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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

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Taking time away from academics


Cancelled sports seasons, online classes and isolation: the academic year that awaited Grinnell students in the fall of 2020. What follows is a look into the individual experiences of six Grinnellians who chose to take a step back from academics for a portion of the 2020-21 academic year.

Emma Schaefer ’23

In her time off from Grinnell, Emma Schaefer ’23 has spent time working on her music and developing a virtual concert series. Photo contributed by Emma Schaefer.

“I realized I could turn this not-ideal situation into an opportunity,” said Emma Schaefer `23. Schaefer has spent the year in Colorado with her family, where she focused her attention on her music. Without the academic pressure of classes, Schaefer was able to invest time into projects she never would have been involved with otherwise, including a virtual benefit concert series called Tabletop Concerts.

The virtual series, which Schaefer co-created with a friend, hosts a different musical guest each month and asks viewers to consider donating to a local non-profit. The most recent concert asked viewers to direct donations to Youth on Record, a non-profit located in Denver, Colorado that provides music-based programming for young people.

After developing an independent major in multimedia storytelling, Schaefer thought she would pursue documentary filmmaking. By taking a job making animated children’s videos for a church organization, she saw how this course of study could transfer to the world outside of academia, but her time away from school led to the larger realization that she was less invested in filmmaking as a career and much more interested in narrative therapy.

When she returns to Grinnell in the fall of 2021, Schaefer intends to take psychology courses before studying off campus in Australia in the spring. “I’m so excited to go back into classes with this new perspective of how my interests can connect to the world,” said Schaefer.

Eli Calalang-LaCroix ’22

In taking time off from Grinnell, Eli Calalang-LaCroix ’22 has found new strategies to prioritize their mental health. Photo contributed by Eli Calalang-LaCroix.

At Grinnell, Eli Calalang-LaCroix `22 played in the Bira ensemble, jazz ensemble and several student bands. While taking a break from classes, they have had the time to devote this passion for music into recording their own album. When they aren’t recording music, Calalang-LaCroix pursues other interests like linguistics and the study of constructed languages.

When Calalang-LaCroix took a leave from Grinnell in Fall Term 2, they were primarily considering what was best for their mental health. By taking time away from Grinnell’s stressful academic environment, Calalang-LaCroix has been able to develop strategies to manage their mental health in a structured and healthy environment.

Looking to the future, one challenge for Calalang-LaCroix will be fitting their leave’s three-terms-worth of necessary course credits and remaining financial aid into the traditional semester system, which Grinnell may return to in the fall of 2021. Their plans for after graduation are another question entirely.

“The main thing is really just thinking about how difficult academics has been for me and trying to reevaluate whether that should affect my eventual plans for grad school,” Calalang-LaCroix said.

Keir Hichens ’23

Keir Hichens ’23 is spending the year involved in community organizing he wouldn’t be able to do while enrolled at Grinnell. Photo contributed by Keir Hichens.

Keir Hichens `23 had reservations about online classes after experiencing the initial switch to virtual learning in the spring of 2020. “It was kind of brutal,” said Hichens, “I felt disconnected from my professors and disconnected from the class and kind of disconnected from the actual material.”

By taking a leave of absence in the fall semester and then continuing it into the spring, Hichens has been able to split his time between taking a break from academic stress and volunteering in his community.

Around the presidential election, Hichens volunteered with the Iowa Democrats and did some phone banking with a small action group of friends and family. More recently, he’s been able to work with a mutual aid solidarity network delivering groceries to elderly members of the community.

Though he’s currently located in Seattle, Washington, Hichens has stayed in contact with the Union of Grinnell Student Dining Workers (UGSDW) at Grinnell, where he’s a Board Member-at-Large, and is working with other union members on a national organizing initiative to prevent higher education institutions who bust unions and refuse to supply living wages from receiving federal funding.

“Being forced to change my academic plan has changed the way that I think about academics,” said Hichens. “What are the parts of my education that really do matter? Is it getting the grade and getting out to get a job or is it taking those skills and putting them to work in the communities that I’m a part of?” While Hichens’ ideas of becoming a writer or teacher after Grinnell haven’t left him, his experience has showed him that activist work isn’t just a hobby but can have an actual place in his future plans.

Lillie Westbrook ’21

Traveling to national parks throughout the United States offered perspective for Lillie Westbrook ’21 to see how the pandemic has been handled throughout the country. Photo contributed by Lillie Westbrook.

Lillie Westbrook `21 had enough credits under her belt to take off the fall 2020 semester and still graduate with her class in the spring. Westbrook spent August through September traveling across the Midwest towards California, until smoke from the wildfires tearing across the West coast forced her to return East.

The trip illuminated for Westbrook the disparity in responses to the COVID-19 pandemic across Iowa, South Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana. While Westbrook and her boyfriend lived solely out of a tent, remained socially distant and wore masks any time they were around others, they encountered other people who refused to wear masks and denied the virus’s existence.

“It feels like I’ve been gone from Grinnell for so long,” Westbrook said. “Grinnell is such a bubble.” Taking a leave from that bubble has put both her education and future plans into better focus for Westbrook, who plans to be an au pair in France following graduation, if international travel allows it.

November Brown ’23

November Brown ’23 spent the fall revising her manuscript and interning for a literary agency. Photo contributed by November Brown.

November Brown `23 decided to take the year off after learning classes would remain virtual last fall. By continuing a remote internship with the Chicago-based Browne and Miller Literary Associates and diving headfirst into the editing of a manuscript she’d finished during a previous summer, Brown has more than enough to keep her busy.

Through her work at the literary agency, Brown has familiarized herself with the publishing process, from pitching a manuscript to releasing a finished book. “I’m very grateful for all the advice and experience that I’ve gained so far,” she said. Brown has also learned to set goals and self-motivate outside of an academic setting, a skill she hasn’t had the opportunity to develop, as her life up until this point has been heavily structured by her education.

Maddy Dellinger ’22

Maddy Dellinger ’22 worked at a hospital in Livingston, Mont. after getting her EMT certification online. Photo contributed by Maddy Dellinger.

As a biochemistry major and a member of the women’s soccer team, a semester without physical lab classes and a cancelled sports season was less than ideal for Maddy Dellinger `22. After taking an online EMT course over the summer, Dellinger decided she’d spend the fall semester putting her certification to use in the small rural town of Livingston, Mont.

Her work varied from working nights in the ER to twelve hour shifts in urgent care and the COVID unit, where she screened patients and provided care to those uninsured who could not afford to be sent to the hospital. Understaffing was a constant issue in the rural clinic where she worked and Dellinger was surprised by how much was expected of her with just an EMT certification.

“For example,” she said, “in the ER, I was assisting in surgeries and I never thought that was something that I would be able to do.”

Dellinger is back to taking classes online this spring, but her academic plan has shifted dramatically in her time off. “Honestly, I am so thankful that I took this leave of absence, it’s completely directed me on a new path,” Dellinger said. “I am now a pre-med student.”

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Nadia Langley
Nadia Langley, Editor in Chief
Nadia Langley is a fourth year majoring in history and French. Her favorite historical French quote is: "Literally I didn't say that, that's so cray," -- Marie Antoinette, 1793.
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