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Grinnellians you should know (or know about): Jennelle Nystrom ’14

Part of a continuing series about a variety of folks associated with Grinnell, including faculty, alumni, staff, current students, and more.

How can I describe Jennelle Nystrom ’14? In some ways, she’s a poster child for a Grinnell education (almost literally; we featured her in at least one fundraising letter). Why? Because she shows what can happen when a student makes the most of their Grinnell education and, implicitly, shows the value of a Grinnell education. Plus, Jennelle and Grinnell rhyme.

What makes Jennelle awesome? Lots of things. She’s smart (very smart) and synthesizes information really well. She’s well-spoken and articulate [1]. She writes really well [2]. She’s one of the best networkers I know [3]. And she shares her skills with others. While at Grinnell, she’d regularly help other students with networking, and she’d use her skills to make Grinnell a better place.

So, why should you know Jennelle, other than that she’s awesome? It’s those last few points. Jennelle knows the power of networks, and knows how to tap in to that power. As a student, she regularly reached out to alums for advice. As importantly, she both urged her peers to reach out to alums, and helped them do so. She also pushed me to push students to reach out to alums for informational interviews [4] and more. She continues to be willing to serve in that role, both for her fellow alums and for current students.

Jennelle also pushes hard for Grinnell to think more about these kinds of issues. She served as student rep on the Student Alumni Council. She advocated for student positions on the Wilson Center board [7]. She’s the kind of person that we invited to a gathering of powerful alums to talk about the future of a program. She’s also generous; she’s one of the reasons my department can afford to send students to conferences like Tapia and GHC. Over the long term, I expect to see Jennelle on the Grinnell College board, looking for ways to make Grinnell even better.

I’m not alone in thinking highly of Jennelle. Finkleman Dean Mark Peltz [8] clearly respects Jennelle a lot; that’s one of the key reasons that she could successfully advocate for change and get invited to meetings. And Jennelle is impressive enough that Marissa Mayer [9] picked Jennelle as a member of her Associate Product Manager program at Yahoo [10]. I think Jennelle was the only liberal arts graduate on the team, and the only woman. She was also successful at Yahoo, in part because she combines great technical skills with great knowledge and a can do personality [11].

I think it might be useful to tell you a bit more about Jennelle’s time at Grinnell (at least from my perspective), in part because it lets me pretend that I had some influence, in part because I think it also reveals some interesting issues.

Jennelle came to Grinnell as a first-generation college student [12]. I expect that she applied to Grinnell for the obvious reasons (strong liberal arts college) and came to Grinnell for the typical reasons (we provided excellent financial aid and she felt at home on campus).
I know that Jennelle came to campus with a passion for the arts. At times, I fool myself that our design of CSC 151 as an art/CS hybrid helped convince her to take 151 her first semester, but I’m pretty sure that she also liked CS before Grinnell.

There are, however, a few things that I think I did that made a difference in Jennelle’s career. First, I encouraged her to apply to do summer research with me [13]. Then, when she was by far the best applicant, I convinced her to stay and do research with me, rather than to return home and work at an optometrist’s office [14]. Jennelle did well with the work, did well presenting at a conference, and then convinced me that I should allow her to design her own project the following summer, which was an interesting Live Coding Plus Kinect idea. She then leveraged that into an internship at Microsoft in the summer following her third year, and leveraged her success in that internship into a variety of job offers. Did I make Jennelle awesome? Certainly not. Did I nudge her to pursue her awesomeness? Certainly.

Jennelle tells me that I also made her more successful by (unintentionally) putting obstacles in her way. In summer research, I paired her with two more experienced male programmers, which meant that she had to fight her way through imposter syndrome. I let her earn that summer research experience, which led some students to say You only got that because you’re a woman [15]. Finally, she says that I was sometimes hard to find, which led her to be organized enough to carry forms and such with her for the times she’d find me. Sam, sign this!

Jennelle probably wouldn’t want me to say this, but one of the frustrations she faced at Grinnell stemmed from the combination of her first-gen status and her success at doing so many things well. Seeing her success, many students would assume that she came from privilege, and credited that. I can’t imagine how frustrating that must be.

What morals should you take from this long, rambling, profile? First (for students and alums (and maybe even faculty)), you should reach out to Jennelle if you need help networking. Second (for students), if you take advantage of resources at Grinnell, you, too, can excel. Third (for everyone) don’t make assumptions. Fourth (for Grinnell faculty and staff), take time to understand the special challenges that first-gen students face. Fifth (for everyone), build strength from obstacles. Finally (for students), if you choose me as an advisor, be prepared for chaos.

[1] Well, having spent the last two years in California and in the tech community, she now uses like more than she used to and swears more than she used to.

[2] One would expect no less of a Grinnell Art History major.

[3] Megan Goering ’08 is another. I’m sure I’ll write an essay about her, too.

[4] What’s an informational interview? It’s a great way to think more about what you want to do with life. You find an alum who does something you think you might be interested in pursuing as a career. You write to them and say (approximately): Hi, I’m [Name], a Grinnell student. I see that you are in [field]. I’m thinking about a possible career in [field]. Could we schedule a time to speak on the phone so that I can ask you some questions about what your work is like? And that should really be your focus … learning from the alum [5]. Note, however, that if the field still sounds interesting at the end of the interview, you can follow up with That sounds cool. If I wanted to pursue that as a possible career, what steps would you recommend that I take?

[5] Jennelle tells me that if you ask good questions and give the alum time to talk, they really will talk for awhile [6].

[6] The last time she visited my class, she illustrated that exact point. (And then commented on having done so.)

[7] At the time, it was the Wilson Program. But we’ve become a center since then.

[8] Ooh! Three more Grinnellians I should profile. Mark and the Finklemans.

[9] No, not a Grinnellian.

[10] It may sound less impressive now that Yahoo is collapsing. But it’s still impressive.

[11] Wow, that’s trite. Put I do think that Jennelle does personify that personality.

[12] I’m pretty sure that I’m okay mentioning it, since that was part of the fundraising campaign.

[13] That’s a no brainer. Of course you ask your smart students to apply to do research with you.

[14] Traditionally, it’s hard to convince first-gen students to do research or internships. For a few years, the College provided automatic waivers of summer contributions for students in those positions. Unfortunately, those waivers are no longer automatic.

[15] I’m serious, though. Jennelle’s interview was excellent. And she gave by far the best answer to one of the most important questions [16].

[16] No, I won’t reveal that question, because I continue to use it. (Jennelle tells me that she forgot what it was, so don’t bother asking her.)

Version 1.0.3 of 2016-10-04.