Alums develop connections during Multicultural Reunion 2021

November 18, 2021 — While planning Grinnell College’s first Multicultural Reunion in 2017, several alumni and students asked event organizers if Heidi Criswell was invited.

“They each had a story to share about Heidi and were eager to see her again to break bread and catch up on each other’s lives,” Bernard Jackson ’86 said about Criswell, who at that time was the supervisor of Spencer Grill.

This year Jackson and his fellow members of the Alumni Council Diversity & Inclusion Committee sought to uplift and shine a light on the unseen and unpaid work of the College staff and faculty of color. “When we read Heidi’s nomination, we knew we found the 2021 Diversity Champion Award winner,” Jackson said

Heidi Criswell, program assistant for the Institute for Global Engagement
Heidi Criswell, program assistant for the Institute for Global Engagement, gives a few remarks after being presented with the 2021 Diversity Champion Award.

Criswell, now a program assistant for the Institute for Global Engagement, was presented the award during a session at 2021 Multicultural Reunion. The third biennial reunion – which was held virtually Nov. 11-13 – presented a connected, inclusive, and engaging series of events for alums from across spectrums of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender expression, and ability. Participants explored their own Grinnell narratives while building community within community.

The reunion began with a meet and greet with the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Schvalla Rivera, Grinnell College chief diversity officer and vice president of diversity & inclusion, talked about how the College is working on a DEI strategic plan that aligns with the College’s overall strategic planning. 

“I’m meeting with each vice president and division head, and I have a list of questions for them,” she said. “What are they currently doing? What barriers have they identified within their departments? What didn’t work and how can we improve that, so that I know how to help set goals. I don't have magic diversity pixie dust or anything like that. What I do is educate, strategize, and help others to create change. So, we’re doing the work together. That’s what's going to make it sustainable.”

Later that day a Town Hall with President Anne F. Harris gave alumni a chance to ask a variety of questions. Danielle Currier ’87 asked about the recruitment of faculty and staff, especially those who do not identify as white. Harris mentioned programs are being put in place to support underrepresented identities at the College in multiple ways, including having an equity advocate present on every faculty search. 


Grinnell College President Anne F. Harris answers a question during a Town Hall event on the opening night of Multicultural Reunion 2021.
Grinnell College President Anne F. Harris answers a question during a Town Hall event on the opening night of Multicultural Reunion 2021.

“We’re not just saying we have a long tradition of social justice. Every question that we’re asking candidates about diversity, equity, and inclusion, we’re also asking ourselves,” Harris said. “We also are active in networks for faculty of color and recognize the additional labor of being a faculty member of color when students come to seek mentoring.”

In response to a comment about how Grinnell’s institutional readiness is still a work in progress, Noel Green ’94 asked what barriers have presented Grinnell from being fully ready.

Rivera said she looks at institutional readiness as a concept regarding what level is the entire College ready for diversity – “meaning what is the level of cultural competence across the board of all of its staff, faculty and students? What policies, programs, and finances are in place that make an institution ready to not only recruit students, but to retain them and to help them persist through graduation. 

“So, are we completely ready? No, we’re not. Are we working toward that? Yes. This office [DEI] has been in existence since February. We’re building our team. I’m not saying things haven’t been done in the past, but this new era has just started in 2021. While we are pushers and we are doers, it does take time, especially for the institutional-level work.”

Friday’s Multicultural Reunion events started off with a speed friending session and continued that evening with the presentation of the Diversity Champion Award. During the ceremony, Karolina Marquez-Gil ’17 described Criswell as a second mom while Grisel Hernandez ’17 said Criswell has an incredible capacity to make students feel seen, heard, understood, and reassured.

“Our conversations made me feel like I had an adult on campus who knew where I came from, and it was comforting to have someone around who understood the traditions and cultural references that I was raised with,” Hernandez said. “As a first-generation student in Iowa, this made a world of difference to me, especially during that time of imminent graduation and the uncertainty that surrounds that.”

Criswell, in turn, thanked the students. 

“I want to say that I wish I have a prize for the students because even though the students felt like they could come to me for everything, that’s exactly the way I felt, too,” she said. “They welcomed me. They made time for me and for my son. They mentored him, and shared meaningful events, like holidays, birthdays, meals, and coffee. I just can’t thank them enough.”

Alvin Irby ’07 helps makes Grinnell funny again with a comedic performance during Loggia Laughs on Nov. 12.
Alvin Irby ’07 helps makes Grinnell funny again with a comedic performance during Loggia Laughs on Nov. 12. 

After the award presentation, it was time for Loggia Laughs: Make Grinnell Funny Again featuring comedic performances by Maya May ’99, Sarah Aswell ’04, and Alvin Irby ’07. Among many humorous student remembrances, Irby described the time his cross country teammates convinced him to watch the Rocky Horror Picture Show

“I had never heard of it, but by the way they were talking about it, I thought it was an Academy Award winning picture,” Irby said. “I was like, well, I’m at Grinnell, and I want to learn about new things, so I show up ready to just take in this beautiful art. I was like ‘wait a minute, today is not Halloween. Why are people dressed so interestingly? I don’t remember seeing a little note about dressing up.’

“Then people started saying the lines in the movie. And I'm like, ‘OK, these people are familiar with the movie.’ But then they started saying lines that weren’t even in the movie. And I was like, ‘Wait, this is a cult!’ I don’t feel comfortable in the theatre right now. But I said ‘Alvin, you came Iowa to experience things, so just watch a little more and maybe it’ll make sense.’ And it didn’t. I didn’t even get through the whole movie. Halfway through, I just ran out the theatre.”

Saturday’s events included crafternoon, a student and alumni community building & story sharing, and a low-stake trivia contest, which was won by the team of Joy Sales ’13, Bailey Dann ’17, Roselle Tenorio ’17, and Jose Mendez ’18

The festivities concluded with the Virtual Drag Variety Show. Co-hosted by Conner Stanfield ’21 and Lester Alemán ’07, drag show participants watched video performances by alumni. Money raised during the show will go to the Intercultural Affairs Fund, which is used to cultivate co-curricular opportunities and address student needs that engage, empower, and encourage Grinnell students in their holistic exploration of self, community, and social change.

“It was wonderful having alumni over the course of Multicultural Reunion share this space together to tell stories, celebrate progress, have fun, and examine our relationships with Grinnell,” says Sarah Smith-Benanti, assistant director of alumni and donor relations for diverse communities. “It was a special weekend, and I’m already energized about what could be in store for the next reunion in two years.” 

— by Jeremy Shapiro

For your information:

Check out Multicultural Reunion webpage to learn more about what other events took place and see a full list of planning committee members. The fourth Multicultural Alumni Weekend is slated for fall 2023.

To read more alumni news, check out our news archive and like the Alumni & Friends Facebook page.