Grinnell history professor wins debut award for student research mentoring

Oct. 10, 2019Sarah Purcell ’92, L.F. Parker Professor of History, was recognized by a national organization for making a lasting impact in her mentorship of Grinnell College students.

Purcell won the Council on Undergraduate Research’s inaugural award for Excellence in Mentoring Undergraduate Research in the social sciences. She has been a prolific mentor of undergraduate research at the College, supervising 45 students who have completed nearly 60 Mentored Advanced Projects (MAPs).

“I was thrilled to win the award,” Purcell says. “It was nice to receive recognition for mentoring students, which is an important component to the college experience at Grinnell.”

The Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR) increases and nurtures participation of individuals and groups that have been traditionally underrepresented in undergraduate research.

Sarah Purcell ’92 discusses the civil war with students in a history class.
Sarah Purcell ’92 discusses the civil war with students in a history class.

The award Purcell won honors outstanding mentors of undergraduate research in the social sciences for their role in supporting, encouraging, and promoting a positive and inclusive scholarly and teaching environment.

Two of Purcell’s former students, Hayes Gardner ’16 and Sam Nakahira ’19, sent a letter of support for the award nomination. They said Purcell embodies everything that a student would seek in a teacher, mentor, and professor.

“One of her most admirable qualities is her immense support of and trust in her students,” wrote Gardner and Nakahira. “She truly is her students’ greatest cheerleader, and her confidence in her students’ abilities is empowering. It gives them the courage to try things they would have previously felt uncomfortable doing, such as presenting at an academic conference, making a cold call to an authority in a field of study and arranging to meet, or taking acting courses to help with public speaking.”

Purcell was honored that her former students felt that the research was an important part of their life and that they would take the time to write an endorsement.

“I think the student testimony had something to do with the award, and I also think that the Council on Undergraduate Research recognized some of my creativity in mentoring student research in history, which is a field that does not have much tradition of co-authorship,” she says. “I have explored ways for students to co-author figures in my research and to work together with me on certain projects.”

Purcell is paying it forward. As a Grinnell student, she received mentoring that made a huge impact on her.

“The College had a grant from the Joyce Foundation in the early 1990s to pursue mentored student and faculty research,” Purcell says. “I worked for a whole summer with Professor Alan Jones ‘50, and he was my advisor. He was an amazing research mentor. The summer research was very informative in my own decision to become a professor and historian, and I’m really proud that I can perpetuate any small part of mentoring that was given to me by Professor Jones and everyone else in the history department when I was a student.”

Purcell has taught at Grinnell since 2000. She also served as the director of the Rosenfield Program in Public Affairs, International Relations, and Human Rights from 2008 to 2017. She was installed as the L.F. Parker Professor of History in 2016.

“I like pretty much everything about Grinnell,” she says. “To me one of the best parts about the College is working really extensively with students and to let them follow their passion in research. That’s why this award was especially meaningful.”

Her fascination with history also propels her to continue teaching.

“History is an extremely powerful discipline,” Purcell says. “It’s absolutely vital to understand the past and to me it’s intellectually captivating and extremely relevant to questions in the present day.”

—by Lisa Shapiro

For your information:

Learn more about Grinnell’s history department and the Council on Undergraduate Research.

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