked to remembers hating field hockey,” she says, “but a few of us loved it. We were thrilled with the prospect of playing on a ‘team.’ 

“I liked sports, I liked competing, and I liked winning,” Rencken says. “I have been teased for the better part of my life about my competitive nature. I think it was honed on the hockey fields of Grinnell.”

Healthy and active

Intramural sports, which were run by the Women’s Recreation Association, had a profound effect on the lifestyles of students like Mary Albrecht Cowan ’59 and Irene Blaser Elliott ’67.

“Intramurals royally supplemented my academic work with unlimited opportunities for movement, learning, leadership, and competitive/cooperative experiences, all basic to who I am,” Cowan says. “That was true at Grinnell; it was true throughout my career as an academic administrator/physical educator and now in retirement when I’m almost as active as pre-retirement.

“Those experiences made me want to provide similar movement opportunities for all, not just those who are most highly skilled,” Cowan says. “It determined my staying in the field of physical education circa 1972 and Title IX rather than opting to go into athletics as a coach or athletics administrator.”

Elliott brought ballet skills to college and says she became “keen on the dance intramurals.” Those interests led to experiences in choreography, theatre, and elementary education. She still dances with an amateur ballet company. 

“I knew dancing was the only exercise I would be able to stick with over the years, and I was right,” Elliott says. “Most people my age have given up this kind of exercise, but I’m not stopping until I absolutely can’t stand up anymore. I’m quite sure the exercise, along with the wonderful feeling of moving to the most beautiful music in the world, has been keeping me healthy and active.”

Grinnell field hockey team poses with trophy after the 1968 state tournamentOther Grinnellians who may well have pursued varsity competition given the opportunity still see the physical education requirements as a sound plan with a worthwhile purpose.

“The four years I attended Grinnell the emphasis was on lifelong learning,” says Leanne Hoepner Puglielli ’66. “I loved to swim so [the swimming test] was not an issue for me, but lifelong learning also meant a healthy weight — I had to lose 20 pounds. In addition to requirements everyone had to meet, the P.E. requirement included a major sport, a minor sport, and a team sport. Majors and minors were supposed to be sports we could continue throughout life. The team sport was just that — it taught us how to work as a contributing member of a team. 

“You had to meet the criteria whether it took you one semester or four years,” Puglielli says. “There were folks who weren’t sure they were going to graduate because they couldn’t make it across the pool.

 “I was lucky to be athletic, because I was a biology major who spent all morning in class and four afternoons a week in labs. I don’t know how I would have accomplished the P.E. requirements if I needed more time,” Puglielli says, adding, “Understand that I did not just sit around — there was a mile swim after labs and before dinner every day of my four years.”

Cindy Maier ’70 strongly endorses the P.E. concept. “I actually have raved for 40 years about Grinnell’s gym requirement when we were there,” Maier says. “It was the best, most thought-through athletic requirement I’d ever heard of even to this day. It truly was your well-rounded liberal arts experience.

“The physical fitness requirement was pretty basic for those of us who were athletic, but the requirement for a carry-over sport you could do as an individual after graduation was really astute,” Maier says. “They were clever enough to know that someone like me that had done a lot of sports could qualify out of my individual carry-over so they didn’t even worry about me. 

“But someone who had done nothing in high school — and in our day, women could very easily do almost nothing in high school — didn’t have to have ability. They just had to complete those four quarters and learn how to do any one or multiple sports,” Maier says.

The epitome of sport

Maier credits the Grinnell P.E. staff for going the extra mile to support women athletes who wanted to compete at a higher level, even when the athletes’ skills outpaced the coaches’ expertise. “There were three of us from Philadelphia who’d played field hockey in high school,” Maier says. “We didn’t want to give it up so we recruited our friends. We got enough people to make a team, and we taught them how to play.

“We did play against other colleges, and the P.E. staff made all the arrangements,” Maier says. “They made it happen. It was very informal, but we did have a year when we played in the Iowa state championship at University of Northern Iowa, and we won! 

 “I have nothing but happy memories of athletics at Grinnell in spite of its not being a strong suit at the College for women in those days. What we did, we enjoyed,” Maier says. “That is the epitome of what sports should be — fun and not cutthroat, just good exercise and good camaraderie. What more can you ask for?” 

Celebrate Women Athletes

Pioneer Women’s Weekend: A Celebration of the Lost Generation of Grinnell Athletes will be held on campus April 21–22, 2017. See alumni.grinnell.edu/pioneerwomen. Regardless of whether they considered themselves athletes, Grinnell alums are encouraged to join in and honor Grinnell’s true Pioneers who played for the love of the game. For the latest programming details, contact the Office of Development and Alumni Relations at 866-850-1846. 

Thinking Like the Next Generation of Prizewinners

In fall 2015, Grinnell introduced the Spark Tank Innovation Challenge to the College’s weeklong celebration of the Grinnell College Innovator for Social Justice Prize winners and their work in social justice. Loosely modeled after the television show Shark Tank, Spark Tank encourages Grinnell students to think like the next generation of prizewinners by designing their own social innovations to support the local community. 

Because the contest addresses local issues, Spark Tank seeks insight from experts in the town. For last year’s topic of education, Grinnell-Newburg district educators identified obstacles, coached student teams, and joined Grinnell Prize winners on the judging panel to determine which proposals would receive a share of the $22,500 prize for project funding. 

Not only does the competition support sustainable community initiatives, it also provides students with the skills, experience, and confidence to begin putting their social justice ideals into practice, at Grinnell and beyond. 

Lunchtime Language Instruction

Among last year’s winners were John Gallagher ’17Christine Hood ’17, and Liz Nelson ’17. They responded to music teacher Barb Van Ersvelde’s request for language learning opportunities at Davis Elementary School, home to all district third- and fourth-graders. Currently, the district does not offer foreign language instruction until high school. 

Although Gallagher is the only foreign language major of the bunch, all share a strong interest in language education. Gallagher and Nelson are working toward teaching licensure; and Hood, who plans to pursue a career in politics, cites education reform as “one of my biggest policy goals in life.”

With Van Ersvelde as their coach, Gallagher, Hood, and Nelson developed Lunchtime Language Learners, a program that offers weekly Spanish lessons to Davis Elementary School students. The classes are taught by five pairs of trained College student volunteers. 

Accessibility and sustainability were key goals throughout every step of the project, including the team’s decision to hold lessons over the lunch hour, rather than after school. “All students have a lunchtime and a recess,” Nelson explains. “We want people who may not have the option of being picked up later, or another way to get home, to be able to do this program as well.” 

After months of planning and preparation, Lunchtime Language Learners launched its first six-week session of classes in the fall of 2016. 

Upon entering the classroom — one week the gymnasium, another week the library — the excitement is palpable. The children warm up with a lively game of “Luz Roja y Luz Verde,” then race to their respective corners of the gym. Within moments, they settle into three seated circles. Each mini-class is capped at 14 and led by two College students.

While there is no standardized curriculum, all classes employ a high-energy, immersive pedagogy recommended by Claire Moisan, senior lecturer in French and director of the Alternate Language Study Option (ALSO) program. The method is designed to mimic the way language is naturally acquired, making it an ideal approach for teaching young learners. In practice, this looks like a lot of moving, gesturing, singing, and dancing — entirely in Spanish. 

A spirited round of “Cabeza, Hombros, Rodillas, Pies,” rings out from one corner of the gym, while kids in another circle delight to point out articles of clothing. When one student’s attention falters, a teacher points to her blue jeans, then his own, and shrugs. “¿Qué es esto?”

PANTALONES!” he shrieks, and the lesson resumes.

Surveying the lively scene, Van Ersvelde praises the program’s impact. “The kids give up their recess to participate, and they do it happily,” she says. “They’ve been surprised at their skill. Right away, they have wanted to share what they’ve learned with their homerooms and families.”

Lily Hamilton ’19, a volunteer teacher and Davis alumna, adds, “Our goal is to show kids that learning another language is fun. Even if they don’t remember the contents of the lessons, hopefully we inspire them to continue their language education.”

As fall semester wound down, Gallagher, Hood, and Nelson were already gearing up for their next session of classes, exploring avenues for continued funding and researching innovative ideas for programmatic development. 

Ultimately, they hope that the success of their program will catalyze other language learning opportunities in the local schools. “Even if it’s not Grinnell College students coming in and helping, even if it’s hiring a full-time district specialist, this program is hopefully going to show them that there’s a need for it and a benefit from it,” Gallagher says.

Student Resource Center Equips High-Schoolers for Success

Student Resource Center

For Lucia Tonachel ’18 and Naomi Worob ’18, the decision to create a resource center at Grinnell High School (GHS) was quite literally a matter of food for thought — the pair discussed it over dinner at Food House. 

“The prompt was about how to make sure that students who aren’t getting the basic resources that they need can still be engaged in the classroom,” says Tonachel. “That’s something that I’ve always been really passionate about.” 

Their coaches, GHS educators Melanie Sharp and Dwight Laidig, are also passionate about ensuring that all students have access to essential resources. Ten years ago, Laidig began stocking his own supply of snacks and other basic necessities for students in need. As word spread, teachers began pitching in, directing students to Laidig or offering resources of their own.

With Tonachel and Worob on board, Laidig’s resource drawer has grown into a comprehensive student center. Located within the high school, the center offers food, clothing, hygiene products, and informational resources in a warm, welcoming environment.

Before stocking inventory, Tonachel and Worob conducted a survey of GHS students and coordinated with the high school leadership council to ensure that their initiative was responsive to the needs of the community. Clothing, food, and hygiene products are currently sourced through individual donations, clothing drives, and Tiger Packs, a citywide initiative that provides qualifying kids with nutritious food to take home over the weekend. 

Although the resource center is now its own entity, teachers and other school employees continue to play a central role in connecting students with resources that they may need, but not know of, or feel comfortable accessing. 

“Nearly one third of our students receive free or reduced lunch,” Sharp explains. “There’s an obvious need for resources, but most kids won’t find their way to the center on their own. When they can lean into existing support networks, they’re less likely to fall through the cracks.”

While the resource center has only been open since the start of the 2016–17 school year, Worob and Tonachel are already making plans to ensure its longevity. They have worked with the Center for Careers, Life, and Service to create a permanent service learning work-study position at the resource center, which will help ensure that the College-community partnership lasts long after their graduation. 

Sustaining the Spark

Spark Tank PresentationsIn response to feedback from last year’s participants, the 2016–17 contest features several changes. Most prominently, the timeline is longer: rather than racing to complete the process in six weeks, students had the entire fall semester to develop proposals related to this year’s theme of poverty. They will compete for funding at the pitch contest in April 2017. 

As part of Grinnell Prize Week, Spark Tank participants and the entire College community were also invited to attend a new series of seminars held by past Grinnell Prize winners. These talks addressed topics such as sustainability, fundraising, and the nuts and bolts of translating social justice ideals into a successful career. 

In another deviation from last year, this year’s judging panel will select just one winning team, in order to more effectively focus resources for long-term sustainability and growth. Funding for the winning project, as well as a paid service learning work-study position for the winning team, will be provided by the Donald and Winifred Wilson Center for Innovation and Leadership.


A Legacy of Leadership

It is 11:55 a.m. on a Wednesday in early October, and room 101 of the Joe Rosenfield ’25 Center is already packed. Students, staff, faculty, and community members have all gathered to witness “Making a Career of Changing the World,” a panel discussion led by this year’s winners of the $100,000 Grinnell College Innovator for Social Justice Prize.

Seated on a panel facing the audience are prizewinners Luna Ranjit ’00, Jackie Stenson, and Diana Jue Rajasingh, along with Wall Alumni Award* winner Trevor Harris ’89. Smiling, they look on as a handful of stragglers find seats by the windows or stand toward the back.

Luna Ranjit ’00 acceptance speech

Ranjit, a Nepali native and the first Grinnell College graduate to receive the Grinnell Prize, introduces herself first. Five years after graduating with a degree in economics and global development studies, she founded Adhikaar, a multifaceted organization that promotes human rights and social justice in Nepali-speaking communities in New York City and across the United States. She and others from her organization were instrumental in securing the 2010 passage of the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, making New York the first state to include domestic workers in all major labor laws.

Stenson and Rajasingh, the other 2016 prizewinners, have worked extensively to improve the distribution of social impact technology in rural Indian villages. Their organization, Essmart, connects directly with local street vendors in India to research, source, and distribute essential technologies, addressing a supply-chain breakdown and empowering rural communities to drive their own economic growth.

But Ranjit, Stenson, and Rajasingh are not at Grinnell to simply list their achievements and collect their winnings before catching the next flight out of Iowa.

Rather, they are here to participate in Grinnell Prize Week, a four-day series of events designed to educate and inspire students so that they may one day pursue their own social justice dreams.

“To Serve the Common Good”

Although the Prize is only in its sixth year of existence, social justice has been integral to the College’s mission since 1846. That was the year that a group of New England Congregationalist ministers set out for the prairie frontier, determined to establish a college rooted in their ideals of abolition and social reform.

Throughout its history, Grinnell has remained true to its progressive roots. In the 1850s, the College began admitting women. In the 1860s, Josiah Bushnell “J. B.” Grinnell, founder of the town and benefactor of the College that bears his name, worked as an influential “conductor” on the Underground Railroad that secretly transported slaves to freedom. Half a century later, Grinnell graduated six students — four men and two women — who would go on to become key New Deal administrators. 

Today, Grinnell is known for attracting open-minded, intellectually engaged students who fulfill the College’s historic mission of educating men and women “who are prepared in life and work to use their knowledge and their abilities to serve the common good.”

A Continuum of Leadership

But how exactly can an institution educate students to not only do good, but also, in Rajasingh’s words, “do good well”? 

The Grinnell Prize was always intended to inspire the next generation of social innovators, but this year marked an unprecedented effort to frame that goal as a central focus. Although winners have previously been invited to campus to accept their prizes and engage with the Grinnell community, never before have so many events sought to establish the prize within a continuum of social justice leadership.

“This is the first time that we made an intentional effort to demonstrate through Prize Week programming how students may utilize our network of Wall Alumni Award and [Grinnell] Prize winners to further their own social innovation interests, both here on campus and after they graduate,” says Susan Leathem Sanning, assistant dean and director of service and social innovation. 

“This new programming focus — in addition to meeting with students about their potential interests and leading short courses, internships, externships, and workshops — is part of our new effort to integrate the prize and its winners into the educational mission of the College,” she says.

From Pipe Dreams to Praxis

Over the course of the week, the prizewinners visited classes at the College and Grinnell High School, mingled at networking events, and led workshops with titles like “Fundraising 101 — Funding Your Social Justice Dreams” and “How to Sustain Social Innovation.” 

Maria Vertkin, who won the 2015 Grinnell Prize for her work training low-income bilingual women to become medical interpreters, participated in many of the events, as did past Wall Award winners Harris and Alvin Irby ’07

At the events, students engaged the prizewinners with big-picture questions such as “What are the struggles of working for a community you aren’t part of?” as well as more targeted questions about fundraising strategy, organizational sustainability, and networking skills. These sessions, which ranged from panel talks to breakout workshops and a “coffee connection” at Saints Rest Coffee House, offered students a variety of opportunities to learn from the prizewinners. 

As they made the rounds, students filled out a Prize Week “passport,” earning stamps for each event they attended. Students who attended all six public events were entered into a raffle to win an iPad mini.

Raffle winner Hannah Stadler ’17 says, “As someone who is very interested in nonprofit work, I found the opportunity to converse with people who began their own [nonprofit organizations] to be extremely inspiring. The prizewinners were made accessible in low-stress environments like Saints Rest, and because of this, I felt comfortable practicing my networking skills with them.”

Testing Their Wings

Prize Week is just one of the ways that Grinnell inspires its students to pursue social justice. Last year, the College introduced Spark Tank, a new initiative that challenges students to design their own socially just innovations. Loosely modeled after the eponymous television show Shark Tank, in which innovators compete for project funding, Grinnell’s version adds a twist: Students must create innovations that address challenges generated by members of the town community. Local experts on last year’s topic, education, also joined Grinnell Prize winners on the panel of judges to determine which teams would receive funding.

“What we’re trying to do is have a continuum that connects students through volunteering, service learning work-study, Prize Week programming, and initiatives like Spark Tank, so that the Grinnell Prize isn’t a stand-alone, ‘look at this amazing project that somebody’s doing,’” says Sanning.

“Rather, we’re saying, ‘This could be you. And here are some ways that you can start testing your wings.’”

Ultimately, Prize Week is not just a celebration of the winners and their pioneering work; it is also a celebration of the College’s ongoing commitment to pursuing social justice. While the work is never done, Prize Week serves as a reminder that Grinnellians continue to cherish and uphold the values upon which the College was founded. 

* The Joseph F. Wall ’41 Sesquicentennial Service Award is a $25,000 prize given each year to two Grinnell alumni to either start or complete a project that shows creativity and commitment to effecting positive social change.


Happiness Is a Warm Friend

Aristotle described the ideal friendship as one in which reciprocation and respect for each other’s well-being serve a common good. Based on a mutual understanding of virtue and unshakeable in good times or bad, it may serve a useful purpose or make us feel good, but neither pleasure nor utility are its primary purpose. Rather, it is friendship for friendship’s sake with someone so intimate as to function as our “other self.” It is quite simply the gold standard of human relationships. 

If we’re lucky, we have a handful of such friends at any given time in our lives. It doesn’t matter whether they are lifelong or relatively new. It’s their unique qualities that make them irreplaceable. Writer C. S. Lewis is alleged to have captured the birth of true friendship as “the moment when one person says to another ‘What! You too? I thought that I was the only one.’”

Analyzing friendship may seem like an exercise in redundancy, given that we’ve been familiar with the concept since the age of 3. As early as 6, we learn to separate our own identity from others. Empathy follows. By the time we grasp that communities are made up of interconnected networks of friends, we have enough life experience to know that friends are valuable. Any third-grader can tell you that it feels good to have friends.

In fact, there is a generally accepted scientific correlation between friendship and happiness. Psychologists might prefer “subjective well-being” to happiness, but it’s a fine point. Both the Harvard Adult Development Survey and Nurses Health Study, backed by generations of gender-specific research, have concluded that we humans are more likely to achieve octogenarian status with good health and increased life satisfaction if we have not only quality friendships but more of them. 

How Many are Enough? 

There’s a formula for pretty much everything, and the one that calculates human capacity for friendship provides us with the Dunbar numbers, so named after a University of Oxford anthropologist and psychologist. Based on things like brain size and primate behavior in socially complex societies, it puts the number of casual friends we can effectively maintain at about 150. Following sort of a “rule of three,” Dunbar posits that we can cope with 50 or so dinner-party-level insiders, 15 confidants, and only five Aristotelian “paradigm”-type intimates at any given time. 

Putting aside a newish social media variable that allegedly allows users to put a name to the face of as many as 1,500 acquaintances, the 150/50/15/5 rule has been relatively stable from hunter-gather times. Research suggests that military and corporate structures throughout history have relied on similarly sized, eminently manageable divisions. 

The key to this cognitive efficiency is shared experience gained from face-to-face activity, which could be why the numbers don’t actually move much for users of virtual networks. Recent studies show that Twitter users maintain an average of 100–200 stable connections over six months. A Michigan State University survey of undergraduates on Facebook reported a median number of 300 Facebook friends per respondent, only 75 of which were considered to be “actual” friends.

The Inner Circle

Friends are not only important to us as individuals, they comprise networks that hold entire societies together. When the Industrial Revolution concentrated populations of workers around factories, those workers and their families became close-knit due to simple proximity. Frequent interactions, both planned and unplanned, helped build trust as more people shared concerns and confidences with each other. Time spent together in taverns, union meetings, clubs, and church activities provide obvious examples.

Technological and economic upheaval in recent decades altered that interaction and accelerated social change. In the 1990s particularly, sitcoms and movies struck a nerve depicting what sociologists had been saying for a while — that social intimacies formerly ascribed to family relationships were increasingly the domain of an inner-circle of friends. 

The more recent proliferation of “how-to-make-friends” media content indicates that we crave much more than passive, vicarious experience. We want, and apparently need, a lot of help with real-world friendships. Today, Internet sites abound with advice variously nuanced for introverts, singles, people with high IQs, older adults, and college students. Judging by the intended audience for that content, it’s not much of a stretch to say that the most friend-challenged cohort of all may be the first generation to have come of age in the new millennium. For them, the social, economic, and technological ground has been shifting for the entire 18–35 years they’ve been alive.

Accommodating Change

If hand-held technology has pressed “friend” into greater use as a verb, it hasn’t done much for its conventional definition. Pew Research Center surveys in 2014 and 2016 revealed that while 72 percent of all teens spend time with friends online, only 20 percent have ever met an online friend in person. Not that respondents see that as a problem. Relationships based on eSports and gaming (boys) and social media (girls) are a new normal only if one has something else to compare it to. 

Real-world organizations that employ people needing social skills are nevertheless paying close attention to the trend. Sensing the interactive challenges faced by young workers, companies like Mortenson Construction in Minneapolis have begun flexing hours to accommodate sports and social activities that help foster friendships across project teams. According to the American Bar Association’s Law Practice Journal, law firms should expect millennials to need more mentoring in the workplace, which turns out to be fine with millennials because they typically want the stability that mentoring helps provide.

But the juxtaposition of friends and family is where real transformation is occurring. While baby boomers tended to hold family in higher esteem than friends, and gen-Xers saw friends and family as a distinction with less of a difference, millennials live in a world where friends equal, if not trump, family. Hence, friends are providing not only the intimacy but also the influence that formerly came from conventional family units. 

How We Make Sense of Things

Karla Erickson, associate dean and professor of sociology at Grinnell, is conducting research on how college graduates from 2000–2015 “build selves,” which is to say how they make sense of success, failure, opportunities, and choices in their first steps out of college. Her study deals with their experiences in uncertain social and economic times in relation to the workplace. Erickson says she’s been surprised at how often themes of friendship emerged. 

“The friendship thing just kind of popped up out of nowhere. I wasn’t even looking for it,” Erickson says. Her first clue was not so much in what respondents said, but in the way they said it.

“People were using a ‘we’ voice, and often it turned out that the ‘we’ were friendship groups based in college,” Erickson says. “They would say ‘we decided to do something else’ or ‘we decided to move to Boston,’ but the ‘we’ wasn’t always traditional family, a home unit, a child or partner. Sometimes it was four friends.

“I’m starting to think that one of the things that characterizes this generation is the amount of weight and heft that they give to long-term friendships,” Erickson says. “I don’t have enough depth in my data collection yet to say this generation definitely does friendship differently, but I’m comfortable saying that friendship is one of its primary navigational tools.”

A Whole Different “We”

Erickson cites the way her participants think about themselves as workers adjusting to their existing opportunity structure. She says she expected interviewees to refer to the experiences of their parents, grandparents, or neighbors in making sense of their world. But the millennial generation doesn’t seem to use family as a “go-to” frame of reference for employment issues or any other major life event. 

“I was really struck by how often turning points weren’t about having a baby or taking care of a parent. They were about friendship,” Erickson says, adding that there also is little or no mention of money or salaries. “They don’t care about the larger economy. The way they make sense of whether they’re doing OK is by what their key good friends — the people they trust — are doing. If they’re OK relative to them, then they’re good.” 

Participants typically report no family rupture. They still visit home, and family remains very important to them. Nevertheless, Erickson says, “navigation of failure and success appears completely situated with their friends, not their parents. And that’s a whole different kind of ‘we,’ completely separate from the history of friendship we commonly refer to.”

Grinnell Effect?

Erickson’s early interviewees were exclusively Grinnellians, so she’s uncertain about whether what’s emerging is a millennial effect or a Grinnell effect. Either way, she worries that setting such a high bar for friendship may create conditions that can’t be met in other environments. 

“What I hear in these interviews,” Erickson says, “is people saying, ‘I’ve never been able to find that intimacy that I had with my friends at Grinnell.’ I hear people making job changes to try to find that community. I hear them doing stuff like taking up a weird hobby, like some kind of drumming circle that they’ve never done before, some kind of specialized knitting. They’re seeking that thing that they had at Grinnell.

“Friendships like that happen here in part because it’s rigorous in the sense of a shared struggle, in the sense that it’s tough to be a Grinnellian, and that the things that we select for in admission matter here — an intensity of personality, that you’re not a conformist, that you’re not trying to be mainstream, that you’re trying to be your own unique self.

“I think of it as part of the heritage of being a Grinnellian that you have this depth of connection with other people,” Erickson says. “It’s a great inheritance of the Grinnell experience, sort of like an alchemy where you are reforged a little bit.” 

The capacity to have friendships across gender is yet another positive aspect of the shared Grinnell experience, according to Erickson, especially since cross-gender friendships have been regarded historically as having so many potential pitfalls. “I think it’s lovely, the depth of these friendships,” Erickson says. “And I think it’s a trademark of the school.”

Tending Friendships

Erickson adds one caveat, and that is that people are likely never again going to have a time when they can stay up until 2 or 2:30 a.m. every night and shoot the breeze. “So if that’s the only way they know how to develop these close affinities,” Erickson says, “it’s going to be hard to replicate.”

Perhaps it’s because friendship seems so intuitive and subjective that intentional conversations about making and keeping friends are rare in the experience of any generation. But it’s a special conundrum for a generation that’s professionally migrational, likes structure more than its predecessors, yet has high demands and higher expectations of everything and everybody — including friends. 

“I teach labor classes, and at the end of them I advise graduates to tend their friendships,” Erickson says. “People tend to think they will just take care of themselves. Then two years later they’ve lost touch, and that’s really hard to rebuild.”

The Role of Values

Kelly Guilbeau is assistant director of advising and exploration at the Center for Careers, Life, and Service (CLS), whose mission is to empower students to live, learn, and work with meaning and purpose. Guilbeau says that while meaning and purpose are linked with happiness, achieving them requires knowing how to put one’s values into practice.

“The idea of values has been heavily incorporated into our work at the CLS over the past year and a half or so,” Guilbeau says. As of fall 2015, first-year students engage in an informal “values activity” upon arrival. It helps them prioritize what really matters to them in life. “Students end up with their top five values, which we expect to shift as they develop and grow,” Guilbeau says. “When appropriate, we might ask about these values intentionally.”

The values activity is specific to each student, but cumulative results for the class of 2019 show that friendship ranks among the top two values for the entire group. Happiness doesn’t make the top 20 because it’s not a selectable value, but rather a product of other values that produce life satisfaction. “I can’t tell you how many times students say ‘helping others makes me happy,’” Guilbeau says, “so they choose a value of helpfulness.” 

Emotional Intelligence = Social Competence

Guilbeau equates intimate knowledge of one’s own values to emotional intelligence — an attribute that gives us both the emotional competency to manage relationships and an overarching social competency for navigating the myriad human circumstances of life and work.  

Guilbeau says, “If a student came in and said ‘I’m having trouble with my friends,’ I would begin asking about what matters to them, like ‘What do you need from your relationships in your life? Why does that matter to you? And how can you surround yourself with people that support that?’ 

“Then it’s an easy comparison to ask ‘How does the group you hang out with support your values? Do your friends or the activities you do with your friends ever conflict with your values?’ If there is a disconnect and action needs to be taken, then the real and often difficult work begins.”

Having a preference for people who are sympathetic with our values doesn’t mean that we can be friends only with those who never challenge our beliefs. In fact, staying grounded in personal values during times of turmoil or anxiety is key to the negotiating process necessary for a friendship to endure.

“I think you’re probably more likely to be a friend with someone who’s wildly different from you if you can practice empathy,” Guilbeau says. “You’re being challenged to think about the world in a different way. There might even be arguments. An authentic friendship, a real friendship, has times where you might have to manage conflict. You might have to step out of your comfort zone and negotiate.” 

In the course of such negotiations we may seek to protect or reinforce our own values, but we also gain perspective on what matters most to other people. 

“To do all of this requires a lot of emotional intelligence,” Guilbeau says. “I have to know what I’m going to fight for, what’s a deal breaker, and what I’m willing to leave behind. I have to know what matters to me.”

A Simple Approach

Guilbeau, whose background is clinical mental health counseling, says it’s important that we periodically reassess our values since they’re apt to change as we’re exposed to new things and new people and as we learn more about ourselves.

“If we don’t unpack our experiences, we’re right on to the next thing and never really think, ‘What does this mean for me?’ or ‘How did this influence where I’m going next?’” Guilbeau says. “I see my role in the CLS as to infuse that into our conversations and programs so that it becomes a natural part of every experience, that you don’t have an experience without unpacking it.

“All of this is completely transferrable to friendships,” she says. “What I always come back to is knowing what works for you and being able to negotiate it and knowing that it’s possibly going to change over time with every single person that you are friends with.”

So what should we do when we’re alone in a new place and separated from our trusted circle of friends? Guilbeau offers a simple approach: “Put yourself in situations where you might interact with someone,” she says, “After an interaction, come back to yourself and see if you want to interact with that person again. Do they work for you or do they not work for you, based on what matters to you? 

“If you can say your intention out loud, then you are practicing self-awareness and allowing yourself to pursue what you need,” Guilbeau says. “At the end of the day, is this potential friend right for you at this point in your life? To me, it’s as simple as that.” 

Top Values of the Grinnell Class of 2019

(from the Center for Careers, Life, and Service)

Top Values of the Grinnell Class of 2019

Building a Baroque Violin

It’s a hot and steamy July afternoon, but the Egan Early Music Room in the Bucksbaum Center for the Arts is quiet and cool. In the center of the darkened space shines a small bright light directed at a workbench. There’s a scent of freshly hewn spruce in the air. The only sounds are a soft, rhythmic scraping followed by a tap … tap … TAP.  

Katie Krainc ’17 doesn’t seem to care that interlopers have wandered into her impromptu woodworking shop. Her ear is bent toward a thin piece of wood, listening for a pitch.  

From a corner of the room a human voice hums in unison to the resonant tapping, and declares, “That’s F sharp.” The voice belongs to Jennifer Brown, associate professor and chair of the Department of Music.

“It’s supposed to be a couple of steps lower,” Krainc (rhymes with France) says. “I’ll have to take off more material to get the right tone.” The scraping resumes, part of a woodworker’s lullaby that’s been playing all summer from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., every day.

Brown, whose specialty is the history and performance of Baroque music, is mentoring Krainc’s unusual Mentored Advanced Project titled “Building a Baroque Violin.” It’s the first MAP of its kind at Grinnell, Brown says, and it was entirely Krainc’s idea. 

“I like wood, I like the violin, I like building things, and Professor Brown was enthusiastic about it,” says Krainc, who is majoring in music and physics. “I like knowing how things work, and there are crossroads of physics in music, like the acoustic aspect and the geometry of the instrument so that it vibrates optimally.”

Krainc built a traditional stringed instrument called an n’goni for an African studies class last year, but the Baroque violin is her first try at being a serious luthier using highly specialized tools. She brings a passion for the violin to the job, having played the instrument since the age of six. She currently plays with the Collegium Musicum, which Brown directs, as well as in the Grinnell Symphony Orchestra, with which she played a solo concerto in her second year. 

The MAP’s ultimate goal is for Krainc to play a Collegium Musicum recital with the reproduction 17th-century instrument of her own making. The violin carrying her unique label will then stay in Grinnell’s collection for other students to play, which Krainc says is fine with her. “Anything that I carve myself I give away,” Krainc says, “so I feel like it will fit in with my whole mentality about the things that I make.” 

“To me, this is a model kind of MAP,” Brown says. “It’s taking academic knowledge and historical research and applying them practically to the process of making the instrument. And then, the ultimate test is the music it can make. To me, it’s totally perfect.” 

The research phase of the MAP included a trip to the National Music Museum at Vermillion, S.D., to better understand the history and mechanics of the violin and how the instrument has changed over time. “Hopefully,” Krainc says, “I will be able to place what I make in time and get an accurate reading on what I’ve been able to bring out in this instrument that fits the time period.” 

Krainc says she’s not sure how she might eventually apply her new skills. She might make more instruments, investigate apprenticeships, or combine her music and physics knowledge in the field of acoustical engineering. Right now she has other pressing things on her mind, like carving, fitting the purfling, gluing, finishing, varnishing, and stringing.

“It’s a very ambitious project,” Brown says. “My measures of success for Katie will be: Did she learn about the history of the instrument? Did she learn about the physical dimensions and properties and how they affect the sound? How did she manipulate those in the process of building? Has she learned skills that will help her in her potential future as a violin maker?”

“And,” Katie says looking up from the workbench, “will I actually make a violin?”

A burst of shared laughter from student and mentor brings temporary relief from the enormity of the task, after which the craftsperson quietly resumes carving … and tapping.


Krainc did indeed make a violin, and she presented her MAP to incoming students at the outset of fall semester 2016. As she related, a couple of things in the project did not go exactly as planned. First, the sound-post setting tool procured for the job did not work properly, and the sound post was not installed. The result was a violin that “plays” but “sounds more like a ukulele,” Krainc said in her presentation. 

Second, she ran out of time to apply the varnish, which has significant bearing on the instrument’s tone. Hence, there will be no recital on the instrument as part of her MAP. Brown says she still expects the instrument to eventually make its way into the Grinnell collection and be played, once it is finished. Whether these steps will be part of a continuation of Krainc’s MAP or be accomplished by a student luthier of the future is yet to be determined.  

Writing One-on-One

On a cold March day, Alejandra Rodriguez Wheelock ’17 arrives right on time for her Writing Lab appointment with Kevin Crim, Writing Lab assistant and lecturer. She grins, shrugs out of her backpack and coat, and hands Kevin draft number four of her essay, “The Basic Principles of Long-Distance Running,” for Dean Bakopoulos’s course in creative nonfiction.

Kevin and Ale (pronounced “Allie”) sit side by side at a table piled high with books. Through the tall windows of Kevin’s office — northeast corner of Alumni Recitation Hall (ARH), ground floor — they could see bare sycamore branches and leaden sky, but they pay no mind. Their attention is on Ale’s essay.

“I’m happy with the content,” Ale says. The essay has been workshopped in class, and Kevin has responded to content and structure in earlier appointments. “I want to review the editing.” 

Kevin nods and begins to read aloud, exactly as the piece is written, so Ale can hear for herself where a word may not be the best choice — a “this” rather than “the,” “through” instead of “across.” Ale is from Guatemala and English is not her first language.

He reads, “I felt the hospital.”

Ale stops him. “Okay, left,” she says, and he notes the change on her draft. 

Kevin reads with a pen in hand, following each line. He reacts as a reader and notes problems — all are minor at this stage of her draft. 

Teaching one-on-one

“I like to hear my own voice,” Crim jokes when asked why he reads each student’s work aloud. 

In fact, it’s emblematic of the kind of work the Writing Lab staff does day in and day out — helping students learn to recognize problems in their own work and figure out solutions. 

“Our model is one-to-one tutoring,” says Janet Carl, director of the lab, “and that’s what we do most of and that seems very effective. One person giving you everything they’ve got in terms of feedback, and conversation, and respect, and support. That’s a good deal for a writer.

“It’s really become a major part of the way the College teaches writing,” Carl says, “although certainly we believe we’re working fully in partnership with the faculty. It’s not the primary source of instruction at the College, but it is a major resource that this College offers.”

The way the Writing Lab approaches the teaching of writing — primarily individual appointments with students who are coming in because they want to — fits neatly with Grinnell’s individualized approach to education. 

But it wasn’t exactly planned that way.

A casual beginning

In the late 1960s, like many other colleges and universities, the Grinnell College faculty voted to eliminate the core and distribution requirements and adopt an individually advised curriculum. This took the onus of teaching writing off the instructors of Humanities 101, which had been a required course. 

Then, says Waldo Walker, professor emeritus of biology, they all realized: “Oh my god, we’re not teaching students to write anymore.” 

The First-Year Tutorial, which had been pilot-tested but was not yet required, became the only required course. As a result, the responsibility for teaching writing spread across the curriculum, but not all faculty members were comfortable teaching students how to write. 

Walker, who was dean at the time, set up summer writing seminars for faculty teaching the tutorial. “It worked,” he says. 

But students don’t typically learn to be good writers from a single course or a single semester. “I needed a couple people we could refer students to,” Walker says. He knew two faculty spouses, Jan Irving and Linda Finton Morris ’61, who had expertise in writing. (Morris went on to get her doctorate in English and teach at the University of California-Davis.) Then Walker asked Mathilda Liberman to help out. 

“[He] asked me to meet with a few of the students one by one to discuss their writing problems,” Liberman says. “One or two resident advisers were assigned to help me, part-time. We met with our students in one room or another. It was all very casual, unstructured.” 

The Writing Lab came to fruition in 1973. 

“I had no vision of the Writing Lab,” Liberman says. “In fact, I expected it to be canceled almost right away, but Dean Walker had plans for our future.” 

“Mathilda shaped the lab,” says Betty Moffett, who was hired as a Writing Lab assistant in 1973, became the director in 1998, and retired in 2000. “She made the lab respectable. She had the admiration of every faculty member that I know of. I think she kept the Writing Lab from being a second-class citizen. She raised its status so people respected the work we were doing and the people who were doing it.”

Staffed by professionals 

One way Grinnell’s Writing Lab stands out compared to writing centers at other colleges, although it is not unique, is in the use of professional staff. The staff grew over time to five full-time people with expertise in writing and teaching writing. 

Many of them stayed for years and years. For example, Kevin Crim retired in May 2016 with 41 years under his belt.

Judy Hunter, director from 2000 to 2011 with 38 years total at the lab, worked with Crim her entire career. “His ability to grasp the whole import of where the student is trying to go and then help them is kind of amazing. I loved watching his appointments. I learned so much from him.”

Augmented by students

In recent years, partly due to demand for more services, the lab has begun training students as writing mentors, a project Hunter initiated. Mentors are nominated by professors, attend the class they serve and meet with students outside of class to offer feedback. The writing mentors also take a two-credit course taught by Carl on the teaching of writing.

Katherine Tucker ’16, a writing mentor her senior year for two different sociology courses, says, “I would try to get a sense of what the student was trying to convey regardless of what I was reading on the paper.” The temptation for mentors, she says, is to fall into editing mode versus a more global perspective. “I always had to pay attention to what the professor was looking for.”

Using the resources at hand

Some students may feel a sense of shame at needing help with their writing. 

Carl says, “I hope students don’t feel that faculty would think less of them because they use the Writing Lab. In my experience, the opposite is true.”

The Writing Lab is “a place that a lot of students don’t find, unfortunately,” Hunter says. “But many students, when they do find it, find it a place of support and one-on-one interaction and friendly people that they maintain relationships with. I still have students I’m in touch with.”

Carl adds, “Success is really linked to using the resources at hand. People who are successful are people who use the resources.”

Ale Rodriguez Wheelock ’17 is the perfect example. The essay she was working on with Crim, “The Basic Principles of Long-Distance Running,” won the James Norman Hall 1910 Aspiring Writer Award last spring. 

I remember one young Chinese man who had gone to a very good high school in Nanjing, and he was not used to getting anything lower than very, very top grades. He had a tutorial with Mark Montgomery, who for that time was marking his papers in green ink because red looks like blood and green looks like growth. 

This young man came into my office one day just mad. Just mad. He said, “Look at this. I want to write Mr. Montgomery a letter.”

I said, “Let’s think about this for a minute.”

He said, “There’s green ink all over. This has never happened to me before.” In a few minutes, he said, “I’m calm now. But I still want to write Mr. Montgomery a letter.”

I said, “Okay, as long as you let me read over your shoulder.”

He agreed. “Dear Prof. Montgomery. Give me more green writing. You have not crushed me.”

That young man did very, very well at Grinnell College.

– Betty Moffett

Fighting Injustice One Wrongful Conviction at a Time

A woman is raped and murdered in a notorious neighborhood on the south side of Chicago. The police arrest four African-American teens who assert their innocence. But, hours after grueling police interrogation, each signs a confession.

Even though pretrial evidence supported their claims of innocence at the time, the boys known as the Englewood Four were convicted and sentenced to 30–40 years in prison. 

Why do innocent teens confess to crimes they didn’t commit? Why do police and prosecutors use their collective power to incarcerate the innocent?

“It’s an enormous problem,” says Joshua Tepfer ’97, a full-time attorney for the Exoneration Project and lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School, where the project is based. “Chicago is the epicenter of criminal injustice.” 

Tepfer, who gave a 2015 TEDx talk in Grinnell about false confessions, has helped to overturn more than a dozen wrongful convictions — including that of Terrill Swift, one of the Englewood Four. 

“Josh is an amazing lawyer to work with at the Exoneration Project,” says Elizabeth Wang, a national staff attorney with the project. “He is smart, committed, and passionate about his clients. We worked together on the exoneration of two clients, Ben Baker and his partner, Clarissa Glenn; and Josh’s fresh ideas, great writing, and strategic thinking about the case are what made the exoneration happen.”

In addition to Tepfer’s legal prowess, he has raised public awareness about false confessions and the flawed criminal justice system through interviews with The New York Times and 60 Minutes. He also appeared in court scenes on episode 10 of the Netflix documentary Making a Murderer, which chronicled the murder cases of Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey. At the time, Tepfer joined with former colleagues Laura Nirider and Steve Drizin as Dassey’s post-conviction attorneys. 

Wrongful convictions like Swift’s and Baker’s keep coming. 

The United States imprisons more people than any other country. More than 2.2 million people — an increase of 500 percent over the last 40 years — are incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails due to changes in laws and policy, not crime rates, according to The Sentencing Project. Racial and socioeconomic disparities persist throughout the criminal justice system, according to the nonprofit organization which promotes sentencing reforms. 

“To paraphrase the great Bryan Stevenson [American lawyer and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative], the criminal justice system treats you more fairly if you are white, rich, and guilty than if you’re poor, black, and innocent,” says Tepfer, a former assistant clinical professor at Northwestern University School of Law and co-director of its Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth. 

Sometimes a particular case will pique Tepfer’s interest. He also receives referrals and fields requests from inmate advocates. He reviews forensic evidence and police misconduct to see if there is a way to reopen the case. 

“Ultimately I look at two things,” Tepfer says. “Do I think they’re innocent? And is there a path to proving it?”

Tepfer has also trained law enforcement investigators across the country about the dangers of using adult interview tactics on youths who are unable to comprehend the consequences that confessions will have on their lives. 

According to the center, false confessions account for nearly 25 percent of all convictions later overturned based on DNA evidence. Tepfer says police also taint the process and prosecutors rely too heavily upon “faulty evidence” to gain convictions. 

Swift told The New York Times in 2011 that he confessed out of “terror and exhaustion” after being questioned for hours by the police, who said he could go home if he signed a confession or risk spending his life in prison. 

“Nothing short of a complete overhaul will solve this problem,” says Tepfer, who received a Grinnell Alumni Award in 2013.  

Swift’s case affected Tepfer. Both men are about the same age. Swift is from the city; Tepfer hails from suburban Chicago. 

“He could have been the lawyer. I could have been the wrongfully convicted,” Tepfer says, “just because of the circumstances of where we were born.” 

Swift was paroled after serving about 15 years of a 30-year sentence. Tepfer, and lawyers for the others in the Englewood case, sought advanced DNA testing that ultimately cleared them. The semen found in the victim matched a later convicted killer the police once questioned but dismissed as a suspect. A judge vacated their convictions. Although the Cook County state’s attorney initially balked at relying on additional DNA evidence, the office yielded and then dismissed all charges. Swift and his co-defendants received Certificates of Innocence, and the case is listed on the National Registry of Exonerations. 

“We had to litigate every step of the way,” Tepfer says. “It showed me how difficult it is to undo these convictions.”  

The Untold History of Great Grinnell Pranks

A desire to craft and carry off the perfect prank seems etched into Grinnellians’ DNA. 

Take, for example, the walrus incident.

In 1871, after one of the College’s two buildings burned to the ground, a casualty was a stuffed walrus, part of the school’s natural history collection. A faculty member believed the animal could be restored and kept it in a hallway of the remaining building for months. But as the decaying walrus grew increasingly fragrant, a group of students — led by sophomore Henry Carter Adams 1874, son of Grinnell co-founder Ephraim Adams — decided that the mammal needed to be disposed of after a proper send-off. They wrote a poem for the animal, buried it outside of the building, and shot off a cannon at midnight to honor it. (Why the school had a working cannon on campus remains murky.)

President George Magoun was furious about the shenanigans, and after delivering a long lecture to students in the chapel the following day, he suspended a freshman who was involved in the prank. (In true Grinnell fashion, the entire first-year class took action: They went on strike in support of their fellow student, who was later reinstated.)

To find out more about some of the great Grinnell pranks through time, we’ve combed through the College’s archives, interviewed alumni and administrators, and shared the playbooks of Grinnell’s greatest mischief-makers. 

The most spacious room on campus

The most spacious room on campus

In the 1996 documentary Grinnell Stories, Augusta “Gus” Towner Reid ’28 recalled a young student in Langan Hall who slept like a rock and was often the target of practical jokes because of it. 

One night while he slumbered, fellow floor members took everything from his room — dresser, lamp, the bed with him in it — out onto the lawn near Mears Cottage. They perfectly replicated his dorm room layout near the path students used when they returned home from that night’s dance. As couples gawked at the peacefully sleeping student, he was none the wiser. “Only when he woke up in the morning did he realize what had happened to him,” Reid recalled.

The president’s popularity ratings had never been higher

In 1976, Doug Dohrer ’76 helped orchestrate a prank that had a campuswide impact. He agreed to confess to his involvement with some apprehensiveness. “My bag is packed and my passport is up to date, just in case I have to flee,” he jokes. He shares his memory of events:

“One dark evening, knowing our beloved President A. Richard Turner was out of town, a group of students decided it was time for the annual springtime Skip Day. Gently letting ourselves into the president’s office, we borrowed some official stationery and wrote up a declaration announcing the cancellation of all classes for the following day, complete with music and games. We thoughtfully signed his name. 

Skip Day

“We made a few hundred copies and discreetly distributed them around campus at the library, the Pub, dorms, everywhere. In short order, we gleefully witnessed our fellow students pouring out of the dorms and the library to party like there was no tomorrow. 

“The running dogs and imperialist lackeys at the campus radio station tried to say it was bogus, but the horse was already out of the barn. Our revolution was complete.

“I can only hope that the statute of limitations has expired for this heinous crime.”

Greek scholars still can’t agree on a translation of “d’oh”

Greek scholars still can’t agree on a translation of “d’oh”Serving either as inspiration or intimidation, the names of some of Western civilization’s greats — Dante, Plato, Homer — are chiseled directly into the stone of Grinnell’s Carnegie Hall. But in 1997, some students decided that there was another Homer worth honoring: Homer Simpson. Students hung a giant image of the animated family man beneath the Homer name.

The reason behind the student-created campaign, according to a letter in The Scarlet & Black, was to raise awareness of “the division of labor and the exploitation of the proletariat” and to demand that the College observe Labor Day by giving its employees and students the day off.

The administration didn’t change the academic calendar, but they did acknowledge the effort: For the phonathon that followed, all volunteers got a T-shirt with a photo of the cartoon-covered building that said “Phone Homer.”

If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em

Few people make better prank targets than earnest first-year students. At the beginning of one academic year in the early 1980s, all first-year students got official-looking invitations to a pizza party, ostensibly hosted by President George A. Drake ’56.

The only problem? Drake wasn’t in on the joke. Students began arriving at the president’s house, but Drake was out for a run. His wife Susan Ratcliff Drake ’58 delivered the bad news to the arriving crowds. 

Drake says the joke didn’t anger him — it inspired him. “It was a pretty good prank — and a great idea,” he says. “It made us realize we should do something like that.” To recover, the Drakes began hosting ice cream socials, which became a much-loved tradition for students.

Wait, it’s not “pranks and circumstance”?

Commencement Hackensack PrankGraduation often brings out the best in student ingenuity. As their final official acts as students, many Grinnellians decide they want to get the last laugh.

Drake, president of the College from 1979 to 1991, always arranged for a table to be placed on the stage next to the diplomas, just so he’d have a place to put all of the “gifts” he received from students as they shook hands with him at the ceremony. “One year, I shook hands with a student and it was a mannequin arm,” he says. “I just pulled it right out of the gown.” Another time, in the late 1980s, a student flipped a Hacky Sack into the air and waited for Drake to respond. “I hit the ball with the side of my foot and it bounced right back into his hands. I couldn’t have done that if I tried a hundred more times,” he says, still recalling the perfectly precise kick joyfully.

Word was that all the fish received honorary degrees

Great practical jokes are rarely the work of a single individual. Over the years, students have coordinated their efforts at graduation ceremonies. One year, graduating seniors assembled a massive puzzle of a photo of President Pamela A. Ferguson. Another year, during Drake’s presidency, seniors crossing the stage handed over dozens of individual marbles and finally, a marble raceway. 

Fish Tank PrankIn 1994, a prank made a particularly big splash. Scott Ihrig ’94 coordinated efforts to help students to create a fish-filled aquarium on the graduation stage. Students who were eager to participate each took individual elements up to the stage, Ihrig explains. “It started with a small black acting cube from the theatre that was placed downstage center, then the glass fish tank, then disposable cups filled with gravel, then the same cups with water, then the castle for the tank, then the fish,” he recalls. “Pam [Ferguson] took it in good stride, and it turned out to be a clue to my career path: I opened an event design and production company that creates live experiences for big corporations.”

But for Ihrig, the joy for him is not that he was the prank’s mastermind — but that he was just one part of a larger achievement. “I’m glad it was a group effort,” he says. “It took a whole class to make it happen.”

On the plus side, he never denied his god complex

Plenty of offbeat candidates have entered the race for president of the Student Government Association, including Tripod Bob, a beloved three-legged campus cat. But the most successful was David Kramer ’80, who in 1979 ran as a messiah — not for a yearlong post, but an eternal one.

In an S&B interview, Kramer-as-messiah campaigned on issues including the liquidation of the $60 million endowment to support free morphine for all students, support for coed bathrooms, and a promise that if plans moved forward to tear down Mears Cottage, he would personally “tear down the trustees.”

Kramer ultimately prevailed in a runoff vote, 357-240, over a more traditional student candidate. (“My prophets helped me immensely,” he said in a follow-up S&B interview, in reference to campaign pals Bob Weiss ’80 and Chuck Platter ’81.) As for the work of his presidency? With Mears still in use and coed bathrooms the norm, one might say his desire to have an everlasting impact wasn’t so far-fetched after all.