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The Scarlet & Black

Pioneering education: Distinguishing grinnell through its limitations

On Sept. 15, President Raynard Kington delivered a convocation that focused on outlining the elements of Grinnell’s strategic plan. Kington’s talk focused on long-term planning as well as developing an infrastructure that will prepare Grinnell to meet the demands, challenges, and changes in the national and global educational, financial, and demographical landscapes. In particular, Kington referred to the five areas of focus for the strategic plan—alumni, distinctiveness, enrollment, post-graduation, and teaching—and briefly introduced the faculty, staff, and student representatives who will be serving on the different subcommittees.

I’d like to focus on the concept of ‘distinctiveness,’ especially given the fact that Grinnell seems to have exploded onto the national scene over the past year. As a refresher, Grinnell has made an appearance on several ranked lists: “Most Hipster Colleges,” “Most Rigorous Colleges,” and was recently named the 19th best liberal arts college by the U.S. News and World Report. In addition, Grinnell’s office of admission was featured on Good Morning America and the White House honored the Grinnell Science Project (GSP) with the prestigious Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering mentoring. Clearly, Grinnell is making a huge mark.

The notion of ‘distinctiveness’ seems to be begging the question: what sort of Grinnell do we want to showcase to the rest of the world and why is this important? The hardest part of this question rests on the fact that it requires us to define Grinnell in a specific way. Like with self-governance, every single Grinnellian would respond to the above question very differently and would obviously highlight different strengths. Therefore, the difficult part in moving forward is defining the essence of what it means to be a Grinnellian in different capacities. What does it mean for us students who choose to not only educate ourselves here, but to also develop emotionally, socially, and intellectually? What does it mean for the faculty who choose to settle in a rural town and devote their careers not just to advancing their fields, but to becoming an educator? What does it mean for the staff, who support student endeavors by enriching our academic and social experiences in uncountable ways? Finally, what does it mean for the alumni who carry the label of ‘Grinnellian’ for the rest of their lives? Making the choice to be part of this community comes with many rewards, but also comes as a result of many sacrifices, and I think that we should keep that in mind as we search for the description of Grinnell that resonates with us best.

It is only natural that other liberal arts colleges will share many of our values, our approach to education, and commitment to social justice. I think we all have a tendency to generalize the personalities and values of liberal arts college graduates. We tend to characterize them as smart, driven, interesting, and open-minded. Therefore, in finding our distinctiveness we are also challenged by comparable institutions that are similarly academically excellent and devoted to developing students holistically.

In particular, we should be honest about our limitations as an institution, the challenges that we still face, and the issues that we struggle with—especially to outside audiences. We must be brave in recognizing the not-so-pretty aspects about Grinnell because not doing so would go against the very values that have carried us throughout the years. And this is precisely where I think Grinnell will find part of its distinctiveness—having the ability to be transparent and humble—not only to the campus community, but also to the outside world. In fact, I think we should celebrate the fact that we are self-reflective about our faults and what course of action will improve our lives as Grinnellians. This openness will positively influence all areas of Grinnell life, by making all members of our community accountable to ourselves and the outside world about what type of place we want to be.

Grinnell is a place where being a Grinnellian is not a label just affixed to students. Everyone who has traversed through Grinnell at some point during their professional or academic careers plays an important role in sustaining and contributing to this community. In addition to being honest about the areas that we need to improve on, we are also able to find our distinctiveness in this simple fact. Grinnell is not just a school, but an experience that we all contribute to in some way or another. Recognizing and having pride in this cohesion is what sets us apart and what will continue to set us apart for years to come.

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