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Grinnellians you should know (or know about): Lea Marolt-Sonnenschein ’15

Part of an ongoing series of the people who study or studied at Grinnell and the people who support or supported them in their studies.

I have taught many students who I continue to care about deeply. I have taught many very intelligent students. I have taught many students with excellent skills in multiple disciplines. The intersection of those three sets is also pretty large. But there are few students who I consider part of our family. Lea Rebelsky is one of them. What? You say her name is Lea Marolt-Sonnenschein. Yeah, I guess you’re right. Nonetheless, I’m still claiming her as one of us.

Why is Lea a Rebelsky? No, it’s not because she’s particularly snarky. Rather, it’s that we became Lea’s adoptive host family [1] midway through her career at Grinnell when her prior host family left town [2], which made her our host daughter. Now, we aren’t the greatest host family, but we did our best to make her feel welcome and to be supportive. Since eldest son went off to College at about the same time that she became our host daughter, we did joke that she was his replacement.

You should feel a bit sorry for Lea, and not just because we’re a somewhat disorganized host family. Rather, she regularly had to deal with the chaos that is a Rebelsky conversation. Let’s see, what did she write?

Dinner with all of you was a little intense. It’s hard to follow everyone’s train of thoughts cause they seem to go all over the place.

Yeah, dinner at the Rebelsky household is like a massive train derailment. I like that. It gets even more crazy when my brother- and sister-in-law join us [3].

Lea also had to suffer through the joy of presenting at a conference and having me introduce her as my host daughter, with the host spoken relatively quietly. Boy, did that confuse people.

However, I wasn’t writing this essay to joke about Lea being part of the family (even though I feel privileged to consider her as such). Rather, Lea is a Grinnellian worth knowing for so many other reasons.

Lea came to Grinnell from Slovenia. She tells me that she was the first Slovenian at Grinnell [4]. (If all Slovenians are as awesome as Lea and the other two who are currently here, we need to recruit a lot more.) If I recall correctly, Lea taught herself English by watching American TV cartoons [5]. Over the years, I learned that she also played piano incredibly well and even did gymnastics while in Slovenia.

When Lea arrived in Grinnell, she did not seem all that confident in herself and clearly wasn’t sure what she wanted to do. I think she tried CS, and then gave up on it. She took Introduction to Studio Art the same semester that I took it. (I still make fun of her for being way too absorbed in her iPad that semester.)

But in the fall of her second year she took CSC 151 at the recommendation of another student (probably Maijid, if I remember correctly) and realized that (a) she enjoyed it this time, (b) she was good at it [6], and (c) it could lead to a relatively productive career. But how would she catch up [7]? Lea decided she could do all of CSC 161 mostly on her own over winter break [11]. And you know what? She did! So she took CSC 207 in the spring and continued on from there.

If this were a recommendation letter (see below), I’d write about Lea’s work on my summer research team and as a mentor in the following semester. But it’s not. So I’ll just touch on a few highlights. Let’s see … She helped found and write the proposal to fund the new AppDev team, and argued strongly for the inclusive model that team presents [14]. She not-so-cleverly agreed to write the #GrinWell app for President Kington, and did so in under two weeks [15]. She helped found PioneerWeekend. She painted the interesting fractal plus code painting now found in 3815. And she did much much more [16]. Can you say Overachiever? I knew you could.

So, what is this awesome young woman doing now? Like a true Grinnellian, she’s found a socially responsible job. She helps women affordably wear clothes, and does so in a resource-friendly fashion. Okay, that’s my description, rather than hers. More precisely, she works on mobile application development for Rent the Runway, a startup that allows women [17] to rent fancy outfits. She doesn’t necessarily think that it provides societal benefit, but I do. The RtR outfits don’t sit wasting space in someone’s closet; they get used and reused. Renting one of the outfits is much more affordable than buying (perhaps even than buying used; I don’t know the women’s clothing market). And, for better or for worse, many professional women feel that they need to dress up in different outfits [18].

Okay, back to Lea being a true Grinnellian. In her spare time, Lea has joined a pro-bono tech project, one in which nonprofits in town can ask for various tech people to help with their tech projects. I believe she’s working for one on the arts in high school, which seems quite appropriate for her talents. She’s worked with Girls Who Code. She’s volunteered for other projects, too, although I can’t remember which ones [20].

In the midst of all that, Lea also seems to find time for many other things. Back when I started the essays of the day [21], she was writing a Processing Sketch each day, and they were really cool. I think they helped inspire some of my summer research students, among other things. She finds time to travel. She finds time to hack a bit. She’s writing tutorials for [23]. And I’m sure she finds time for many other things.

So, other than knowing that Lea is wonderful, why else should you know Lea? Like many of the other alums I’ve profiled, Lea is enthusiastic about helping Grinnell students (particularly Grinnell CS majors) succeed. She suggested a wealth of ideas to my Learning from Alumni class, and she showed a willingness to chat with them more. She also does enough different kinds of things that she’s likely to be able to help connect you to useful resources. Given her history at Grinnell, she’s likely quite willing to do so.

What puzzles me is that in the midst of all these strengths, Lea does not readily acknowledge how awesome she is. She told my Learning from Alumni students that she struggled with imposter syndrome [26] and I recall many conversations in which she did not acknowledge her strengths. Lea, you should know that you are awesome. You do your (host) father proud.

Poor Lea. She’s been asking me to write a letter of recommendation for the past six months or so [27]. When she was back for the CS Affinity Reunion, I got her to agree to let me write this profile because It will help me write a recommendation letter. But now that I’ve written this profile, I’m not sure that it helps as much as I expected. There are things in this profile that I certainly wouldn’t put into a recommendation letter, and there are things that belong in a recommendation letter that certainly wouldn’t belong here. And, of course, I wrote this before the recommendation letter. Oh well, maybe it will get done by Winter break [28].

In receiving this email, Lea shared a video of her playing piano [31] and a Code like a girl video that she crops up in repeatedly [32,33] - she’s the one talking about the presidential app and I just hope that I’d have something to say at all, among other things.

[1] Yes, I know that we no longer use the term host family. We are now Friends of International Students, which still seems kind of FIShy to me. But Lea started as a host daughter, and that’s what she remains in my eyes.

[2] No, they didn’t leave because of Lea. And no, we didn’t try to get them to leave town so that we could get Lea.

[3] Uncle Charles, my wife’s brother, is responsible for the Rebelsky Test family meme, and the associated stories.

[4] Thanks go out to Jon Edwards for recruiting her!

[5] I wonder if Rocko’s Modern Life was among them. Its theme was written by a Grinnell alum.

[6] No, that’s not unexpected.

[7] Just so you know, it is perfectly possible to start a CS major in your third semester at Grinnell and finish it in three years, even without doing something special like Lea and Blake did. For example, Zoe Wolter started CS in her third semester, studied abroad for a semester, and completed not only the CS major, but also a Theatre major. There are at least two curent students who are also completing a CS major in three years, both of whom studied abroad without doing any CS abroad [8,9].

[8] Sorry, they are current students. I won’t reveal their names. But I’ll probably write about them when they graduate, as long as I’m still writing profiles.

[9] Lea tells me that in her second year at Grinnell (the time in which she took 161 over winter break), we only offered CSC 207 in the spring. That sounds reasonable. But we did offer CSC 207 in the following fall, which I know because (a) I taught it and (b) Lea served as class mentor. This year, we’re offering three sections of 207, one in the fall (32 students) and two in the spring (28 and 25 students) [10].

[10] 85 students are taking the third course in our introductory sequence this year. I think we may be doomed. It seems too soon to request another tenure-track hire, but we may have to do so in Spring 2018.

[11] Mr. Walker generously supervised Lea’s study without receiving any compensation. Now that Henry is on SFS, there’s no one else able and willing to do so. We’re looking for xMOOCs that might serve as a reasonable alternative, but haven’t found one yet [12].

[12] Yes, we’ve tried the Harvard EdX 50. No, it’s not a reasonable alternative.

[14] She was also really late to a meeting with Atul Gupta and still impressed him. Given what I know about Atul, I’m still not sure how she managed that.

[15] Too many late nights working on that app made her #GrinUnwell.

[16] In reading a draft of this essay, Lea noted You forgot the SEPC and that I was a TC.

[17] And men?

[18] Gendered comment elided [19].

[19] Why is that elided has one l, but ellipses has two?

[20] You think a (host) father would know his (host) daughter better, wouldn’t you?

[21] Or should that be essay of the days? Or perhaps essays of the days? [22]

[22] Have I asked that question before? I think so. I’m still waiting for an answer from Erik, Carolyn, Paula, David, middle son, or someone else willing to comment on such matters of grammar.

[23] Hmmm … is it Grinnellians to write tutorials for a site that charges people to use it? I’m not sure. But maybe I don’t understand the site [24]. Maybe I can get Lea to encourage them to set up student memberships (: [25].

[24] Lea tells me that there’s no charge to use the tutorials, just the books and screencasts. They should still consider student memberships.

[25] Although I traditionally write smileys as :-), I note that Lea tends to write them as (:, although sometimes as :D. It’s probably a Slovenian thing.

[26] Imposter syndrome is a feeling that smart and successful people have in which they think that people are overstating their accomplishments, and that they are really imposters. I believe that women suffer from it more than men. I know that large numbers of women in CS face imposter syndrome.

[27] What? It’s been longer than that? Damn. I’m sorry, Lea. Maybe tomorrow.

[28] Okay, I really should write the letter of recommendation tomorrow. I’ll do my best. Fortunately, in the midst of writing this profile, I was able to dig up an old letter of recommendation, so perhaps I can work from there [29].

[29] I must admit that that letter was so long that I decided it needed an executive summary at the beginning, and I think I wrote it about midway through her Grinnell career, so it would end up being even longer. But it was a useful letter, since it got her the GHC scholarship. I’ll check to see what length she wants [30].

[30] Lea says that she’s not sure, and that she trusts me. Bad call.

[31] Daniel’s taking after his older sister in that respect, although he’s not quite at her level.

[32] I think I recommended that she apply for WWDC that year. At least I’ll pretend that I recommend that she do so.

[33] Be careful about the next video in the BuzzFeedVideo series!

[34] I ended up with way too many endnotes in this essay. I wonder if I got all of the referrents corrected.

Version 1.0 released 2016-12-01.

Version 1.1.4 of 2017-08-26.