Tonight was our second campus-wide discussion about reclaiming the title “leader” at Grinnell. This time around, we had a wider range of class years represented and the conversation was much more anecdotal than the one we had on Monday. Students shared experiences of feeling undermined or threatened at Grinnell, particularly in the classroom.
Themes that emerged included fear of failure and fear of inadequacy as deterrents of speaking up in class or self-identifying as a leader. In one particular anecdote, a student shared a moment when singers in the choir were asked to step forward to fill a list of cabinet positions. Silence. It took a few long pauses and unenthusiastic volunteers for those positions to be filled. The student sharing the anecdote recalled how Grinnellians, instead of identifying themselves, turned to each other and asked their neighbors to nominate them. She compared this to a similar experience in high school where the prompt for students to step up as leaders was followed by a rush of anxious volunteers.
When asked to reflect on the reason for their reluctance to step forward, students cited a sense of unhealthy competitiveness on campus that didn’t necessarily center around grades. They shared anecdotes of other students calling them names or degrading their achievements, two trends that seemed to arise out of our smaller community and the sense that we all know each other “too well.” Whenever a student is presented with an opportunity to apply for an internship or a position on campus, the fear that they might be up against their classmates or that their classmates may judge their achievements held them back.
This week’s conversations have left us with a better sense of the obstacles facing Grinnellians as we step forward and try to find our place on campus. Not only is there a stigma against leadership titles, but our constant comparisons to each other generate insecurities which hold students back.
Future discussions will center around creative recommendations for improvements on campus. How can we introduce incoming first years to leadership–NSO programming, tutorial discussions? How can we mitigate the “resume builder” criticisms and encourage students to actively plan for a life beyond Grinnell without devaluing each others efforts to get there?
We are grateful for the Grinnellians who have shared their experiences and joined our initiative. This is why we are proud to be Grinnellians.