Shaping Spaces, Shaping Conversations

Dec. 14, 2016 — Gifts to Grinnell ensure opportunities for students. Since Teodora Cakarmis ’17 came to Grinnell from Serbia three years ago, she has had the opportunity to — among other things — attend a United Nations climate change conference in Marrakech, bring her love of synchronized swimming to Grinnell, and discover new perspectives that contradicted her views on Yugoslavia. All of these experiences were made possible, directly or indirectly, through donor support.


As the United States was gearing up for a presidential election, Cakarmis was on her way to Marrakech, Morocco to prepare for the arrival of the Palauan delegation at the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework on Climate Change. Before the delegates arrived, Cakarmis was responsible for setting up Palau’s booth, “to influence the conversations that would happen in it.” Once the delegates arrived, however, she became a participant in negotiations. “As a student, I wasn’t threatening, so people would talk to me,” she says. It is common practice to initiate conversations between countries at the intern level. “I could talk to other interns and feel out what direction their delegate would likely go and report back,” says Tea.

Marrakech wasn’t the success that many were hoping it would be. The previous summit in Paris, Cakarmis says, was successful, but it was a commitment to an ideology. Marrakech dealt with implementation. One success that Cakarmis is excited about resulted from a conversation she had with a woman who turned out to be the ambassador of Malta. Cakarmis helped secure two dozen comprehensive scholarships for people from island nations to go to Malta and study environmental science.


Cakarmis began competing in synchronized swimming (synchro)  at the age of nine and competed as a member of the Serbian national team for seven consecutive years before coming to Grinnell. In her second year at the College, Cakarmis started  a synchronized swimming group. Synchronized swimming has long been viewed as a feminine sport, and even in the days before Title IX, it was a sport woman were encouraged to participate in — an athletic space they could claim. Cakarmis stressed the difficulty of competing in synchro. “Imagine you’re running the hundred meters and you have to do this intricate dance and you aren’t allowed to breathe,” she says. She has even connected with members of the original White Caps, the synchro club formed at Grinnell in the 1960s.


The co-coach of the synchro club, a student from Slovenia who ran the organization while Cakarmis studied abroad last year, also helped her gain a new perspective on former Yugoslavian states. Cakarmis comes from a family who saw Yugoslavia as an entity that united all southern Slavs. They supported religious tolerance and thought a heterogeneous country could work.

In her conversations with Zala Tomasic ‘18, Cakarmis came to understand a new perspective on Yugoslavia. “Talking with Tomasic broke open my myth of Yugoslavia,” she says. Which is not to say that Cakarmis’ perspective has been invalidated. She still appreciates unifying goals of Yugoslavia but recognizes that in practice the country wasn’t what it set out to be. Cakarmis had known that nothing as complex as a nation could be reduced to any one symbol, but talking with Tomasic helped her apply that knowledge to something she hadn’t thoroughly questioned before.

“It seems a little crazy and counterintuitive that I had to come to Grinnell to have this conversation about Serbia and Slovenia and Yugoslavia,” she says. “It’s the ultimate unbiased ground.” Coming here, she says, they were both able to throw off enough of their national baggage and gain the tools they needed to have the conversation — analytical tools they used to attack arguments rather than each other. “I’m infinitely grateful to Grinnell for helping me get out of my own historical, economic, social bubble,” says Cakarmis.

If you want to help provide life-changing opportunities for students, like Teodora, to broaden their perspectives, explore their passions, and experience the world, make a gift to Grinnell today.