Remembering Gwenna Ihrie ’15

September 21, 2023 — When Gwenna Ihrie ’15 was a second-year student at Grinnell College she took part in an English course group project. Its mission was to spread happiness and kindness on campus.  

The group was tabling in the Joe Rosenfield ’25 Center (JRC), and Gwenna was going up to people just to say hi.

“It was sweet and wholesome,” said Emma Lange ’16. “I went up to her with one of my friends and said hi. That’s how I met her. It was intentionally a very friendly format. Then we got to know each other better through mutual friends and student government. But this first meeting was very pure.”

During a trip to Washington D.C. in fall 2022, Dack Professor of Chemistry Jim Swartz (second from left) had dinner with Emma Lange ’16, left; Emma’s husband, Max Ernst; Gwenna Ihrie ’15; and Cliff Novak.
During a trip to Washington D.C. in fall 2022, Dack Professor of Chemistry Jim Swartz (second from left) had dinner with Emma Lange ’16, left; Emma’s husband, Max Ernst; Gwenna Ihrie ’15; and Cliff Novak.

In many ways spreading happiness and kindness was the perfect assignment for Gwenna because that is what she did during her life. Tragically, it was cut short Dec. 8, 2022, after a two-year battle with osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer. She was 29.

“Within her friend group, she liked to facilitate fun,” said Cliff Novak, Gwenna’s husband. “She wanted to make sure her friends were enjoying themselves.”

Gwenna’s love for Grinnell was evident in numerous ways, from her volunteerism as a student and alumna to her profound belief in what makes the College special.
“She was passionate about all students having access to the same opportunities and tools,” Lange says. “She was very serious about the College being able to maintain policies like need-blind admission and meeting demonstrated financial need. The policies that make Grinnell stand out among peers were important to her.”

Gwenna Ihrie ’15
  Gwenna Ihrie ’15

Gwenna grew up in Nebraska where she was a talented student, athlete, singer, and writer. She was involved in numerous activities at Grinnell. She served on the political science Student Educational Policy Committee (SEPC) because she was really interested in making sure political science students were able to have their voices heard with faculty, Lange said.

She also was a member of Global Grinnell Task Force, which was commissioned in 2014 by then President Raynard Kington, to conduct an assessment of international engagement at the College. 

Gwenna was elected Student Government Association (SGA) vice president for academic affairs in 2014-15. With that position came a spot on what was initially called the ARH Carnegie Planning Committee (which later evolved to the HSSC Planning Committee). That school year was a particularly important one in the Humanities and Social Studies Center planning process because it dealt with architect selection. Gwenna was part of a small committee of trustees, faculty, and staff members who traveled to visit four architects and see how they designed other buildings. 

“I got to know Gwenna well through these trips,” says Jim Swartz, Dack Professor of Chemistry, who was a planning committee co-chair. “She was a very engaged person on the committee. She really did care a lot about how different spaces can be part of the community and what spaces looked like for academic programs. She was very articulate about that. I don’t know if Gwenna knew this would be her role before she decided to run for vice president, but once she got elected and found out this is where we were on the project, she was very enthusiastic about it.”

Swartz stayed in touch after Gwenna’s graduation. He visited Washington D.C. a few times a year for work travel and had dinner with Gwenna and Emma at least once a year. Lange was the SGA vice president for academic affairs the year after Gwenna held the role. They both wound up in D.C. and became close friends.  

After graduating with her degree in political science, Gwenna spent two years with Americorps, working as part of a teen enrichment program in Chicago. She almost immediately became active in the alumni community, co-hosting Chicago alumni events and volunteering as a class agent.

Gwenna Ihrie ’15 and Cliff Novak cut their wedding cake.
  Gwenna Ihrie ’15 and Cliff Novak
  cut their wedding cake.

“Grinnell was really important to Gwenna and impactful in her life, and she wanted to continue be involved in it,” Novak says. “Since she was in the Student Government Association, I think the class agent role was the natural progression to helping organize the class.”

In 2017, Gwenna moved to Washington D.C. where she worked as a college success adviser for underserved populations through the nonprofit SEED Foundation. “She would work with charter schools in helping students with the college application process, and she would try to kickstart the transition process so they could be successful in college,” Novak said. “She really enjoyed the job.”

Through a connection in their friend groups Gwenna and Novak would get to know each other at karaoke outings and birthday parties. They were married on July 29, 2022. The same year, the couple took a trip to visit her family in Nebraska, making a stop at the HSSC in Grinnell along the way so Gwenna could see the end result from all those architect meetings.

“She was really happy with what it looked like and how it turned out,” Swartz says.

Last fall Swartz realized it would be a fitting tribute to name a space for Gwenna in the HSSC. Earlier this year he and Lange set in motion a fundraising effort, which resulted in over 75 gifts totaling $53,500. The Gwenna Ihrie ’15 Team Room is now used by students on the third floor of the HSSC’s South Pavilion. 

“I had heard from Gwenna’s friends circle, and they wanted to do something, but they weren’t sure what,” Lange says. “Jim had the idea for naming a team room, and it was serendipity. I’m really thankful to Jim and her great community back home in Nebraska, her friends and peers, and the folks in her professional career. Everyone was really passionate about wanting to support Gwenna. It was an easy cause once people knew it was an opportunity.”

A student does his homework Sept. 15 in the Gwenna Ihrie ’15 Team Room on the third floor of the HSSC.
A student does his homework Sept. 15 in the Gwenna Ihrie ’15 Team Room on the third floor of the HSSC.

Gwenna’s 30th birthday would have been Sept. 20. Perhaps better than any present, Lange thinks Gwenna would have loved seeing her team room being used by students working together or students working with faculty.

“She once did a summer research project with professor Douglas Hess ’91,” Lange says. “I could just envision them working in there together, with the many months of data analysis they did spread out on the table. Gwenna loved helping her peers. So, the idea of that being a space to help students meet up with each other very much fit with what she would want to do.”

— by Jeremy Shapiro

For your information

An online obituary for Gwenna describes additional details about her life and is a place to leave memories and light a virtual candle.

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