Phil Guarco ’82 and Kate Jackson ’83

Endowed award has created new experiences for Spanish majors.

Kate Jackson ’83, left, and Phil Guarco '82

Phil Guarco ’82 and Kate Jackson ’83 endowed Dennis Perri Spanish Award to honor former Grinnell professor

Phil Guarco ’82 found much more than a teacher when he met Dennis Perri, professor emeritus of Spanish, at Grinnell College 42 years ago.

“He inspired a love of the Spanish language in me,” Guraco says. “We came from similar immigrant backgrounds. His father was a baker from Italy, and my father was a butcher from Italy. I think Dennis looked out for me in many ways because of that shared background.”

In 2006, Guarco and his wife, Kate Jackson ’83, established an endowment in Perri’s name that allows the Spanish department to recognize the achievement of a Spanish major through a yearly monetary award. The Dennis Perri Spanish Award has let more than a dozen students travel internationally or take on projects to improve their Spanish language or cultural skills.

“When we heard that Dennis was retiring, we wanted to establish something in his name,” Guarco says. “We thought by starting this award, students could use it for travel or save it for living expenses after Grinnell.”

Elizabeth Lane ’19 received the Dennis Perri Spanish Award during her final semester at Grinnell. She is using part of the award to apply to graduate school. She wants to earn a Ph.D. in clinical psychology in hopes of working with Spanish speakers experiencing PTSD, trauma, and grief. She plans to use the rest of the award to take a trip this summer to further explore different parts of Latin America.

Kate Jackson ’83, left, and Phil Guarco '82
Kate Jackson and Phil Guarco’s establishment of the Dennis Perri Spanish Award in 2006 has given Spanish majors a chance to travel internationally while honoring an influential figure.

“I look forward to gaining more firsthand knowledge about the cultures and to connect with local people,” Lane says. “I am so appreciative of Ms. Jackson and Mr. Guarco’s contribution to the department in honor of such an influential figure, Dennis Perri.”

As a professor, Perri was the most amazing language teacher, Guarco says.

“If he couldn’t teach a student to speak Spanish, then no one could,” he says. “He would jump on chairs. He would point at you to make sure you spoke in class. It forced us to think and do things in Spanish. I had him as a professor the first semester of my first year. I took Spanish grudgingly. It was perhaps the best thing I ever did. I ended up being a Spanish major.”

Guarco, managing director and global investment specialist at J.P. Morgan in Miami, says Spanish has been an integral part of his career, which has focused on Latin American and emerging markets.

“When I was looking to change my role at J.P. Morgan my bosses knew that I’d be a good fit in Miami because I knew Spanish and Portuguese,” he says. “Even now 40 years later, the Spanish that I nailed down at Grinnell is still a big part of my career.”

Guarco appears frequently on CNBC and Bloomberg TV to comment on emerging markets and economies.

“When you go on these programs you get some guidance on the topic they want you to speak about, but then an event could happen that night, and I’m on at 6 or 7 a.m., so they will ask you about something different,” Guarco says. “The rounding that students get at Grinnell has given me the ability to dance on my feet better.”

Kate Jackson ’83, left, and Phil Guarco ’82 talk with Jim Howard, Grinnell College director of principal gifts, at a Campaign for Grinnell College event in Naples, Florida.
Kate Jackson ’83, left, and Phil Guarco ’82 talk with Jim Howard, Grinnell College director of principal gifts, at a Campaign for Grinnell College event in Naples, Florida.

Global learning also made a sizable impact on Jackson, who is acting director of finance at Cristo Rey Miami Jesuit High School. She partook in the Grinnell-in-London program and earned a Watson Fellowship where she visited three different African countries to look at how education can be used to heal the racial divide.

Jackson was the student advisor for Guarco’s residence hall during his senior year. He studied in Seville, Spain, during his junior year, so Jackson and Guarco’s time on campus didn’t overlap often.

Over the years, the couple has lived in Mexico while working for global banks. Jackson has also taught economics and international finance. Her specialty was working with organizations doing economic development work in Africa and Latin American.

“Our international travel led us to earn graduate degrees in international relations and eventually get into international finance,” Jackson says. “I grew up in Indiana, so without the international travel, I would never have had all these experiences. To give a prize where students could improve their Spanish skills or travel to Latin American or Spain seemed like a good way to give back to the College.”

The school in Miami where Jackson works focuses on underprivileged Latino students. She says down the road some of those students could go to Grinnell.

“Grinnell’s need-blind policy will be able to provide financial aid so that they can have an experience like we had at Grinnell,” Jackson says. “It’s our new idea to connect with Grinnell.”

After the Spanish department picks a yearly student award winner, Perri has dinner with the recipient and sends Guarco and Jackson a note about it. Guarco says they also get a letter yearly from the students about their experiences at Grinnell and what led them to be Spanish majors.

“Getting the letter reaffirms why we did this,” Guarco says. “We love to hear from them and learn about what they are doing.

“I would have been aghast if someone told me as a college student that I would end up being a banker at J.P. Morgan because I was more focused on social service,” Guarco adds. “Life takes you in different directions. If I hadn’t had this education and this background in Spanish, we would not be in a position to give back to Grinnell.”

The Dennis Perri Spanish Award is one example of the many scholarships and financial aid opportunities created by Grinnell alumni and friends of the College. View a list of past Dennis Perri Spanish Award recipients and the award criteria.

—by Jeremy Shapiro