From fossil fuel divestment to accessibility

Topics relevant to the larger student and alumni community were the focus of discussion sessions between the Alumni Council and College administrators during the council’s March meeting on campus.

Fossil fuel divestment 

Council members learned more about recent demonstrations by students asking for Grinnell to divest itself of all endowment funds placed in the fossil fuels industry. President Raynard S. Kington informed the council of the policy recently adopted by the Board of Trustees for dealing with such requests from any segment of the Grinnell community. Emphasizing that he is pleased when students take on issues like global warming and divestment, Kington also affirmed the College’s responsibility to guide them toward viewing these matters in the widest possible context. Becoming educated about the impact of financial decisions is crucial, he said.

Continued growth of the Center for Careers, Life, and Service

Mark Peltz, the Daniel ’77 and Patricia Jipp ’80 Finkelman Dean of Careers, Life, and Service (CLS), explained several aspects of CLS’s current strategies for preparing students to thrive both during their years at Grinnell and after graduation. On-campus efforts include engaging more students in externships, internships, industry-focused visits, and career counseling. 

Angela Onwuachi-Willig ’94, council president, noted that two CLS programs are an outgrowth of earlier Alumni Council undertakings: 1) recruiting alumni to host spring break externships and 2) encouraging them to participate in alumni/student mentoring programs. Both of these efforts remain vital, ongoing interests of the council.

Ensuring accessibility 

Autumn Wilke, assistant dean for disability resources, discussed plans for the new Humanities and Social Studies Complex (HSSC), which includes renovations of Alumni Recitation Hall and Carnegie Hall. At the beginning of the design process for the HSSC, the Alumni Council passed a resolution insisting upon the inclusion of hearing loops in the HSSC and other campus buildings and requesting accessibility of all kinds that exceeds legal requirements. The Alumni Council continues to be a vocal advocate for guaranteeing campuswide access for all persons with disabilities.

Strategic planning

In addition, the council engaged in strategic planning for the future. Specific concerns focus on the council’s visibility to the alumni body and students, the representative capacity of the council, its efforts to improve communication with and representation of alumni, and aligning the work of the Alumni Council more deliberately with the College’s Office of Development and Alumni Relations to achieve the greatest effectiveness. 

New members, leaders

Members finishing their terms on the council include Richard Raridon ’53, Gof Thomson ’62, Barbara Hunt Moore ’65, and Edward Senn ’79. All four have made valuable contributions during their years of service and were recognized and feted at the Alumni Council closing dinner at Grinnell House.

Incoming members were selected by the Council Membership Committee and affirmed by the full council on the basis of their Grinnell era, their current location, and their potential specific contributions to the College and the council. They are Robert Ruhl ’76, Phillip Hales ’02, Brigham Hoegh ’08, and Graciela Guzman ’11. Their terms begin June 3, during Reunion 2017. 

Council leadership will also change, as Onwuachi-Willig becomes past-president, Peter Calvert ’79 becomes president, and John “Fritz” Schwaller ’69 steps into the role of president-elect. 

Finding Direction

Austin Simmons ’90 routinely describes Grinnell as a winning lottery ticket. “It was pure luck that I ended up there,” he says. “Grinnell was everything I needed.”

Now a successful real estate developer with Brightwork Real Estate in Tampa, Fla., Simmons came to Grinnell with no idea of what he wanted to get out of the experience. “When I came to Grinnell, I didn’t have a plan,” says Simmons. “I wanted to play soccer and run around with my friends.” He may not have had a plan, but Simmons knew he needed what Grinnell offered — small classes and individual attention. Reflecting on the experience, particularly after having pursued a law degree at a large institution, Simmons realizes how crucial Grinnell was in his development. 

Ultimately, it was John Pfitsch, then Grinnell’s soccer coach, who directed Simmons’ rambunctious energy into specific goals. Pfitsch had been Simmons’ first point of contact when he was looking at colleges. “I don’t know how many thousands of kids approached him in a state of disarray,” says Simmons, “but I was fortunate to catch him at a time when he was extremely wise and a calming influence.” 

After graduating with a degree in political science, Simmons returned to campus regularly. “I came back for reunion every year for the first five or six years and slept on John Pfitsch’s floor,” he says. He attributes his strong bonds with other members of the alumni community to returning as often as he did. Most recently, Simmons returned for the College’s 171st Commencement to celebrate Emily Pfitsch, John’s widow, as she received an honorary doctorate.

Simmons has given gifts to Grinnell nearly every year since graduating but finally found himself in the position to give a major gift this year. “Athletics was very important to me,” says Simmons. “I felt like if I could be involved at Grinnell in a specific area, there would be no better place than the athletics department.” Sarah Johnson, assistant director of major gifts, worked with Simmons and Andy Hamilton ’85, director of athletics and recreation, to make sure Simmons’ priorities matched the College’s needs. 

“My fantasy was to be a big part of the soccer program at Grinnell,” says Simmons. He considered stating outright where he wanted to direct his gift. “But then I thought about my own business. I have to trust my people’s input and collaborate with them,” he says. Instead, he asked Hamilton where the gift would be most useful. When Hamilton said the football program needed an assistant coach/recruiting coordinator, Simmons immediately agreed to fund the position. In March 2017, the College hired Matt Reed to fill the position. Reed spent the past three seasons at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., and will work with quarterbacks and running backs at Grinnell. He will also attend recruiting events throughout the United States, increasing Grinnell’s presence and strengthening what has been an area of the football program in need of improvement.

Simmons describes himself as a collaborator. Buying a piece of property, building a structure on it, and seeing it become a doctor’s office, a restaurant, or a store — and knowing that he was an important part of that process — gives him a unique sense of satisfaction. His gift to the football program gave him a similar feeling. “I’ll never have enough money to pay Grinnell back for all it gave me,” he says. “I just want to be part of Grinnell’s future.” 

Q & A: Mentoring Current Students

In 2014, the Alumni Student Connections Committee of the College’s Alumni Council initiated a project to facilitate mentoring relationships between alumni and current students. After developing a mentoring handbook, six committee alumni volunteered to mentor six current students on the Student Alumni Council for the 2014–15 academic year. 

Mentors Rick Stuck ’82Nancy Schmulbach Maly ’61Rania Mohamed Robb ’03Peter Calvert ’79, and Rhonda Stuart ’86 all reported positive connections with their mentees. In 2015–16, the program doubled. 

Ultimately, the connections committee hopes that every student on campus will have the opportunity to connect with an alumni mentor. Through Grinnell Connect, the College’s new online networking platform, Grinnellians past and present are already making strides toward accomplishing that goal. Sign up at

Q. Tucker: What makes an effective mentor or mentee?

A. Calvert: In my view, most students have the chops to solve their problems already. But when they get caught in a rut or a seeming dead end, they sometimes forget how to reason their way through knotty issues or looming crises. The best mentors do not take ownership away from their mentees but rather help them step back and remember themselves at their best. Once they get their mojo back, mentees are often able to leap two steps forward or reenter the fray from a different angle.

Q. Tucker: Can you give me an example?

A. Calvert: I recently mentored a student who was applying to medical schools, and we found that it was especially helpful to evaluate long-term strategies. We talked through a variety of questions: What if your top schools don’t have slots available this year? Can you identify alternate tracks — what about pursuing a research internship or considering other lines of study in parallel medical fields? These exercises helped my mentee develop a flexible mindset during his senior year. He was ultimately accepted into an exceptional two-year research program in the Boston area, which is helping him build a stronger resume for a subsequent try at medical school.

Q. Tucker: What do you want Grinnell alums to know about mentoring current students?

A. Calvert: I want them to know how rewarding and natural it is. The time commitment is not excessive — perhaps three Skype calls a year and maybe some texts. Hopefully, an in-person meeting can be arranged. The ability to gently guide a current student and be one part of their Grinnell journey is a fantastic use of our life experience. And we share that unique link to the Grinnell crucible we were all catalyzed by once. 

The Alumni Council is a group of 26 Grinnell alumni and two student representatives working with the Office of Development and Alumni Relations.

Turning Grief into a Legacy

In his 48 years of life, physics professor Sujeev Wickramasekara made an immeasurable impact on his peers and his students. When he died in December 2015 at the age of 48 of a sudden cardiac event, his wife Tammy Nyden, associate professor of philosophy, hoped to continue his impact through a memorial scholarship fund. Paula Smith, professor of English, and her husband Paul Tjossem, associate professor of physics, knew right away they wanted to make that hope a reality.

Smith and Tjossem knew Wickramasekara from the time he arrived at Grinnell in 2005. Tjossem actually knew him a little longer. “I was a member of the search committee that reviewed his application for a faculty position,” he says. “Even on paper, Sujeev made an immediate impression — here was a scientist, so early in his career, who was already a first-rate theorist and even had prior experience teaching at a liberal arts college. 

“From the start, our friendship focused on teaching,” Tjossem says. The College’s workshop physics curriculum — discovery-based courses that involve more extensive laboratory and group work than traditional physics classes — was a major draw for Wickramasekara. “Over time, he and I worked together on department projects and consulted on whatever we were doing,” says Tjossem. “We were next-door office mates, so especially when he lived in Grinnell, that meant we talked every day.”

Smith was dean of the College when Wickramasekara chaired the physics department. “From working with him and seeing what he accomplished, I could see that Sujeev represented all that we hope from a liberal arts faculty member,” Smith says. “He was a spectacular researcher who devoted himself to teaching while also taking on service to the College.”

The scholarship that Smith and Tjossem created will be awarded annually to a student or students with financial need, pursuing a degree in physics. In particular, the scholarship aims to aid students who come from traditionally underrepresented populations. 

This year Rebecca Wong ’17, a physics major from Highlands Ranch, Colo., received the first Sujeev Wickramasekara Memorial Scholarship. She had the chance to have Wickramasekara as a lab instructor only for a semester, but she remembers him fondly. “He was really thorough when he gave out lab instructions. If you had a question and raised your hand, he was immediately over to you to help you understand, and then he’d shoot off to the next student,” she says. Wong remembers his passion for physics and his drive to help students not only understand what he was teaching but also to enjoy it. “It’s bittersweet getting this award,” says Wong. “He was so young, had accomplished so much, and still had so much promise.”

Although the scholarship does not lessen the grief of Wickramasekara’s friends and family, it does extend his impact on students’ lives. “One of the hardest things about losing Sujeev is to think about the hundreds of students who would have benefited from his teaching and mentoring,” Tjossem says. “To receive this scholarship will be an honor and a reminder for students about his legacy.” 

To learn about creating a memorial fund, please call the Office of Development and Alumni Relations, 1-866-850-1846, and ask for Jayn Chaney ’05.

Changes Grounded in Tradition

This fall’s Alumni Council gathering focused primarily on two key issues occupying Grinnell at the moment, diversity and inclusion, and “Global Grinnell.” 

Having recently formed their own committee to address issues of equity and inclusion regarding alumni (Page 33, Fall 2016, The Grinnell Magazine), council members engaged in further discussions of the topic following a presentation by Lakesia Johnson, assistant vice president and chief diversity officer. Johnson discussed this year’s first-year “common read” at the College, Claude Steele’s Whistling Vivaldi, which council members read in advance. According to Steele, stereotyping and bias lead to “stereotype threat,” resulting in negative experiences among minorities in any culture. Johnson described ways she and her office are working to minimize such harmful influences on Grinnell’s increasingly diverse campus. 

A second significant conversation during the Alumni Council weekend centered around Grinnell’s new Institute for Global Engagement, whose mission, according to the College website, is to create “opportunities for students and faculty to develop their knowledge of the world.” Grinnell’s student body is now nearly 20 percent international, said Michael Latham, dean of the college, in his address to the group. The aim of this new institute, Latham continued, is to bring the world to Grinnell and to send Grinnell to the world. Grinnell supports adding international applicants to the student body through careful work in admissions. Further, the College invites up to a dozen international scholars a year for speaking engagements. 

Davíd Cook-Martín, assistant vice president for global education and senior international officer, described opportunities for travel through new Global Learning Program tutorials. These courses for first-year students guide them in studying global content. Spring 2016 classes included Origins of a Liberal Education, which took students to Padua, Florence, Rome, Madrid, and Mexico City; and Tolerance and Intolerance, which involved travel to Paris, Strasbourg, and Berlin.

In other news, a new Grinnell College alumni and friends website is in full operation,, as is Grinnell Connect,, a platform designed specifically for mentoring and career networking. Alumni will want to check out both of these for information and the opportunity to connect with fellow Grinnellians and students. 

Yes, Grinnell is charting new terrain as time goes on, but all that is happening —on campus and within the alumni community — is based on the solid history of the school’s founding. The core value of excellence in education, respect for diversity, and a tradition of social responsibility and action are affirmed at every turn. 

The Alumni Council is a group of 26 Grinnell alumni and two student representatives working with the Office of Development and Alumni Relations. The council’s mission is to foster strong connections between alumni and the College, and among the 20,000 Grinnell alumni located in the 50 states and 55 nations.

Supporting a Career Community Model

For many students on campus and many recent alums, the names Sebring and Lewis are synonymous with a performance hall — the place they saw Anoushka Shankar perform, or where they presented a Mentored Advanced Project, or where they sang with the Grinnell Singers. Life trustee Penny Bender Sebring ’64 and her husband, Charles Ashby Lewis, are the people behind that hall and many other spaces on campus. Consistent donors since the mid-1980s, Sebring and Lewis have made major contributions to the construction of the athletic complex, Grinnell’s fine arts, and a number of endowed scholarships. 

Over the past five years, they have advocated modernizing what became the Center for Careers, Life, and Service (CLS). That modernization has been conceived and is being led by Mark Peltz, Daniel ’77 and Patricia Jipp ’80 Finkelman Dean of Careers, Life, and Service, starting with the creation of career communities (initially called “Career in” programs). 

Sebring and Lewis helped CLS create its first career community, the Education Professions Community (Ed Pros) in 2013. Their combined gifts of $900,000 launched and sustained Ed Pros, and their latest gift of $450,000 will launch the Business and Finance Community, bringing their total contributions to CLS to $1.35 million. Grinnell is not the only beneficiary of Sebring and Lewis philanthropy. The couple has established similar education professions programs at two other schools — Lewis’ alma mater, Amherst College, where he is a trustee; and the University of Chicago, where he is also a trustee. 

Grinnell’s new Business and Finance Community aims to help both students and recent alumni build networks and realize the potential of their education when considering careers in finance, consulting, advertising, and related fields. Students who join this community will gain access to specialized advising, have opportunities to attend workshops and seminars through strategic partners such as the Harvard Business School’s HBX Credential of Readiness Program, and connect with employers and alumni in business and finance.

The CLS is planning ultimately to have seven career communities and a robust internship program. The College’s longstanding pre-med advising program is being re-purposed to become the Health Professions Community, the third career community. There will be four others: Arts and Communications, Science and Technology, Government and Social Service, and Law. “These communities will provide social capital for first-generation and low-income students that they wouldn’t otherwise have, offer a new type of group on campus, and act as an intellectual and financial primer in addition to offering career advice,” says Lewis. 

Sebring and Lewis are excited to see where these new communities will take students. “Chuck and I are extremely pleased with the efficacy of the Ed Pros Community under Ashley Schaefer’s leadership,” says Sebring. “We believe that the career-focused community model provides powerful opportunities for students and alumni to apply their liberal arts education for both personal success and society’s benefit.”  

Diversity and Inclusion: A Renewal of Grinnell’s Promise

Grinnell’s Alumni Council seeks to facilitate connections among alumni, students, faculty, and staff. This spring, we discussed the need for a more comprehensive and engaged conversation related to diversity and inclusion, two longstanding core values of Grinnell College. We recognized that while the College has made great strides in increasing the diversity of its students and faculty, the College is still striving to meet its own high standards for inclusion. For example, institutional data reveals that meaningful numbers of students of color left Grinnell — graduated, transferred, or dropped out — feeling alienated and unsupported. Data also suggests that Grinnell’s first-generation college students, LGBTQ, disabled, and international students experience similar feelings of isolation. Alumni of marginalized identities have generally been less engaged with the College than Grinnell’s majority alumni community. 

In order to engage and connect alumni in these critical conversations, the council’s Executive Committee proposed creating a new Diversity and Inclusion Committee. At the time of these discussions, we had no information about the College’s plans for a new diversity framework or the decision to withdraw from the Posse program. Even so, the Alumni Council unanimously voted in favor of the proposal.

The new Diversity and Inclusion Committee, co-chaired by Jeetander Dulani ’98 and Allison Brinkhorst ’11, will work closely with Lakesia Johnson, assistant vice president and chief diversity officer; the director of intercultural affairs (once hired) and staff; and the Office of Development and Alumni Relations, particularly Jayn Bailey Chaney ’05

One of our first projects will be to connect students of marginalized identities with alumni mentors. We are also committed to keeping alumni informed and engaged in Grinnell’s evolving diversity framework and plan. We are eager to hear from alumni who are interested in serving as mentors for current students or helping advance the College’s core values of diversity and inclusion. 

Today, Grinnell’s student body is more diverse than ever. Domestic students of color comprise more than 25 percent of the student body, and international students make up nearly 20 percent. Thanks to Grinnell’s commitment to meeting the full demonstrated need of every admitted student, the College remains economically diverse and has an increasing number of first-generation college students. In 2014, The New York Times ranked Grinnell second on its “Most Economically Diverse Top Colleges” list. For decades, Grinnell has also earned a reputation as one of the most LGBTQ-friendly campuses in the nation. As time passes, Grinnell’s alumni community becomes more and more diverse. 

The work of Alumni Council, and its Diversity and Inclusion Committee, aims to build on these successes and also broaden and deepen the conversation about what it means to be a Grinnellian. We look forward to continuing these conversations with all of you. 

Contact the Diversity and Inclusion Committee:

Jeetander Dulani ’98 and Allison Brinkhorst ’11

The Grinnell Connection

“Grinnell was such a big part of my life that I don’t want my connection with the school to end,” says Ishan Bhadkamkar ’13. Today, Bhadkamkar remains connected to the College through his work as a volunteer — one of the class of 2013’s class fund directors — and through his giving. The economics major has directed his contributions to the new Humanities and Social Studies Complex, merit-based aid, and the economics department. 
The Department of Economics is based in Alumni Recitation Hall (ARH), which was designed with early 20th-century pedagogy in mind. Pedagogy, not to mention economics and technology, has advanced considerably since then. That’s why ARH and Carnegie Hall are being transformed to become part of the new Humanities and Social Studies Complex. 
“I always compare ARH to the Noyce Science Center, and I always thought what was great about Noyce was that there would be common spaces for students to meet,” says Bhadkamkar, who had several economics classes in Noyce. 
These common areas are a crucial aspect of the new complex’s design, which will also provide more flexible classroom options. 
“Having the right space makes a big difference for your learning experience,” says Bhadkamkar. “It allows people to be more engaged and more connected, and I think [that’s important] especially in a liberal arts setting where classes are smaller and you’re trying to get more people to be engaged.”
Bhadkamkar was fortunate enough at Grinnell to receive merit-based aid, which freed him up to pursue passions and hobbies such as tennis and improv. He played varsity tennis all four years, and the tennis team won the Midwest Conference championship each of those years. Bhadkamkar also interned with the College’s investment office — an opportunity that helped him get his current position with Hall Capital Partners in San Francisco. He has chosen to give back to merit aid to allow other students similar opportunities. 
Bhadkamkar has a number of funding priorities, and even though he wishes he could give more, he acknowledges the significance of every gift. “The main thing I try to remember is that just because I don’t have a million dollars doesn’t mean I can’t make a meaningful contribution,” he says. “In some ways I think that it’s not the dollar amount that matters, it’s the gesture of support.”  

Building a Legacy

The class of 1966’s 50th Reunion gift of $3.6 million is the largest such gift in the history of the College, $1.2 million more than the previous record set by the class of 1963. More than $1 million of the gift will go to the Class of 1966 Endowed Scholarship Fund and eventually fund one student’s entire Grinnell experience; it’s one of only two such scholarships established by an individual class. So far more than $70,000 of the reunion gift has been designated for a named space in the planned Humanities and Social Studies Complex (for its 25th Reunion, the class of 1966 designated funds for the Writing Lab in Alumni Recitation Hall). There are further designations for financial aid, the Pioneer Fund, and a number of personal passions of individual class members. The total encompasses outright gifts, pledges, and planned gifts.

Jim Holbrook, class fund co-director, attributes the success of his class’s giving to a combination of the right people and the right circumstances. Holbrook and Laurie Houdek Hill, co-director, worked with Ruth Koehler Bergerson, class agent, and the fundraising team of David Maxwell, Anne Campbell Spence, and Ed Atkins. Although Holbrook emphasizes each person’s specialty and the significance of their contributions to the class’s efforts, he singled out Bergerson for her long-term commitment. “Ruth is the golden thread on whom we have strung all our beads of memory,” Holbrook says. He also speaks of her as a maternal figure to the whole class. “She holds us together,” he says, “And she shares information about all of our far-flung siblings.”

Holbrook’s own contribution is not to be ignored. He made a substantial planned gift that served as the lead gift for the class. What really “blew the doors off,” he says, was an anonymous seven-figure gift.

The class of 1966 aimed to break both the total giving record and the class participation record. They have comfortably broken the former but have not yet surpassed the latter. The class set the bar high with a goal of 66 percent participation. As of June 1, they had exceeded 56 percent, but it remains to be seen whether they’ll set that second challenge for subsequent classes to try to beat.

Holbrook attributes the class’s fundraising success to a healthy level of competition with the class of 1965 and work on the class’s memory book. But more than anything else, it was the forces that shaped the class of 1966 while they were students in the early- to mid-1960s. In October of their first year, they witnessed the Cuban Missile Crisis. The following year John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The Gulf of Tonkin incident colored 1964, and 1965 saw a massive increase in troops being sent to Vietnam. Each summer a number of students would travel to the South and participate in the civil rights movement. And when students weren’t directly involved in world-shaping events, they followed them closely on television. The seismic shifts happening across the United States and the world resonated with these students and shaped their views and politics — and it also drew them together.

The class is collectively considering its legacy. Its members want to contribute to the well-being of the world, and they choose to do that by providing access and resources to future Grinnellians.

Chance Encounter

It started with strangers on a train — very seldom does one get to say that anymore. The year was 1964, and it was this chance encounter that led to Wilfried Prewo ’70’s Grinnell experience, which changed his life and made his recent and future gifts to the College possible.

Bill and Jean Cramer — a couple from Overland Park, Kan., with no real connection to Grinnell — found themselves on the wrong train after visiting a friend in Germany. Prewo, a teenager then, helped them find their way to a train that would take them to Paris, their intended destination. They exchanged contact information, but it seemed unlikely their paths would cross again.

In the next few years, Prewo completed high school and his compulsory military service in Germany and began studying economics at the University of Frankfurt. He daily found himself in lecture halls filled with as many as 800 students. A small class had 300.

In the summer of 1969, Prewo was in the United States and because he had corresponded with the Cramers since they first met, he decided to take them up on their invitation. While visiting he told them about his university experience, his dissatisfaction with the school’s student-faculty ratio of 100:1, and the lack of access to professors.

He also told them about his interest in Grinnell, which he had first learned about through an economics textbook by then-Grinnell professor Robert Haveman. Jean immediately suggested they visit the campus, and they soon made the four-hour drive, where Prewo was given a full tuition scholarship and allowed to enter as a senior.

As excited as he was at the prospect of coming to Grinnell, Prewo didn’t have the $1,000 he needed for room and board for the 1969–70 academic year. The Cramers, even though they had five children of their own, offered Prewo the money as a gift. He hadn’t even asked.

Prewo’s experience at Grinnell was a profound one. The culture was vastly different from that of his university in Germany. “I never knew an academic experience like Grinnell existed,” he says. “It was like the garden of Eden and nirvana.” Before coming to Grinnell, he had never seen an open-stack library. At his former university, “you could sit there and listen, but the learning was limited because there was no back and forth,” he says. At Grinnell, he says, “I could learn so easily.” After one year at Grinnell, he graduated and pursued a Ph.D. in economics from Johns Hopkins University.

In the years since he received his doctorate, Prewo taught at the University of Texas at Austin and then returned to Germany. In 1985 he became chief executive of the Chamber of Industry and Commerce in Hannover. He held that position until he retired in 2012.

Prewo could teach a master class on ways to give. Ever the economist, he chose the three modes that made the most sense for his financial situation: a bequest from an existing family trust, a gift of stock to establish a charitable remainder unitrust managed by Grinnell College, and a cash gift. The bequest and the cash gift will establish a pair of scholarships, one honoring the Cramers and the other honoring his parents. He chose to honor his parents because of the importance they placed on education. He honors the Cramers because they recognized the value of the education he was offered and generously removed the financial obstacle that stood in his way.