Profile

Q&A with Misha Gelnarova ’18

Michaela “Misha” Gelnarova — an independent major in international relations and communications, from the Czech Republic — is vice president of academic affairs for the Student Government Association during the current (2017–18) school year.

Q: You seem like you’re involved in almost everything that happens on campus. Can you tell me about some of the leadership roles you serve in?

A: At Grinnell I lead a few organizations. The Extreme Society is an outdoor organization. We usually go over breaks to do some extreme activity, either surfing or hiking in the mountains. This past fall break we went to the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone. We drove 16 hours there and we had accommodations for 20 people. We stayed in giant cabins and cooked together. We went hiking every single day, met with some alums in the area, and it was really cool. 

I lead the Gourmet Cuisine Society, a group that focuses on gourmet food. We invite people from different parts of campus and different backgrounds to come and cook with us on Sundays. There are some people who have experience, and some that don’t. We all just come and cook. And then we eat together.  

Then I co-lead the Friends of Slavs, which is a group of students who come from Eastern Europe. We get to celebrate different holidays or important days for the countries that we come from. And it’s kind of cool how you get to see that, even though I’m alone here from the Czech Republic, there are similar things in Poland, and in Bulgaria, and in Russia, so we can combine that together. 

Q: You have a position on the Student Government Association too, don’t you? 

A: I serve as the vice president of academic affairs with the SGA. I get to represent the whole student body on different committees like the curriculum committee, and I get to sit in on the faculty meetings as well. 

A big part of my job is also everything that is related to the building of the new buildings [the Humanities and Social Studies Complex and the Admission and Financial Aid Center]. We’re choosing the furniture right now, and the colors in the building, and all the navigation and way finding, what the outside’s going to look like, what the landscape’s going to look like. So that’s super exciting.

Q: What have you learned by being on the Building Projects Committee?

A: That I know nothing about building [laughs]. I feel like you really take it to the details. We look at chairs and talk about what the bottom of the chair should look like. Are students going to be turning or moving around in class, or are they going to be just watching what’s happening at the front? It is really talked through, every single detail. It’s important not only to say what I think during those meetings, but also to bring information back to the different groups on campus and ask them what they think, and do my best to represent the student body. 

Trial by Fire

I slid into a booth in a swanky joint I frequented little, if ever, in a part of town I saw only at night, if then. It was high noon. I was meeting up with an alum we’ll call “Joe.” He had a story to tell. I’d been there half a second when a pair of sharp eyes appeared opposite me. 

I looked him over. Well-groomed. Not too young, not too old. I’m paid to notice details. 

“Just the facts,” I said. “How’d it happen?” 

Joe spun a credible yarn about signing up as assistant to the head honcho of a company on the rise. He became a utility player extraordinaire — reports, promotions, site logistics, sales support — whatever the boss needed, he did it and did it well. 

“So what’s the beef?” I pressed. I flagged down a server. “Bring two anything,” I said sideways, not losing eye contact with Joe. Two sarsaparillas arrived. We chewed the straws. 

“No beef, I loved it,” Joe said through a foam moustache. The trouble started when the company’s longtime cat herder retired to the window sill. They’d searched around and found a new one. 

“We did the required background check,” Joe said. “Everything looked jake. Over time we were tipped off that our enterprising feline had used a relative’s pedigree to hide a rap sheet. Same name except for the middle initial.”

“Ouch.”

“It gets worse,” said Joe. “He shows up late one day and slinks out with a whole stack of employee files.”

“Not too bright, even for a calico,” I said.

“He did time,” Joe said, his eyes flashing satisfaction. “The cage suited him.” 

“What happened next?” I didn’t have all day and even less for the tab.

“We called the agency. They sent us another one,” Joe said, his voice lilting. “She wasn’t clinical, just irrational.”

Uh-oh.

“Three months in, she gives us one of those looks that only cats can give you and says, ‘Nothing personal, but I’m not suited for this job.’” 

“And?”

“We never saw her again.” 

Strike two. I was wearing down. It was way past my naptime. I blinked at the server with eyelids like damp canvas. From out of nowhere came a bowl of coffee grounds and two spoons. 

The company’s next cat herder looked great on paper, Joe said, interviewed like a pro, and pounced on the offer. “In retrospect,” he lamented, “the tiara should have been a tip-off. 

“She had no idea that anything she did could ever be wrong!” Joe said with the rhythmic incredulity of a ’40s film noir tagline. “She set herself up for failure.” 

I sensed the payoff was near. 

“My boss, the CEO, got involved. He said ‘Look, all the cats here know you. They trust you. I think you’d make a great director of feline resources.’” 

“As in cat herder,” I surmised. I’m paid to connect the dots. 

“Still, I had nothing but doubts,” Joe said. “I had zero FR experience. My first task was literally to cut the previous director’s final check. It was trial by fire.”

I had the big picture now. 

“The point is, it’s a really interesting job that I never expected to be doing. The company’s growing. I love training,” Joe said. “I envision my story with a headline like ‘Grinnell Teaches You Never to Fear New Challenges’ or maybe ‘FR Fun with Joe.’”

I shook my head. “I was thinking ‘The Felon, The Crazy Kitty, and The Princess,’” I said, “but I don’t think I can use it. I don’t look good in civil suits, if you get my drift. Besides, nobody would believe it.”

Joe didn’t look too disappointed. He said he had cats to herd and sprang off. I left a tip and went off to track down another improbable alum story. Something about a famous movie star who couldn’t even get a part in his school play.

This story is true. The names have been changed to protect the innocent.

Matchmaker for Seahorses

When Amanda Hodo ’14 was in high school, her soccer team would run around Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium before practice. Seeing the building so often, combined with fond memories of visiting the aquarium as a child, piqued her interest. “Even if I tried to forget about the aquarium, I couldn’t have,” Hodo jokes. 

She soon gave in to her curiosity and signed up for several after-school programs at Shedd. Then, the summer before her senior year of high school, Hodo won a scholarship to spend two weeks on a research vessel in the Bahamas. “That made me 100 percent sure that I wanted to do marine science,” she says. “And I’d say it pretty much changed my life.”

After her revelation, however, Hodo made what on the surface looks like an unusual decision — she attended Grinnell, a college hundreds of miles from the ocean with no marine science program.

But to Hodo, this felt like a natural step. Her connection to Grinnell began with a serendipitous visit that occurred even before those high school soccer practices. 

When she was in seventh grade, her family went to visit a friend who was attending Grinnell College. The sense of community she felt immediately drew her in. “I just kept coming back,” she says. “It felt like a second home.” 

She wanted to be a part of that community, and when it came time to apply for college, Hodo decided that it would be best to do a general biology degree and keep her options open. Her undergraduate research experiences, however, only solidified her resolve that she should work in an aquarium. 

Today, Hodo works as an aquarium biologist at the Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium in Sarasota, Fla. Her primary job is to run Mote’s Seahorse Conservation Laboratory, which supplies “lined” seahorses — a local breed — to aquariums around the country in order to dissuade taking the species from the wild. 

Hodo starts her day at Mote caring for her brood of baby seahorses. “Makin’ babies and raisin’ babies,” as she puts it, is her favorite part of the job. “It’s just so fulfilling to me to raise something from an egg all the way up to an adult,” she says. 

Other responsibilities include training Nacho the nurse shark (“a total diva”) to come to a target for food and donning scuba gear to muck out the big tanks.

Keeping exhibits clean, especially the big ones, is a physically demanding and time-consuming task. “It’s often surprising to interns just how labor-intensive the job is,” Hodo says. She credits her internship at Mote, which she began right after graduating from Grinnell, for giving her the necessary insight into what the job entails. 

Now, she sees her position at the aquarium as an opportunity to give current Grinnell students an undergraduate experience she never had. Last spring, Hodo hosted an externship (a three-to-five-day opportunity to job-shadow an alum) for two Grinnell students at Mote, and she is eager to host again. “Even if they don’t wind up going into marine science,” she says, “it will help them narrow down what they do want to do, like [undergraduate research] did for me.”

Hodo still feels the connection to the College she first felt all those years ago, and she is both surprised and pleased by how frequently she is still able to interact with current students and alumni. “There’s at least one Grinnellian who does some sort of program with Mote every year,” she says. “Grinnellians are everywhere!”

Food as Medicine

Persistence has always defined Jo Schaalman’s character, but never more so than after an accident left her with chronic pain that doctors said she’d suffer the rest of her life.

At Grinnell, Schaalman ’99 majored in biology, with a career as a doctor before her on a tidy path. Or so she thought. While leading a bike trip in 2004, Schaalman was hit by a truck going 70 miles per hour, breaking her back in seven different places.

Her injuries prevented her from working for close to a year. She went to more than 15 doctors that year, and was prescribed pain pills and antidepressants again and again. She was told she couldn’t have children, that she would be disabled for life. She became depressed and gained 40 pounds. But the doctors’ conclusions didn’t sit right with Schaalman. “Every time somebody told me I wasn’t going to get better, I would say, ‘I don’t believe you,’” she says.

Schaalman started finding some relief through yoga. Originally drawn to the practice as a form of exercise, now, limited by her injuries, she started to be intrigued by its more mental, meditative aspects. At the same time, Schaalman was struggling with the insecurity she felt about her weight gain. “I got really into weight loss, but in an unhealthy way,” she admits. Nothing worked. Having suffered from serious allergies as a child, Schaalman had some knowledge of how food can affect the body. “So after hitting my head for a while,” she says, “I thought, ‘There has to be a different way.’ I started to use food as medicine.”

In 2010, she and a friend put together a customized food plan for each of them. It included lots of veggies and “green” smoothies. It worked. Schaalman lost weight, her pain diminished, and her mood improved. Shortly thereafter, Schaalman started taking classes at the Nutrition Therapy Institute in Denver, where she received a master nutrition therapist certification. She also modified her career goals. She recalls telling her dad (Michael Schaalman ’70), “I’m going to go to the Jo Schaalman School of Medicine.”

The program she and her friend started has since grown to become a company called Conscious Cleanse, designed to eliminate allergens and reduce inflammation. Word of its success has spread, with 200–500 people now enrolling in each cleanse. A book the two women published about the cleanse in 2012 has sold more than 45,000 copies. Looking back, Schaalman says, “We didn’t mean to start a company or program. We just wanted to do something for ourselves.”

Schaalman, who lives in Boulder with her husband and 3-year-old daughter, says the accident was the best and worst thing that has ever happened to her. She still suffers from chronic pain, but it has decreased dramatically due to her adherence to the “cleanse-eating” lifestyle. On a scale of 1 to 10, she describes the pain as more of a 2 or 3 on a daily basis rather than the 8 or 9 that she was living with after the accident. She takes no medication.

And she’s glad she’s not a doctor. “I realized that being an entrepreneur and out of the system, I can call my own shots and make my own rules while still helping people like I always wanted to.”

From Hoops to God

As leader and two-time captain of the Grinnell men’s basketball team, Jack Taylor Jr. ’15 focused on winning games. These days, he’s focused on building his own church in order to win souls.

For most of his life, Taylor was devoted to hoops; the Wisconsin native achieved national acclaim in November 2012 when he scored 138 points — the most points scored in a single NCAA game — in a 179-104 Grinnell victory over Faith Baptist Bible. It was a triumph of the frenetic, high-scoring Grinnell System — the brainchild of then-head coach David Arseneault Sr

Taylor was interviewed by ESPN, appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live, threw out the first pitch at a Milwaukee Brewers game, and was praised by NBA stars. 

“I prayed a lot for humility after scoring 138 points,” admits Taylor, who discovered his faith in God when he was 19, after he blew out three ligaments and couldn’t play basketball for a year. “I realized (after the injury) I was living for a game instead of the God who made me.” He carried that faith to Grinnell, where sharing the gospel “was very unique, as you could imagine. We Grinnellians are smart, critical thinkers, and skeptical. Especially when it comes to religion or morality.”

His goal after graduating with a bachelor’s in biochemistry was to play pro ball overseas, so Taylor, who married high school sweetheart Christina Teeples in 2014, hired an agent, and went to a Las Vegas tournament to showcase his talents. But restrictive rules and the frustrating process of dealing with agents worked against him. And few coaches were willing to sign a 5-foot-10-inch guard. In late 2015, his hoops journey ended. 

“I was disappointed, but I wasn’t devastated,” says Taylor. “My identity and purpose is defined by God, not by my success on a basketball court.” 

That’s when he turned to ministry fulltime. In March 2016, he and Christina moved to Waterloo, Iowa, so Taylor could serve as ministry resident with Prairie Lakes Church. Every Tuesday evening, he and other leaders went to the University of Northern Iowa with sound equipment, banners, and a portable stage and lights to conduct church services for college students.

Though he loved campus ministry, the birth of the couple’s first child, Abigail, in August 2016 changed their plans. “We wanted to be closer to home, where Abigail could flourish near family and friends.” The three moved back home to Black River Falls, Wis., in October 2016.   

“I learned what I could from the residency, and now we’re on the slow march toward starting a church,” Taylor says. “I’m figuring out social media, marketing, and how to build trust and respect in the community. It’s similar to starting a small business.”  

As for basketball, Taylor concedes that he misses being part of a program. “I can’t watch too much basketball on TV so I purposely distance myself, for fear that I’ll get too consumed again. I make up for that by feeding my desires for ministry, for seeing people meet Jesus.”

In the end, says the enthusiastic Taylor, “I had an incredible amount of success and national media attention, yet it didn’t fulfill me. Basketball isn’t a god to be worshipped but a game to play and use as a tool to learn about yourself, to grow in character, and to enjoy.”