Culture shock

Students and alumni reveal what they learned growing up at Grinnell – The Scarlet and Black

By Libby Eggert
[email protected]

Every year people who grew up in Grinnell attend Grinnell College as students. Their experiences are as unique and diverse as those of any other Grinnell student, but their love for the city and the College is vibrant. Some even stayed in town after graduation and worked for the College, or as doctors, or as teachers.

Women’s Cross Country Head Coach Sarah Burnell ’14 was a first generation student whose mother worked for the College. She looked at other smaller liberal arts schools in the Midwest, but knew Grinnell was the right fit.

“I was looking for a campus community that really fit me…and I found a team that I could be myself with,” she said.

She said the presence of the College influenced her childhood because she grew up surrounded by people from across the country, many of whom had parents who traveled hundreds of miles to work at the College. Burnell attended Science Camp, Spanish Camp, and the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program through the College.

“Not everyone grows up in a college town and has access to these things,” Burnell said.

Like Burnell, Jeff Phelps `73 had a mother who worked for the College. Phelps attended the College with four of his Grinnell-Newburg High School peers, each of whom also had a College-affiliated parent.

After graduating, he stayed at Grinnell and worked at various local jobs. In 1999, he founded Saints Rests, a cafe that has become a social staple for students and locals alike.

He might attend Grinnell because of the tuition rebate program. The current program means that children of College employees pay a 10% tuition fee if their child is admitted to the school (or one of the associated colleges in the Midwest).

Phelps originally wanted to go to the University of Iowa, but his test scores were high enough to be accepted to Grinnell.

“This [Grinnell] ended up being one of the best experiences of my life. I was not what you would call a reading smart person, but I learned a lot at Grinnell, and I will never regret the decision to go there.

For Jake Hull ’24, relationships with baseball and basketball coaches made Grinnell the obvious choice. He knew he wanted to be a doctor and was attracted by their success in graduate school admission.

“My baseball coach, Coach Hollibaugh, he’s been coaching me since I got into T-ball. The relationship I have with him is very close, and it was a major key decision for me, as well as the academics,” he said.

Hull’s grandparents are farmers in the region, and he discovered the world of agriculture throughout his childhood, which he likes to share with students who come from the big cities.

“It’s cool to say that we have a field in our backyard where we grow corn and beans…show them things they don’t usually see.”

In contrast, coming to Grinnell College introduced these born-and-bred residents to people from all walks of life.

Brian Princer `99 said during his first year, his perspective changed dramatically.

“I saw my first bong, I learned what a vegan was, I met people who were very different from me, who had very different backgrounds, some of whom I became very good friends with,” said he declared.

Laura Ferguson `90, Princer and Phelps said there have always been conflicts between Grinnell residents and students.

“When I was in high school, there were more street dress breaks…there were high school kids harassing students just because they were students,” Ferguson said.

Every alumnus and student interviewed said they were deeply involved in athletic or theater programs at their high school and college. None had identical stories of how or why they chose Grinnell, but they all felt their careers and lives were powered by the College; those who still live in town have said they want to see the relationship improve between the two.

Princer said most townspeople expected students to act, but didn’t treat him any differently when he was in school.

“Some of their critics [of the College] may be justified, but some of their stereotypes are way off,” Princer said.

Princer also said that coming from the city likely relieved the stress of the early college transition for him.

“Although I had culture shock, I didn’t have the double culture shock that some people have, because I knew the city and where to find things.”

I saw my first bong, I learned what a vegan was, I met people who were very different from me, who had very different backgrounds, some of whom I became very good friends with. –Brian Princer `99

Tanner Alger ’25, whose grandmother has lived here since the 1970s, said in an email that he had always wanted to go to Grinnell, even without direct ties to the College.

“Growing up watching people on campus, seeing these free and beautiful individuals express themselves in all these different ways made me fall in love.”

He believes that students have a desire to connect with the community in a more positive way and hopes to help build that relationship.

“The College has had a positive influence on the city financially, but it has certainly not reached its full potential.”