THE GRINNELL EXPERIENCE (Grinnell College, Grinnell, IA)

by Steve Clem on June 10, 2012

I’m giddy with excitement to be returning this weekend to a place that had a more profound effect on me in four years than any other place or period in my life.

Grinnell College. That liberal, hippie, gay-loving school in The Middle Of Nowhere, Iowa.

Only a few close friends know my wishes when I leave this earth. I want to be cremated and have my ashes spread in four locations. One of those is the Grinnell College campus.

There was a common term used at the college, back in my day: The Grinnell Experience. It was a catchy little phrase that was probably thought up by some marketing major from Coe College turned “communications director,” but for some damn reason, it actually made sense. Grinnell College alums have a special bond with one another, no matter when they attended the school. There’s an understanding. “Oh, you also were fortunate enough to enjoy one of Iowa’s best kept secrets?” Maybe not a best kept secret to nerds and geeks, but to the world at large, it was quite invisible. I knew this because when my high school classmates asked me where I was going to college, I’d tell them and they’d say, “Oh, Cornell?” It became much easier to just nod and say, “Sure!”

So how did Grinnell shape who I am so definitively in just four short years?

Well, there’s the obvious. I met the mother of my amazing children there. And I’m fortunate that my parents each met the love of their life and the other parent of their amazing child (I’ll let you guess which one of the three of us that is) at Grinnell. So pretty much my mere existence is a result of Grinnell.

And frankly, next to family, I have nobody in my life that understands me better than the group of close friends I made while I attended Grinnell. We don’t all see each other as often as we’d like, but when we do, we always pick up right where we left off, just like the days when we were hosting keggers on the roof of Cowles, complete with our mini-golf course, hot tub, and water balloon cannon. Those guys are the closest things to brothers I’ve ever had, next to my actual brothers.

Oh, and that brings me to one of the other amazing things that shaped me while at Grinnell: I never let my classes get in the way of my education, yet somehow I still made it through. Sometimes an all-nighter of drinking Milwaukee’s Best Light and playing Super Nintendo with your “brothers” can teach you more than an all-nighter of studying for Constitutional Law and Politics (with apologies to Professor Ira Strauber).

And there’s no question that Grinnell shaped me politically — but not the way most people would think. They assume “liberal arts” is code for “teaching us to be commies who love to play Hacky Sack and protest everything.” But for those of you who haven’t been around me consistently during the last 20 years, you’d probably be shocked to know that when I graduated from Grinnell, I was still a registered Republican. In fact, I worked on a Republican gubernatorial campaign more than two years after I left Grinnell.

The most common misconception about the school is that it just turns out liberals and is an institution devoted to brainwashing its students with an agenda toward all things leftist. Au contraire. Grinnellians, by and large, are outspoken and not shy about sharing their opinions. But it’s not because of any leftist agenda. It’s because our professors wanted us to leave school being able to (1) think critically and make informed decisions, not just follow the crowd; (2) communicate effectively, because no matter how smart you might think you are, if you can’t find a way to articulate that with others, you’ll never get anywhere in life; and (3) communicate in both directions. Listening, learning, and processing information from people you disagree with isn’t a bad thing. It’s educational. You might even find some common ground.

And finally, I have to mention another important thing I learned in my four years at Grinnell: how to tap a keg.

I look forward to returning to my roots. My old stomping grounds. The place where I went from a boy to a slightly older boy. And the place where I perfected the art of face-planting into a comfy spot on Mac Field at 2 a.m. and yelling out for help until my friends would somehow find me each time.

The Grinnell Experience means a lot of things to a lot of people. But to me, it means four of the best years of my life. Even if I don’t remember every moment.

See you Friday, Grinnell. And if you hear someone yelling for help on Mac Field, please direct me to my dorm room, and make sure to leave the garbage can near my bed.

* * * *

Steve Clem is a divorced dad, a recovering Republican, and a Prisoner in the Tundra. He is in The Guinness Book of World Records for being part of the largest Hokey Pokey of all time. He was the founding editor of the Iowa City weekly The ICON.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

earl August 25, 2014 at 3:01 am


class of 81, yes it is amazing experience. I love that i can share with grads from 55 to 14


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