Alumni-citizen: creating a community for publicly engaged college graduates

By Erica Lehrer

Grinnell College already had the instinct to support and engage with alumni as citizens when I was a new-alum (’91), and they responded positively and creatively to my overtures to remain connected to the college after graduation – albeit that my overtures were mainly for my own personal and professional development.

Their response came in the form of financial support to both continue fieldwork on a nascent project I had developed to document and reflect on the changing landscape of post-Holocaust Jewish heritage in Poland, and to have the resulting photographic images professionally framed and shipped to Grinnell for an exhibit in relation to the college’s sesquicentennial celebration in 1996.

It seemed an amazing generosity to me to receive a grant for $750 for a project that had failed to garner me a Watson Fellowship while at Grinnell (although the college had selected me as one of its four nominees). While this support grew out of my own initiative in contacting the college, individuals there (who, specifically, I unfortunately no longer recall) helped me consider potential avenues there to tap, leading me to Wayne Moyer, Professor of Political Science; Former Director of the Rosenfield Public Affairs Program, who was not only responsive but incredibly open and creative in his thinking about how to make my needs fit the evolving sesquicentennial programming.

I have wondered over the years, though – even wished – that Grinnell would be not only responsive, but proactive in tapping their alumni for what they might contribute to college life on an ongoing basis.

To be fair, 1996 was also the year when Grinnell established the Joseph F. Wall Alumni Service Award, which offers $25,000 to each of two graduates to carry out a service project that is of tangible benefit to others, a prize that has supported many alumni projects in the years since. And the college’s more recent, and much higher profile initiative, the establishment of the Grinnell College Young Innovator for Social Justice Prize, is also entirely commendable.

But what I had been looking for in my first post-college decade was a way to share my excitement about the professionalization experiences I was undergoing, and to share the wisdom I was gaining (and the challenges I was facing) on my path to becoming an anthropologist, documentarian, and “culture broker” – and trying to forge a different kind of path through the academy as a “publicly engaged scholar,” with current Grinnellians. I felt I had access now to things I wish I’d known and contacts I wish I’d had when I was in their shoes, and I wanted to share them. But my occasional overtures to the college’s career center were met with rather unclear and uninspiring offers to put my information in a binder.

I also recall hoping I myself might find some useful direction from what I recall as the college’s Center for Social Justice when I was feeling a bit adrift in my career aspirations in the early post-graduation years. If later I felt I might have something to offer Grinnell, I also instinctually looked back to it with hope for future guidance, energy and networks as I went forward.

I’m not sure what the ideal system would be, but some kind of alumni-citizen think tank back at the college, even one that alums would pay to attend, might be a starting point.

Erica Lehrer is an assistant professor in the departments of History and Sociology/Anthropology, and holds the Canada Research Chair in Post-Conflict Memory, Ethnography and Museology. She established the Centre for Ethnographic Research and Exhibition in the Aftermath of Violence to create a community of researchers and curators and produce new knowledge around issues of culture and identity in the aftermath of violence. Ms. Lehrer’s new book Revisiting Jewish Poland: Tourism, Heritage, Reconciliation (Indiana University Press) is an ethnography that explores the intersection of Polish and Jewish “memory projects” and the personal quests and encounters that inform them as they meet in the historical Jewish neighborhood of Krakow, Poland.

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