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Grinnell a Peace Corps ‘Top School’

Grinnell College has once again earned a spot on the Peace Corps’ annual Top Volunteer-Producing Colleges and Universities list, coming in at No. 23 among small universities. Currently, eight Grinnell graduates are making a difference around the world as volunteers.

For the past four consecutive years, Grinnell has made it onto the annual list. Since the agency was created in 1961, 375 Grinnell alums have served overseas.

"The Peace Corps is a unique opportunity for college graduates to put their education into practice and become agents of change in communities around the world," Peace Corps Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet said. "Today’s graduates understand the importance of intercultural understanding and are raising their hands in record numbers to take on the challenge of international service."

Grinnellian Justin Miller ’12 is making a difference as a Peace Corps volunteer. Miller has been serving in Burkina Faso as an education volunteer since August 2014. Miller works primarily as a high school math and English teacher at local schools. Additionally, Miller is working on recording public service announcements on nutrition and sexual education topics, and will distribute the recordings to his community through Bluetooth.

For Miller, the best part about serving as an education volunteer is getting to know his students personally and teaching them American games. Looking back, it was his passion for service and trying new things that led him to Peace Corps.

"Professor Terri Geller at Grinnell once told me, ‘If you aren't doing anything to help, you're saying that you're OK with how things are.’ There’s a lot of injustice in the U.S. and the world as a whole," said Miller, who graduated with a B.A. in mathematics. "The school's strong social justice environment pushed me to try to help people."

This year’s rankings follow a 40-year high in applications for the Peace Corps in 2015.  This record-breaking number comes after the first full year that the agency implemented historic reforms allowing applicants to choose the countries and assignments they'd like to be considered for. Graduating college students are encouraged to browse open programs and apply by April 1 for assignments departing fall 2016.

Iowa-based Peace Corps recruiter Ryan Cairns, a returned volunteer who served in Bulgaria, advises Grinnell candidates.  Students who are interested in post-graduate service are encouraged to meet with Keira Wilson, assistant director of service and social innovation, in the Center for Careers, Life, and Service. Visit Peace Corp Events to learn of in-person and online opportunities to chat with a recruiter.

About the Peace Corps

The Peace Corps sends the best and brightest Americans abroad on behalf of the United States to address the most pressing needs of people around the world. Volunteers work with their community members at the grassroots level to develop sustainable solutions to challenges in education, health, economic development, agriculture, environment and youth development.

Through their service, volunteers gain a unique cultural understanding and a life-long commitment to service that positions them to succeed in today’s global economy.

Since President John F. Kennedy established the Peace Corps in 1961, more than 220,000 Americans of all ages have served in 141 countries worldwide.

The Wish Specialist

The power of making a wish is no small thing; it gives us hope and allows us to envision something better. However, not many of us expect those wishes to be granted — that would be just a little too Disney. While there may not be any fairy godmother waiting to swoop in and make our dreams come true, Sally Webster ’08 has found a way to bring a little magic into the lives of seniors across the country by literally granting wishes for a living.

Success and Satisfaction with Non-Profit Work

Webster developed an interest in nonprofit work when she participated in a ReNew Orleans trip while at Grinnell. After the trip, she took a semester off and stayed in New Orleans for 6 months helping to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina. After graduating, she continued to work with nonprofits through AmeriCorps NCCC, which solidified her interest in the nonprofit sector. Moving to Denver, she discovered Wish of a Lifetime, an organization that resonated with Webster due to her own close relationship with her grandmother.

Wish of a Lifetime is a Colorado-based organization that grants wishes to seniors who are experiencing isolation from friends, family, or the activities they once loved.

 “We try to grant really life-enriching, meaningful wishes,” says Webster. “They’re always connected to this vast personal history, to their passions and important people in their lives.”

She started working at the organization in 2010 as a wish coordinator, helping interview seniors and plan the logistics of making their wishes come true. Webster is the director of community outreach, managing external communications, social media, and the organization’s volunteers and interns.  

“It’s been really fulfilling working here,” Webster says. “Some of the wishes are just incredible. We reunited two Holocaust survivors this past summer in Israel, a man and his cousin. And to hear about his perspective on life after the unimaginable things he’s been through — it was amazing.”

Wish Fulfillment for the Elderly

The organization recently fulfilled the wish of one of Grinnell’s oldest alumni, Louise Goodwin McKlveen ’35, who dreamed of throwing the first pitch for the Minnesota Twins. In the weeks before her wish was granted, she excitedly did exercises to increase her arm strength in preparation for the big occasion.

“We have a lot of anecdotal evidence that isolated seniors become more involved in their communities after having a lifelong wish granted,” Webster says. They often begin volunteering, joining social clubs and re-engaging with past passions, and learning to view the last decades of their lives as “productive, involved, and exciting.” But the organization has an even larger goal in mind.

“The intention is really to change the way people view and value seniors in their everyday lives,” says Webster. “There is going to be a huge demographic shift over the next couple of decades and there will be a large elderly population. Getting people to engage with seniors and getting seniors to engage in their communities is the difference between a dependent population and one that is still contributing to society.” From their humble beginnings fulfilling only a handful of wishes annually, Wish of a Lifetime now grants more than 200 wishes each year.

Webster can vouch for the personal value of interacting with seniors and learning from their life experiences. “After working here for 5 years, I have a lot more perspective on the personal challenges in my life,” she says. “I’ve listened to the incredible obstacles these people have faced. They’ve overcome so much that my problems seem manageable in comparison!”

For more information or to nominate a senior citizen in your community, visit Wish of a Lifetime.


Charity Made Easy

If you use social media, chances are you’ve heard of “slacktivism.” It’s social media activism, such as when someone signs an online petition or participates in something like the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge to raise awareness. These actions require little effort and can help make people aware of issues in the world, but these slacktivists are often criticized for not actually doing anything to help the cause they are touting.

Tab for a Cause, co-founded by Kevin Jennison ’12, takes advantage of the ease of slacktivism while ensuring that users’ actions actually make a difference. By installing a program on your browser so that every new tab you open donates money to charity, Tab for a Cause allows users to raise money for causes they care about simply by going about their normal Internet-browsing activities. Since its inception, Tab for a Cause has raised over $175,000 for various charities.

Tab for a Cause sponsors several nonprofit organizations. Users get the opportunity to learn about organizations they may never have heard of before and to choose where their money goes — all with just the click of a button.

“The idea materialized when YouTube first started showing advertisements,” says Jennison. “I realized how massive the Internet advertising market is. In founding Tab for a Cause, we sought to redirect a fraction of the money in online advertising toward a good cause.”

Rising to the Challenge

At Grinnell, Jennison was a biology major, but learning the ins and outs of software engineering and marketing has “been a blast” for him. “More than anything, Grinnell encouraged me to be unafraid to learn new things,” he says. “I took to jumping into projects that were initially intimidating, and eventually starting this business was one of those projects.”

Tab for a Cause launched during Jennison’s senior year at Grinnell. To help the product take off, he messaged friends on Facebook, hung posters in the College bathrooms, and emailed family members. Soon, he and his partner took to the Internet to spread the word. Communities like Nerdfighteria and crowdfunding sites like Project for Awesome took Tab for a Cause from a few thousand members to tens of thousands over the course of just 18 months.

“The biggest challenge,” Jennison says, “has been learning to steady what can be an emotional roller coaster ride. I’ve learned to celebrate small victories and confront difficulties, but to take both with a grain of salt.”

Looking to the Future

To continue the organization’s growth and popularity, Jennison and his partner encourage sharing among friends and classmates by “holding competitions to see which colleges or high schools can raise the most for charity in a certain period of time.”

Through the development of Tab for a Cause, Jennison has learned the importance of sharing ideas with the people around him. “Early on, every time we talked to someone about Tab for a Cause we came away with a plethora of new ideas,” he says. “This feedback guided our product before we even built it and saved us from tragic mistakes.”

Moving forward, the team at Tab for a Cause is working more and more closely with charity partners in order to give users a personal connection with the projects they donate to. They have also recently launched Goodblock, a free Chrome adblocker that shows users beautiful ads that earn money for charity every time they are viewed.

Jennison’s final word of advice for Grinnellians with big ideas: “Do it. Dive in and get your hands dirty. At worst, you’ll learn a ton, and at best, you’ll succeed in realizing your idea.”

Coding for a Cause

As all Grinnellians know, it’s important to use what you learn to make a difference in your community. In Grinnell’s computer science department, the students in the Team Software Development for Community Organizations class are using what they learn in class to benefit local nonprofits.

“We think our students should understand the ways in which their computing skills can make a positive difference in the world,” says Samuel A. Rebelsky, professor of computer science. “At the same time, it’s important for students to learn how to work with clients who know what they want done, but not how it can be done.”

Helping the Local Food Pantry

Students choose a project at the beginning of the semester, such as creating a website that shows the current needs of the Mid-Iowa Community Action (MICA) food pantry so people know what to donate. Another project the students have worked on is making an online resource portal to help MICA’s clients quickly find the support they need for food, housing, and jobs.

Zoe Wolter ’16, who worked on the MICA resource portal project, says that the class was a great way to get a feel for what she can do with the skills she’s developed at Grinnell. “Getting to actually apply what we’ve learned in class to a real project really expanded my knowledge of what opportunities are out there,” she says. “It really opened my mind to possibilities that I hadn’t thought of before.”

Developing Marketable Skills

Albert Owusu-Asare ’16, in his work on MICA’s resource portal, developed vital skills for communicating with clients who aren’t fluent in computer science language. “I found that it’s best to have them draw pictures and diagrams of what they want so that we can see what we need to do and there’s no confusion,” says Owusu-Asare. “That’s something I couldn’t have learned just sitting in class.”

Having worked on a large project with actual clients has also been useful for students seeking jobs in the tech industry. John Brady ’16, who developed the food bank site for MICA, found that his experience with that project came in handy for interviews. “Having a project that you can talk about that shows some actual real world experience working for clients was fantastic, because projects just for school just don’t have the same weight,” Brady says. He recently accepted a job offer from Amazon.

Receiving Support from Alumni Mentors

Cassie Schmitz talking with students in the courseIn addition to in-class learning, students also get support from alumni mentors who are now working in fields where they do the same kind of work the students are doing. Mentors come to campus once a semester to meet with students and Skype with them every few weeks to support them and answer questions.

“It’s just nice to have someone who went through the computer science department and is now working in the field,” says Owusu-Asare. “You see that they’re doing all these cool things, and it makes me excited for what I’ll do in the future.” Owusu-Asare plans to work as a software developer for Goldman-Sachs after graduating.

The class also supports the College’s commitment to staying connected to the greater Grinnell community. “In a lot of other college towns there’s a big divide between the town and the college, but Grinnell is really committed to bridging that gap,” says Cassie Schmitz ’05, who has been a mentor for the class for the past two years. “Students are encouraged to really engage meaningfully with the community, and this class is an important part of that engagement.”

Albert Owusu-Asare ’16 is a computer science and physics double major from Kumasi, Ghana.

John Brady ’16 is from Rosco, Ill., and is a double major in computer science and mathematics.

Zoe Wolter ’16 is a computer science and theatre double major from Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

So You Think You Can Write

Grinnell alumni return to campus for a two-day symposium on written communication Friday and Saturday, Feb. 19 and 20, 2016.

The free, public symposium features informational panels, writing challenges, an internship and information fair, and plenty of opportunities to talk directly with successful alumni in the field.


Friday, Feb. 19

4 p.m. Freelance Writing Panel
Tequia Burt ’98, Courtney Sherwood ’00, and Molly McArdle ’09
Alumni Recitation Hall, Room 302
5:30 p.m. Dinner (Open only to those who preregistered by Feb. 12)
Rosenfield Center, Room 101

Saturday, Feb. 20

10 a.m. Writing Challenge Events
Students can take part in writing challenges judged by
Christa Desir ’96 and Katie In ’13.
Rosenfield Center, Room 101
12:30 p.m. Lunch With Alumni
Rosenfield Center Marketplace,
Rooms 224 A and B
2 p.m. Writing Careers: Years in the Making Panel
Dan Weeks ’80, Jeanne Pinder ’75, Jim Bickal ’82, and Molly Backes ’02
Rosenfield Center, Room 101
3:30 p.m. Internship and Information Fair
Speak one-on-one with our guest alumni.
Bucksbaum Center for the Arts rotunda
5 p.m. Networking Hour with Alumni
Refreshments will be served.
Rosenfield Center, second floor lobby
6 p.m. Dinner (Open only to those who preregistered by Feb. 12)
Rosenfield Center, Room 101

Guest Alumni Panelists

M. Molly Backes ’02

M. Molly Backes ’02 is the author of the young adult novel The Princesses of Iowa (Candlewick Press, 2012), which was named Chicago Public Library’s Best of the Best Fiction for Teens (2013) and Forever Young Adult’s Best YA Books of 2012 and was a finalist on NPR.org’s Best-Ever Teen Novels list in 2012. She has performed her personal essays at reading series including Essay Fiesta, Funny Ha-Ha, Is This a Thing?, and Sunday Salon and is a frequent guest at writing conferences and festivals across the country. Since graduating from Grinnell, Backes has had a number of careers, including middle school English teacher, wildlife conservation educator, arts administrator, marketing department copy writer/editor, and writing coach. She is currently an M.F.A. candidate at Iowa State University, where she teaches composition and creative writing.

Jim Bickal ’82

Jim Bickal ’82 began his career in 1984 as an unpaid intern for Minnesota Public Radio News. He has worked as a reporter and producer for MPR and Twin Cities Public Television. Some of the stories he has covered include the Minnesota Twins’ improbable 1987 World Series championship, the election of Jesse Ventura as governor of Minnesota in 1998, the 2002 Minnesota Senate campaign after the death of Paul Wellstone, and the I-35W bridge collapse in 2007. He has produced two hour-long radio documentaries. One traces a song (“The Rock Island Line” by Little Richard) to its origins, and the other looks at how growing up in Minnesota shaped Bob Dylan’s music. He is currently developing a podcast centered around the events of May 10, 2013. That’s when an unarmed man fleeing arrest broke into Bickal’s home in Minneapolis and was killed by police officers in his basement.

Tequia Burt ’98

Tequia Burt ’98 is a veteran editor and writer with more than 10 years of experience covering marketing, business, media and government. Before becoming a freelancer last year, she was editor in chief of FierceCMO. Burt earned her M.S.J. from Medill in 2005.

Christa Soule Desir ’96

Christa Soule Desir ’96 writes contemporary fiction for young adults. Her novels include Fault Line, Bleed Like Me, and Other Broken Things. She lives with her husband, three children, and overly enthusiastic dog outside Chicago. She is a founding member of the Voices and Faces Project, a nonprofit organization for rape survivors that conducts an international survivor-based testimonial writing workshop, including working with incarcerated teens. She also works as a romance editor at Samhain Publishing and once a week can be found working the stacks at Anderson’s Bookshop.

Katie In ’13

Katie In ’13 is an interdisciplinary media artist and musician based in Grinnell. She graduated from Grinnell College in 2013 with a B.A. in sociology and was a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellow and recipient of the Ladies Education Society Award. A socially-minded observer of the world and creator of things, In uses video, music, and performance to tell stories and communicate ideas. She is part of the collaborative group Tiny Circus as well as the Midwest-based collective and band called The Plain Mosaic.

Molly McArdle ’09

Molly McArdle ’09 is Brooklyn Magazine’s books editor and a regular contributor to Travel + Leisure. She’s also founding editor of The Rumpus’ Tumblr (The Rumblr) and the creator of The Daily GIF. Her essays, criticism, and reporting have appeared in The Believer, the Los Angeles Review of Books, BuzzFeed, The Rumpus, Atlas Obscura, Bitch Magazine, Pacific Standard, Audubon Magazine, The Oyster Review, Fusion, and Library Journal, where she was an editor on the book review. She was a member of Grinnell’s first D.C. Posse and is working on a novel.

Jeanne Pinder ’75

Jeanne Pinder ’75 is founder and CEO of ClearHealthCosts.com, a New York City journalism startup bringing transparency to the health care marketplace by telling people what stuff costs. She founded ClearHealthCosts after volunteering for a buyout in 2009 from The New York Times, where she worked for almost 25 years as an editor, reporter and human resources executive. Pinder is a fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. She was born and raised in Grinnell. She started working as a journalist in middle school at The Grinnell Herald-Register, her family’s twice-weekly independent paper. Before The Times, she also worked at The Des Moines Register and The Associated Press. She is a graduate of Grinnell College with a bachelor’s in Russian and studied Slavic linguistics in graduate school at Indiana University. She used to teach Russian, and she lived for a time in what was then the Soviet Union.

Courtney Sherwood ’00

Courtney Sherwood ’00 worked in newspapers for 12 years, first as a reporter then as an editor, before frustrations with the shrinking print industry prompted her to quit her day job to freelance in 2012. She continues to cover hard news from Portland, Ore., with pieces appearing in a wide range of outlets, including Science magazine online, Vice, The Irish Times, the Canadian Broadcast Corp., and many others. Most of her time is divided between NPR-affiliate Oregon Public Broadcasting, where she is a radio editor and web producer; Thompson Reuters, a news service for which she is one of two Oregon correspondents; and The Lund Report, which publishes her wonky analyses of how money moves the health care industry.

Dan Weeks ’80

Dan Weeks ’80 majored in American Studies at Grinnell and earned an M.A. in nonfiction writing from the University of Iowa Graduate Writing Program. He has spent the past  30-plus years as a magazine and book writer, photographer, editor, ghostwriter, editorial manager, publishing consultant, and freelancer. His magazine profiles, features, essays, and photographs on subjects ranging from adventure travel to zinnias have appeared in dozens of national, international, and regional magazines. His book Deadliest Catch: Desperate Hours, a companion to the Emmy-nominated reality show about Bering Sea crab fishermen, was a Discovery Channel best seller. He edited The Grinnell Magazine from 2010–2013 and currently edits The Iowan magazine.

Why Americans Love the Welfare State

Spencer Piston '01Spencer Piston ’01 — an assistant professor of political science at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University — will present “Why Americans Love the Welfare State in an Age of Economic Inequality” at noon, Tuesday, Feb. 16, in ARH 102.

All are welcome to the free public event. Lunch will be provided.

Piston's research examines the influence of attitudes about social groups — with particular attention to racial and class groups — on public opinion and political behavior.

His work has been published or accepted for publication in leading political science journals, including The Journal of Politics, Public Opinion Quarterly, Political Behavior, Political Communication, and Political Psychology. He has been named a Distinguished Junior Scholar by the Political Psychology Section of the American Political Science Association.

Piston's visit is sponsored by the College's Alumni in the Classroom Program.

Grinnell welcomes and encourages the participation of people with disabilities. ARH is wheelchair accessible. Automatic door operators are located on the southeast and southwest sides. Accessible parking is available along Park Street. You can request accommodations from the event sponsor or Conference Operations and Events.

Scholars' Convocation: Hilary Mason ’00

Hilary Mason '00The Scholars' Convocation at 11 a.m. Thursday, Feb. 18, will feature Hilary Mason ’00. Mason is founder and CEO of Fast Forward Labs, a data science and machine learning firm, and the data scientist in residence at Accel Partners .

Mason's lecture, which is free and open to the public, is titled "Data, Machines, and People: Data Science, Products, and Society," and will take place in Joe Rosenfield '25 Center, Room 101.

Mason received her bachelor's degree in computer science from Grinnell and went on to study computer science at the graduate level at Brown University. When asked to describe herself, she says, "I make beautiful things with data."

Fast Forward Labs is a new kind of research company that helps recognize and develop new product and business opportunities through emerging technologies helps organizations accelerate their data science and machine intelligence capabilities. Every quarter the company profiles a different near future technology, producing a report on its development and a prototype demonstrating its application.

At Accel Partners, Mason advises Accel's portfolio companies and assists with evaluating new technologies and investment opportunities.

Mason, who previously served as chief scientist at bitly, also co-hosts DataGotham, a conference for New York's data community. In addition, she co-founded HackNY, a nonprofit that helps engineering students find opportunities in New York's creative technical economy. She is a member of Brooklyn hacker collective NYC Resistor and the Anita Borg Institute Board of Directors. She also advises numerous companies, including Sparkfun Electronics and Collective.

Grinnell College welcomes and encourages the participation of people with disabilities. Grinnell welcomes and encourages the participation of people with disabilities. Rosenfield Center has accessible parking in the lot to the east. Room 101 is equipped with an induction hearing loop system. You can request accommodations from the event sponsor or Conference Operations and Events.

Short Course: Refugees in Complex Emergencies

Explore the art and science of saving lives in complex emergencies — providing water, nutrition, security, and health care — in a short course taught by Neil Otto ’72, director of The Otto Family Foundation.

The course will also consider real world examples of operational challenges in emergency relief situations to examine what constitutes leadership where cultural dissonance, resource limitations, and moral ambiguities complicate every decision.

The short course meets Tuesdays and Thursdays from 2–3:50 p.m.

About Neil Otto ’72

Neil Otto ’72Otto is an investor and, together with his wife Margaret, a founder and managing director of The Otto Family Foundation.

As vice president of Ballard Power Systems, he was the marketing executive responsible for the Fuel Cell Alliance between Daimler AG, Ford Motor Company, and Ballard. The alliance focused $750 million dollars and ultimately over 1,000 scientists, engineers, and supporting personnel on developing zero emission fuel cell engines for automobiles.

He later established and became president of Ballard Automotive, a joint venture, technology marketing company owned by Ford, Daimler, and Ballard. The company was dedicated to advancing zero emission automotive technology worldwide. Through this joint venture, nearly every major automotive and energy company around the world contractually participated with the alliance or joined one of nearly a dozen public/private partnerships established in multiple countries on four continents.

As vice president at Science Applications International Corporation, Otto managed the Alternative Energy Division. The division housed more than 75 consulting engineers and staff that worked in solar, wind, electrochemical, and other advanced energy, power, and propulsion technologies. He hired and led the team that designed and built the world’s first PEM fuel cell vehicle, as well as the world’s first commercial fuel cell vehicle.

After the Challenger tragedy, NASA selected Otto to lead a multi-million dollar sub-project of the massive Solid Propulsion Improvement Program, a national effort to improve the safety and reliability of the Space Shuttle's solid rocket motors.

He has served as a technical area expert in cutting edge electrochemical power systems, consulting with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, NASA, the Air Force Wright Laboratories, the Strategic Defense Initiative, the U.S. Department of Energy, and other government and commercial groups.

Otto has three issued U.S. patents, one approved patent under secrecy order, and several scientific publications. He currently serves on the board and executive council of Project Concern International and has been a board member of four companies, president of the World Fuel Cell Council, and was a member of advisory boards for the Institute of Transportation, University of California at Davis, and the Technology Advancement Office of the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

Otto's visit is sponsored by the Wilson Program in Enterprise and Leadership.

Driven by DATA, Connected by Grinnell

Originally published in The Grinnell Magazine, Winter 2015 issue.
by Cindy Deppe

It was all in the DATA for the fall break tour, Oct. 19-24, that connected 20 students seeking career insights with alumni who work in tech startups and at giga-giant Google, in the financial services industry, and in research at a renowned cancer center.

The New York City tour, sponsored by the Donald L. Wilson ’25 Program in Enterprise and Leadership, the Center for Careers, Life and Service, and the Office of Development and Alumni Relations, was nicknamed DATA for its emphasis on data analysis, technology, and applications. 

But it wasn’t all stats and spreadsheets as Grinnellians, old and new, learned from each other about the prospects for data-based careers.

For Emily Zabor ’03, a research biostatistician at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, the satisfaction of sharing career insights with students came from being reminded that “as an undergraduate, I had never heard of biostatistics or considered the field of public health. So I was excited to share my experiences and opportunities in this way.” 

 Zabor and co-worker Anne Eaton ’08 collaborate with doctors to design studies about new cancer drugs, for example, and use data to determine how many patients are needed for a valid study, plan the study design, develop hypotheses, and analyze results. 

“My field is specialized but could be very appealing to Grinnellians because it’s cutting edge research and public service,” Zabor said.

Biology major Jarren Santos ’17 called the Sloan Kettering visit “pivotal” in his career exploration. 

“The DATA tour helped me explore how research and data is applied to a company setting.  These individuals were working with data in upcoming health innovations while collaborating with public health experts to determine the impact of new surgeries or the decrease in survivorship of a certain disease.  I could totally imagine myself doing this.”

The impetus for the DATA tour grew from student interest and faculty recognition of the pervasiveness of data in today’s workplace.  Earl D. Strong Professor of Social Studies Kathy Kamp accompanied the tour in her work as director of the College’s Data Analysis and Social Inquiry Lab (DASIL).

“With the centrality of data in the modern world, we are doing students a service to engage with data and to visualize how data can be used in creative ways,” Kamp said. “The range of work environments and agendas was fascinating, as well as the diversity of majors among alumni who are now involved in the field.”

Grinnell Trustee Michael Kahn ’74 was a music major at Grinnell and is now an executive in corporate strategy and development for TIAA-CREF, a non-profit corporation. He has hosted a stream of interns the past 15 years and enthusiastically agreed to be on the short-term DATA tour schedule. 

TIAA-CREF employees Chris Lee ’15, Derek Farnham ’13, Christina Cutlip ’83, traveled to New York to join Kahn in hosting the tour, as did employee Hans Erickson, son of professor emeritus Luther Erickson and Forum director emerita Jenny Erickson.

“There is great potential for TIAA-CREF to be a landing place for Grinnell students. What we do with data is diverse and impactful in a meaningful way. Deep analysis and modeling drives superior investments; it’s about getting better outcomes for the people we serve.”

Hilary Mason ’00, founder and CEO of Fast Forward Labs, gave students a peek into her 18-month-old machine intelligence research business, which reviews research papers, engineering systems, and products that demonstrate machine learning capabilities, then writes about the evolving technology for a general audience.

“All of the technical prototypes we demonstrated for the students use capabilities that only became possible in the last couple of years,” Mason says. The main point of our tour presentation was not so much the specific projects that we work on, but the idea that technology is always evolving, and if you want to succeed in this industry, it helps to be excited by that.” 

Ajuna Kyaruzi ’17, a computer science major from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, has followed Mason’s varied and ambitious career path.

“I was very excited to get the chance to talk to Hilary Mason,” Kyaruzi says. “Her career was one I have been following for awhile, so speaking to her and learning more about her experiences post-Grinnell was a real opportunity. This past summer I interned at Twitter and got a glimpse of how data drives decisions that a technical company makes, so I was curious to see how other fields use and analyze their data.” 

The DATA tour also included visits to Bloomberg with Kate Macey ’00, Tony Mitzak ’86, Joan Johnson ’92; to Lieberman Research Worldwide with Kasia Piekarz ’01; at Google with Peter Likarish ’04; at Makeover Solutions with Steve Elkes ’83; at CredSpark with Lev Kaye ’92; and at Edge Ed Tech with Ashantha Kaluarachchi ’05

“Diversity of majors and experience was the primary takeaway from meeting alumni,” Santos says.  “You do not have to major in a business-related field to partake in business and finance or major in a mathematical field to do research in biostatistics. The alumni really emphasized the fact that their diversity was a key component in their career success.”

Observing the interactions and connections among current and former students was especially rewarding for Monty Roper, Donald Wilson Professor of Enterprise and Leadership and Wilson Program faculty director. 

“What I most appreciated hearing from alumni is that they gained the ability to do things ‘they had no right doing’ because they didn’t question that they couldn’t. That’s the value of the liberal arts,” Roper says. 

Kahn urges fellow alumni to consider reaching out to students, saying, “If you feel your success is what you took away from Grinnell, you are reaffirming the impact of Grinnell on the world by connecting with a student. It’s a very powerful connection.”

Alumni interested in sharing their workplace experiences with students on future break tours may contact Nate Dobbels, assistant director of alumni relations for career programs, 641-269-3204.


“I never had just one thing that I was pursuing. I wanted to keep exploring and keep doing what I was naturally interested in doing. Every opportunity I’ve had just combined all those passions.”

These words of wisdom reveal the key to Adam Kempenaar ’97’s success. In a world where many limit themselves to the pursuit of just one interest, Kempenaar has proved that it is truly possible to have it all.

As one of the founders and hosts of the popular movie review podcast Filmspotting, Kempenaar understands what it’s like to revive a dream dusty from lack of use. Although he was busy with a family and a full-time career, Kempenaar and his friend, Sam Hallgren, decided to resuscitate their old love of discussing movies by starting a podcast in which they would review and critique films in 30-minute segments.

Within just months of launching the show in 2005, Filmspotting’s audience had climbed from 1,000 listeners to over 10,000. Now, 10 years and 550 episodes later, Filmspotting has continued to thrill and excite both its viewers and its hosts.

Spawning a Radio Show

The success of Filmspotting led to a monthly radio show on WBEZ Chicago Public Radio, echoing Kempenaar’s fascination with radio during his time at Grinnell, where he ran two radio shows on KDIC campus radio.

Filmspotting attracted the attention of the head of the film program at a continuing education school. Before Kempenaar knew it, yet another dream was coming to fruition — a chance to teach film classes at the University of Chicago’s Graham School.

“At Grinnell, I was an English major and I always wanted to teach. I realized that I wasn’t cut out to be an English professor, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t teach in some capacity. This was something I really wanted to do and it seemed like a dream opportunity.”

The Regular Job

Added to the lengthy list of Kempenaar’s occupations is his full-time career as senior director of new media and creative services for the Chicago Blackhawks. “I had a friend at Grinnell who would always come to our dorm room and play hockey video games. All the time it was hockey, hockey, hockey,” says Kempenaar. “And now he sees pictures of me on Facebook holding the Stanley Cup! It’s crazy that, 20 years later, here I am doing that for a living.”

Kempenaar has achieved what many college graduates have come to view as a foolish ideal — the aspiration to live all your passions, and make a living while doing it. By choosing to follow all the threads that tugged at his curiosity, Kempenaar has woven a web of interconnected triumphs, fueled by his persistent desire to always keep learning. By not fixating on a single goal, he has been able to expand his ability to wear many hats.

“Whether it’s podcasting or whether it’s the Blackhawks, I have always been prepared to do what I want to do simply because I’ve followed whatever I’ve been interested in,” Kempenaar says.

“I’m really lucky that I get to mix all my passions. I love sports, I love film, I love teaching, and I do all of them!”