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The Scarlet & Black

Karen Edwards gives insight on Gallery of Flags

The S&B sat down with Assistant Dean and Director of International Student Affairs Karen Edwards, who told us about the foresight and planning it took to create the Gallery of Flags.

Can you tell me a little bit about where the idea for the flags came from?
For me, quite simply, one of the main reasons I’m at Grinnell is because of its commitment to internationalism overall and international student enrollment in particular. But I was actually surprised when I got here that there wasn’t a flag gallery. Lots of campuses have them. To me it’s a really visual representation. You hear a student tour guide walking through and they say, “Oh yes, we have these students from these places.” I think this just gives a whole different visual. And I think the space just cried out for something like that, yet I like that it doesn’t [distract from] the space either. It still feels very much like it’s part of the building. For me it was a way to really celebrate the international dimensions of our student body. We tried really hard to pull names of dual citizens and permanent residents that hold foreign citizenship so that it wouldn’t just reflect the international students—the government-defined international student population. So it gave a whole new breadth to when we say who our international students are, it kind of grew that in a really interesting way.

How has the Rosenfield program been involved?
It was [the Office of International Student Affairs] that initiated the whole dialogue and then when we contacted Rosenfield, we were just thrilled that they were excited about it. And one of the early dilemmas was this whole concept of defining nationhood and we needed some faculty input on that. And we really appreciated their interest in doing the panel and opening up that dialogue.

So, how has the Rosenfield program been involved?
In the summer, Sarah Purcell was involved in the discussions as we talked about how we define nationality—we were originally talking to colleague institutions, most of whom use the United Nations as their primary source for nationhood for their flag displays. Actually, Michael Sims [Director of Campus Center Operations and Student Activities] had the brilliant idea to look at the International Olympics Committee [IOC] and so we started looking at what they do and we’ve expanded ours to include both the U.N. and the IOC. That allowed us to expand our display…[to] places that are represented on campus but who don’t fit into the traditional United Nations definition.

What do you hope non-international students at Grinnell will take away from the Gallery?
I think all students at Grinnell are international. That’s why we have the U.S. flag there. That’s why we worked really hard not to just be looking at the government-identified international, who’s on an F-1 visa, which is who this office is usually working with. Early on, I saw a statement that was describing the display as a celebration of international identity. No, that’s not what it is. It’s national identify at the college.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?
As much as we know that flags can open controversy, I think they can also open some really positive, valuable dialogue and celebration of culture and connection and so that’s what we hope happens with it. I think, as much as this office has been spearheading the planning process, I don’t think in any sense that we want to feel ownership of the gallery of flags. I think this is an institutional celebration.

The main thing that I hope gets across is our enthusiasm for celebrating the diversity of our student body. To me, the voice over this summer that was the most powerful all along was that from the international students we talked to who were so thrilled at the idea of walking into the [Spencer] Grill and having their own flag hang. And I think that’s, for me, deep down, kind of the meat of what we’re talking about. That sense of belonging, of being part, of being an important central part of who is here. […] At Grinnell it’s part of our tradition this focus on egalitarianism. Absolutely we’re all equal, but we need not make the mistake of forgetting to celebrate the uniqueness and lifting that up and what that brings to the table.

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