In January, Calvin student Iris Jones set off for Oman. Iris made her enthusiasm clear as she and seven other students joined Professor of History Doug Howard for the Interfaith Relations in Oman interim course.
As the Calvin community grieves the loss of Iris, a rising senior, this tight-knit group is reflecting on Iris’ impact on their interim experience, and beyond.
“She was a strong writer and independent and authentic,” said Howard, who had Iris in seven courses and was planning to be a reader for her senior honors project. “[Iris] pursued her ideas on her own motivation and gave them fresh expression.”
“She was an irreplaceable part of my and the rest of the Oman Interim group’s experience,” classmate Klein VerHill said of Iris. “Her thoughtfulness, desire for wisdom, and approachable spirit provided untold opportunities for all of us to grow together while taking pleasure in the person she was.”
As the group traveled between sites to learn how Christians, Hindus, and Muslims coexist in the communities of Oman, Iris’ joy in being present in the Middle East helped characterize the trip for fellow students.
“When we were there, she saw the small things and the big things that said that we were in a new environment but also said that Oman was an incredible place,” said student Austin Rohl. “She helped me notice a lot of the things I otherwise would've missed out on and so made my experience better.
“At Jebel Shams, the Mountain of the Sun, she said it was the most incredible place she ever saw and fell in love with it. Her enthusiasm played a big part in how I saw the places the group went to, and I thank her for it.”
Student Lauren Baas knew Iris before the trip, but their friendship grew stronger in Oman.
“Iris filled everyone with joy,” Lauren said. “She was unapologetically herself, and she made everyone else feel that they could be that way too. To me, Iris was the glue of our group. Her fiery red hair and her incredible laugh made us all love her.”
A friend to faculty
Iris, an honors student and history and English double-major, made an impact on her professors across the university.
“I loved having Iris in class,” said Professor of History Kristin Du Mez. “She was an independent thinker, always fully engaged with course materials but often keeping her thoughts to herself, until she'd share a particularly enlightening response to whatever we were discussing, and not infrequently to what I was teaching or how I was teaching it.
“And she never hesitated to stay after to dig deeper. These are the conversations I'll remember, and I grieve that we have lost her voice—at Calvin, and in this world.”
Professor of English Jennifer Holberg already misses Iris’ laughter.
“I’m so grieved to learn of Iris’s leaving,” Holberg said. “She was so bright and funny—my abiding memory of her will be how much we laughed together.
“Iris took my 18th century British literature class, and in the class, I asked the students one day to make memes to explain and interpret the literature. Iris was a genius at them—and throughout the semester, she continued to make and share them with me just for fun. The class loved them and I still have every single one—they are incredibly witty and clever. As was Iris.”
Professor of Kinesiology Nancy Meyer will never forget Iris’ accelerated skill development in her Aerobic Aquatics course. For most students, other than competitive swimmers, Meyer said, it takes a whole semester to build up the endurance to complete the course objective: swimming a mile without stopping.
“However,” Meyer said of Iris, “she was undeterred by the lofty goal. She swam in class and outside of class to make sure she made good progress.”
Meyer said Iris’ hard work and commitment paid off.
“I was extremely proud of her for being so dedicated and for accomplishing something that few students on campus could do.”
And, in the true style of Iris—whose high honors included being named a National Merit Scholar and receiving the highest score in the Academic Decathlon in her home state of Alaska—she achieved her nonstop mile far ahead of the semester mark.
In addition to her academic excellence, Iris served as a campus leader for the Sexuality and Gender Awareness (SAGA) group. Friend and co-leader Jacob Kooistra said the 2019–2020 year brought a lot of changes for SAGA, and it was Iris who held the group together through the unknown of virtual meetings and staff turnover.
“The LGBTQ+ community at Calvin needs people like Iris,” Kooistra said. “People who care so deeply, and work with such devotion that they can achieve anything. When Iris was around, it was difficult not to feel welcome. She made everyone feel like they belonged with her kind smile, her deep intelligence, her powerful voice, and her emotional openness.”
The group’s staff adviser, Kelsey Colburn, remembers Iris as someone who led with grace and kindness.
“When she committed to something, she did so with her whole self,” said Colburn. “We were captivated by her enthusiasm. More than anything, Iris was a loyal friend and caring confidant, and she cared deeply about inclusion and making others feel welcome. We are all better for knowing her.”
Iris took her own life on Wednesday, August 19, 2020, and the Calvin University community reminds anyone who is struggling with mental health issues to seek help. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255, and resources for students include the Center for Counseling and Wellness and Campus Ministries, both currently available in-person or remotely. Staff and faculty support is available through the Pine Rest Employee Assistance Program (EAP).
Iris is survived by her parents, Luke and Margo, her brother, Neil, and many friends and family, including cousin Ellen Reidy ’17. Details for memorial gatherings in Anchorage, AK, and on campus are forthcoming. A page in Iris’ memory, Iris Jones Memorial, has been started on Facebook and will include information about future services.
“Her obvious compassion for the marginalized and desire for justice and reconciliation made her an inspiration. Even though she’s no longer physically with us, I am convinced that Iris is still an active joy in my life. The memories I have of conversation in classes, adventures in Oman, or nights spent chatting in the coffee kitchen keep her presence alive with me.”
Lauren Baas, student
“Iris was an incredible person. She was excited and passionate in the most infectious kind of way. It didn't matter if we were talking about world politics, Korean boy bands, or the best citation formats, Iris always had plenty of knowledge and something intelligent to say. But what she cared about most were her friends and her community.”
Jacob Kooistra, student
“She will be missed, and I want to remember her for the good she brought to the experience the group shared in Oman. It changed all of us for the better, and I know she loved it there.”
Austin Rohl, student
“Her legacy is rich, and those whose lives she touched will carry her memory always.”
Klein VerHill, student
“She was nice, pure, honest, a cartoon lover, and had a lot of imagination. She often excitingly presented her works in the class and furthermore gave us challenges to think more deeply and differently.”
Prof. Eun Lee, Korean language
“She was a bright light. I can say that she stood out to me for the wonderful variety of her interests and for her prodigal kindness.”
Prof. Jane Zwart, English
“A beloved friend and leader, the loss of Iris Jones and the grief felt among the SAGA community is difficult to describe. She stewarded nearly every meeting during the school year and into the summer, presenting on topics that mattered to her and empowering others to do so as well. She began each meeting with an enthusiastic ‘HELLO,’ and when no one would read the mission statement, Iris would inevitably grab the torch and read each line imbued with her trademark dry sense of humor, making the whole room laugh.”
Kelsey Colburn, Coordinator for the Sexuality Series