Alumni Professors Speak: “Finding a way back to Grinnell”

Allison Moore, Editor in Chief

Henry Rietz `89, Classics and Religious Studies Major

Henry Rietz `89 recreates a photo from his time as a student at Grinnell. (Evan Hein)

When Henry Rietz `89, professor of religious studies, traveled from Hawaii to Grinnell for his first year of college, he was eager for the first snowfall. 

“I’d seen snow before but had never lived in it, had never seen the seasons,” he said. 

Rietz also recalled the tradition of an all-campus scream, during which students would relieve their stress during exam season by shouting at the top of their lungs. 

Although Rietz said he never imagined returning to Grinnell, he said that the “fundamental Grinnell trait of learning for the sake of learning” ultimately brought him back.

Over the three decades since he graduated from Grinnell, Rietz said that there is “continuity in that Grinnell students care about each other and the world. Students are not competitive with each other, and I think that ethos has continued.”

After reminiscing about his undergraduate experience Rietz said, “I think having a sense of the College’s history is both inspiring to think about some of the things that we change. I think it’s also humbling because some things are not as appealing about history. I think that knowing the history … is to get a sense that others have gone through similar challenges and transitions.”

Clara Montague `13, GWSS and English major

Clara Montague `13 recreates a photo from her time as a student at Grinnell. (Evan Hein)

“The main thing that attracted me was the social justice at Grinnell — just that I could be around other students and professors that really cared about making the world a better place.”

After taking “Introduction to Gender, Women’s and Sexuality Studies,” Clara Montague `13, professor of gender, women’s and sexuality studies, knew it was the path for her. She fell in love with the major while at Grinnell, earned a master’s degree in women’s studies at the University of Maryland, and recently argued her dissertation. 

When presented with the opportunity to apply for a professor job at Grinnell, Montague jumped at the chance. “I was just so excited because of how much I enjoyed my experience of being in the classroom and how much the discussion and the way that students approach each other with both respect and challenging each other’s ideas.”

When asked about her favorite memory or tradition from her time as a student, Montague remembered getting vegan cookies from the Spencer Grill. “No shade on the vegan cookies, but I wouldn’t always eat them. I’d sometimes give them to the squirrels out the window of my dorm room, but then the squirrels would be looking and would wait for you.”

Sheahan Virgin `08, Political Science and Russian & Eastern European Studies Major

Sheahan Virgin `08 recreates a photo from his time as a student at Grinnell. (Evan Hein)

Professor Sheahan Virgin `08, political science, only applied to three or four colleges, “which was insane,” he said. “I identify as first-gen, and when it came time to apply for college, I wasn’t really sure what the heck I was doing.” 

Virgin said he primarily focused his time at Grinnell on his studies. “I was really insular as a student,” he said. “It’s one of my biggest regrets about college and something I like to tell students to not replicate.”

After graduating in 2008 during an economic crisis and unable to find a job, Virgin said he learned that, “life isn’t linear. When you look back, the beauty of it will be that your journey often can be really serpentine. I wish someone had told me that.”

“I jumped at the opportunity to apply for this [assistant professor] position. And I was ecstatic when I got it. I knew instantly I was going to say yes,” Virgin said. 

Upon arriving in Grinnell in Aug. 2020, Virgin said the derecho and the pandemic deterred his desire for a nostalgic wander around campus. Nevertheless, over two years later, Virgin said he remains excited to teach at his beloved alma mater. “I hadn’t realized how much I missed Grinnell until I left, and I feel like part of my life journey was finding a way to get back to Grinnell.”