Author Archives: Zinta Aistars

About Zinta Aistars

Associate Director Alumni Relations

Uncommon Reading

Before first-year students even arrive at Kalamazoo College they are shaping their class into a cohesive educational community. By way of K’s Summer Common Reading program, now in its 15th year, incoming first-years read the same book at the same time, connecting not only with their classmates through this common-but-uncommon experience but also with the many faculty and staff and the significant number of current students who also read the book and together share their insights afterwards.

The 2013 Summer Common Reading author Vaddey Ratner greets a Stetson Chapel audience with the namaskara, a Buddhist hand gesture that evokes utmost respect and adoration for the divine in everyone.

“It gives the students something to talk about, something besides ‘where are you from?’” says Dean of the First Year and Advising Zaide Pixley. “It’s all part of the teaching moment.”

Pixley helped launch and expand the Summer Common Reading program in 1999 and subsequent years.  “I love to read,” Pixley says. “And I wanted to give students a way to enter the world of ideas.” In 2000, with the support of the Provost’s office and Student Development, the program became official.

“The first book we chose was Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver,” says Pixley. “But we didn’t ask the author to come to campus. We soon decided that should be one of the criteria—that the author be here for orientation, meet with the students, and later, if possible, return for that class’s commencement.”

The book of choice in 2000 was Independence Day by Richard Ford, an author whom then-Provost Greg Mahler knew personally and had invited to attend. Writer-in-residence Diane Seuss, Professor of English Andy Mozina, Mahler, and Pixley were the original members of the committee that chose the books and organized the events. Membership on the committee has changed over time. Associate Professor of English Marin Heinritz was a member for many years and was responsible for bringing to campus journalist David Finkel, the program’s first nonfiction writer. Neither she, Seuss, nor Mozina are active members of the committee today, but Pixley’s presence has been a constant.

Is the reading experience relevant, even (or especially) when a book’s protagonist differs significantly from the predominantly 18-year-old readers?

“Oh my,” Seuss chortles, recalling the first-year students meeting the Ford. “A student asked Richard Ford how he expected young people to relate to his middle-aged, white male real estate agent protagonist. His answer: ‘Are you a Danish prince? If not, then don’t read Hamlet!’”

Mozina nods. “I’ve seen great discussions happen. I often see the energy grow during the course of the author’s time on campus, with students saying that now they understand and like the book a lot better than they thought they would, or did initially. By the time some authors left, the students seemed ready to adopt them.”

As the criteria for the book choice developed, Pixley made one point immoveable.

“The author must come to campus,” she says. “We look for someone who makes a good guest, who is an engaging speaker and enjoys interacting with students. That’s what makes our summer reading program different than the programs at many other schools—the presence of the author.”

Committee members meet to discuss new and upcoming authors that fit the bill.

“New book and author choices are challenging,” Pixley admits. “We have no flexibility on dates. They have to be here when the first-year students come in. We look for books that have been nominated for prizes, books that are being talked about. Although she isn’t on the committee this year, Di [Seuss] is very plugged in, she has 2,000 Facebook friends and they are almost all writers. An A list and a B list begins to take shape, and we get student peer leaders involved, too.”

Committee members read lots of books and talk about authors who might be an appropriate and feasible guest. Criteria include the content of the book, of course, the way in which it can represent a boundary-crossing for the students, and an author who is willing to be here and participate in person. “We all keep our eyes out for ‘the next big one,’” said former committee member Seuss, “often finding the perfect fit with a younger author on the rise, like Chimamanda Adichie, who visited us with her first novel, Purple Hibiscus, and has since won the Orange Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, and a MacArthur Fellowship.”

Gail Griffin, professor emeritus of English, has been involved with the program since its inception. She adds: “We’ve often joked about it: either the day before or the day after an author visits, she or he will get a MacArthur award/Pulitzer Prize/National Book Award nomination. The track record is quite amazing; it defies logic.”

The 2014 Summer Common Reading author NoViolet Bulawayo signs books after her Thursday evening reading. More than 300 students waited in line to speak with Bulawayo, and she signed everyone’s book.

“It has to be good literature,” Pixley states. “We look for something that is engaging to young people and doesn’t come with 400 pages of footnotes. Coming of age themes are good, and we want a book that is intercultural in some way, and that doesn’t have to mean that the book has to be about different countries. Detroit can have a different culture from Kalamazoo, too. We look for books that can foster intercultural understanding.”

The book choice of summer 2014 covers that cultural boundary, in fact. Incoming members of the class of 2018 read We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo. The 2013 debut novel depicts the impossible situation of the person in exile, in this case a child leaving a beloved homeland beset with political turmoil and violence, poverty, starvation, and illness. As she grows to adulthood in a new place she realizes that she is caught between two cultures without being home in either. Bulawayo won the 2014 PEN-Hemingway Award, the 2011 Caine Prize for African Writing, and the inaugural Etisalat Prize for Literature in 2014. The novel was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize.

Anna Gough ’15 is a first-year experience coordinator along with Bryan Olert ’15. Both experienced the value of bonding over a book that often pushed their comfort zones.

“I still think about the book we read when I was a freshman,” Gough says. “In 2011, it was The Good Soldiers by David Finkel. I would never have picked it up on my own.”

“It’s really the whole idea of liberal arts,” Olert, a history major, adds. “The Summer Common Reading program challenges you to read outside of your field, all over the field.”

Now seniors, Gough and Olert helped plan all of this year’s first-year events, and both consider the reading program their favorite.

“As an English major, it was fun to organize something I enjoyed so much in earlier years,” says Gough. “I felt like I was a part of creating the future for the new students.”

“And it’s great job experience in event planning, networking, organizing,” Olert adds.

Beginning to end, the Summer Common Reading program has drawn together not only freshmen, but the entire campus, as older students find themselves picking up the chosen book as well, wanting in on the hot topic of the campus. Faculty and staff are involved, too, teaching to the book or participating as discussion group leaders.

“The program asks a lot of faculty,” Pixley admits. “Yet K faculty members are always game. I’ve been asked—how do I get people to read the book and lead discussion groups? People here are willing to step out, willing to try new things.”

“We prepare the peer leaders and discussion leaders, write a lesson plan, host the guest, and do all of the often complex negotiations with agents and publishers to bring the next writer to campus,” Seuss says.

“I can tell you that very few people comprehend the work involved,” says Griffin. “In choosing the book, in negotiating with the writer to come to Kalamazoo, in organizing the visit and the sub-components of the visit, in turning around the students’ submitted questions and consolidating them for the author, in shepherding the author around. That detailed, thoughtful, exhausting work is what has made the program go.”

While the committee does prepare a lesson plan and suggested questions for the discussion group leaders, Pixley says that “everyone is free to improvise as they see fit.”

Reading contemporary books rather than classics, Pixley says, is another aspect of the program that differentiates Kalamazoo College from other institutions that have started similar programs.

“The National Association of Scholars singled us out as being subversive in our book choices,” Pixley smiles. Challenging students to think and question, however, is part of the program’s goal.

Says Seuss: “Each book lands differently, and each entering class receives it in its own way. What I love is that the reverberations continue long after the writer has left campus; students live with the book, in one way or another, for the rest of their lives. Students in my first year seminar often refer back to the book or something the author said, and I hear seniors doing the same thing. Maybe the best sign of the program’s success is when we witness students struggling to make connections, to approach and understand differences.”

“Our student body is more diverse than ever,” says Stacy Nowicki, library director at Kalamazoo College’s Upjohn Library and a member of this year’s committee. “We have students from many different areas in the United States and the world and from different socio-economic backgrounds. The Summer Common Reading book helps students learn to interact with someone different than themselves. It gives them entry to each other. This summer’s book is about the immigrant experience, and any student coming to Kalamazoo College may feel like they are immigrating to a new community. Through discussing the book, they can bring up their own issues.”

Nowicki joined the committee this year because of her involvement with the Reading Together program. Reading Together is administered by the Kalamazoo Public Library and has much in common with Kalamazoo College’s program. In both, an entire community reads the same book, joins in discussion, and meets the author.

“Success is [the] struggling to make connections, to approach and understand differences.”

“The important thing is for students to feel connected,” Nowicki says. “It’s a good way for professors and staff to get introduced to the incoming students, too. I’m guessing in that way it helps retention. And the discussion groups help students learn how to express their viewpoints and defend them while listening to the viewpoints of others.”

Griffin adds: “If you lined up all the books that have been chosen, they cover an amazing array of contemporary writers and a mighty inclusive list of perspectives and issues of the sort that we want our newest students to begin thinking about: race, economics, global politics, gender, sexuality, nationality, international issues, American issues, immigration, ‘home’ and leaving home, you name it.”

Bonnie Jo Campbell, author of the 2012 Summer Common Reading book, Once Upon a River, offers her perspective as a participating author. “It was a great honor and a thrill to have all the freshmen and many of the upper class folks read Once Upon a River. Kalamazoo College students are conscientious scholars and careful readers, and they had a lot of smart questions to ask. The world I presented in the book was very different from the world of the students, so it was interesting to see how they grappled to understand the choices my protagonist made, which were often so different from what they would have chosen. As an author it is always great fun to be surrounded by smart people who have read your book.”

Pixley smiles to recall some of the discussion around Campbell’s book. “Oh, I’m still hearing complaints about Margo, Bonnie’s character in the novel. Why did Margo do this, why did Margo choose that. But Margo had different circumstances in her life, and it was a different time. It’s wonderful how invested students can get.”

The interaction between author and students, all agree, can be one of the most rewarding parts of the experience.

“So often their first reactions to the texts have been resistant, defiant, because the committee has rightly selected challenging texts at the forefront of current fiction, and that material is often difficult, not easy reads,” says Griffin. “And then you watch them come to terms with it, chew on it, hear the author, stand in line for hours to meet the author, and suddenly—the book is theirs. I have seen an incoming class become a class over three days because of this program.”

Seuss lists favorite memories of students interacting with authors: “Chang-Rae Lee flying out of New York City and joining us just a few days after September 11, 2001. The students starting a Chimamanda Adichie Adoration Facebook page. Junot Diaz’s sass. Vaddey Ratner talking about her childhood as a captive of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the way she greeted people with the namaskara, her beauty.”

Heinritz most strongly recalls the moments “students got turned on by what they’d read or something the authors said. Often, years later they would bring up something Junot Diaz or David Finkel had said about writing when they were on campus, and it would become part of the fabric of that day’s class discussions.”

She also cites the generosity of the authors. “So many of them agree to offer a craft talk for student writers while they are on campus,” Heinritz says. “David Finkel got real with journalism students about what the profession requires and where it is headed. Bonnie Jo Campbell gave practical advice to aspiring fiction writers.” Finkel even offered to read and critique Heinritz’ writing, “which he did and was very helpful,” she says. “I consider him a friend. I know Di has also developed this kind of relationship with a couple of the authors, especially Chimamanda.”

Pixley nods. She remembers many of those moments, and more. The Summer Common Reading program is her labor of love.

“It’s a thrill,” she says. “To hear an author reading to the students, and the students are so quiet, listening so carefully, that you can hear the pages turn.”

SIDEBAR

Summer Common Reading Program Books

(1999 Barbara Kingsolver, Animal Dreams)

2000 Richard Ford, Independence Day

2001 Chang-rae Lee, A Gesture Life

2002 Ha Jin, Waiting

2003 Ann Patchett, Bel Canto

2004 Aleksandar Hemon, Nowhere Man

2005 Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Purple Hibiscus

2006 Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything Is Illuminated

2007 Edward P. Jones, The Known World

2008 Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

2009 Rachel Kushner, Telex From Cuba

2010 Colson Whitehead, Sag Harbor

2011 David Finkel, The Good Soldiers

2012 Bonnie Jo Campbell, Once Upon a River

2013 Vaddey Ratner, In the Shadow of the Banyan

2014 NoViolet Bulawayo, We Need New Names

Earth Words

“. . . we go to poetry … so that we might more fully inhabit our lives and the world in which we live them, and that if we more fully inhabit these things, we might be less apt to destroy both.”  – Christian Wiman, poet

Gabriella Donofrio ’13 (left) and Alice Bowe ’13 sort and plant lettuces at Harvest of Joy Farm in Shelbyville, MI.

Amy Newday plants seeds in soil (she runs her own farm), and she plants seeds in students (she directs K’s Writing Center and teaches classes in the English department). Some seeds grow green crops. Others grow green poetry.

Newday recently completed a winter term course called “Ecopoetry,” and is currently teaching a spring term senior Capstone class called “CSA (community-supported agriculture) and Sustainability.” The two courses are an integral part of Kalamazoo College’s ongoing creation of a Center for Environmental Stewardship, teaching students about the impact of human life on their world.

“I feel a strong call to be of service to the earth and the non-human beings we share it with,” says Newday. “As I get older and get to know myself better and as our ecological crises worsen, this call becomes stronger. What I was curious to explore with my students in the ecopoetry course was—what does poetry have to do with ecological crises? Can poetry be a vehicle for transforming our relationships with the ecosystems in which we dwell?”

A farmer and a poet, Newday grew up on dairy farm in Shelbyville, Michigan. Her “Ecopoetry” course drew thirteen students, all of whom participated in a reading on campus to draw their class to a close. Each student read a poem from the textbook that had especially moved or inspired them.

Emily Sklar ’15 was one of those students, a biology major with an interest in ecological issues. “I love biology, although I’m not quite sure yet what I will do with it,” Sklar says. “I also love being outdoors, and I’m concerned about the environment, so I’ve been wondering how to combine all that. Science comes short on the ethical and moral aspect of ecological issues, so that’s why I took the poetry course. Poetry gives me another way to understand what’s around me, and the course has given me a blend of language that builds collaboration between scientists and poets.”

“Ecopoetry” is a relatively new term, if not quite a genre in its own right, Newday explains. “Writing about daffodils is no longer enough. Critics beat up poets like Mary Oliver for being what they call a ‘nature poet,’ writing about birds and trees. Writing about birds and trees is important, but ecopoetry includes the bulldozer that knocks the tree down and destroys the bird.”

Poetry can help us imagine possibilities … possible solutions to ecological crises.

Three main groupings of poetry compose the new genre, Newday says. As defined by Ann Fisher-Wirth and Laura Gray-Street, the editors Newday’s class textbook, The Ecopoetry Anthology, poetry that explores nature and the meaning of life falls into the first group. A second group includes environmental poetry with a more political slant that may address social justice issues and is often related to specific events. The third group includes poetry about ecology, often in more experimental forms.

“In this course we explored how the language of poetry has shaped and reflected changing perceptions of nature, ecology, and humanity over the past two centuries,” Newday says. “We looked at what poetry can contribute to current cultural and cross-cultural conversations about environmental justice and sustainability.”

Students at the reading in March read favorite poets they had studied, such as, yes, Mary Oliver, and also Alicia Suskin Ostriker, Ralph Black, G. E. Patterson, Deborah Miranda, Tony Hoagland, Robert Duncan, Lucille Clifton, Lola Haskins, Sandra Beasley, and Linda Hogan. Some students also read their own work.

“I’m not a big reader,” Sklar admits. “But I fell in love with this poetry. What I had hoped would happen, happened. The facts in science are great, but poetry gives us a way to connect to people who aren’t scientists.”

The ecopoetry course, Sklar adds, helped her to solidify an idea for her Senior Individualized Project that she’d been mulling over for about a year. Her interest in nature, biology, ecology, and human responses to all three came together in a plan to hike the entire Appalachian Trail. Along with a K alumna, Margaux Reckard ‘13, Sklar began 2,200-mile adventure a few days after the poetry course concluded (see “Where the TinyTent AT?” in this issue of BeLight).

“Poetry can help us question,” Newday says. “We are losing all kinds of diversity in our world, and cultures and languages are being lost along with biodiversity. Languages each give us a unique way to see the world and add perspective. Poetry can help us imagine possibilities … possible solutions to ecological crises.”

Harvest of Joy farmer John Edgerton (left) discusses with students (l-r) Chandler Smith ’13, Caroline Michniak ’13, and Alicia Pettys ’13 different techniques for organic and sustainable planting.

In her senior Capstone course, “CSA and Sustainability,” Newday digs even deeper into building connections between students and the earth. Along with textbooks, she hands them trowels, hoes, shovels and watering cans. She takes her students to her own CSA operation, Harvest of Joy Farm, where she and partner John Edgerton practice sustainable and organic methods of farming.

The Capstone course, Newday says, offers students the opportunity to explore and experience food systems, agriculture, community building, education, economics, business, and food justice as an alternative to the mainstream food economy. If that sounds like it’s dealing with a great many topics—it is, and that’s the everyday life of a farmer.

Part of the course will take place in the traditional campus classroom, and for at least three hours each week students will work on the farm. They will help plan the CSA business, prepare the soil for planting and then plant a wide assortment of seeds and plants, maintain compost and learn about permaculture, and maintain and harvest the garden. Students will also experience the business aspects of running a CSA, the marketing and selling of vegetables to community members, and the relationships built between farmer and community members.

The course will also involve an ongoing blog of farm activities, and a student-generated on-campus collaborative project. Students will participate in discussions about their experiences and observations working on the farm.

In informational sessions held prior to the beginning of the course, Newday and Edgerton met with students interested in learning more information before making a decision to enroll.

“I was surprised how much I loved running a CSA,” Newday says to the students gathered to hear about the course. “The relationships we developed through the CSA were very rewarding. There’s an instant gratification when you give good food to people, and you see how excited they are to receive it, taste it, and share it.”

The concept of a CSA, Newday tells the students, is not the traditional business model of trading cash for product. “A CSA offers people the opportunity to invest in the kind of world they want to live in.”

The Harvest of Joy Farm is in its fourth year. At the beginning of last summer’s (2013) growing season, 45 members paid for 28 shares and half-shares in the operation, which provided the funds to cover the costs of farming. In return, shareholders receive vegetables and fruits each week during harvest.

“The course will help students to better understand the economics of farming, especially on a small scale, and to consider how small farms fit into the larger agricultural economy, in the United States and across the world,” says Newday. “Along with learning about sustainable agricultural practices, students will learn how to critically consider what it means to make environmentally, socially, and ethically sound food choices.”

To learn more about the Kalamazoo College Capstone CSA experience, read student blog entries, and view photos, visit kzoocsa.blogspot.com.  To learn more about Harvest of Joy Farm, LLC, visit harvestofjoyfarm.wordpress.com.

Gracious Stumbling

Barbara Heming’s liberal arts journey has been widely varied. Just now she writes mystery novels and serves as a tour guide at one of the homes of artist Georgia O'Keeffe.

Kalamazoo College students learn how to live graciously in different ways. For Barbara Heming ’66, gracious living has meant “stumbling” into new dreams and new opportunities—then going after them diligently and confidently.

After a career in higher education, Barbara has most recently focused her work on writing novels, a lifelong dream. Death Wins the Crown, her first, is also the initial offering in a series she plans to write. Her road to becoming a novelist has its origin at K.

It seemed to Barbara that she heard about K all her life from her father, Arthur Heming, a chemistry major who graduated from the College in 1937. After he earned a doctorate (University of Wisconsin) in biochemistry, he worked for Johnson & Johnson. His work there took him and his family to São Paulo, Brazil, and later to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where Barbara was born.

The family returned to the United States when Barbara was three and settled in the Philadelphia area. During the ensuing years, Barbara forgot all the Spanish she had learned, but she never lost her alma latina.

At K she went to Madrid for study abroad and fell so much in love with the people, culture, language and literature that she took every Spanish class she could fit into her schedule, even though her major was religion. After graduation, she lived in Spain for three months and then took a secretarial position in Washington, D.C. She worked just a couple blocks from the White House. Her interest in Spanish continued, and she took night classes at the American University. Later, she became a full-time student at AU and earned a master’s degree in Spanish language and literature.

At first, she felt she had to catch up to the other students who had majored in Spanish as undergrads. So she immersed herself so deeply in her studies that by the end of the second semester she was far ahead of her classmates.

The liberal arts … help you adapt to the many circumstances you confront in life.

“Intellectual life is important to me, and that attracted me to K in the first place,” she said. “At K you hit the ground running for 10 weeks without excuses and without late papers. You figure out how to get your work done. As a result, I learned that if I decide to do something, I’m going to do it.”

Her next “something” was to teach at the college level. She earned a Ph.D. (State University of New York at Stony Brook) in Hispanic Languages and Literature.  Her dissertation focused on the experience of five Spanish writers exiled because of the Spanish Civil War. Although these writers were known for other genres, in exile each turned to the theatre.

“Theatre was a way of communication that was more present,” said Barbara. “Their work performed in front of an audience gave it a more communal expression.”

Barbara taught at Ohio State University (Columbus), Westminster College (New Wilmington, Pa.), and Thiel College (Greenville, Pa.). During her time at Thiel she encouraged study abroad and enabled two group trips—one to Honduras and one to Peru.

“I really credited all my success to K,” said Barbara. “It was there that I got a sense that the world is large and that great people live everywhere. I also learned how to explore the world in ways that are not imbued in other college study abroad programs.”

Barbara has lived in five different states. Her approach to any new environment is to look around, figure out the culture, discover what was available, and how she could make a contribution.

“I believe strongly in the liberal arts because they help you adapt to the many circumstances you confront in life. My education at K prepared me to be able to do many different things.”

Teaching was good for Barbara, but she felt the urge to try other things as well. At one point she went to the Worchester (Mass.) Center for Crafts to learn weaving, and she ran a weaving business for a few years before returning to teaching.

During a six-month sabbatical from Thiel College, she lived on a small agricultural town in Peru. She also accompanied a doctor from the local health clinic on home visits to assess and schedule patients for a visiting U.S. surgical team.

“That experience was life-changing,” said Barbara.

After Peru, she felt a need to be in a more spiritual environment and eventually joined the Sisters of the Humility of Mary, a religious community in northwestern Pennsylvania. She stayed with the community for five years and then left to become a lay minister in an Hispanic congregation in Canton, Ohio.

Then Barbara began to feel an attraction to New Mexico. She ended up living near Abiquiu, at tiny town about 50 miles north of Santa Fe. Barbara became a tour guide at the home studio of celebrated artist Georgia O’Keeffe, who lived in Abiquiu for almost 40 years.

“The yearning to go to New Mexico was a mystery to me,” said Barbara. “And the most logical action would have been a job-and house-finding visit, but something about that course didn’t seem right. So, I just moved there.”

Georgia O’Keeffe has long been an inspiration to Barbara, and working at one of her homes has been a special treat.

“Miss O’Keeffe was a woman of her time. Her dedication to her art—as well as her willingness to structure her life in service of that art through sacrifice and in the way she lived—speaks most deeply to me.”

Barbara’s calling to New Mexico was also the start of her new “career” as a novelist. She began by writing fiction and some poetry, but it was the mystery novel that captivated her the most.

“I always liked reading mysteries,” she said, “and wondered what it would be like to write one.”

Our mystery writer at a book signing.

To prepare herself, she took an online class in fiction writing through Writer’s Digest and learned the elements of making a whodunit. She came up with the idea for Death Wins the Crown, sat down, plotted it out, created character profiles, and started writing.

“There are lots of online opportunities out there for writers,” she said, “which would never have been possible 15 to 20 years ago. You can be connected with writers from all over the world to share your work and have it critiqued. You can also join a writers community.”

Barbara used Skype to converse with a novelist from the United Kingdom, who critiqued her work and even visited her in New Mexico.

Barbara finds writing totally absorbing.  She likes to write all day for a period of days. She especially enjoys having the freedom to write fiction, a bit different from those academic papers she used to write.

“You are in a different world as a fiction writer,” she said.

She’d be hard pressed to decide what she loves best: the process of writing or the good story that emerges. “Through fiction I’m better able to explore deeper levels of truth—and communicate those ideas to readers—than would be possible through other genres. A good story draws readers into its world and allows them to experience a different reality. Hopefully, they will be open to ideas that they might resist if presented in nonfiction.

“Through the structure of the mystery in Death Wins the Crown,” she added. “I explore the exploitation of young people in our society—girls and young women through beauty pageants and young men through sports, especially college football—and the tragedies that result.”

Barbara is using the new media available to both publish and promote her book, which sidesteps the time and expense of going through agents and publishers.

“Self-publishing used to be considered a vanity press. Today’s technology has made publishing more accessible and more democratic,” she said. “It still takes a lot to produce a novel and get it out there.”

The New York Times best seller list is not on her bucket list.

“My goal is to tell a good story and provide something readers can take away from their reading,” she said. “I want to add something to the larger conversation.”

Barbara has written the first draft of her next novel, which is set in New Mexico and deals with the themes of family secrets, the nature of betrayal, and the meaning of home.

And her next mystery novel is unfolding. “I’m not sure yet what will emerge, but its setting is the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, and its working title is Death Rocks and Rolls.

Just where did this itch to write originate? “From K,” she says.

“The common thread in my life has been to respond to whatever drew me to a place or an action,” said Barbara.  “That’s my way of gracious living.”

Find out more about Barbara’s work on her website.

Blogger De-Fogger

Kalamazoo College Professor of Psychology Siu-Lan Tan exits Olds-Upton Hall, walks across the campus quad awash in the deep green of mid-summer, sits under a towering maple tree, and removes her laptop from a bag. Pasted to the keyboard are yellow, pink, and baby blue Post-It notes capturing reminders, ideas, and appointments.

“I’m a Post-It person,” she says.

Professor of Psychology (and very popular blogger) Siu Lan Tan

Tan, a professor of psychology at K, wouldn’t disagree if you interpreted the paper stuck to the computer as a slight aversion to technology—or at least social media. She is not on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, or any other similar platform. Until a year ago, she didn’t even know what a blog was.

She does now, however, and a lot of people are noticing.

In September of last year, Tan received a phone call from the senior producer of the World Science Festival, sort of like a TED talk organization but devoted to the hard sciences. The group was putting together an event focusing on neuroscience and film music and had discovered a film-music study that Tan had published, and which an esteemed panel of artists – including filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen and actor Alec Baldwin – wanted to replicate on stage and broadcast over the Internet.

It was a big honor, Tan says, but she had to decline due to copyright issues she thought might creep-up. The producer called back. Baldwin was disappointed, she said, as was another panelist, Tufts University neuroscientist Aniruddh Patel, Ph.D. Instead, Dr. Patel would describe Tan’s research during the public presentation and organizers wondered if Tan might write a blog post about her study.

Tan agreed, and called her sister – herself an author – and asked what exactly a blog post was, and how to write one.

“That was my first trial,” Tan says. “But it paved the way for what would come next.”

Editors at Psychology Today, the popular general interest magazine published every two months, had wanted Tan to contribute content to their website for years. The journal asked to publish her post for the festival. Then Oxford University Press asked to do the same on their blog site.

Both were so impressed with Tan’s writing that they asked her to be a regular contributor to their sites. And that’s where Tan’s burgeoning notoriety began.

By October, Tan had her own personal blog on the Psychology Today site, named “What Shapes Film?” The posts present an interesting analysis of the often overlooked psychological aspects of films and how human developmental themes resonate within them.

Other posts offer content that can be both quirky and thought-provoking. Examples include “Why You Can’t Take a Pigeon to the Movies” (hint: Where you see scenes that are fluid, a pigeon would observe each frame due to its highly developed sense for visual stimuli) and “Gravity: Developmental Themes in Space,” which explores themes of human growth, development and rebirth.

Some of her work takes a closer look at viral videos, ones that become immensely popular due to their inherent humor or heart-tugging message. But where you laugh heartily or shed a tear, Tan sees more.

“I wanted people to read it and say, ‘Wow, that’s really interesting!’”

An example of that deeper perception was her post, “Why Does This Baby Cry When Her Mother Sings,” which garnered her significant recognition on the Psychology Today site. That post explored the developmental phenomena of “emotional contagion,” where humans absorb and reflect the intense emotions around them—in this case, a mother singing sweetly and passionately to her 10-month old daughter in a viral video viewed more than 30 million times. Interestingly, within 24 hours of publishing the post, Tan was surprised to hear from the baby’s mother herself, Amanda Leroux, who thanked her for the article and for sensing the special emotional bond with her daughter, Mary Lynne. Tan’s post was No. 22 on Psychology Today’s “Top 25 Posts of 2013,” competing against 13,000 posts that year. The same post on Oxford University Press’ blog was the fourth most popular post there last year.

“It can be an uphill battle to blog about things that are educational, or at least deal with more of the fundamental and research-oriented aspects of psychology,” Tan says. “But when you can present a fascinating research study or two in a fun and interesting way, people are more likely to read it and take away something that’s useful. People are more likely to learn.

“Most people are interested in movies. I wanted to do something that wasn’t esoteric. I wanted the blog to be inclusive and positive. I wanted people to read it and say, ‘Wow, that’s really interesting. I don’t think I will experience that the same way again.’”

In addition to her penchant for blogging, Tan is a published co-author of two books, The Psychology of Music: From Sound to Significance and The Psychology of Music in Multimedia. Two more books are in the works, she says, dealing with music and child development.

Psychology isn’t just about counseling, and Tan is quick to point that out. The discipline also deals with revealing the diverse facets of human nature, what we have in common and how the mind and behavior works.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in music at Pacific Union College, Tan began studying the pedagogy of piano, with the goal of teaching music as a career. When she took a required developmental psychology class, everything changed.

“I fell in love,” she says. “I thought, ‘This is the greatest thing. Why didn’t I get into this before?’ I kind of took the long route.”

So Tan dropped out of her master’s degree program and enrolled in California State University Sacramento where she took enough psychology classes to get into a graduate psychology program. She earned a Ph.D. degree several years later from Georgetown University, with a focus on developmental psychology and the psychology of music.

She came to K in 1998, where she began teaching courses in child psychology and human development.

“I love, love teaching,” she says. “The blogs are an extension to my teaching but on a larger scope with a more diverse audience. It’s also an opportunity for me to continue to be curious about many things and keep learning. I have to read extensively and fact-check every post.”

In fact, many of her blog post ideas have come from the K community, she says. She consistently bounces ideas off of her students and colleagues, and has formulated posts based off themes discussed in her courses. K students often ask her to blog about something. Her husband, himself a filmmaker and blogger, also serves as an idea generator and sounding board for ideas, she says.

For instance, a blog post titled “3 Reasons Why We’re Drawn to Faces in Film” includes research published in 2007 and co-conducted with K alumnus Matt Bezdek ’07, who now holds a Ph.D. degree in psychology and is still doing research on psychology and film, Tan says.

Another post, “Video Games: Do You Play Better With the Sound On or Off?” included research co-conducted with K alumnus John Baxa ’09.

“K students and classes are the primary inspiration for the blogs,” she says. “I’d say 80 percent of the posts relate in some way to the College. They are really our blogs. There is no disconnection. They belong, in many ways, to K.”

Watch The Stories They Tell, a professionally produced documentary about Siu-Lan’s developmental psychology class’ Co-Authorship Project, from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m., in Dewing Hall Room 103 during Homecoming Weekend, Saturday, October 18.

Where the TinyTent AT?

Hundreds of miles in, with thousands more to go—one would think these two women would be nicknamed Blisters and Wails. Instead, Emily Sklar ’15 and Margaux Reckard ’13 are known along the trail as Giggles and Chuckles, respectively.

Hikin’ Hornets Emily Sklar ’15 (left) and Margaux Reckard ‘13.

The two laughing hikers are at this very moment somewhere along the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail, hiking from Amicalola Falls State Park in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine on an adventure that began on March 24. The adventures of Giggles and Chuckles are being recorded, step by step and with vivid photography, on their blog, Where the tinytent AT?

“My SIP [senior individualized project] is an exploration of the relationship between humans and their natural environment on the Appalachian Trail,” wrote Emily, a.k.a. Giggles, in early April, from a point near Springer Mountain, about 164 miles into the hike.  She is a biology major with an interest in ecological issues, and she started thinking about hiking the Trail while on her LandSea expedition at the beginning of her freshman year. Her interest in nature, biology, and ecology came together in her SIP plan.

My SIP will explore what people gain from their experiences on the trail.

“I am conducting interviews along our hike to discuss individuals’ experiences, and what people gain from their experience on the trail,” Emily said. “The trip thus far has been really interesting. I’ve met a lot of people. Everyone has a different story and comes from a different place. Folks come from different geographic regions, levels of fitness, and experience levels.”

Emily Sklar ’15 encounters a wild pony in Grayson Highlands, a portion of the 2,200 mile Appalachian Trail hike she is doing for her Senior Individualized Project.

New friends (and SIP subjects) include hikers with such trail names as The Captain, Grandpa Chops, Roadrunner, Hearsay, LAF and Slim.

Emily added: “I’ve really enjoyed a lot of the company that we’ve found at the camps, although the sites very over crowded our first week. There were around 20 tents a night at each campsite. The groups are beginning to thin now because folks either leave the trail or move at different speeds.”

The two hikers have at this point hiked through the state of Georgia, and yes, there have been blisters, and rain, and frustrations along with the laughter.

“The biggest frustration that we’ve met so far has not been the rain,” said Emily. “We’ve felt like we have something to prove, being women out here. A lot of folks in camp haven’t taken us too seriously, but as soon as they learn that we’re some of the most experienced hikers out here, that changes a bit. All in all, we’re happy. We’re a little bit sore from the recent increase in mileage, but we’re having a lot of fun, making a lot of friends, staying dry (for the most part), and laughing frequently. “

As the weeks go on, the miles accumulate, and the blisters heal into calluses, the two write on their blog that they are feeling stronger. The goal of reaching Katahdin in Maine, wrote Margaux, “feels more and more possible.”

Follow their adventures and view the photos of Giggles and Chuckles at Where the tinytent AT?

Korean Soundscapes

If you’re walking on a fall afternoon across any college campus in Korea, you’ll probably hear the sound of Korean farmer’s music.  More accurately, the sound will enter your body.  It will synchronize your heartbeat with its own. The large drum, called the changgu, provides the pulse.  The beat grounds you, connects you to the campus, to the landscape, to Korea.

Linguist in the making: Gary studies in his K dorm room in 1961.

On countless fall days, I’ve heard the changgu resonate from unadorned citizen centers and sandy schoolyards.  Elderly housewives gather with shop owners and learn the changgu.  Awkward teens gather with other awkward teens to play the changgu.  Led by teachers of lithe grace and resounding voice, their bodies learn new rhythms.

Kalamazoo College alumnus Gary Rector ’65 found a home in Korea.  He also found a home in the changgu.

In 1994, after 27 years in Korea, Gary Rector took the famously difficult Korean citizenship exam.  He was the only one to get 100 percent.  He became a Korean national, fluent in both Korean language and the changgu.

As a fellow K alum who has lived several years in Korea, I wanted to learn more about Gary’s story, so I went to visit with him in his book-lined office near his home.  He has lived in the same northern Seoul neighborhood for 40 years.  When he first moved there, it was all traditional-style Korean houses, and many of his neighbors were fortunetellers and shamans.  Now, the neighborhood is a jumble of crumbling traditional homes, 1980s villas and shops, and soaring new apartment complexes, intersected by highway overpasses and steep hills.  I asked Gary what brought him to that neighborhood.  It turns out that it’s the place where he learned to play the changgu.

Childhood

Gary’s interest in his surrounding soundscapes started at a young age.  He grew up in a musical family in Kentucky and still treasures early memories of his family playing bluegrass and spirituals.  When he was an elementary school aged boy he moved with his father to Toledo, Ohio, and there he gained an awareness of how the sounds of language can differ, one place to another.

Musical roots: The Kentucky family members of Gary Rector ’65 loved to play music together.

He spent childhood summers in Kentucky, and the school year in Ohio.  As he traveled between these regions of two distinct dialects, he learned to speak both, alternating the Southern dialect of Kentucky with the Midwestern pronunciation of Ohio.  Also, for a time, he and his father shared a house with Polish immigrants, and young Gary realized that he could understand their Polish.  His interest in language burgeoned in high school; he studied French at his home high school, and travelled to another high school in order to study Russian.

Kalamazoo College

In 1961 Gary started school at K. He continued to study French, as well as other languages, and became particularly interested in linguistics.  After his junior year in Caen, France, he was hired for a work-study job in the language lab helping other students with French pronunciation.

Gary also got involved in theatre and music at the College.  When he first arrived at K, his roommate (and to this day lifelong friend) John Bolin, convinced him to come along to theatre auditions.  They both performed in many plays, and John later went on to become a longtime theatre professor at Berea College.

Another K friend was learning to do flat picking on the guitar, and Gary realized that his mom and dad had done that as well.  Suddenly inspired, Gary began to play.  He joined a jug band with friends, and continued to play with the band after graduation.

Jug band?  “Wait,” I interrupted.  “Did the jug band have a name?”

“Yeah, it did have a name,” he responded vaguely, with a mischievous smile.  For a moment, I felt like I was talking to the college-aged Gary.

“What was it?”  I didn’t let him off the hook.

“New Pandora Mountain Backstairs Walkup Letters to Mother Coloring Book and Jug Band. The girl who played the washboard named it.” His eyes twinkled.

I laughed.  Classic K kid, I thought.

A significant mentor for Gary at Kalamazoo College was linguistics professor Peter Boyd-Bowman.  He fueled Gary’s interest in linguistics. He also operated an innovative program for learning neglected languages.  From 1963 to 1965, students in Boyd-Bowman’s program used a combination of audiotapes and pronunciation coaching from exchange students to learn Japanese, Chinese, Hindi, Urdu, Persian, Swahili, and Brazilian Portuguese.  Many of the students who participated continued studying their language of choice more intensively through a summer program.  Gary wanted to learn Hindi, but the program was limited to first- and second-year students, so he wasn’t able to participate.  Ironically, Gary became probably the most successful student of neglected languages that Boyd-Bowman mentored.  Gary’s later experience learning Korean reflects the personal motivation and attention to pronunciation that formed the basis for K’s neglected languages program.

“The New Pandora Mountain Backstairs Walkup Letters to Mother Coloring Book and Jug Band”

After he graduated, Gary took a job at the Gibson guitar factory in Kalamazoo.   Then, he decided to join the Peace Corps, requesting a non-European language speaking country.  And so began his Korean experience.

Korea

Gary was part of the fourth class of Peace Corp volunteers sent to Korea, and arrived there at the end of 1967.  Before starting their service, the volunteers received language training, and Gary stood out as a particularly skilled linguist from the beginning. His group of volunteers focused on public health, and after training he was posted in a small village called Cheongdo, outside of Daegu.

To learn Korean he spent as much time with local people as possible, speaking only their language. He also regularly bought a monthly volume of cartoons, and read them with a little boy he knew.  Gary would ask the boy to explain any words he didn’t know, and, in exchange, would give the boy the volume when he finished reading it.  After nine months in Korea, he also began to study the Chinese character writing system, and eventually became a fluent reader as well.

Gary brought his guitar and autoharp to Korea, and continued to play music.  In 1969 he even composed and recorded a pop song in Korean titled “A Tomorrow Without Tuberculosis,” for a Peace Corps volunteer record aimed at earning money for the Korea Tuberculosis Association.  The album sold more than 20,000 copies!  Gary knew he wanted to learn Korean music, and tried more classical court-style instruments, but they did not particularly suit him. When he went to listen to Korean farmer’s music, he fell in love.

In Seoul, Gary heard the Korea-America Farmer’s Music Group, led by the man who would eventually become Gary’s long-term mentor, Kim Byeong-seop.  Kim had had a bad crop year, so the group hired him to play and teach the changgu.  At that point, Gary was in his late 20s, and Kim told Gary he was too old to start learning.  But Gary persisted and eventually played the second changgu side-by-side with his teacher.  Student and teacher playing together made a symmetrical picture—Gary right-handed, his teacher left-handed.  Korean audiences loved that symmetry.  In many ways, the music became Gary’s home.  For several years Gary slept on the floor in the practice hall and helped newcomers to rehearse.

He would work part-time to earn enough to support himself while he played.  After his volunteer service, Gary continued with Peace Corps.  He trained Korean locals to use audio-visual materials for public health education.  He also created language-learning materials and tested the language ability of new volunteers.  Gary then worked for the Language Teaching Research Center, helping to create materials for Korean language textbooks.

In the 1980s Gary (second from left) and his teacher Kim (left) perform farmer’s music with the latter’s band.

Throughout the 70s and 80s, he worked professionally on many creative projects, and his career development followed the rapid trajectory of the Korean economy.  He worked as a copywriter, editor, and translator for LG Ad (formerly Heesung Advertising).  Then, he worked for the public relations committee for the Seoul 1988 Olympics Organizing Committee.

Gary’s decision to become a citizen began with loss. In 1987, he had a dream that he got a call informing him that his father had died.  The next day, he did receive a call, and he learned that his changgu teacher had died.  His father died exactly one month later.  It was then when he started to think about becoming a Korean citizen because he had more significant personal ties in Korea than in the U.S. at that point, and citizenship would give him the flexibility to do freelance work.  Gary continued to write widely on topics related to Korean language, culture, and society. He also took on translation and editing projects.  He became a citizen in 1994 and continued to write, edit, and translate for many government and corporate clients. He even wrote a weekly newspaper column on Korean society that ran for 10 years.

Current Project

One of Gary’s current interests is in cued speech, used mostly for deaf students to aid in lip reading and accurate detection of exact phonemes.  He worked with Professor Seo Chang-won, a professor of special education at Far Eastern University, to develop a version of cued speech for Korean.  Learning cued speech can significantly increase the reading aptitude of deaf students.  Gary is interested in applying cued speech to teaching foreign languages.  By signaling the exact phonemes, cued speech can help learners increase their listening comprehension, writing ability, and pronunciation.

Gary Rector’s life continues its immersion in the sounds and rhythms of language.  For me, his life story is a reminder of the ways we all are shaped by sounds and rhythms, if we only take notice.

The author: Nora Hauk ’04 majored in theatre arts at K, and studied abroad in Chiang Mai, Thailand.  She spent two years after graduation on a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship in South Korea.  She is currently a doctoral candidate in sociocultural anthropology at the University of Michigan.  She received the Blakemore Fellowship for Advanced Asian Language study, and graduated from Yonsei University’s Korean Language Institute.  She is now in Seoul working on research for her dissertation.

Bee Man, Bee Artists

An example of honeycomb and etching by Ladislav Hanka ’75 and his bees.

Ladislav Hanka ’75 has a mind that buzzes with constant activity, always attracted to the sweetness of an idea with a twist. His degree is in biology, and his love of the natural world is evident in his art. His etchings, prints, and drawings illustrate the intricacies and mystery of nature: craggy trees, elegant fish, round-bellied frogs, fierce raptors and delicate song birds, dank mushrooms, the occasional napping old dog.

So the idea of combining living bees and his etchings seemed, well, natural. He saw it as collaboration.

Some five years ago, a friend had given him a box of bees.

“There was a little bit of sugar water in there, something like mosquito netting, and the bees were climbing around inside the box,” Hanka says. “And I thought, so cute! Like having a puppy!” He laughs. “Suddenly, I was a parent. It was on that level of forethought that I became a beekeeper.”

Where the idea came from to place his etchings inside the beehives, among the living bees, Hanka can’t say.

“Who knows where ideas come from,” he shrugs. “You wake up some night, and there it is. It seems such a simple idea, too, but I’d never seen anyone do it. So I put the etching in after soaking the paper in hot beeswax, brushing it on, and the bees seem to like that paper. Typically, they start on the chunks of old, recycled beeswax and avoid the lines of the etching. Perhaps it’s the flavor? Or the waxy aromatic paper?  Otherwise they tend to chew up and destroy any foreign substance intruding on their hives. Then again, they may just be critics.” Hanka grins.

Standing in his studio, a building he constructed where the garage once stood at his residence in Kalamazoo, just a few blocks from Kalamazoo College, he leans in close to take a look at his etchings. He has them lined up in a row on a small ledge along the end wall. The etchings closely match what he exhibited in ArtPrize 2014 in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

ArtPrize is an annual art competition judged both by popular vote and a jury. This past summer more than 1,500 artists from across the world exhibited their work in and around downtown Grand Rapids. Hanka’s panoramic etching in ArtPrize 2011 won the Curator’s Choice award and was purchased by the Grand Rapids Art Museum for its permanent collection.

The co-artist shows some the collaborative works.

Hanka’s 2014 ArtPrize entry, “Great Wall of Bees: Intelligence of the Beehive,” is his third since the competition’s inception. Contained inside a glass case along the length of a wall just inside the entrance of the Urban Institute of Contemporary Art (UICA), live bees buzzed and danced and chewed over three rows of Hanka’s etchings—detailed images of toads, salmon, trees, insects, birds—building honeycomb along the curves of his lines, indeed in surprising collaboration.

Great Wall of Bees was collaborative art and environmental message. In a description of his work on the ArtPrize website, he wrote:

“The additions bees make to the etchings are as inevitably elegant as the gently curving veils of honeycomb you find hanging from the domed ceilings within a bee tree. There is an undeniable intelligence at work in a beehive. You learn to respect that and care about these highly evolved creatures, which brings me inescapably around to bees being in trouble—not just here but worldwide.

“The cause of bee die-offs is hardly a mystery. It’s much like the growth in cancer rates. No single factor causes it. The crisis is due to a summation of assaults on the organism, until it’s all too much. Bees face a gauntlet of toxins, habitat loss, electromagnetic pollution, exotic diseases and imported parasites. …”

Hanka’s living exhibit drew a great deal of attention. He estimates that 80,000 to 100,000 persons viewed the Great Wall of Bees. His work was short-listed in the top 25 in both popular and juried categories for three-dimensional entries.

“For the three weeks of the exhibit, I was the bee-man,” says Hanka. “I heard people talking about the bees in cafes and on the street.  People still come to talk to me about the artwork and the bees, even though the show is over.”

“For the three weeks of the exhibit, I was the bee-man.”

It was profoundly gratifying, he says, to interact with the public coming to see his art and to watch the bees build their honeycomb around it. Bees crawled along the glass where children pressed their noses for a closer look. Some expressed concern over dying insects, and it gave Hanka a chance to explain something about the four-week life cycle of a bee and the difference between natural daily die-offs versus the massive losses bees currently suffer in beehives everywhere.

The hands of collaborative art makers.

He dips a bare hand into one of his hives, set in a circle beside his house, and the bees emerge, almost lazily, spinning a hum of circles around Hanka’s head and landing on him. They swarm over his bare hands and land in his beard.

“They are not aggressive with me,” Hanka says. “Frame of mind is important. They respond much like any animal would. You have to be sensitive to their mood and show some respect..”

The bees do sting him occasionally, he says, especially when stressed, but Hanka shrugs it off. All a part of the art and all part of the natural order of things. As for the way the insects weave their intricate combs along his drawings, Hanka shrugs about that, too.

“I try to be realistic about that, how much intelligence is in the bee,” he says. “There is a spirit. I have no explanation for some of it.”

Hanka considers ArtPrize carefully, now that the citywide exhibit is done, his wall of bees packed up and brought back to the hive again. During subsequent weeks he contemplated the moment of fame.

“The space is clean and no evidence remains of the effort invested,” he says. “Honey gathering and art are both among the first recorded events in the mists of human history.  My work invited  people to partake of genuine, unfalsified sacraments.  I saw they were truly moved by the beauty they encountered and by their concern for the fate of bees.”

Landing on the competition’s short lists gave him a few seductive moments of contemplating the financial prize (ArtPrize awards two grand prizes worth $400,000, and eight category awards worth $160,000). Those moments quickly evaporated in the final stages of the competition.

“Of course, there was a build-up and then disappointment,” Hanka nods. “Though we may ardently desire the accolades and money these votes confer, it isn’t why we make art.”

What remains, Hanka says, is the message he wanted to deliver: the interaction he had with his audience and his art, the near-mystical experience he had with another tiny life form. He acknowledges the influences that have remained with him from his years at Kalamazoo College, where he studied with Marcia Wood, Johannes Von Gumppenberg, Peter Jogo, and Bernard Palchick (all former professors in the art department). Equally, in biology, he credits Professors Paul Olexia, David Evans, and Fred Cichocki.

“I still keep in contact with many of them, and I value their influence in my life,” Hanka says. Ideas, he believes, are born in the buzz of many minds working at their purpose; they are built one upon another.

Hanka walks between the aisles of his beehives in the same way he walks between the tables in his studio. Both are covered with pieces of his work. He leans forward to study a detail, and then he leans back to contemplate the whole.

He is done with this particular project, this artistic collaboration with the bees that carried over years. Now, the bees will return to what they do best: making honey. The artist will let his mind spin and dream and buzz a little, until it lands on his next big idea.

Fine Arts Connector

By the end of her freshman year at Kalamazoo College, Susan Schroeder Larson ’63 was 18 years old and preparing to cross the ocean to study in France. It was 1960. Her summer study abroad was under the Light Scholarship Program, a precursor to the K-Plan.

Susan Schroeder and David Larson in 1966.

“It was during my sophomore year at K that we all began to hear about this wonderful new program on the horizon,” recalls Larson. When the K-Plan was implemented the following year, I began to imagine exciting possibilities for a senior quarter off campus, what is now called the Senior Individualized Project, or SIP.”

Susan was an English major, minoring in French, but she also had a strong presence in theatre arts, catching the eye of Nelda Balch, theatre professor and namesake for the Nelda K. Balch Playhouse.

Even as the K-Plan was developing, Larson’s years at K followed the guidelines of learning that went deeper and broader, including several on- and off-campus experiential learning experiences and jobs.

Larson worked in alumni relations, where “I learned about fundraising and friend-raising.” She worked in the dean’s office, typing speeches. “That was a good job, working for Dr. Lloyd Averill for two years. Working with him was enlightening and influential later in life. I worked for the Dean of Women, and in the summer, I worked in the financial office. I got to know President Hicks’ secretary, and once when I was too busy to get a paper typed up, she typed it up for me. It pays to have friends in high places!”

Larson laughs, but it’s all part of her K experience, she says: people who care about each other, professors and staff who nurture students in their education and are ready to lend a helping hand.

Nelda Balch was one such nurturing professor for Susan. She saw acting talent in Susan and encouraged the young woman to work on developing it.

“I never considered changing my major to theatre arts,” Susan admits. “But I enjoyed being a part of theatre. I tried out for the part of Anne Page in The Merry Wives of Windsor in my freshman year, and I got the part. I had no idea what I was doing. Not a clue. I didn’t know much about Shakespeare, either, but oh, I had a good time!”

Susan laughs. “I was hooked on theatre from then on. I played an innocent girl—because I was. I didn’t know what cuckolding meant until after the play was done. We trusted Mrs. Balch and just did as we were told.”

Balch encouraged Susan to pursue theatre arts and suggested studying the Theatre of the Absurd in New York for her SIP.  Susan went west instead of east and during the winter quarter studied Elizabethan drama at the University of Chicago. While immensely enjoying her time on stage, she wasn’t convinced she had the makings of the great actress Balch seemed to see in her.

“I think she may have been disappointed in my career choices,” Larson says. “I taught English and French in Chicago and earned my master’s in English at the University of Chicago.”

Other fond memories of her years at K return.

A liberal arts program opens everything up to you.

“Dr. Richard Stavig was my advisor and also the head of the study abroad program when I went to France in 1960. Not only was he a gifted teacher of American literature, he was also a trusted friend who ‘socialized’ us by inviting a group of about six students for monthly Sunday suppers in his home where after dinner we discussed various topics—some heavy, some light, usually values-laden. That experience of seeing our professors as people was important at K. I remember going to the homes of Dr. Walter Waring, Dr. Lester Start, Dr. Paul Collins, and Dr. Lloyd Averill for similar events. It was an enriching experience.”

In her sophomore year Susan served as the business manager for the yearbook, The Boiling Pot, and the following year was made editor.  “Being the editor was a formative experience that helped me develop organizational and leadership skills. I still enjoy all aspects of creating publications, from gathering ideas to writing to editing to graphic design.”

And then there was that other K College student—the junior who worked as a lab assistant in Susan’s freshman zoology class. He took his duties very seriously, never smiling. She wasn’t at all sure she liked him. Probably not. Then again …

Susan says: “The team of lab assistants would prepare an exam with stations in the lab then dramatically unlock the doors and let us in to move from station to station answering questions about each specimen. As a non-scientist, I found this process intimidating. Now David [Larson ’61] jokes that he taught me everything I know about the anatomy of the frog, but I blamed the C I got in that class (my first ever) on the impossible exams he and his team gave.”

The two did not meet again in any meaningful way while at Kalamazoo College, but chance, or destiny, wasn’t letting go that easy. They met again far off campus, at the entrance to a park on Lake Michigan in Chicago. It was a sunny summer day in 1965. David was then in his third year at medical school at the University of Chicago.

Susan smiles. “And the rest is history,” she says. They married in 1967.

Kalamazoo College laid the groundwork for Larson’s life, on professional as well as personal levels. David went on to become a physician, and Susan taught in two Chicago high schools.

“I was initially assigned to a school on the far south side.  I was there two years and during that time started a drama club. The students produced a play attended by the whole community.”  Then Susan requested a move to Hyde Park, the neighborhood where she lived.  “It was a tumultuous time, the mid-‘60s. Gang warfare and the construction of a new high school caused the enrollment to drop precipitously and the few remaining white students to leave. The year 1968 was particularly challenging with the death of Dr. King, announced during a school day.  School closed and riots erupted throughout Chicago.  That summer David and I witnessed the demonstrations in Grant Park around the Democratic Convention downtown.  A year later I left Hyde Park High for the birth of our daughter Jennifer. “

The young family moved to Albuquerque for David to complete his internal medicine residency, while Susan taught English in several Indian pueblos around Albuquerque. Their son Samuel was born in New Mexico. When the residency concluded, the Larsons moved to the mountains of western North Carolina, a rural area where there was a great need for a well-trained internist.  Penland School of Crafts was nearby as well, a magnet for Susan to develop her skills.

“David started his practice while I searched for my own identity,” says Susan. “I wanted to be more than Dr. Larson’s wife.”

When her brother-in-law invited her to come along to a local arts council meeting, something stirred in Susan. This was the world of the arts, a world Susan had grown to love in her years at K, and she wanted to be involved again. Before long, she was elected as the first president and then the first executive director of the Toe River Arts Council.

“Theatre came back into my life, as well as all the performing arts,” says Susan. “For 12 years, I ran the nonprofit arts council, raised funds, organized classes, and sponsored performing arts events —from dance to bluegrass to theatre to storytelling. Our main thrust was to bring the arts into schools, and so I started the Mountain Arts Program. It began in two counties and eventually spread over 17 counties.”

Her subsequent community involvements span the arts, education, human services, and health care. Susan sat (and sits) on many boards, and her efforts were noticed and well appreciated. She earned The President’s Award from the North Carolina Association of Arts Councils, the Governor’s Award for Yancey County Volunteer in Education, was a participant in Leadership North Carolina, and earned certificates of appreciation for fundraising from various organizations and academic institutions. She served four terms on the board of the famed Penland School of Crafts and is currently on their development committee.

The Larsons left the mountains for the Piedmont in 1991, where David became a faculty member at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine and Susan became the Director of Corporate and Foundation Relations at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. “I was there more than 15 years, raising money for the university. I loved being in academia and even dabbled in the sciences, both as part of my job and in the classes I took to earn a Masters in Liberal Studies.  I especially liked the access the university gave me to the arts, the Weatherspoon Art Museum, excellent theatre, and music. I think people see me as a fundraiser, but in my heart, I feel like I am a connector of people, causes, ideas, and the arts.”

Susan and David in a recent photo.

Retirement came a little more than five years ago, but keeping up with Susan continues to be a challenge. The Larsons have moved back to Spruce Pine, North Carolina, where they live on 75 wooded acres.

“It’s beautiful, but frankly, I’m not an outdoors person,” Susan laughs. “David wanted to be in the country, but I live in these connections that I make, and in making things happen in the community. If something isn’t happening that I think should happen, well, I try to make it happen. That’s what Kalamazoo College did for me. I am a lifelong learner. I’m still learning. A liberal arts program is so varied. It opens everything up to you.

“I find myself organizing events in the way that Mrs. Balch did back at K,” Larson continues. “I modeled programs after some we had at K.”

For example, Larson says, when she wanted to help organize a mentorship program at UNC-Greensboro, she contacted Pam Sotherland, program data manager at K’s Center for Career Development, to help her develop the program on the model used at K to connect alumni mentors with current students.

“It makes a nice circle,” Larson says thoughtfully. “Maybe Mrs. Balch would have been proud of me, after all.”