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True Grinnellian: Janet Carl

Janet Carl has worn many hats in her life. Now, she heads the Writing Lab, and helps students improve their writing. Photo by Mai Phuong Vu.

By Mayo Sueta

Not many people can say that they’ve had five different careers and loved them all. However, Janet Carl, the current director of the Grinnell College writing lab, certainly can.

Carl came to Grinnell College in 1977 as an associate dean of students. After three years, she left her job at the College to serve in the Iowa legislature for three terms. Then, she briefly worked in the Iowa Supreme Court in Des Moines, after which she worked for Mid Iowa Community Action, writing grants and doing community development. After that, she came back to work at the College, where she eventually became the director of the writing lab.

It is not surprising that she found herself back on a college campus, considering her love for the college environment that she discovered during her undergraduate years.

“I liked college as an environment. … There are interesting people at colleges and they’re doing interesting things,” she said. “I decided I’d like to work with college students. And here I am all these years later, working with college students.”

Indeed, her love for the students shines through. When asked about the difference between working at a college and working elsewhere, she mentioned the value of interacting with people she wouldn’t interact with anywhere else.

“The students are the obvious difference. And a good difference,” she said. “And the reason I’m probably still here today is because I still find it really interesting to just be in touch with people not of my age, not of my background, not of my culture.”

Carl has done thousands of writing lab appointments. She has contributed to the growth of many students’ writing skills over the years and feels lucky that she has been able to do so.

“I just really like the writing lab. I like the environment here. … We’re good friends, we’re good colleagues,” she said. “And I think what we do is incredibly valuable, so I feel lucky to be contributing to so many students’ education in the way that I get to.”

Carl is, in some ways, like a lot of the students at the College, in that she didn’t have a clear idea of what she wanted to do after graduating. As an undergraduate student, she majored in sociology and psychology. Then, she went on to get a master’s degree in counseling and student personnel affairs. Even after getting a master’s degree in a specific field, she worked in the field for a total of ten years and then went on to pursue careers in completely different fields. She does not think that students should panic if they don’t have their whole lives planned ahead of them.

“You don’t have to feel like you’re a failure if you don’t walk across the stage on graduation day and say ‘I’m going off to be a …’,” she said. “If you had asked me when I graduated from college, ‘How do you think your career is going to go?’ Believe me, I would never have said, well I’m going to spend six years in the legislature, and I’m going to spend 13 years writing grants … and I’m going to spend 20 years teaching writing. I couldn’t have predicted those things.”

She believes that as long as people keep an open mind, a path will open up.

“You have to be able to recognize an opportunity when you see it,” she said. “Stay open. Stay open.”

In addition to the College, Carl is also fond of the Grinnell community at large. She grew up in a small town, around the same size of Grinnell and while she has lived outside of Grinnell for periods of time, she considers herself a Grinnellian at heart.

“I have to tell you, I just love it,” she said. “I like knowing who I’m seeing on the streets and I like knowing that I’m going see these people in all kinds of settings. To me, it’s satisfying.”

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