Lee Purvey ’14 — Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

At first glance Grinnell, a rural town dropped smack in the middle of the cornfields of southeastern Iowa, about halfway between Des Moines and Iowa City, suffers from what you might call a lack of activity.

A town of 9,218 people; three grocery stores; one Walmart; maybe 20 restaurants, cafes and bakeries; about eight banks; and no more than a half-dozen bars — a newcomer wouldn’t be entirely unfair in assuming that there’s not a whole lot going on. This was certainly my perception when I first arrived to attend Grinnell College, a small liberal arts school with 1,600 students, 27 majors, and a historical commitment to social justice.

Not that I was unhappy to be there. Any chance to attend school away from my home state of Minnesota was welcome, and I’ve always had equally soft spots for the metropolitan and the pastoral. I probably had visions of a bucolic, slow-paced life on the prairie, one spent in appreciation of the simple beauty of the Iowa landscape and the salt-of-the-earth sensibility of the rural working class that inhabited it.

Ultimately, though, I think I just decided a college was a college, wherever it happened to be located, and resigned myself to four years spent focusing on just that: my life on campus.

During my first year, I rarely left the approximately two-by-four-block rectangle within which my life, as a non-athlete student with a meal plan and dorm room, entirely took place. With a movie theater, concert venue, art gallery, parties, a cafe, plenty of study spots and all of my friends on campus, there frankly wasn’t much incentive to leave.

While I liked to bike in the areas near campus and occasionally ate out at restaurants in town, my interaction with the "other Grinnell" remained fairly superficial throughout most of that first year. Eventually, though, this began to change. The first thing to bring me off campus was the pursuit of a personal passion: rugby, which I had played in high school. I walked out of my dorm one day that first November and discovered a rugby game underway on the adjacent field. I ended up playing with the Griffins for the following spring and fall seasons, the only Grinnell College student on a team of natives, ranging from high school students to fathers well into their 40s. While I had to quit the sport after the fall 2011 season for health reasons, I made my first true acquaintances outside of the immediate college community while on the team.

Starting the first week of my second year, I also began to write stories for the school newspaper. I found myself gravitating to the community section, which covers the off-campus community. Through my work as a student journalist, the town began to blossom before my eyes. I discovered a community that — if not as exciting or sophisticated as a bigger city in terms of nightlife, culture or cuisine — was truly vibrant and engaging in its own right.

I discovered a local arts council, with regular art shows and concerts. I discovered a town that honors its rich heritage and history. Since my second year, I’ve been doing my best to continue to engage with the off-campus community. Whether it’s attending the weekly community meals free to all "Grinnellians," helping organize a newspaper club at the middle school or simply stopping by the local bakery toward the end of an all-nighter, I try to make sure I continue to treat Grinnell as more than the location of my college. 

Everyone’s context is different. I wouldn’t have to tell someone at New York University or UCLA that there’s more to life than what’s happening on campus. But for those of us who do find ourselves in a place like Grinnell, I’d say: Do what I did; give it a chance. Get off campus, explore, talk to people who are not immediately connected to your academic career, find the excellent restaurants, funky neighborhoods (even if they’re only two or three square blocks), and quirky characters that make a place not just your home for four years, but someone else’s for a lifetime. It will be worth your while.

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