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. 


Tips for Writing Comics

Zander: Inspiration’s a real thing. If I get it at home, I’ll try to write it out or sketch it out, but you can’t do a whole comic on inspiration alone.

Kevin: Unless you want to make the leap to go pro, it’s good to have a day job so you can just do the cartoons you want. There’s no pressure. You can experiment. You can fail. Failing is key number one.

Zander: Whenever you plan on doing one thing, do three. The first one you do is so lousy that immediately you think about going into the next one so you can fix all those mistakes.

Zander: Doing Web comics is so helpful to people, because the specifics of print are a little outdated and a little irrelevant to the skills. Let’s just do the panels, throw them up online, and see what people think.

Kevin: You put something online and things are either faved or not faved pretty quickly. It’s like you tap the vein of your audience faster and in a more immediate sense than print.

Zander Cannon and Kevin Cannon on couch at Big Time AtticLearn more about Zander and Kevin Cannon, Comic Book Artists.

Legacy of Activism

Last fall, black students at dozens of colleges across the country protested against racial discrimination on their campuses, including demonstrations at Yale University, Claremont McKenna College, and Ithaca College. The most high-profile protests were held at the University of Missouri, which led to the ousting of Tim Wolfe, president of the University of Missouri system.

As black youth organize via Black Lives Matter to speak out against police brutality, our nation finds itself amid a new civil rights movement. As it spreads, black student organizations have become lightning rods for controversy on college campuses, and Grinnell College has been no different.

In early 2015, racist slurs were posted anonymously on the social media app Yik Yak, specifically targeting black students on campus. In addition to calling for the disbanding of Grinnell College’s black student organization Concerned Black Students (CBS), messages harassed black student leaders by name. One post called a black student a “spear chucker”; another accused “blacks” of “ruining Grinnell.”

“The dominant narrative is that Grinnell is this great liberal place, that we’re all into social justice, that we’re a post-racial society,” says Alexandra Odom ’16, house monitor for the Conney M. Kimbo Black Cultural Center this past year. “But black students see the opposite side of this; we are often confronted with really conservative racist ideas projected on us. The school is radical until it comes to issues of race and black people.”

She adds: “I’ve had some of the best times in my life on this campus, but also some of the worst.”

As it has for almost 50 years, CBS serves as a home for black students during controversies big and small. It has also been a powerful vehicle for getting the administration and the Grinnell College community at large to consider a black perspective.

Origin story

Black students at Grinnell formed CBS in the fall of 1967 after hearing Martin Luther King Jr. speak at the college.

“We were just so inspired by Dr. King,” says Frank Thomas ’71, an administrator at the College for many years. “Plus, in ’67 there were a lot of things going on nationally — black student unions were forming in various colleges around the country, and there was a lot of unrest in various cities. So, the students at Grinnell, though not particularly ‘militant,’ still had concerns. We felt we needed to do something.”

Not much happened that fall, but the need to “do something” intensified in the spring of ’68 when King was assassinated in April. Before his assassination, multiple black students and faculty reported being verbally harassed and threatened with physical harm in town, according to The Scarlet & Black. Town-gown relations got so bad that a Grinnell College student, Lou Kelley ’68, was attacked and beaten up in his dorm room by a Grinnell townsperson. “The baddest black guy on campus was harassed and beaten up, so that was the impetus for us to decide, look, we’re really not safe around here,” Thomas says. King’s murder was the final straw, and black students got serious about organizing.

But things were relatively quiet until 1971, when black students chained the doors to Burling Library and locked themselves inside. The S&B reported that during the takeover, which lasted from 7:15 a.m. until 12:30 p.m., no white people, with the exception of a few administrators, including then-President Glenn Leggett, were admitted to the library. The chained doors were adorned with posters featuring such slogans as “Do You Deny Us As Black People The Right To Be Free?” and “We Are An American People Proud Of Our Blackness: We Want To Express Ourselves And Our Blackness In Our Academic Life On This Campus.”

Leggett met with a group of about 10 black CBS members in the president’s office, which was inside Burling at that time. CBS presented him with its “black manifesto,” a list of 10 demands designed to improve campus life for black students and faculty. Demands included boosting black student enrollment to “no less than 200” and establishing a larger black cultural center, a black library in Burling, and a black studies major.

“Campus opinion was widely split on the issue, ranging from full support to unspeakable bitterness and a parody ‘manifesto,’” stated the May 15, 1973, special commencement issue of The S&B. “CBS held meetings with students and trustees clarifying its position and undertook extensive negotiating sessions with the administration.”

Many goals of CBS’s “black manifesto” have not been realized — there still aren’t 200 black students on campus. Current students still contend the campus sees its share of racial unrest. So the question remains: What has been gained through CBS’s efforts?

Recruiting black students

Following the Burling takeover, Leggett, along with the trustees, agreed to establish a black studies major and an admissions board for black students. They also agreed to give black students space in the form of the Conney M. Kimbo Black Cultural Center, which has been affectionately called “The House” over the years.

However, the Black Admissions Board was doomed from the start. The faculty dissolved it in 1976 after the College received a letter from the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare indicating that a separate black admissions board was “unacceptable.” Students were promised that the general admissions board would be sensitive to black needs, according to The S&B.

Over the years, Grinnell College has had varying levels of success in recruiting black students to campus, but it still isn’t known as a destination school. For example, it failed to rank on Essence magazine’s recent list of the 50 best colleges for African Americans, while similar private liberal arts colleges such as Amherst, Wellesley, and Williams (all in Massachusetts) made the cut. According to Amherst, for example, black students composed 10 percent of first-year students this past year, the lowest it has been in the past few years. In comparison at Grinnell, average black enrollment has hovered at about 6 percent since 2003.

According to the latest figures from Grinnell’s Office of Analytic Support and Institutional Research, during the 2015–16 academic year there were 96 African American students at Grinnell, who overall made up 5.6 percent of the student body. In 2014, the College for the first time reached a 100-student milestone. That may not seem like much, but Grinnell has never had a big black student population — in 1998, which had the lowest population of African American students in the past 25 years, there were only 35 black students.

“There were fewer than 30 of us when we formed CBS,” Thomas recalls. “As an organization, it was really important for us to be there to support current black students, but also to call for increased enrollment of black students.”

According to Joe Bagnoli, vice president for enrollment and dean of admission and financial aid, the College has made great strides toward increasing those numbers. On staff is a coordinator of multicultural recruitment, and each year the admission office revisits its goals and strategies for the enrollment of underrepresented students.

“We have a nationwide recruitment strategy with a special focus on [African American and Latino] populations,” he says. “Our outreach efforts include targeted school visits and building relationships with CBOs [community-based organizations]. And we underwrite the costs associated with trips to campus for underrepresented students to ensure that cost is not an impediment to the campus visit for domestic students of color who may be living in lower-income households.”

Those efforts have recently yielded an unprecedented number of applicants, Bagnoli says. This year almost 50 percent of the College’s domestic applicants identified as students of color. Additionally, domestic students of color currently make up almost 25 percent of the student body.

But Bagnoli admits that because of federal mandates that would discourage the College from identifying quotas, they address recruitment in terms of promoting broader diversity rather than focusing on how to specifically increase numbers of black students.

“We’re not just talking about [black students] as a group,” he said. “We’re talking about them as representative of various underrepresented students within that broader category. So, black students are often a part of our conversation. Latino students are often a part of our conversation, as well as first-generation college students and Pell-eligible students.”

Posse impact

Recently, Grinnell College President Raynard S. Kington announced that the College was severing ties with the Posse Foundation. Grinnell had partnered with Posse since 2003, and it has been a significant source of black students for the College. In 2015, there were a total of 33 black Posse Scholars, making up 27 percent of black domestic students.

The Posse Foundation works to discover public high school students across racial groups with extraordinary academic and leadership potential, many of whom might be overlooked in a traditional college selection process. Once those Posse Scholars have been identified, they receive four-year, full-tuition scholarships to one of the organization’s partner schools.

“Posse has helped us to pursue our goals for diversity and student success and grow as a diverse institution,” Kington said in a statement. “Posse Scholars have brought great energy and student leadership to campus and given us a good sense of what close faculty-student mentoring can achieve. As we plan for the future we will seek to incorporate those ideas into our planning and engage Posse scholars and alumni in it.”

The decision caused a furor both on campus and in the alumni community. A letter signed by hundreds was sent to the administration asking for clarity on the memo announcing the decision.

“More troublingly for us, the memo provides very little insight into how the College will continue to recruit excellent students from urban areas and support these students. The memo alludes to a ‘more comprehensive approach to achieving our goals for diversity,’ but it fails to explain what this approach entails and does not specify the nature of the goals,” the letter read.

Bagnoli says he understands the frustration, but that the College is moving in the right direction in terms of getting more students of color on campus.

“When we entered into a relationship with the Posse Foundation, we were having a much more difficult time trying to attract the attention of underrepresented populations of all kinds,” he says. “Fast-forward to an applicant pool of over 7,300 students in 2016, when almost half of those domestic applicants are from students of color.”

He adds: “The Posse Foundation has provided Grinnell access to 20 finalists in two cities. We have loved getting to know the Posse finalists. They’re great people. But they now represent a small fraction of the total pool of underrepresented students who apply for admission. So, by virtue of an agreement that we reached over a decade ago, the seats we reserve for them are off-limits to a growing population of other talented applicants who don’t have the same opportunity to be considered for admission. Eventually, it leads to the question: Is there equity in the admission process? And it is increasingly difficult to answer that in the affirmative.”

Helping black students succeed

CBS has also done its share in helping to keep black students on campus once they’ve arrived. Grinnell formally tracks first- and second-year retention, which was 100 percent for black students in 2014. The most recent four-year graduation rates are 81 percent for black students, compared with 84 percent for white students.

For many of the more than 30 alumni interviewed for this story, being a member of CBS was key to thriving at Grinnell — and beyond.

“I joined CBS to expand my support network within the black community to better position myself for success in the classroom, in a predominately white community, [in] my profession of choice, and life after Grinnell,” says Darryl Dejuan Roberts ’98. “Being in CBS also provided a support system, which was essential to my survival at Grinnell, and it provided me with leadership opportunities, which gave me the confidence to participate in other campus organizations.”

For many students of color on campus, daily macro- and micro-aggressions can be an additional burden. These range from big assumptions that black students are only accepted to Grinnell because of affirmative action to smaller slights like comments about the texture of African American hair.

“If I listed all the micro- and macro-aggressions that I endured as a student, it’d be a long list,” says April Dobbins ’99. “It got to a point where it was literally making me crazy. Don’t get me wrong, I do have fond Grinnell memories, but to say that I fought to get to the other side of all the negative would be an accurate description.”

Dobbins did not originally join CBS. But being a black kid on a predominantly white campus took its toll.

“Honestly, I avoided CBS like the plague my first two years at Grinnell. It seemed like a really tight-knit group, and I didn’t want to try to get into their circle,” she says. “I came to Grinnell pretty exhausted from being bullied by other black kids all through high school for not being black enough. I was naive and I underestimated the need for CBS on campus. After being at Grinnell for two years, I came back from study abroad in London, and I just needed CBS. I needed a place where I didn’t have to explain my hair or certain struggles on campus. I needed a place [like The House] where I could watch Poetic Justice or something and not have to have a big dialogue. I found my spot there.”

Multiculturalism debates

For black students used to being both invisible and hypervisible on campus, becoming a part of CBS was a way to get their distinct voices heard. Over the years, black students tried to become a part of the conversation by advocating for a black perspective in the curriculum.

Starting in 1980, Grinnell began to offer “a special nonmajor program” in Afro-American studies. By the time the ’90s rolled around, though, the concentration suffered due to a lack of classes, faculty, and enrollment. At the same time, racial tension was ratcheted up on campus. It was then that students demanded that an African American Studies concentration be launched and a black faculty member be hired to helm it.

In 1995 student organizations of color, including Asian Students in Alliance (ASIA) and Student Organization of Latinas/os (SOL), lobbied the College for physical space in which to hold meetings and cultural events. While black students already had The House, CBS decided to lend its support to these groups.

Some white students were very unhappy about it. In 1995 The S&B published a column written by a student, a senior editor, claiming minority faculty were unqualified and that the College’s efforts to promote multiculturalism fostered reverse racism and segregation. “The College also pursues an ambitious affirmative action employment program at all levels of hiring with little regard to the quality of the candidate or actual cultural contributions he or she might make,” the column said, concluding: “Grinnell is degrading into a racial battleground. Minorities are arguing over who deserves houses and departments while the administration points pridefully at the number of colored sanitation workers and calls the school multicultural.”

Kesho Scott, associate professor of American studies and sociology, took issue with being called unqualified and wrote a letter to the editor in response: “I take your insults personally, for while I uphold freedom of speech, it becomes problematic when it is used to slander, especially when such slander is not based on any factual information; for example, there are no ‘colored sanitation workers’ employed by this institution, unless of course you were reducing those of us who teach here to sanitation workers.”

Racial tensions continued to escalate. First there was an incident at a basketball game where students used racial slurs and then, separately, two disc jockeys from KDIC were suspended after they used the n-word on the air. In response to these events, CBS staged a demonstration. Black students wore all black, taped their mouths shut, and stood in the back of their morning class with signs explaining they were protesting racial tension on campus. “Many [white] students were both shocked and offended by the demonstration, which was not widely understood,” according to The S&B.

But for black and other students of color, the protest was seen as an effort to talk about racial issues on campus that they dealt with on a daily basis. “That article kind of had like a Trump effect. It set off a lot of stuff that was simmering beneath the surface,” says Roberts. “Then we had the KDIC DJ using the n-word over the air. All these little incidents began to add up. It was almost like they ignited a fire and pulled the covers back to expose some things that had been going on on campus. Some white students felt it was acceptable to say things that were very hurtful and racially motivated, and we wanted to challenge that.”

After the protest was staged, CBS led campuswide discussions, as well as discussions with the administration. As a result, the College established an Africana studies concentration and hired Katya Gibel Mevorach, professor of anthropology, to head the now-defunct program, which lasted six years.

Black studies history

Grinnell first began its foray into black studies in 1969 when it introduced “a special upper-class general education program” called African and Afro-American studies, similar to concentrations today, but with a much lower credit requirement (16). The program ended in 1971, according to Jason Maher, registrar of the College.

Members of CBS lobbied for the creation of a black studies major in the “black manifesto,” and College administrators responded by establishing an interdisciplinary major in black studies in 1972. It was a 36-credit major and included courses in anthropology, economics, English, history, music, political science, and sociology. The major was discontinued in 1979 due to lack of interest. At the time, The S&B reported that just 10 students graduated with majors in black studies from 1972 to 1979.

After the protest in 1995, Grinnell introduced an interdisciplinary concentration in Africana studies in 1997, replacing the largely ignored Afro-American studies program that was launched in 1980. For the first time, the program had dedicated introductory and seminar-level coursework, Maher says.

But despite bringing on board Gibel Mevorach, who created a nationwide conference and brought numerous and varied speakers to campus, the concentration was never very popular with students and was discontinued in 2005. From 1999 to 2005, there were a total of 20 students who graduated with an Africana studies concentration. In comparison, the very popular gender, women’s, and sexuality studies (GWSS) concentration had 124 concentrators from 2000 to 2012. The program was so popular that it was turned into a major in 2010 that has since seen 87 majors graduate.

Africana studies wasn’t so fortunate. After seeing zero interest in upper-level Africana courses and limited interest in introductory classes, the faculty, including Gibel Mevorach and Scott, suggested dissolving Africana studies as an interim move toward something more comprehensive.

“The administration had nothing to do with this decision. This was not a problem of not enough faculty to teach a course — there were no students,” Gibel Mevorach says. “GWSS absorbed most students of color interested in diversity who were interested, as well, in gender studies; and more than a few potential recruits were sociology majors.”

Following last year’s Yik Yak incidents, black students in CBS once again began advocating for the establishment of an Africana studies concentration, despite the tumultuous history of black studies at Grinnell. “This is an issue of institutional amnesia,” Gibel Mevorach says.

In light of this history, some students are unsure if a new major is the best way to proceed. Some alumni say advocating for more black faculty might be a better way forward.

“There have been huge things we’ve accomplished since ’67. CBS’s activism has profoundly influenced campus,” says Dixon Romeo ’16, one of CBS’s leaders last year, “Ultimately, though, I would much rather have a positive, healthy, and safe space for black students to support them academically and mentally until they graduate. Right now we’re trying to find a balance between these two things.”

CBS today

Shortly after the racist Yik Yak posts appeared last year, members of CBS met with President Kington and presented a list of demands, including the creation of a mentorship program with minority alumni and a hate crime/bias-motivated incident team, increased diversity training during New Student Orientation, and improvements to the Office of Diversity and Inclusion.

Romeo says, “No one that we were meeting within the administration had any issues with supporting us. They were ready and willing to help.”

Since then, the Office of Diversity and Inclusion has been restructured. Lakesia Johnson, associate professor of gender, women’s and sexuality studies, was tapped as chief diversity officer to address diversity within the curriculum and help recruit and retain a diverse faculty. Leslie Turner Bleichner ’07 was hired as director of intercultural affairs and works directly with students on the cocurricular side. Yik Yak was also ultimately banned from campus.

Since Johnson and Bleichner were hired, the two have invigorated the Diversity Council, a board of students, faculty, and administrators. The Office of Intercultural Affairs is also developing a “diversity plan” to address some of these issues on campus. An early draft of the plan was released recently for feedback. It includes expanding the preorientation program for underrepresented students into a full first-year program; developing a local-host program to promote connections and ameliorate feelings of isolation for students; and increasing the number of staff who provide support for student success and diversity issues.

“I’m excited about the new structure because people are finally thinking strategically about the student-of-color experience at Grinnell,” Bleichner says. “We are finally getting the right combination of folks with the right skill sets who can help students really address what it means to be a student of color in the middle of Iowa.”

Following the Yik Yak incidents, CBS also helped to foster campuswide discussions to address what they feel is a hostile and unwelcoming climate, including an event last fall designed to show solidarity with students at the University of Missouri.

“The biggest issue we have is with white students who didn’t think the racist attacks were a big deal or who were defending what took place on Yik Yak,” Romeo says. “Our dialogue was not directed at the administration, but to white students on campus.”

Just like at Missouri, Romeo claimed the Yik Yak attacks were not isolated, but part of a larger pattern of racially charged incidents on campus.

“The Yik Yak incident was just the biggest one,” Romeo says. “Whenever people talk about this, they talk about it like it was just one incident. There were multiple incidents. Students were saying hateful things about CBS.”

For black students dealing with racist incidents like Yik Yak, joining CBS can be like grabbing a lifeline. In addition to providing them with the support to help them address the special challenges that go along with attending a predominantly white college, it also gives black students a unique and powerful voice on campus.

“After the Yik Yak scandal, we were in a room discussing our concerns with the president of the College and various deans within a week or two,” says Odom. “Whether or not people are satisfied with the outcomes, it is huge to know that we can begin these conversations. My hope is that CBS has helped to promote a campus culture that encourages transparency and honest communication between the students and the administration.”

Is Less than Perfect Enough?

“I felt like a complete failure at life. It was bad, and I didn't tell anybody for a really long time.”

— Amy Hagan Ketteran ’97

For years, Amy Hagan Ketteran ’97 seemed to have everything all figured out. A successful muralist and business owner, she was making money doing work she loved, and she was teaching others to do the same. She was president of an international arts organization. She and her husband Mark Ketteran ’97 had a young child and another on the way.

And then the 2008 recession hit. Work dried up. Their credit card bills mounted, and the pair could no longer afford to pay their mortgage. Their electricity got shut off. They struggled just to buy food. “I felt like a complete failure at life,” Amy Ketteran says. “It was bad, and I didn’t tell anybody for a really long time.”

If the struggles that the Ketterans faced would have been difficult for anyone, Amy says that her Grinnell degree made the sting of their circumstances especially sharp. “I was supposed to be smart,” she says. “I felt like I wasn’t living up to what I should have done with my education.”

Grinnellians are bright, idealistic, and motivated to succeed. But they are not invincible. A poor decision, a health crisis, a divorce, or a series of unlucky breaks can derail Grinnellians with even the most promising paths ahead of them.

Facing real failures — setbacks that require us to recalibrate our expectations of ourselves or even the trajectory of our lives — can be heartbreakingly painful and disappointing. But they can also make us more empathetic, open us up to the generosity of others, and give us the opportunity to help others struggling with similar issues.

For Amy Ketteran, who is now working as a day care provider and whose family is still digging out from those rough years, a turning point came in 2014. After a frustrating morning, she posted about her struggles for the first time on Everyday Class Notes, a 4,000-alumni-strong Facebook group. “It felt weird, but I knew if I didn’t get it out, I would explode. I needed to talk to someone, and the only people I was going to see that day were under 6 years old.”

She returned to the post a few hours later to find hundreds of supportive responses. “People cared,” she says. “They were there, they were listening, and some of them said, ‘Yeah, my life’s not that great, either.’ I was crying. It made me feel not so by myself.”

Telling the stories and mining the lessons from our darkest moments — or simply the stretches that will never merit a classnote — won’t guarantee that we’ll make our way to some better-than-imagined future. But they can be a welcome counterbalance to the endless stream of upbeat Facebook posts and perfectly filtered Instagram photos that make everyone else’s lives seem flawless. And sharing our setbacks can remind anyone who is struggling that even in a sea of Grinnell success stories, they are not alone.

Climbing the wrong mountain

By all outward appearances, Christine Newkirk ’02 was a Grinnell success story. A strong student at Grinnell, she was thrilled when her adviser helped her line up a top-notch grad school and research opportunity in anthropology that included free tuition, a generous stipend, and the chance to do research in Brazil over several summers with funding from the National Science Foundation. “It was such a huge vote of confidence,” she says of her adviser’s support.

There was just one problem: She wasn’t particularly invested in the topic, cognitive anthropology. Still, it seemed to be the next obvious step in the trajectory of her career, which she assumed would include getting a Ph.D. and becoming a professor.

And Newkirk had always been good at meeting others’ expectations. “I was really driven to do well and get good grades,” she says. “But that didn’t always include thinking about my own opinions and ideas.”

The focus and drive she had honed to perfection at Grinnell weren’t enough to propel her all the way to a Ph.D. on a topic she didn’t love. She specifically remembers the moment it all came crashing down. On the night she arrived in Brazil for her third summer of research, she knew almost instantly that she’d made a terrible mistake. “I walked into the apartment, and I was bereft,” she recalls. “I just thought, ‘Oh, my God. What have I gotten myself into?’ ”

The next morning, after a run on the beach, she sat down on a wall that overlooked the ocean. As she looked out on the water, she understood with crystal clarity that she couldn’t do the research or the program she’d set out to do. “Even now,” she says, her voice breaking, “it’s still upsetting.”

After four years of grinding away at a topic she couldn’t connect with, Newkirk left her Ph.D. program. She worried that she had disappointed mentors who had believed in her, and she hated knowing she was no longer moving forward in the academic career she thought she wanted.

Since leaving the program, Newkirk has spent years working in nonprofits and mentoring teenagers through a variety of programs. In her role as a high school director at the Heart of Los Angeles, for example, she has particularly zeroed in on the high-achieving kids who seem more focused on garnering praise than finding a passion. “The advice I dispense to them is often about knowing yourself first and then figuring out how to apply yourself, rather than just being concerned about prestige and racking up accomplishment,” she says. “Don’t compare yourself to other people.”

Over the past few years, she has discovered what she is passionate about: education. Now, years later, Newkirk is applying to graduate schools in education, hoping to earn the Ph.D. that eluded her the first time around. She is now more certain in the direction she wants to go, but her previous experiences still weigh heavily on her. “You only live once, and you should go after what you want,” she says. “But the feeling of failure and shame still haunts me.”

Finding a home, and gratitude, in a quieter life

Many times, the lives we carve out for ourselves don’t match up with the grand plans Commencement speakers have dreamed up for us and veer far from even our own ideas of our lives’ trajectories after we graduate.

Alethea Drexler ’00 says she might not have had a clear vision of what awaited her after Grinnell, but she didn’t exactly envision her current life, in which she lives with her parents in a suburb just outside of Houston. She’s there for a complicated mix of reasons — among them, to support her aging parents and save on housing costs so she can live on her modest salary working in the historical archives of the Texas Medical Center. “I don’t have a job that will really support me in a big city. I don’t have a partner or family of my own,” she says. “All of the things that everyone seems to take for granted as cornerstones of life aren’t here.”

She knows she has many things to be grateful for: her health, a job she generally enjoys, parents she loves. Still, she sometimes wishes for a bigger life. “I should have pushed myself harder for my own sake and gotten that library degree, but I’ve lost the steam for it now,” she says. “It’s not as though I’m suffering, but my life is very quiet and small scale.”

Bill Turner ’87, meanwhile, admits he sometimes feels frustrated with his life, which looks little like what he had expected. After sailing through Grinnell and finishing his Ph.D. program almost effortlessly, complete with peer-reviewed and prize-winning papers, his ascent up the academic ladder seemed all but assured.

But after a series of one-year contracts and administrative positions at three universities, he stalled out. He went to law school and graduated, and found work on a legal history project he enjoyed. But it was short-lived. “The HIV that I had been ignoring for two years finally caught up to me, and I had to quit working,” he says. “I muddle along, and at the moment, I have one project I’m working on that may yet allow me to salvage a real life from the current mess. We shall see.”

And while he acknowledges that “we’re never supposed to admit failure,” he says he truly works at feeling gratitude for the good things in his life, including a stable family growing up, a strong education, and being gay, which he believes has allowed him to meet people and have experiences that would have been possible no other way.

A move from reaching up to reaching for each other

In the end, it may be perfectly Grinnellian to go off and change the world; but it is also perfectly Grinnellian to lead a messy, imperfect life. And if Grinnellians are known for their capacity for compassion, perhaps it is time to show some kindness to ourselves and to other Grinnellians. Sharing more honest stories about our own lives, messy and difficult as they are, is a start.

“It’s so hard, when you’re in the trenches, to see that there’s a way out,” says Amy Ketteran. “But if you can be honest about what’s happening to you, you never know who might be out there to help you out. Maybe they’ll just hold your hand for a minute. But sometimes that — just that — can make a difference.”


Comic Book Artists Studio Tour

Big Time Attic, the Minneapolis cartooning studio where Zander Cannon ’95 and Kevin Cannon ’02 (no relation) forged their business partnership and later launched solo careers, is a little like your favorite bookstore, toy store, and coffee shop combined. It exudes fun and promises delight.

The evolution of Big Time Attic

Zander and Kevin founded Big Time Attic in 2004 with a third partner. “We thought if we teamed up as this three-part company we could basically be stronger as a unit than individuals,” Kevin says. “That’s when we immediately landed animation jobs with Cartoon Network and a project with Target. And really big stuff kept coming.”

After the animation partner left in 2007, Zander and Kevin focused on illustration and storyboarding.

“For the first seven or eight years, we would work exclusively together on every project,” Kevin says. “I consider those the golden days. We’d be physically across from each other at the table, physically passing pages back and forth.”

Looking at the work later, Zander says he often couldn’t tell whose work was whose.

“It was really good to spend five or six years doing whatever came across, especially adapting to technology,” Zander says. “When I started, computers were barely even a part of it. Everything was done on paper. I was shipping artwork that’s irreplaceable all over creation, hoping it gets there, hoping it gets back.

“It was nice for us to take on jobs that we never knew what we were going to get so we could adapt to that technology, learn a new skill, learn a new program.”

“I think 90 percent of the skills that I have now I was basically forced to learn on the fly over the last 10 years,” Kevin says. “That’s what I love about the variety of client jobs. From designing a family fun center theme park or buttons or websites, I’m always pulling skills that I learned on one job and using them on another job.”

Over the years, they worked on many nonfiction books — about space, evolution, rhetoric.

“I like the [projects] that are like, ‘We’re going to try to explain in the simplest possible terms these vague concepts,’” Zander says. “Where you have to draw things that are noncorporeal.”

“Or don’t even exist,” Kevin adds. “I wish the books we make now were around when we were learning and growing up because they would have been so helpful.”

"There's essentially no money in this business so you should always follow your passion.

—Kevin Cannon ’02

The siren call of fiction

And then for fun, Kevin wrote an arctic adventure graphic novel, Far Arden, published in 2009.“It got nominated for awards and got a lot of critical attention,” Zander says. “Then I did a graphic novel basically in the same mold as Far Arden, called Heck. By the time that was finished, I felt like I really wanted to do fiction again. I hadn’t done fiction for years.”

Heck received critical attention too. After that, Zander says, “The fire went out of me for nonfiction.”

“There’s essentially no money in this business,” Kevin says, “so you should always follow your passion.”

Since fall 2014, Zander’s passion has been funneled into his own monthly comic book series, KAIJUMAX, about giant monsters in a maximum-security prison. “It’s for diehard fans of monster movies and prison movies. It’s so genre-based,” Zander says.

It takes him five or six weeks to create a comic. “I’m writing and penciling and inking and lettering and coloring. I’m writing the letters pages. Basically everything. I have one assistant on colors,” he says.

“I used to be a little more like let’s jump in and do page one. Now when I’m doing KAIJUMAX, I do it all visually before I write a word because that gives me the pacing of it, and I make sure there are no boring panels. They all have to communicate something visually.

“Only when I’m doing tightened up pencils do I actually do final dialogue. It helps too because it keeps me from being too wordy and lets me see what I have already explained through the visuals.”

The series has a six-issue season, similar to a TV season. “Then I get a break,” Zander says.

The first season “ends on sort of a cliffhanger, but basically that starts a new story,” Zander says. “I like each issue to have its own little episode and its own little arc and each season to have its own arc and really tell a story. I want to skip ahead in time for the second [season] so that it really starts fresh. If that’s the first issue you pick up, you’re not behind.”

With all the work involved in producing a monthly comic, he no longer takes on clients.

“All the stuff that I used to be doing I can’t do anymore,” Zander says.

Zander Cannon using a stylus on a touch screen to color a panel

Zander Cannon ’95 draws his comic book series, KAIJUMAX, entirely on the computer. “It has its quirks, like any other tool,” he says, “but I’d never be able to keep up if I did it on paper.”

An approach to nonfiction comics

“I’m the opposite,” Kevin says. “I think my career has gone more down the path of client-driven. Small projects. Big projects. And very diverse projects from mugs for Starbucks in Seattle all the way to doing large graphic novels.”

In 2014 Kevin co-wrote The Cartoon Introduction to Philosophy, published in 2015 by Hill and Wang. His co-author, philosopher Michael Patton, supplied a prose document that provided the chief narrative conceit of a river and the basic points of view of the major philosophers.

“Experts are too wordy,” Zander says. “When you’re writing comics, you can’t make those word balloons longer than a Tweet. We’ll be able to do a better job at coming up with metaphors and narrative structure.”

“I took the master document and broke the whole thing down into an outline to try to tease out what the major elements were,” Kevin says. “I created a script out of it, which was actually kind of easy after doing 1,000 pages of personal graphic novel stuff. At a certain point, you get into the rhythm. I could see a joke clearly goes here. Here’s a good page break.

“Visuals all came later. It’s all white guys. How do you make them distinct? I really wanted to push the caricature aspect of each of the philosophers so when people heard Descartes, they saw this guy with this mustache and this flowing hair.”

How comics have changed

“There are essentially no rules in the comic book industry anymore,” Kevin says, “which is exciting. On one hand, it’s a very Wild West atmosphere, but it’s also a little frightening too to people like us who grew up with this track to become a comic book artist, and now we just have to wing it for the rest of our lives.”

“Twenty years ago you could be a letterer,” Zander says. “You could be an inker. You can’t be that anymore. You have to be a creative person with a lot of abilities or you have to be a graphic designer. You can’t be a drone anymore in comics because computers have taken all that away in a good way.

“It increases my appreciation for pen and paper but only for the things that pen and paper really provide,” Zander says. “If I was going to draw something with a pen, I wouldn’t make it neat. I hand-letter the book even on the screen. I like keeping a little bit of that wiggle.”

When they were kids

“I wanted to be a newspaper cartoonist, like Calvin and Hobbes or Garfield,” Kevin says. “Doing the cartoon for The Scarlet & Black was my way of feeling out that process. I had so much freedom, I realized I could never do this professionally.” He drew Johnny Cavalier all four years at Grinnell, in addition to trying other gag strips. Kevin also contributed to The Grinnell Magazine for nine years.

“From about 12 on, I wanted to be a comic book artist,” Zander says. He was the editor of his high school newspaper and did cover illustrations. “Some knucklehead would turn in seven inches instead of 11 so I’d have to fill in.”

At Grinnell, Zander majored in English and worked in theatre. “Theatre was where I felt you were doing art with a purpose,” he says. “Pip Gordon [former assistant professor of theatre] was the tech director and was essentially my adviser. She was really sharp about the use of art in narrative and set design and costume design.”

Kevin majored in art, specifically painting. “I thought the Grinnell art department was great for getting the classical art foundation. I had a great friend in Bobbie McKibbin [professor of art], who was my adviser. She paid attention to what we were interested in. Next class she’d have a stack of books of famous artists so we were constantly inspired.”

Making art and making a living

“There’s a constant struggle between doing what’s asked of you, doing what you think is important, and doing what you want to do, what you need to do as a creative person,” Zander says. “You’re writing stuff that’s meant to sell. Trying to reconcile that commercial aspect of what sells with the things that are in your mind, that preoccupy you, that you want to get out in a piece of art, and hiding them, in my case, in a silly genre story, I don’t think that anything really prepares you for that.”

“I’ll definitely have periods where I feel sort of a void,” Kevin says, “where I’m constantly doing projects that other people tell me to do. It helps me pay rent, but there’s nothing coming from inside. I’m not telling my stories. It’s always good to have a balance. You have to make time to tell your own personal stories.”

“On the flip side, I think there’s a lot of people who only want to tell what’s inside them,” Zander adds. “I feel like those people wash out pretty quick. You can’t throw yourself 100 percent into everything. They ask for a logo. Give ’em a logo. Don’t give ’em a $20 million ad campaign. Save your care for something that deserves it.”