One of the most interesting things about Grinnell is that there are NO general education requirements – not even distribution requirements! The only requirement is that students take a first-year seminar – interesting topics proposed by professors – which are capped at 18 students.
Academically, Grinnell’s small size gives students ongoing contact with professors – as my tour guide and I walked through the science building, a professor in the hallway addressed him by name – and continuing research opportunities, which can lead to publishing work as an undergraduate and strong graduate school letters of recommendation.
My tour guide, a varsity swimmer on Grinnell’s Division III swim team, said that the absence of academic requirements attracts students who are “dedicated to working hard but interested in more than 1 thing,” and advised that students should resist the temptation to take only courses in their immediate area of interest, missing out on the experience of being able to take many subjects. Grinnell students, on the whole, are attracted to the freedom of being able to take whatever they want, while focusing on their major with professors as mentors.
Most students – more than 90% – live on campus in one of three sets of connected dorms. Freshmen room with other freshmen, but students of all years are mixed together within the dorms. Each of the three dorm “neighborhoods” has its own personality – one is the more modern dorms (my tour guide suggested the students who live here are more “boring”) and one section is known as more of the party location.
Grinnell’s campus is small and easy to navigate; you can walk from the Admissions office at the far south side to the Athletic complex on the far north side in less than 10 minutes. The Noyce Science Center (named for Grinnell alum and Intel co-founder Robert Noyce) houses all of the sciences – biology, chemistry, biochem, computer science and physics, as well as math, and is probably the most impressive building on campus. The modern Joe Rosenfield Center, right across the street, is the student union, with the dining hall, a coffee shop, student activity offices, meeting rooms and lounge/study spaces.
Grinnell is a high stress, high workload kind of place – many students consider Grinnell to feel similar to Swarthmore, Oberlin and Wesleyan, and it’s ranked in the same range as these schools. In addition to hearing about the stress and workload from my tour guide, I spoke to another student who was just finishing his first year. He had submitted several transfer applications, saying that the transition to this small Iowa town was difficult, more socially than academically. Isolation is definitely an issue here – Grinnell itself is a tiny town with just a few restaurants and a Walmart (but several farm equipment dealerships!). I detected a bit of angst among the students I spoke with – the issues seem to be varied, from the College’s response to sexual assault, to student self-governance, to their recent decision to sever ties with the Posse Foundation, whose goal is to help colleges increase racial diversity. I also noticed that the campus bustles with activity in the 10 minutes between classes, but when classes are in session, the heart of the quad feels entirely empty – the photo above of Steiner Hall was taken during class time.
Grinnell is definitely for students who are intense and passionate about their work both inside and outside of the classroom, and who won’t feel isolated in a small town environment.
Evelyn visited Grinnell in April, 2016. You can see all of her photos here.