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.”


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

How to Grow a Poet

Back when she was a third-grader in Marshall, Michigan, Kate Belew ’15 certainly wasn’t going to argue with Conrad Hilberry, professor emeritus of English and founder of Kalamazoo College’s creative writing program. If he told her she was a great poet—and he did—then she would prove him right—and she has.

Kate Belew '15 and Jane Huffman '15

Jane Huffman ’15 had been writing stories all her life; by the time she was in high school in Livonia, Michigan, she’d learned enough about poetry to have her work published in an anthology. When it was time to choose a college, Huffman applied to only one: Kalamazoo College. “I saw Kalamazoo as a mecca for writers,” she says.

Of course Belew’s and Huffman’s orbits would coincide at K, and it was only natural that it would happen in one of the classes they both took from Diane Seuss ’78, writer in residence and assistant professor of English. Under Seuss’s mentorship, the two English majors (Huffman also has a major in Theatre Arts) have learned how they can turn their passion for words into their life’s calling, and both have done an extraordinary—although radically contrasting—job of laying that foundation.

Belew’s K roots run deep. Her dad, Kevin Belew ’85, had taken classes from Hilberry, and her mom, Patricia Franke Williams ’85, is also an alum. Yet another K grad, a class mom, was the one who had issued the invitation to Hilberry to visit with Kate Belew’s third-grade class.

At K, Belew has combined her passions for language (she and Huffman co-edit K’s literary journal, The Cauldron) and for dance (she also co-directs Frelon, the student-run dance company). As a first-year student, she received the Pierce Cedar Creek Institute for Environmental Education’s Nature in Words fellowship. Participating in the Great Lakes Colleges Association New York Arts Program during her sophomore year, she says, opened up her writing horizons and helped her envision her future as a writer. The culture shock of living in New York that term was huge: “I couldn’t even grocery shop for the first few days,” Belew recalls. “But writing was a way to understand what was happening to me.” Four days after returning to Michigan from New York, she left for her study abroad program in Spain, and the personal development and life experiences from that time gave her still more inspiration. Her Senior Individualized Project (SIP) is a collection of poems centered on the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca and is based on her experiences in Madrid.

Back on the K campus, Belew honed her skills with experiences at literary magazines and workshops. Along with Huffman, she served an internship at Sundress Publications (a national press), and she assisted Hilberry in planning a children’s poetry workshop in Kalamazoo. She has had work published in a long list of journals and reviews.

Likewise, Huffman’s K years have been spectacular. She’s studied at the Frost Place Advanced Poetry Seminar in Franconia, New Hampshire; the O’Neill Theater Center’s Critic’s Institute in Waterford, Connecticut; the Medieval and Renaissance Conference at Albion College; and the Newberry Library in Chicago, to name just a few. She has had dozens of poems published in anthologies and reviews; she’s won a number of awards and honors—not just for her poetry, but also for her work in theater. As dance is a second passion for Kate Belew, theater is for Jane Huffman. “I’m obsessed with language,” Huffman says, “and theater lets us make words visual and spatial. It’s the stage of the poet.”

For the next phase in her academic and literary life, poetry will take the forefront, because Huffman has been accepted into the prestigious University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop, the top-ranked creative writing program in the world. Accepting her into its MFA program, the Iowa committee told Huffman they consider their candidates to be “the future of American literature.”

“To make it in poetry you have to be tough.”

Kate Belew and Jane Huffman are very different, in both their writing styles and their career goals. Huffman describes herself as a formalist, “drawn toward form and narrative.” Belew’s work, in Seuss’s words, is “nebulous, like grabbing air.” As Huffman is launching her graduate work at Iowa and hopes someday to get a Ph.D. (“I’m an academic person”), Belew wants to spend a few years in the workplace before she considers graduate school. She’ll choose a big city (“I could never go to Iowa,” she laughs), and hopes to teach poetry to children. Living up to the descriptor “nebulous,” used by Seuss to describe her poetry, Belew says, “My life is going to zigzag a lot.”

Both Belew and Huffman say that poetry influences the way they think. Writing a poem, says Huffman, makes the writer approach every word with precision and thoughtfulness; it lets them dig deep into a small area. Belew says that her poems are like a snapshot of one moment of her life. “They allow me to focus and to voice things I couldn’t articulate otherwise.”

What is it about Kalamazoo College that has given Belew and Huffman such a boost at such an early stage in their literary careers? Huffman knows a lot of words, but she can answer that question with just one of them: “everything.” “Everything I’ve done at K,” she says, “has helped me develop what I need to go out into the world as a writer.”

Seuss says she tries to instill some specific lessons into students in her writing classes, including:

•    Read all the time. She asks all her students to keep up with contemporary poetry.
•    Send out your work. Be prepared for rejection, cope with it when it comes, then send the piece out again. To make it in poetry, she advises, you have to be tough.
•    Be brave. Contact people you admire and ask them questions.
•    Sustain and help each other. Belew has learned, she says, “If somebody lifts you up, you lift the next person up.” To grow the community even further, they point out, K writing students have recently opened the Kalamazoo Poetry Collective to Western Michigan University students and other members of the Kalamazoo community.
•    Don’t take yourself so seriously that you’re not willing to take risks. In Huffman’s words: “My biggest lesson was to be fearless.”

Huffman and Belew agree that one of the major contributions K has made to their writing lives is community. “As a writer,” Huffman says, “it’s easy to isolate yourself. At the beginning, it’s just you and the page. But Di [Seuss] has helped us turn this thing we love into something we can do as a career.” Seuss agrees. “All of us have hermit tendencies, but writers need to make connections with other writers.”

Seuss says she’s been impressed by the class of 2015. “This senior class is amazing,” she says. Then, nodding toward Kate Belew and Jane Huffman, she adds, “and these are two of the amazingest.”

K Journey; Space Journey

It is a very long trip from Yazd, Iran, to Kalamazoo. But in 2010 Mojtaba Akhavan-Tafti ’15 was able to negotiate its many twists and turns, as well as making the cultural adjustments associated with the journey. Now, five years later, he’s graduated from Kalamazoo College with majors in physics and chemistry.

Mojtaba Akhavan-Tafti ’15 in front of the building where he spent a great deal of time during his undergraduate studies.

Next he will turn his full-time attention to an even longer odyssey—the 93 million miles traveled by the sun’s solar winds. When those winds arrive at Earth, our atmosphere and magnetic field usually deflect them. They re-converge, however, on the night side of our planet, where some interesting things take place, including the creation of what are called flux ropes.

Those are the phenomena and that is the field (magnetospheric physics, to be exact) that Mojtaba is studying at the University of Michigan this fall as he starts work on his Ph.D.

According to him, such a rarified area of inquiry would never have been possible had he not come halfway around the world to Kalamazoo College.

Yazd, a city of more than a million people, is situated in central Iran, about 300 miles south of Tehran. Mojtaba graduated from high school there, and even started college. But then he had conversations with his uncle, Hashem Akhavan-Tafti, who had come to the states after the fall of the Shah, then graduated from K in 1982 (and is now a member of College’s board of trustees).

His uncle encouraged Mojtaba to make the same migration, even though both men knew the journey involved a great many steps. The first was to obtain a visa to enter the United States. Because the U.S. doesn’t have an embassy in Iran, Mojtaba had to travel to Turkey to file his application. He couldn’t leave Iran, however, until its government permitted him to do so.

Once he obtained his visa Mojtaba relocated to Howell, Michigan. There he spent three months on a farm with his uncle and Aunt SuzAnne. She is the person he most credits for helping with his acclimation to the West. “She is my best friend and the best mentor I could have asked for.”

A precondition for Mojtaba enrolling at K was improving his ability to speak and write English. To do so, he took an English class at Western Michigan University, then took what is called the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language), a standardized proficiency test for non-native speakers wishing to enroll in an American university or college.

Once he received word that he’d passed, he was set to begin his studies at K in the fall of 2011. By that time he’d been in America for more a year and was, well, more than ready.

Before classes started, however, he embarked upon his LandSea adventure. “That was a big learning experience for me,” he recalls. “I made some of my best friends during that time.”

Although naturally outgoing, Mojtaba says that his biggest challenge has been to become more social. “Just to become comfortable and act normal, to be likeable. I’ve learned the value of a smile.”

When told that his smile and the twinkle of his eye bear a resemblance to those of tennis great Roger Federer, Mojtaba nods and says, “Yeah, I’m told that from time to time, especially by the guys on the tennis team.”

From the beginning, his studies at K have focused on the sciences. He spent the summer after his first year at Wayne State University working in a neuroscience lab. His foreign study—in Lancaster, England—involved particle physics.

“The sky is no longer a limit!”

Jan Tobochnik, the Dow Distinguished Professor in the Natural Sciences, has been impressed with Mojtaba. “He is a very outgoing young man, very personable. He loves to organize things. For example, he was part of an effort to get the College to put solar panels on the golf carts we use on campus.”

Mojtaba also helped organize K’s first Complex Science Society. “It’s to help bridge the gap between social sciences and empirical sciences,” he explains. “During our first year we focused on renewable energy. During the second we dealt with vaccination practices in the U.S.”

He also was involved in establishing a local chapter of the National Society of Physics Students. That work led to him and others into local elementary schools to encourage young children to pursue science.

For his Senior Individualized Project (SIP) Mojtaba studied the atmospheres of Earth and Mercury, two of the planets in our solar system with magnetic poles. His SIP received departmental honors.

He spent his SIP summer of 2014 at the University of Michigan with his advisor, Professor J.A. Slavin, and studied physical phenomena such as ‘magnetic reconnection’ and ‘coronal mass ejections.’

Because of his SIP work, NASA invited Mojtaba to attend the launch of its Magnetospheric MultiScale (MMS) mission.

As a result of that experience he was invited to attend the March, 2015, launch of a NASA mission at Cape Canaveral. The Magnetospheric MultiScale mission carried four identical satellites that, once deployed, gather information about the Earth’s magnetosphere. Mojtaba had worked with data from a similar spacecraft for his SIP.

The original plan was to view the launch, with others, from a favored site on NASA grounds. That hope was scuttled, however, when officials realized that Mojtaba was an Iranian national.

“They told me I’d have to watch from across the harbor instead. But at least Professor Slavin went with me. Even from there, it was still stunning to watch.”

When he’s needed a break from school work, Mojtaba has sometimes retreated to nature. “I really enjoy going to the Lillian Anderson Arboretum. It is a good place to heal.”

Mojtaba’s post-graduate studies will focus on the data coming from those four spacecraft. “Solar winds have the potential to overwhelm our technological civilization. If we could predict when that was going to happen we could take preventive measures to reduce the likelihood of a problem. I also hope to get involved in designing instruments for future missions.”

On a different note, pun intended, he has begun taking violin lessons.

Mojtaba soon hopes to achieve another goal—becoming an American citizen. He intends to make America his permanent home.

“While two decades of living in and facing the challenges of growing up in a developing country prepared me for working hard,” he says, “coming to the U.S. and obtaining a liberal arts education enabled me to broaden the scope of my understanding as well as the impact I can have as an individual and as a citizen. Today, more than five years after my first time entering the U.S., I have come to believe that even the sky is no longer a limit!”

Mojtaba also hopes to help other students the way he was helped. “My aunt and uncle have established a scholarship institute called ‘The 1for2 Education Foundation.’ It means that a recipient of the scholarship commits to pay for the education of two others. My aunt and uncle helped me, so I want to help others someday.”


Two quick stories about our 18th president-elect—one about soccer; the other, students.

First. For 30 years Jorge G. Gonzalez has attended every quadrennial World Cup soccer championship since 1986 except one: the 1990 tournament in Italy.

“Mexico wasn’t playing,” Gonzalez explains. “And a World Cup without Mexico is like a wedding without a couple,” he smiles, “still a great party but with the heart of the matter absent.”

Second. Gonzalez will begin his duties as President of Kalamazoo College on July 1. Until then he serves in the administration of Occidental College (Los Angeles, Calif.) as dean of the college and vice president for academic affairs. He wasn’t always an administrator. For 21 years–“the time of my life!”–he taught economics at Trinity University. He was a gifted professor, in part because he was so creative when it came to combining classroom learning with outside-the-classroom opportunities (often in different countries) where students could apply the learning. His students loved him. And now, former students, when they find themselves in L.A. for any reason, often reach out to connect with him.

“My secretary knows to always find time on my schedule for these students,” says Gonzalez, “a lunch perhaps or dinner with my family. Always! We both know that afterwards I’ll be happy and enthusiastic for at least a month!”

Love binds these two anecdotes—passion for soccer and passion for the outcomes of a particular kind of education we know as the K-Plan.

Example of the former: the London Olympics (2012) Men’s Soccer Tournament. After Mexico knocks out Japan in Wednesday’s semifinal to earn the right to face tournament-favorite Brazil in Saturday’s gold medal match, Gonzalez, having just watched the semifinal on television in Los Angeles, realizes he simply must be in Wembley Stadium in person on Saturday. No question! Also, no ticket for the match, no ticket for the plane, no reservation for a hotel in a very crowded city.

No problem.

Because within 24 hours, by some combination of dream, boldness and sheer luck, Gonzalez is indeed in London with all three. And on Saturday he’s in Wembley Stadium, midfield, 30 rows up. “The seat was so perfect,” he marvels. “I suspect it was some corporate sponsor’s whose representative couldn’t attend at the last minute.”

Mexico claims the gold medal in a 2-1 thriller; Gonzalez was there! and tears come unbidden whenever he recalls the memory. So, a great ending to a great adventure most thought Gonzalez crazy to begin? Yes, but the ending’s hardly the heart of the story. After all, things could have turned out differently in any number of ways.

The heart of the story is the boldness, the sharing of the adventure (he took along friends and family via social media) and the way that all the stars aligned to support his dream of being there. Sounds like the kind of undertaking only an undergrad who studied abroad his junior year (like Gonzalez did) would be likely to begin.

Gonzalez shared that story (and other outcomes of his study abroad, as well as more experiences of the last three decades, including his marriage to K alumna Suzie (Martin) Gonzalez ’83, that, unbeknownst to him, have prepared him for this presidency) in his first meeting with the Kalamazoo College community last month. Fluent in three languages (Spanish, English, and soccer, if one considers the sport a worldwide “language” with the capability of connecting people across differences) our 18th president-elect quoted a poet who wrote in a fourth: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe–“Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. / Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.”


Board Chair Charlotte Hall ’66 welcomes Jorge Gonzalez, K’s 18th president.

“I can imagine a Kalamazoo College even stronger than it is,” he says in that speech. “And it is an amazing place right now. [President] Eileen [Wilson-Oyelaran] has left it in a remarkable place. And I can imagine it even stronger. So I can’t wait until July 1 when I can work with all of you to make K a better place.”

K’s amazing because of the K-Plan, according to Gonzalez, which embodies a particular kind of education about which he is every bit as passionate as he is about soccer. The responsibility of a college is to graduate students who are ready for the world. And today, Gonzalez says, that world is being re-shaped by four major forces–technological change more rapid than ever before, growing international interdependence, diversity, and urbanization. The combination of the liberal arts and experiential opportunities to apply the liberal arts is the most effective education for today’s world because of the outcomes that combination yields.

Gonzalez describes the feeling of peace and belonging that a soccer fan experiences in an empty stadium, almost the way one might feel in a church, synagogue, or mosque. Someone passionate about education would feel the same in an imaginary and immaterial work of architecture shaped from the outcomes of the K-Plan. “That ’cathedral’ would include the ability to think analytically and critically,” said Gonzalez. “Outcomes include creativity and the capability to solve problems by drawing upon a variety of perspectives through the prism of different disciplines. And the ability to communicate effectively in writing and in speech, and to interact with people from many different backgrounds, which is both the workplace and the world.”

For 30 years Jorge G. Gonzalez has dedicated his life’s work to that kind of an undergraduate education that results in those outcomes. No wonder he finds time for any of his former students. No wonder they seek him out. And no wonder he’s joyful for at least a month after every meeting with them. After all, more effectively than any other educational option, the liberal arts enrich a life.

(The cover story of the Spring issue of LuxEsto, which publishes the first week of April, is an in-depth feature of our 18th president.)

K River Anthology


Down the stretch at the K-Tucky Derby

Rose Kennedy and the K-Tucky Derby live on the same Kalamazoo College website—Story Zoo—separated by a decade or so, both upstream and downstream time’s river.

Every homecoming Story Zoo is open on the Quad or in the Upjohn Library recording studio, a chance for alumni, faculty, staff and students to share a K story that matters to them. Perhaps better than any other medium, the stories in aggregate articulate the joy and struggle, the grace and disorder, and the “serious quirky” that makes K what it is.

Some stories will move you, like the paean of David Kessler ’70 (An Arresting Exam) to the courage of former president Weimer K. Hicks. It changed David’s life.

Some are downright poetic, like the extended metaphor (coat-to-cape) of Pam Brown Gavin ’74 (10 Best for the Clueless).

Forgot what it was like the first Saturday in May at Angell Field? Let class-of-1985 friends Elizabeth (Fiore) Vogel and Carolyn Dadabay remind you of K-Tucky Derby. See if you can spot Carolyn in the video.

What punishments and penalties marked your K day or era? In the late 1950s being “campused” was the sentence for “late minutes.” Head Proctor Karen (Lake) DeVos ’59 met some good friends in “lock up.” And big changes were coming (French Influence to K: “Lighten up!”), originating from foreign study in France.

Some stories solve longstanding mysteries. The Student Observation Bureau. Remember? Well, it didn’t last long, but it sure caused quite a stir. Where, exactly, did it originate? Rachel Robinson ’85 finally reveals that secret (S.O.B.–Old Rules, New Prank).

So take some time and time travel—through the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, the aughts, the 10s and more. You’ll discover memories of great professors like Chen and Doc Stowe, Nelda Balch, T.J. Smith, Karyn Boatwright and Mickey McDonald, among others. You’ll recall small but vital details of the elements of the K-Plan: foreign study, career service, civic engagement and the SIP. Great parties (Beach Party) and enduring relationships (A Lifetime of Friendship).

Most stories are one to three minutes. There is one however, that is longer (about seven minutes), and it is worth the time: David Easterbrook’s (class of 1969) moving story about the delivery of a 20-year-old message from a Masai elder to the Kennedy family (When You See Rose Kennedy in the Market). In this day of social media and shortened attention span, please don’t miss the beauty of David’s “longer” lyric.

Whether your K story is the memory of an unforgettable moment, or the trajectory of your career, we want to hear it.  All alumni, students, faculty and staff are invited to contribute to the Story Zoo. Individual or group stories are welcome! Nor must you wait for homecoming or commencement. Feel free to record your own video, upload it to the video-sharing site of your choice (e.g. Vine or YouTube), and send us the URL.

The next campus recording is scheduled for Saturday, October 15, from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. at the fire circle next to Stetson Chapel. All alumni, students, faculty and staff are invited to stop by the Cavern Fire Circle to enjoy a cup of hot chocolate and to record your favorite K memory.

Dream Work

The young people who come into the office of Sara Wiener ’03 often have nowhere else to turn for help. They are scared, anxious and sometimes living with families who do not fully understand them.


Sarah Weiner at the UMHS, where she heads the pediatric gender services office.

But they do know one thing: they want to be able to live a fully authentic life. They know the body they were born with does not house their true selves. And even in a day and age when public discussion about transitioning to another gender is more commonplace, the social stigma is still strong, and support systems oftentimes are shaky at best.

“The kids I see have been so distressed,” says Wiener. “Some say they’ve attempted suicide. Some are bullied at school. Others have hurt themselves. The stress on them is often incredible. Trans and gender non-conforming kids have always existed, but often in the shadows.”

Wiener, 34, is extending a much needed helping hand.

Since 2008, she had been working as a clinical outpatient psychologist at a Massachusetts medical center, counseling “medically complex” young people—kids with genetic disorders, poorly controlled Type 1 diabetes, and other medical issues.  The work was satisfying, but she had a yearning to return closer to her native home of Plymouth, Michigan.

“So I approached the University of Michigan Health System (UMHS) and said, ‘You don’t have a pediatric gender services office, and I’d like to start that here.’”

The health system listened.

The UMHS, which for 20 years had been attending to the health care needs of transgender adults—one of the first hospitals in the nation to do so—agreed it was a good idea. Wiener got the job and early this year became UMHS’s manager of comprehensive gender services.

“It’s my dream job,” she says. “It fits with who I am and my politics.”

The story of how Wiener landed in the growing world of transgender health care is a testament to the self-directed, lifelong style of learning championed so much at K. Wiener, who holds a Master of Social Work degree from Smith College in Massachusetts, had next to no formal training in gender dysphoria or transgender health care. During her graduate studies, she remembers exactly one course that dealt with gender issues, and then only in a cursory way.

“I got a bunch of books and journals and spread them out on a table and thought to myself, ‘How am I going to do this?’” she recalls. “But I knew I had the skills. K gave me the know-how to teach myself on my own. Embracing lifelong learning—that was kind of hammered into you as a K student. I was thinking of the College when I did this. And I did it.”

Research shows that about 80 percent of prepubertal children who identify with a gender other than that assigned at birth do not go on to become transgender adolescents or adults, she says. Instead, they may grow up to become gay, lesbian or bisexual.

The majority of adolescents in puberty who are struggling with their gender during or after puberty will go on to become transgender as adults, Wiener adds.

“It’s this constant voice telling them, ‘This is not me,’” she says. “For many people, it does not go away.”

She does a lengthy clinical assessment before making any recommendation for medical intervention, assessing the young person’s current functioning, family environment, any co-morbid mental health issues (PTSD, depression or chronic anxiety, trauma) and gender histories.

Young people enter her office looking for answers about everything from hormone therapy to surgical procedures. Their families—sometimes conflicted about how to address their child’s gender identity—also are a part of the consultation, receiving support from Wiener’s office as well. Any minor must have the consent of their parent of guardian before going forward with any therapy.

“Some parents have a hard time with what their child is going through,” Wiener says. “Some think it’s a phase the child will move through, or are having trouble accepting what’s going on. These parents need support, too. Here, we have a holistic approach.”

LuxEsto spoke with Wiener just a month after she started her new position. Already, she had seen young people and their families from across the state. In Michigan, there is only one other health care provider willing to prescribe hormone therapy to transgender young people, she says.

“Trans people want and deserve to be integrated. They often want or need specialized medical and any number of other support services. We can do that here.”

Wiener’s work also puts her on the front lines of the of the social justice movement for transgender rights and inclusion.

“It’s different from outpatient psychotherapy. When I did that work, the social justice advocate part of me wasn’t activated. I wasn’t making the kind of changes I wanted to help make. When I do this work, I feel like I am really making a difference—and it feels awesome.”

She’s already been emotionally touched by her work.

She remembers a father who brought his 6-year-old natal male child into her office for feedback regarding how to manage the child’s preferences for clothing typically associated with girls. The child came through the door “all dolled up,” Wiener says, wearing a pink dress, bows in his hair and clutching a magic wand.

“Dad came in looking for direction, wondering what he should do. After a thorough assessment, I was able to assure the father he was doing the right thing by supporting the child in the child’s unique gender expression. The relief I saw on his face was incredible, just that simple bit of advice ended up helping them both.

“I get to be a part of a young person’s life and help them become who they truly are, removing barriers so they can be their authentic selves and connect them with what they need. It’s an honor to see people become themselves. It is so rewarding.”

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  To learn more about Harvest of Joy Farm, LLC, visit

LEED-Like Leaders

When Kalamazoo College officials went searching for LEED certification for the Fitness and Wellness Center, they looked to the students who will use it.

Among those responsible for the very best sustainability measure of the new fitness center are LEED evaluators Ogden Wright, Paul Manstrom and Michelle Sugimoto.

After plans for the center were announced in 2014, the Kalamazoo College Climate Action Network, a student-organized group that advocates for sustainable and effective measures to address climate change, looked for ways to ensure the new construction was environmentally friendly. One idea was to have the addition LEED-certified.

K’s Sustainability Advisory Committee, which included faculty, staff and students, agreed, but suggested a modification of the idea. Rather than paying for LEED certification, then perhaps the College should instead hire two student LEED-equivalent auditors, training them in the design, energy and sustainability criteria that inform LEED. The College gave the green light to that idea and will divert the estimated $50,000 cost of formal certification to fund the student auditing project.

Junior Michelle Sugimoto and senior Ogden Wright were chosen from a dozen applicants. They have met with designers and builders every few weeks since late last summer. The actual cost of their training and stipends will be a fraction of the cost of LEED certification. The savings will be invested in a 12 kilowatt solar panel array installation on campus that will offset 5 percent of the new fitness center’s energy costs.

The new, $8.65 million center (29,000 square feet) will feature cardio and weight rooms, multi-purpose fitness areas and racquetball and squash courts. The scheduled opening is July 31.

Collaborating with the project’s design and construction teams, Sugimoto and Wright have been evaluating several factors to assess the LEED-like certification potential of the building. Among others, those factors include water and energy efficiency, proximity to public transportation and air quality.

Associate Vice President for Facilities Management Paul Manstrom, who is advising the students, says their work is another example of K’s commitment to provide students experiences with profoundly relevant real-world applications.

“It’s a case of the administration sharing a challenge with students and saying, ‘Join us,’” he says. “While we are using LEED standards to audit the construction of the building,” Manstrom adds, “there’s really no template for what we are calling a student-audited LEED simulation. We’re being creative and designing the process as we go through it.

“Buildings constitute a large part of the amount of waste produced in the United States each year. Putting the money up front saves the College money in the long run, while at the same time giving these students an incredible learning experience.”

The U.S. Green Buildings Council sets the standards for LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). Building projects earn points from certifiers based on the type and degree of sustainable practices integrated into a structure, from LED lights to insulation to the use of alternative forms of energy, and many others.

LEED-certified buildings are resource efficient, use less water and energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Around 1.85 million square feet are being certified daily, according to the Council. Two other buildings on K’s campus are LEED certified: the Hicks Student Center, with a Silver designation, and the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership, which is expected to reach Gold-level certification soon.

“It’s one thing to complain about climate change, it’s another thing to try to change it,” says Wright, a native of Kingston, Jamaica. He participates in K’s 3/2 Engineering Program, a dual degree program where three years of core classes are taken at the College before a student transfers to an accredited engineering school for higher level courses. He currently studies Civil Engineering at Western Michigan University.

Having worked in Facilities Management last summer, Wright applied for the auditor position “because I wasn’t ready to throw away my ties to K,” he says. “It keeps me around here, keeps me grounded in the College, and we’re providing a service for K.”

In return, the students gain vital experience.  LEED is the new trend in building, and helps us understand how we are going to treat our environment, planet and people around us,” says Wright. He and Sugimoto are qualified to do the work.

“It helps that we’re physicists,” Wright says. “We know what’s meant by Kilowatt hours, BTUs, R-Factors (the measure of insulation’s ability to resist heat going through it).“

“And we’re not just on our own,” Sugimoto adds. “The designers and builders work with us as colleagues. I think the coolest thing is that the students here are always willing to take on a challenge and engage with the administration on it, and that the administration is willing to support real actions on the ground.”

The students will write a report for the Board of Trustees and the College community. The fruits of their work will be concrete and long lived. Says Manstrom: “The real story of what they did—duplicating the process used by LEED certifiers—will be in the building. We’ll have an idea of what our certification would be even without the official designation.”

The Road Less Traveled…

Something about the K-Plan inspires the desire to start a journey, and, according to John Hitchcock ’78, develops the wherewithal to make it work. Things like planning, leadership, and adaptability. John shares the story of such a journey. He graduated with a major in psychology and did his foreign study in Aix-en-Provence, France. Today John is vice president and managing director for Energy Intelligence Group in New York. Mentioned in the story are Leo Hurley ’78 and the late Kate Plaisier ’77. Leo majored in health sciences and did his foreign study in Caen, France. He is an epidemiologist for Kaiser Permanente in northern California. Kate earned her B.A. in biology. She passed away on August 29, 2012.

John Hitchcock and his 19-year-old daughter, Anna, in Colorado in March 2015. John’’’’s love of outdoor adventure has persisted long after his K days.

John Hitchcock and his 19-year-old daughter, Anna, in Colorado in March 2015. John’s love of outdoor adventure has persisted long after his K days.

To invite 20 students on a seven-day ski trek along the northern edge of the Upper Peninsula, you need SNOW. Snow is non-negotiable. It’s also not controllable. Even as a sophomore two terms away from a course in experimental design I knew what an uncontrollable variable could do to you. Tarps, food, fuel for stoves, sleeping bags, boots that fit, skis that glide—all those could be reliably assembled and accounted for. Not snow. Not even in late December in Michigan’s most remote wilderness; not even in 1975, decades before global warming had cast its existential pall.  An end-of-fall-quarter cross-country ski expedition would be nothing without snow.

Thanksgiving came and went without a meaningful accumulation of snow in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. The four of us who had organized the trip prepared to refund to 16 trusting souls the $80 they’d each paid for this first-of-its-kind finish to the fall quarter. And then, the weekend before final exams, a storm crossing Lake Superior brought a half-foot of snow—enough to turn the century-old logging roads that were the national park’s entry points into skiable paths.

We became intimate with the weather reports after developing an intense appreciation for what could be learned over the telephone; at first from daily calls from our dorm room phone to the recorded voice of the Upper Peninsula Michigan Bell weather lady, and, later, from more desperate conversations with state troopers stationed in Munising, the only town bordering the Pictured Rocks preserve.

Some of the life skills learned in Kalamazoo’s mid-1970s foray into wilderness education (the origins of today’s LandSea program) were imparted even before we reached the wilderness. “Working the phones” was one. These lessons in rotary technology would later contribute to my career as a journalist covering Iran from outside Iran, China and Indonesia from Tokyo, and Margaret Thatcher’s rise and fall at a careful distance from the sharp edges of her blue handbag. Phone work could uncover so much.

In true K fashion, some of our lessons were learned on the road. We drove the 405 miles to Pictured Rocks the night after finals in a school van and three private cars, led by freshman Kate Plaisier’s Volkswagen Beetle. Her car would become as important to our journey as the Lunar Module had been to the Apollo 11 moon mission six years earlier. At times it seemed as cramped.

By the middle of the morning after finals we had reached a store near an eastern entrance to the park. The mounds of snow described by the weather lady and troopers six days earlier had sagged. The sky was an unbroken gray, the temperature a degree or two above freezing. We drained the store of its coffee and drove the final 20 minutes to the trailhead we had picked to be our base camp.  As uninspiring as the weather was, our site, by contrast, buzzed. The 20 of us divided into our carefully chosen patrols of 10. Tarps were set up. Fires lit, cooking areas organized. Skis were laid out. A gentle mist set in.

Many of us had never skied before, much less winter-camped.  The open area at the trailhead, cleared by loggers and forest fires decades before and now rimmed by white pines, became our practice ground. Northwest of base camp, a three-day ski away,  awaited our destination: the sandstone cliffs and dunes that dropped more than 200 feet into Lake Superior, to be reached via two separate routes through stands of birch, hemlock and beech, winding past marshes, streams and waterfalls.

The mist continued overnight, but under the tarps life was dry and still. Besides, sleep lost from finals week and the previous night’s drive left no one awake to complain. But by morning the snow had disappeared. The drizzle, the mud, the above-freezing (though barely) temperatures were more than an inconvenience. They threatened our plan, which had been to send the patrols on their separate ways after breakfast. We considered carrying the skis and doing the first day’s trek in boots. The forecast was for colder weather, which would eventually bring the comfort of dry snow. But what if the forecast continued to be unreliable?

Lunch came and went, and still it rained. I don’t recall anyone from either patrol upset. They all seemed to think it was an improvement over finals. My leader-mates and I were less at peace: we’d lose daylight in four hours. One leaky boot, one irreversibly cold foot and we’d be forced to evacuate in the dark, and to where? If there was to be a Plan B, better to search for it now.  Leo Hurley and I volunteered to head off with Kate Plaisier in her Beetle to visit the state police post an hour’s drive to the west.

The troopers couldn’t have been more amused by our muddy, wet-woolly selves. They also couldn’t have been more helpful. Could they make a call to a church or a school where our soggy band could put up for the night? Three hours later the 20 of us were camped in the Munising High School gym, cooking Sunday supper on the parquet floor. There we slept until students filed in for a Monday morning assembly.

Ski trail in Munising, Michigan, near Pictured Rocks National Preserve.

Ski trail in Munising, Michigan, near Pictured Rocks National Preserve.

Overnight, rain had turned to snow—perhaps no more than an inch, but it was falling at an encouraging pace. We broke our gym-camp and were ready to return to the woods. Except for a single leaky boot. It belonged to a sophomore who had been bravely mum the day before. She was already shivering despite our night indoors. Her toes were numb.

Weeks before, planning the trip over a meal in the dining hall, we had figured 10 percent of the trip budget would be adequate for an emergency reserve.  I pulled the 10- and 20-dollar bills of our reserve fund from the plastic sandwich bag buried at the bottom of my pack. Marquette, a university town two hours by car to the west, offered a hospital and an airport. Off we went.

Leo, whose career would be in medical research, and Kate, who would specialize in adolescent psychiatry, proved great company in a medical evacuation. For our shivering skier there was nothing a round of hugs and a ticket home to Kalamazoo couldn’t cure. We walked her onto the runway and reassured her as she boarded that all would be well. Back at base camp, the two patrols would be off on a trek in fresh snow. Yes, we had lost a day’s skiing to the weather, but we’d make up for it with an early pre-dawn departure the next morning. Our “wounded” comrade, in turn, had a good story to tell. Everyone wins.

The plane lifted off. The storm stiffened. Leo, Kate and I drove the two hours back to base camp. The snow had drifted over the narrow roads. The Beetle, propelled by its rear-mounted engine, ploughed on. We reached camp well after nightfall and dinner with a plan to wake up in the middle of the night to ski.

The cloudless midnight sky gave us our first look at the Upper Peninsula in winter wonder. I remember a full moon, but the night could as easily have been lit by the stars alone. The trails were unbroken and glowed magically. For an hour or more the three of us skied in silence through the forest. The way emptied into a small clearing. We paused, still without speaking. A quarter of an hour went by. An owl, backlit by the moon or the Milky Way, flew in from the right, dipped into the snow at mid-field, and lifted a rabbit into the sky.

Snow was abundant for the remainder of the trip. We reached Lake Superior as planned. I remember being so frightened by its wind and waves that I turned back immediately. The woods, by contrast, were peaceful. No toes were lost. Maybe it was the diet of gorp, mac-and-cheese and hot chocolate. Maybe it was the regular breaks for under-the-armpit foot-warmings. We returned home two days before Christmas Eve.

Nearly 40 Christmases later I’m left with a fine wilderness education, one that includes phone skills (which are now digital), an eagerness to take up nature’s invitation to come out (often) and play, and a confidence in what small groups can overcome—not to mention a favorite story.