"...each human being has a unique contribution to make toward our understanding of life.... His physical and mental make up is unique, and his circumstances are unique. So he must be able to tell us something which would not be learned from any other source." -Rebecca West
Each member of the Class of 2008 carries a unique "backpack," if you will, of everything he or she did during the undergraduate years at Kalamazoo College. This combination (unlike any other person's) includes all that was read, written, thought, and discussed for classes and academic work; off-campus internship, study abroad, and service learning experiences; residential living; and extracurricular activities. To reduce something so complex and personal to two words--home grows--is both difficult and revealing.
"When I left Dexter (Mich.) home was Dexter," says senior Rachel Udow. "Now home is deeper and broader. I keep a journal that describes what I learn from all the people I meet. Home is in myself, but there are many people living in me. They cook different foods, and sometimes the smells clash and disagree wonderfully."
Her friend and fellow senior, Marlene Ramos, came to "K" from a home much further away, in miles and culture: Mercedes, Texas, just 10 minutes from the Mexico border. The two became close friends and shared many experiences. Both will earn bachelor's degrees in anthropology and sociology. Both studied abroad in Ecuador, and both ran on the women's cross-country team. They collaborated on their senior individualized project, making a documentary film, "Las Manos," based on interviews they conducted with Mexican-American single mothers living in the Rio Grande valley. They are completing an internship with Farmworker Legal Services (Bangor, Mich.). Their work--making educational programs that help migrant farm workers report and limit their exposure to pesticides--combines their interests in the environment and in human rights. Both women serve as spring quarter project coordinators in a course titled "Culture of Health and Disease in the Hispanic Community."
Of course, their academic paths were never in lockstep. Marlene's introduction to documentary filmmaking (and the course's inspirational teacher, Dhera Strauss) preceded Rachel's. They planned their SIP in a hotel in the Galapagos Islands, and Rachel enrolled in the course upon her return from study abroad. Their shared values-particularly a keenly felt responsibility to express civic engagement with concrete action-were often inspired by different texts and classes.
Rachel cites the book Habits of the Heart. "I learned that talking is not enough, and that one need not travel far for interesting experiences," she says. "Personal commitment manifests itself in action, sometimes simply showing up where you must, whatever the inconvenience, because you've discovered a sense of self worth in something beyond the self."
Marlene's most influential books were Amish Grace--"a book about forgiveness," she says--and Encountering Development. The former she read for a course called "Introduction to Peacemaking." The latter, a study of the effects of development in Latin America, was a text for two classes: "Latin America in the Context of Globalization" and "Women in International Development."
The way the two friends experienced life at "K" differed. Rachel never considered transferring to another school. Marlene thought about it on more than one occasion. "The culture shock and academic pressures were jolting," she explains. And perhaps a rite of passage for many. So why, then, do some students leave and others stay?
"In my case," says Marlene, "I stayed because of the relationships I built." She and Rachel are very close to a group
...one need not travel far for interesting experiences.of seniors that have lived together often throughout their four years. The group includes Stephanie Willette, Arianna Schindle, and Caitlin Paul. In addition to these fellow students, Marlene grew particularly close to three professors: Espelencia Baptiste and Victor Torres-Valez (Anthropology and Sociology) and Dhera Strauss (Art). In a sense, Marlene overcame the impulse to return home by expanding her sense of home. (She recently "grew" her family in a more literal sense when she married Javier Plua Chavez, an Ecuadorian student she met during study abroad who is currently working on his visa in order to join his wife in the U.S.)
A person's home grows at Kalamazoo College in part because its size is more conducive for such expansion. However, Marlene says, it's more complex than that. "Sometimes the small size seems intrusive, as if everyone knows you and your business.
"The relationships with my friends and teachers are the most important value I'll take from Kalamazoo College," she adds. "Yes, the size of the place provides an intimacy important for building friendships. But equally important is the combination of academics on campus with experiences off campus and the opportunity to reflect upon and connect those elements. Those opportunities often occur in conversations with friends and teachers."
Although their post-undergraduate plans diverge, their friendship will endure. Marlene hopes to stay in Kalamazoo and find a job working with the Latino community. Rachel wants to "find a mentor, a person committed to peacemaking and social justice." She's not sure where, geographically, that search will take her. And that may not really matter. In four years their home grew to include Ecuador, the Rio Grande valley, Kalamazoo College and many people who live in those places. Those people live in Rachel and Marlene. Home goes--and grows--with them.