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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Grinnell: A Family Affair

For most students, going away to college means saying goodbye to parents, but for some Grinnellians, the transition to independence happens a little closer to home. Caitlin Beckwith-Ferguson ’14 and Alethea Cook ‘16 are among the students at Grinnell whose parents are faculty members and for whom Grinnell has been a long-time home.

Both agree that going to a small college in the small town where they grew up is a mixed experience, featuring both distinct advantages and the occasional frustrating experience. For Beckwith-Ferguson, the choice to come to Grinnell was complicated by the close familiarity with the school she had developed growing up around it.

Caitlin Beckwith-Ferguson and Bill Ferguson. Photo by Tela Ebersole.
Caitlin Beckwith-Ferguson and Bill Ferguson.
Photo by Tela Ebersole.

“I always was really appreciative of what Grinnell had to offer, since my [father] was a professor,” Beckwith-Ferguson said. “I always just had a really good opinion of Grinnell because of [my] connection. But I would say it also made me not want to go here because I was like, ‘Well, I’m from here. I have a parent here. This isn’t what I want to do.’”

Ultimately, however, Grinnell became the front-runner among a number of liberal arts colleges that were under consideration by Beckwith-Ferguson and her family. Her father, Bill Ferguson ’75, Economics, didn’t anticipate his daughter attending his alma mater and place of employment. While he held some concerns about Beckwith-Ferguson going to school in her hometown, his employment at the College was not one of those concerns. However, there were certain professional precautions that he has made with his colleagues.

“If she’s finished a class with somebody, then I’ll talk to them about it,” Ferguson said. “I don’t feel comfortable talking to a professor whose class she’s in at the moment … It just doesn’t seem appropriate.”

Despite Beckwith-Ferguson’s initial doubts, attending Grinnell College as a student has helped her see the town through new eyes and hasn’t hampered her independence or kept her from expanding her worldview. Attending Grinnell has given her opportunities to travel from London to South Africa, which she may not have been able to do at another institution.

For Alethea Cook, the process of deciding on Grinnell was further impacted by the fact that she shares academic interests with her father, Scott Cook, Chinese.

“It took me a while to warm up to the idea of going here because my dad’s a professor,” she said. “I knew that I would eventually take a class with him. I wasn’t terribly excited about that.”

But she soon found taking a class with her father to be a unique and illuminating experience that helped her better understand her father’s area of expertise. Both have found that interacting with each other in a classroom setting has allowed them to discover new things about the other.

“It’s been really interesting to see what kind of skill sets she brings to the class, and I’m learning things about her I didn’t know before, about what she’s really good at and so that’s been really neat to me,” Professor Cook said.

Outside of just the classroom, both students have noticed the definite ‘bubble’ that surrounds the College. They have found that the College and town are different environments entirely and despite having grown up in the town, the College still provided the two with fresh perspectives.

“I feel more closed off in the Grinnell College bubble now that I go here. I generally don’t go into town or see a lot of the people that I saw in high school before, so it’s definitely a different perspective,” Alethea said.

Scott Cook and Alethea Cook.  Photo by Parker Van Nostrand.
Scott Cook and Alethea Cook.
Photo by Parker Van Nostrand.

As a fourth-year student, Beckwith-Ferguson now regularly takes advantage of her proximity to her parents by coming home for dinner and occasionally bringing friends. This openness stands in contrast to her earlier reluctance to disclose her father’s occupation.

“It’s always been important to me to establish my own identity here and not be viewed as Bill Ferguson’s daughter,” Beckwith-Ferguson said.

Both students have found that their college and home life are bound to intersect at Grinnell but they have also successfully found a niche completely separate from their hometown that has allowed them to gain independent experiences. Additionally, having their parents teach at the College has presented some awkward situations, but in the broader scheme of things, their parents have been supportive mentors and sources of knowledge, rather than prying parents.

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