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 next to Olds Upton sign

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.’

Mojtaba Akhavan-Tafti at NASA

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.”

The Light and the Dark

ime of the locust cover_PAPERBACKMost so-called “overnight successes” are a matter of years or longer, such as the writing career of Morowa Yejidé ’92 (Moe-roe-wah Yay-gee-day).  After a decade of short story publications, her novel Time of the Locust (Atria Books/Simon & Schuster, 2014) quickly gained critical and popular acclaim. The novel was a 2012 finalist for the national PEN/Bellwether Prize In 2015 it was long listed for the PEN/Bingham award for debut fiction and was a 2015 NAACP Image Award Nominee for Outstanding Literary Work. She is currently a PEN/Faulkner Writers in Schools author, visiting with classes who have been assigned Time of the Locust.

Yejidé, who is married and raising three sons, wrote the book in the spare time she didn’t have, taking advantage of occasional bouts of insomnia, hours between work in academia, and even time in the bathtub when the door was locked to all distraction for three-hour baths of plotting storyline time. Submitting the manuscript to agents and publishers more than one hundred times, she filed away the rejections and kept sending it off, undaunted.

That kind of persistence, that kind of devotion to her art, that kind of determination is part of the hard lessons learned during Yejidé’s years at Kalamazoo College, although not necessarily in the classroom.

“I’ll be honest,” Yejidé says. “My Kalamazoo College experience was of very high highs and low lows. My first two years were about figuring out who I was and how I fit in. Then I went on study abroad to Japan, and my mom died a month after I returned. My last years at K passed in a haze.”


Morowa Yejidé (left) with classmates during her K days.

Yejidé was an international area studies major with a minor in Asian affairs. It was the study abroad experience, she says, that attracted the Washington D.C.-native to K. She spent her junior year in Tokyo, living with a host family, not knowing that in her absence her mother had been diagnosed with stage four breast cancer.

“She made everyone promise not to tell me,” Yejidé says. “She didn’t want me to rush back or have a cloud over me. I found out when I got home—and a month later she was gone. That really went into my writing, how people can say things without saying things. It was a part of the Japanese culture, too. I’ve been fascinated with how people communicate ever since.”

While Yejidé struggled through her final years at K, missing her mother, she found an understanding friend in her college roommate. Around the same time Yejidé lost her mother, her roommate lost hers as well, even more abruptly.

“Her mom was killed coming out of a pharmacy one day, struck during a police car chase,” she says. “We had these long existential discussions—is it better to know ahead or not?—and decided both scenarios were equally terrible. But it brought comfort to have someone there who understood. It all became a part of the light and the dark that K was for me. We keep in touch to this day.”

Another lesson Yejidé took to heart was her mother’s frequent advice to live her life without regrets. So Yejidé pursued her dreams, no matter how fantastic, and they carried her through those one hundred rejections as she sent out short story submissions and the manuscript of her novel.

Time of the Locust is a magical realism, literary fiction type of novel,” Yejidé says. “It tells the story of a seven-year-old autistic boy named Sephiri and a supernatural relationship he has with his father.”

Autism is one of several important topics Yejidé explores in the novel. The boy’s mother Brenda copes with single parenthood while her son’s father Horus serves time in a maximum security prison for killing a racist police officer who shot had shot him but went unpunished. Horus is in solitary confinement , increasingly fleeing his isolation and despair by escaping in his mind. Brenda buries her stress in food, leading to obesity and diabetes.

“I love image-driven types of literature,” Yejidé says. “I’m always reading, and I’m a very curious person by nature. I was reading a photo-journalism piece with a single photo of an autistic boy looking out his window at a tree. He had this whimsical look on his face. I found myself wondering—what does his world look like?”

With that, a creative seed was planted. Yejidé unleashed her fascination with the interior world and she explored the different types of communication people with autism use.

“There’s a confinement theme,” she says. “And I played with that same idea with the boy’s mom. She, too, is grappling in the dark. She has a self-imposed prison of her obesity, weight that cuts her off from the world. The boy’s father meanwhile is in a physical prison, another hidden world, and dealing with what happens to him in solitary confinement.”

Yejidé researched her main themes by reading letters from prisoners, watching hours of video diaries, studying autistic behavior and talking with people involved in those hidden worlds.

“Our penal system is the equivalent of a small nation in population,” she says. “I wanted to know what other countries have to say about our penal system, too. When I read the prisoners’ letters, I had to read for what wasn’t there, because they get censored. And autistic kids—they can’t tell us about their world and in that way are like prisoners. Mothers? Always dead last on their own to-do lists. Brenda in the novel is an amalgamation of women who feel that if they stop all that they are doing, their entire world will fall apart.”

Yejidé’s encounter with the Japanese language served as a source for her writing on the difficulty of communication. Her first such experience came in high school, when she went to a friend’s home to do homework. Her friend’s mother was Japanese and spoke no English.

“I learned basic, rudimentary words in Japanese,” she recalls. “It became like a game to us. I ended up looking into learning Japanese, and then when it was time to go to college, I saw Kalamazoo College had this awesome Japanese program. So I applied.”

It wasn’t enough to just apply to Kalamazoo College. Yejidé had to convince her father. At that time, she says, the family lived in Okemos, Michigan, and her father taught at Michigan State University. MSU, for him, seemed the obvious choice.

“But MSU didn’t have that kind of program in Japan,” Yejidé says. “I had to give a dining room presentation to convince Dad. It worked.”

Yejidé immediately felt drawn to the quiet of the Quad, to the smaller campus and more individualized attention at K.

“As an only child, I looked for that solitude,” she says. “I loved the calm tranquility of the Quad. I wanted the in-depth experience of K, and I got it.”

Yejidé says she loved her study abroad experience, despite its dark ending with the loss of her mother. It was the first time her host family near Tokyo had ever hosted an exchange student, and their English language skills were almost non-existent.

Morowa with her Japanese host parents, Mr. and Mrs. Imamura) on the day of seijin no hi (Coming of Age Day), a Japanese national holiday that celebrates all young people who turn 20 that year.

Morowa with her Japanese host parents, Mr. and Mrs. Imamura) on the day of seijin no hi (Coming of Age Day), a Japanese national holiday that celebrates all young people who turn 20 that year.

“That’s what I wanted, that immersion experience,” Yejidé says. “We operated on the premise of ‘if you don’t talk, you don’t eat.’ I learned so much from my Papa San and Mama San. We changed each other; they are my second set of parents. They would tell me that I was special, that I would do something great someday. It was awesome to mail my book to them, even if it was in English and they couldn’t read it. I’ve gone back a few times to visit them.”

Yejidé has also returned to her K family from time to time. It was at a K “mixer” for alumni in Washington, D.C., that she learned about current classes at Kalamazoo College about autism from a current student.

“The subject came up about Bruce Mills, an English professor at K who was teaching about communication and autism, and that we should meet,” she says.

Good things come from mixers. Bruce Mills responds: “I have since taught Time of the Locust in two classes already, my spring 2015 African-American literature class and my fall 2016 first-year seminar. Morowa and I connected online and became friends on Facebook. Given my memoir dealing with autism, we had a kind of natural connection.”

Mills’ memoir, An Archaeology of Yearning, explores his relationship with his autistic son.  His first-year seminar is called “Crossing Borders: Autism and Other Ways of Knowing.”

“In relation to my African-American literature course, I have been trying to connect the class to folks in the community through our ‘Engaging the Wisdom’ oral history project.  It felt like an extension of such connections to have a conversation with an alumna, especially given that Morowa’s book includes characters whose lives speak to civil rights history, the criminal justice system and larger themes of disconnection, imprisonment (physical, psychological, and spiritual) and hope and healing.”

This renewed connection between Kalamazoo College and Morowa Yejidé has led to a homecoming. Yejidé will be doing a reading from her novel followed by discussion and book signing on Tuesday, February 16, at 7 p.m., at the Arcus Center. She will also meet with students in the classroom at a fiction workshop.

Moving from light to dark and back into the light again, Yejidé has no regrets about her sometimes difficult years at K. Her mother would be proud.

“K gives you a unique opportunity to find out what you’re about and what you can become, and it did that for me,” she says. “You just have to commit to that discovery, wherever it takes you.”

Eating Dearborn

Flatbreads seasoned with zaatar, photo David Hammond

Flatbreads seasoned with zaatar

Kalamazoo College opened me up to the inestimable value of visiting other parts of the world, yet I rarely spent much time visiting parts of Michigan beyond Kalamazoo. Even though my dad grew up in Hamtramck, a suburb of Detroit, I hadn’t visited the Motor City since the early 60s.

And then, more than a half-century later, my wife, Carolyn Berg ’72, and I visited Detroit and suburban Dearborn, each a feast in its own way.

It was fascinating to see the people of Detroit, a city on the remake, leveraging the aesthetic and financial advantages of properties abandoned when the city’s auto and other industries downsized or closed shop. Young artists, restaurateurs and entrepreneurs are revitalizing places outside the city’s center, and we were knocked out by Detroit’s old-neighborhoods-made-new, especially Corktown, bursting with renewed energy at restaurants, breweries and bars that seemingly overnight mushroomed out in old warehouses and manufacturing facilities.

We were even more eager to visit the Dearborn neighborhood.

About three years ago, the National Report mentioned that Dearborn had been placed under Sharia law. The article said the Dearborn city council “voted 4-3 to become the first US city to officially implement all aspects of Sharia Law.  The tough new law, slated to go into effect January 1st, addresses secular law… as well as personal matters …[and] could see citizens stoned for adultery or having a limb amputated for theft.”

The story was, of course, baloney – and intentionally so. National Report is a satire site. One problem with satire is the propensity of some to regard satiric fiction as fact. Sure enough, the Dearborn-under-Sharia-law story was soon repeated as fact in the Conservative Tribune, Human Events and several other publications that perhaps could use better fact-checkers.

The story may have seemed credible to some because Dearborn contains the highest concentration of Arab Americans in the United States. Many people from Lebanon, Kuwait and other Arabic countries came for good paying jobs. More recently, many Arabic people have immigrated in order to escape conflict zones in the Arab world. The Arab Americans we met seemed very glad to be in the U.S., and we were very glad to visit their community, which offers some of the most wonderful Middle Eastern food we’ve had, in great abundance and variety.

The Arab American National Museum is a good place to orient yourself to the local community and its history. The Museum offers food tours that include visits to local shops and restaurants, a wonderful way to learn about the culinary options available in Dearborn. What follow are a few places we visited—several as part of that tour—along with some suggestions about the wonderful foods you might try.

Baking fresh bread on site, and serving up steaming platters of grilled meat and vegetables, Al-Ameer is a neighborhood mainstay. It is, in fact, a recipient of a 2016 James Beard “American Classic” award, though that honor clearly hasn’t gone to their head. The night we visited, the servers were friendly and efficient. The pricing was downright budget-friendly.  We liked the koosa (zucchini squash stuffed with meat), shawarma and ghallaba (a Lebanese stew of meat in lightly spicy sauce).

Croissant Zaatar

Croissant Zaatar

Shatila is a huge Arab-American pastry palace on a street lined with Middle Eastern restaurants and bakeries. There’s a relatively small section serving their renowned ice creams, including pistachio and rose water (our favorite), and a vast display of delicate French pastry side-by-side with sweets showing more Arabic character. The French occupied Lebanon for some years, and their influence was noticed at a number of Dearborn pastry shops. For example, we enjoyed a croissant, the traditional French breakfast pastry, filled with zaatar, a traditionally Middle Eastern spice blend.

The grocery store Dearborn Fresh Supermarket is a wonderful place to buy Middle Eastern basics at reasonable prices. We selected some sour plums, traditionally eaten with salt to bring out the sourness, as well as several Middle Eastern breads and pickled cheeses. We also took home some dates from Saudi Arabia that were fantastic. Unlike many varieties available in the U.S., these Saudi dates were not soaked in sugar water; they had a naturally caramel-like, deliciously chewy texture. We bought a 4.4 pound case!

Fawzy Alghazali, photo David Hammond

Mocha Café owner, Fawzy Alghazali

Mocha Café is owned by Fawzy Alghazali, who came to the United States from Yemen in 2002. Alghazali specializes in Yemeni sweets, some found nowhere else in the area, including harisah, a savory block of chopped nuts and spices, and araysi, a mango smoothie with chopped strawberry, banana and other fruit, very popular in Yemen’s port of Mocha. Alghazali told us he came to the U.S. with his father, though much of his family remained in the Middle East. “I worked at a gas station,” he said, “and on an ice cream truck, then at Macy’s. I got in partnership with friends and bought a donut shop in Hamtramck.”  Today his café operates in two locations, and Alghazali considers himself living confirmation of the American dream.

The Arab-Americans of Dearborn are trying—as did my grandparents and other immigrants who arrived in this country decades or even centuries before—to make a safe home for themselves and for their families in the U.S. For those, like me, who live to eat, the restaurants and sweet shops in Dearborn offer what may well be the broadest, deepest and most concentrated selection of Arabic cuisine in the country. You don’t always have to travel to another country to explore other cultures and enjoy their cuisines.

AAEB Member Considers Externships a Vital Part of the K-Plan

Vital, perhaps a tad overlooked, and with a “porch time” aspect unique to K, Kalamazoo College’s Discovery Externship Program has connected students and alums since 2002. The externship provides students with valuable observation and participation in a field of their choosing, and, unlike a traditional internship (or any undergraduate program in the country) it  also provides students homestays with K alumni. Opportunities range in character and geography, from helping at a community kitchen and farmer’s market in Chelsea, Mich., to working with children on the autism spectrum at Daily Behavioral Health in Cleveland, Ohio, to getting up close and personal with octopi in the crystal waters of the Caribbean for the Northeastern University Marine Science Center.

Andrew Terranella ’99, M.D.

One of the program’s early alumni adopters, Andrew Terranella ’99, M.D., saw immediately how K students might benefit from time spent at his work. A physician with the Public Health Service, Terranella works with Indian Health Services to provide care to reservations in the southwest United States. In 2008, when he arrived at his first post-residency job as a pediatrician on the Navajo Reservation in Kayenta, Arizona, he called his alma mater.

“We often had medical students come to the reservation,” said Terranella, who serves on the College’s Alumni Association Executive Board, “and I thought it would be fun to have a K student come out, so I called Pam Sotherland [program and data manager at the Center for Career and Professional Development]. She said, ‘Well, we have a new thing called an externship.’”

Terranella and Sotherland composed a description of his medical, rural externship, and soon after two young women, Anna Hassan ’10 and Lauren Torres ’10, signed up and made their way from a verdant Michigan summer to the red dirt and open skies of the Southwest.

Terranella wanted to maximize the benefit of externship for the students by providing some hands-on, brains-on work in addition to job shadowing. “We were launching a program in the clinic called, ‘Adventures in Medicine,’ which was a summer science project for local children and teens,” Andrew explains. “I had a general idea for the program, but I wanted the K externs, along with two medical students, to design the curriculum and administer it.” First things first, though. “We wanted to have one week of orienting to the place and to get to really know each other, so we went on a river trip on the Green River in Utah, which was a blast.” After that, the externs had time to plan and then implement the three-week science program. It is the time students spend with alumni during homestays that differentiates the discovery externship program from any other.

In addition to having the chance to see what a physician does, Anna and Lauren worked with students from area schools, in the process learning how to run a biomedical summer class and how the tribal community functioned.  That interaction is important to Terranella. “I think it’s important for people to see that reservations exist,” he explained, “because there is an entire group of Americans that people don’t pay a whole lot of attention to. And yet the reservation is beautiful country, the people are fantastic, and the medicine is really interesting, a type that you won’t see in an academic setting.”

Through hosting externs, Terranella also hopes to inform others of the importance of public health and Indian Health Services, specifically. “Having students come here is a great way to share the cultural experience of working with IHS. Cultural competence is not something you may always learn about in medical school or as an undergrad,” he explains. In fact, in part because of that arid and exhilarating summer at Kayenta, Hassan went on to get her Master of Public Health degree and now works with underserved communities in New Orleans.

Terranella keeps in touch with many of his externs, and credits the homestay aspect of the program for fostering a close-knit bond. “Undoubtedly an important part of the experience is just having one-on-one time—what we call ‘porch time’, which is sitting together after a work day and chatting about anything. Porch time makes externships something more valuable than just getting to see my work. It’s about experiencing a life, as well. What is work-life balance like? What is like to be an IHS doctor living in Tucson? And I get to ask questions of the students and find out about their passions.”

Because of the rewards of hosting, Terranella has offered an externship to K students every year that he can. In addition to those of Hassan and Torres, he has provided externships for the following K students:  Emily Parsons ’11, Jenny Kwon ’16, Elizabeth Lenning ’16, Miranda Doepker ’16, and Karina Duarte ’18. And he intends to create an externship at his new job—deputy director of a tribal hospital on the Tohono O’odham reservation in southern Arizona—as soon as he’s settled.

“It’s a really great experience. I’ve loved having the students.”

To get involved in the externship experience, visit the Host an Extern page at Kalamazoo College’s website. Here, you can see past externships, find tips on creating a successful externship and see what past hosts say about their experience.

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.

Gary Rector studies in his K dorm room in 1961

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.


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.

The Kentucky family members of Gary Rector holding instruments

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.


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.

Gary and his teacher Kim perform farmer’s music with the latter’s band

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.

Matriarchy, Mezcal, and Mole

My wife Carolyn Berg ’72 did her career service quarter in Guatemala, teaching English. Her immersion in a Spanish-speaking culture helped her develop a facility with Spanish that she never lost. As a result, we like to travel to Mexico, especially to smaller, interior towns where English is less commonly spoken. In 1979, we drove the back roads in the Yucatan Peninsula. In 2012, we went to Oaxaca, Mexico, known not only for its fascinating and well-preserved archaeological zones but also for its characteristic regional food, which we found in little towns as well as the capital city of Oaxaca de Juarez.

Tehuantepec—Where Women Rule

Fierce woman statue outside Tehuantepec

Pulling into Tehuantepec, we were greeted by a large metal statue of a fierce local woman in traditional attire, a style of dress adopted by Frida Kahlo to show sympathy with this town’s legendarily powerful women.

Though Mexico is sometimes perceived as a militantly macho country, Tehuantepec carries forth vestiges of an ancient matriarchy. Guide books warn that even today, heteronormative male shoppers in the market will likely have their manhood called into question and be otherwise verbally abused. As it turned out, I was actually a little disappointed when all the women at the market seemed quite nice.

At the market, we bought a package of totopos, fried cornmeal disks flavored with chocolate that paired excellently with Oaxacan coffee. We also grabbed some road snacks of pickled plums and mangos, spiced up with chile arbol.

As we left the market, I spotted a young woman selling iguana tamales. I had to eat one. The lizard tasted like fishy chicken; the hot sauce helped a lot. Some foods do not invite second tastes.

After the heavy rains that accompanied Hurricane Carlotta, which passed through the area the day we arrived, small flying insects called “chicatanas” emerged from the ground. As has been done for centuries, children catch the insects, play with them and, ultimately, eat them. A young girl, Carmet, showed us a chicatana she’d caught. She said it was too small to eat, so she gently played with it, as though it were a beloved pet. Then she put it back in the ground, perhaps to grow a little before harvesting.

In Oaxaca de Juarez, we didn’t see chicatanas, which may be more of a rural treat, but we did see a lot of chapulines, the grasshopper-like creatures so popular in this region. We bought some from a street vendor; the insects had been fried with chiles and garlic; they were very crispy, which is good because texture is a big part of the chapulines’ allure.

Mezcal—Tequila’s Wild Brother

Driving through Oaxaca, we stopped at some stunning archeological zones like Mitla and Monte Alban, and a few little towns, like Matatlan, whose sole product seems to be mezcal.

Unlike tequila, mezcal is made from green not blue agave. During production, the fibrous core of the mezcal plant is charred, resulting in a smokier taste.

To make mezcal, the green agave plant is stripped of its spiny leaves when it’s 10 years old. The resulting “pineapple”-looking plug is then cooked, usually in an earthen pit. After they’re charred, the “pineapples” are smashed into threads, many times by a horse-powered mill. These threads are added to water and allowed to ferment; when the fermented mixture is distilled, voilà: mezcal.

Mezcal in Oaxaca seems largely the province of small, artisan producers, families who put their own names on the signs outside their buildings or stalls.  From one of those small producers we bought a tobilo, a mezcal made from wild agave. Now my experience is that wild plants and animals are frequently tastier than domestic varieties. The tobilo had an almost anise flavor, sweet, with a lot of dimension, and none of the petroleum notes I’d noticed with some less expensive mezcals I’ve tried in the States.

Beyond the Burrito, There’s Mole

Mole in Oaxaca City

The burrito – meat and vegetables wrapped in a flour tortilla – seems to have been served in the United States for the first time during the 1930s at Los Angeles’ El Chollo Mexican Café.

In Sonora, they traditionally serve machaca de burro, a dried jerky-type donkey meat, rehydrated and rolled into large flour tortillas. So it’s possible the first burritos (“little burros”) were actually made of burros.

Whatever the origin of the burrito, it is now, like the taco, too often the popular conception of Mexico food—especially outside of Mexico. If any region of Mexico more completely confounds simplistic stereotypes of Mexican cuisine, it’s Oaxaca, which has a highly nuanced local cuisine.

Of all the dishes served in Oaxaca, there are perhaps none more revered than the highly complex, labor-intensive mole, a sauce made with a multitude of ingredients. Mole can be green, yellow, red, and there are many versions, but the most popular mole is probably the dark brown or black variety, made with chocolate and chiles and usually served over chicken.

“Think of spices like a choir of voices…”

We’ve enjoyed moles in Mexico, and we’ve made the sauce at home and, wow, it is, indeed, labor-intensive. There are dozens of ingredients in the average mole. Some years ago, I spoke with Rick Bayless, whose restaurants Frontera Grill, Topolobampo and XOCO have set the standard for beautifully executed Mexican cuisine in Chicagoland. I asked him if he thought all those many, many ingredients in mole were really necessary; I wondered aloud if one could really discern specific spices among the many. “Maybe not,” said Bayless, “but think of the spices like a choir of voices: all the different voices come together harmoniously, and none of them call attention to themselves. They all work together.”

There are many, many types of mole, and there’s opportunity for infinite variation based on how you use the numerous spices involved in a single batch. Oaxaca is known as the “Land of Seven Moles,” but that number seems misleading: there are many more moles than just seven in Oaxaca, and many more things to eat in Mexico than just tacos and burritos.

Grace Work

A few blocks down the hill from the Kalamazoo College campus, in an upstairs office, the headquarters of International Child Care (ICC) is located. ICC is a Christian health development organization that has been providing health services for children and families in Haiti and the Dominican Republic for half a century. Since 2012, it has sponsored a six-week summer internship for K students, and now it employs K alumna Suzanne Curtiss ’14 as its communications director. All describe the time they spent at ICC as life-changing.

Amy Jimenez helps a baby in her public health work in Haiti

Amy Jimenez ’14 helps weigh a baby during public health work in Haitian communities.

Three of the interns, Roxann Lawrence ’14, Amy Jimenez ’14, and Zoe Beaudry ’14, spent their six weeks in Haiti; Avery Allman ’16 and Curtiss worked in the Kalamazoo office. From ICC, each says, they learned a new appreciation of the difficulties inherent in providing aid to severely challenged nations, as well as a new respect for the spirit, resilience, and creativity of the people who live in those countries. They also saw the principles of social justice and sustainability at work.

Lawrence and Jimenez interned together during the summer of 2012. Their experiences were based at Grace Children’s Hospital in Port-au-Prince. Grace, ICC’s flagship program, has been providing inpatient and outpatient care for Haitian children and families since 1967. Although its main inpatient building was destroyed in the earthquake of 2010, Grace continues to serve about 300 inpatients a year and more than 400 outpatients per day.

From the hospital Lawrence and Jimenez moved out into the communities, many of them still just tent cities since the quake, helping health teams that weighed babies, visited patients, and educated families about birth control, nutrition, and sanitation. The two also gave tours to visiting groups from North America and prepared a pre-orientation package for new visitors.

Roxann Lawrence poses with a friend

Roxann Lawrence ’14 (right) and friend.

Lawrence is a native of Westmoreland, Jamaica, and she majored in anthropology/sociology and theatre arts. When she returned to Michigan from Haiti, she said, “Without a doubt, this has been the best summer of my life.”

Jimenez, an anthropology/sociology major from Compton, California, concurs. During her internship, she helped develop a program for children with disabilities. Because the cultures of Haiti and the Dominican Republic equate disability with shame, most of these children are hidden away by their families. The first challenge of ICC’s health care teams, therefore, is to find them; then they work with parents, teaching them to help their children maximize their functioning. Jimenez went to the tiny home of a single mother of a child who couldn’t use his hands. “He was such a happy child. He ate and wrote using his feet.” To Jimenez, the boy represented the spirit of the Haitian people. “They have experienced so many bad things, but they are a resilient people.” She also learned how important it is to do research when you’re trying to help, and “not to just impose your own style on other cultures.”

Zoe Beaudry spent her ICC internship in Haiti in 2013. The East Lansing (Mich.) native earned her K degree in studio art with a minor in sociology/anthropology, Beaudry is from East Lansing, Michigan. She job shadowed a sociologist at Grace, learning about his research into the mental health of people in Port-au-Prince. She also conducted art workshops for children at the hospital, compiling their drawings into a book titled “Waiting for Grace.”

Beaudry said, “Living in Port-au-Prince felt like a whirlwind of confusion and culture clash.” Like many people visiting Haiti for the first time, she found, “it was a new experience feeling so different from the rest of the people around me. It forced me to confront feelings of internalized racism and prejudice – which was a very valuable experience and an eye-opener.” She found that meeting Christian missionaries at the guest house where she stayed in Port-au-Prince, “led me to a strong interest in Christianity and religion in general.”

Both Allman and Curtiss did their ICC internships in Kalamazoo. A double major (business and Spanish language and literature), Allman used her internship to focus on marketing and development; she helped with grant writing, created marketing plans, wrote a history of ICC, and publicized its annual cycling fundraising event. She says that the experience had “an incredibly positive effect on me.”

Allman also believes that staying in Kalamazoo for those six summer weeks was a highlight. A native of Northville, Michigan, she took advantage of the opportunity to learn more about the Kalamazoo community and its nonprofit services.

“[It is important to] not just impose your own style on other cultures.”

A native of Saginaw, Michigan, Curtiss majored in English at K and became interested in public relations during her sophomore year. As a student, she worked in K’s Office of College Communication. Her own internship was structured to give her experiences in writing and event promotion. These experiences taught her how cultural differences can make it difficult to work internationally, she said, but they also greatly broadened her horizons. She learned firsthand how to generate publicity on a budget, as well as the ins-and-outs of working with local media.

She started her new job with ICC just one week after graduating from K, and she is now responsible for educating and engaging the public about the organization. Her job description includes not only public and media relations, but also planning encounter trips for North American groups who want to see ICC projects in the Caribbean.

Curtiss took her first trip to Haiti and the Dominican Republic a month after she started her new job. “You can’t begin to comprehend the level of need until you see it,” she said. “The people are so kind and joyful and have a strong sense of national pride.” She also was struck by the passion of the ICC staff in both countries (all in-country positions are staffed by nationals): “They love the work they do.”

Suzanne Curtiss and Keith Mumma in ICC’s Kalamazoo office

Suzanne Curtiss ’14 and Keith Mumma in ICC’s Kalamazoo office.

Keith Mumma has been associated with ICC since 1989. After spending several years volunteering, he became a board member and, in 2005, he was named the U.S. national director. Mumma still does some professional photography (his previous career), with Kalamazoo College as one of his clients. It was this connection that led Mumma to develop the ICC internship position in 2012. It’s been a good match, he said. “Both organizations have the same philosophy on life.”

ICC offers interns a wide variety of experiences, ranging from social justice to economics, pre-med, anthropology, marketing , as well as French (the official language of Haiti) and Spanish (spoken in the Dominican Republic). Mumma says that K interns have been an important part of ICC staffing. “They’ve all been self-starters,” he says, “and we need people who are independent workers.” Several of the students had already studied abroad by the time they came to ICC, and the international experience they brought with them was invaluable.

Roxann Lawrence summarized her ICC internship. It helped her, she said, “to see social justice working through an international perspective, reinforcing the importance of community participatory service to community development and change.” Her experiences, she concluded, “will continue to have a positive impact on me as I passionately pursue a life dedicated to serving and working with marginalized groups.”

Suzanne Curtiss added, “The spirit of ICC flows into the integrity of K.”

Peripatetic First-Year

Connor Vogt stands near a Liverpool soccer flag

A touch of Europe hangs in Conner’s dorm room.

Like most K first-year students, Connor Vogt ’18 is looking forward to going on foreign study. Unlike most of his classmates, however, Connor has already studied abroad, twice in fact. And his travels during those two occasions have been extensive—the list of countries he has visited is up to 21.

Those opportunities came as a result of Connor’s mother, Amy, and her job as a senior manager for the automaker BMW. In 2007 the company asked her to consider relocation to Munich. She agreed, so her family (Connor, his father, Richard, and his younger brother, Brandon) left their home in Greenville, South Carolina, and moved to Europe. They stayed for three years, which for Connor were grades 6, 7, and 8.

“I loved it over there,” Connor recalls. “I went to an international school.  There were kids from about 50 countries, and we got along great. In Germany I learned to snowboard, which I’d never done before.”

On weekends Connor travelled outside of Germany. “My family took trains and went to almost all of the West European countries.”

His favorite? “Maybe Ireland,” he says after a moment’s thought. “It’s so … homey.

“But I really liked living in Germany. For one thing, I’m a huge soccer fan and the game is so big over there! It’s just cool how popular it is.” Emblematic of his passion for the game is one of his Hoben Hall dorm room wall hangings: a large Liverpool Football Club white and red flag.

Playing soccer inspired Connor’s fluency in German. “My school classes were taught in English, but I played soccer on a club with a German coach and players. It was when they started yelling at me to do things in German that I realized I had to learn the language. I got to be fairly proficient.”

He also came to appreciate certain government benefits. “Germany has socialized medicine, so anyone can get medical treatment. My brother had to go to the hospital once, and it didn’t cost anything. And going to college is free. Of course, their taxes are really high.”

After Connor’s 8th grade year BMW asked his mother if she’d accept a position 4,500 miles to the east, in Beijing, China. She agreed, and the family moved directly there. That stay lasted two years, Connor’s 9th and 10th grade, again in an international school that was home to students from some 50 nations.

China presented a new set of challenges, not the least of which was the language. “Chinese is a lot harder for me to learn than German. Their writing is entirely different. Instead of letters representing sounds, they have characters that represent words. When I saw their signs I couldn’t even guess what they meant. In speaking, subtle little differences in pronunciation dramatically change the meaning of the word.

“For example, the word ‘ma’ said one way means ‘mother,’ but if you say it slightly differently it means ‘horse.’”

As they did in Europe, his family took trips to nearby countries, albeit fewer in number than was the case during their stay in Germany. “We went to Japan and Thailand, but China is so big that we could travel a long ways and still be in China.”

His travels also took him to the Great Wall. “That was really cool. It’s so long. You can hike on it for days. But parts of it are really in disrepair, with vegetation growing over it.”

Conner came to enjoy Chinese food. “The food I had there is not like Chinese food in America. When I described to my Chinese friends what we eat in America they said, ‘Oh, that’s what our grandparents used to eat!’ One of my favorite items was ‘baozi,’ which is like a dumpling. They fill them with things like pork and sweet potatoes.”

He also came to enjoy the Chinese people. “They are very . . .” he said, struggling to find the right word. “Upfront.  Uninhibited. Once we were at a restaurant and the waiter, out of the blue, asked us how much we paid for rent. He didn’t see that as a personal question; he just wanted to know. Another time a girl approached me and asked if she could run her fingers through my hair to see what it felt like. And when we got away from the cities, where people didn’t see a lot of westerners, they’d come up to me and ask if they could have their photograph taken with me.

“I loved China. I’d live there if it wasn’t for the air pollution.”

Oh, yes, the pollution. “It was amazing,” Connor said, shaking his head. “I went for a walk once and got lost because I couldn’t see more than 200 yards in front of me. That was disconcerting. Another time I had to clean off something in our backyard. It had about an inch of grime and grit on it!

“There are numbers to measure pollution. In Kalamazoo the number is about 20. A bad day in Los Angeles might be 120. Beijing regularly hit 300, and on bad days it was 500.  Sometimes they wouldn’t let our school cross-country team go out running.”

Like most of the Chinese, Connor looked forward to important foreign dignitaries coming to visit because it was on those occasions that the Chinese government took the pollution problem seriously. “They’d shut down the factories and shoot some kind of rockets into the air to make it rain. Then the air would be so clean and the sky so blue. That was great!”

After two years in China, and five overseas, the family decided to return to South Carolina. Having come to appreciate the life of an “ex-pat,” Connor had mixed emotions about the move. “I’d made friends from other countries, like Japan, France, and the Netherlands, so I actually was not excited about going home. I didn’t want my living abroad to end.”

But end it did. Connor finished his last two high school years in a small Catholic High School where he became a star cross-country runner (with a best 5K time of 17:18).

When Connor began his college search he initially focused only on larger universities. All the high schools he’d attended were small, so he thought he’d go to a college that was large, like Texas or Michigan or Clemson. Had he gone to one of those schools he had no intention of running cross-country.

But things changed after Conner’s father, Richard, offered some advice that had a touch of irony to it.

“… when ‘Where am I?’ becomes ‘Who am I?’”

“When my father was in high school, in the late ’70s in Flint, he was recruited by K to run cross-country. He basically blew off the offer because he wanted to go to a bigger school, which turned out to be Michigan State. I don’t know if he regretted that decision, but he was the one who suggested I consider K. I never would have applied to K if he hadn’t encouraged me to do it. After I did, K really started to recruit me. They called me on the phone several times and had me come in for a visit. Once I knew I was coming to K I decided I’d also run cross-country.

“My first few weeks on campus, last fall, were challenging, but it’s been great since then. Running cross-country has been amazing. I’m the only freshman male, but the older guys have been very welcoming. I tore my sartorial muscle in my quad, which made me miss a few meets, but my last meet was almost my best time of the season.”

Conner’s father also has been pleased with how things have turned out.

Conner Vogt running during a cross country meet

Hornet harrier Conner Vogt.

“When I first suggested to Connor that he apply to a small school, such as K, he agreed to do it, but he did it sort of kicking and screaming. But I really thought K would be a good fit for him, partly because of K’s study abroad program, and partly because I knew he wouldn’t end up in classes with hundreds of other kids.”

After a moment’s pause, he added, “To this day I sometimes think it might have been interesting for me to have gone to K and run cross-country.”

K’s first-year cross-country coach, Kris Koster, has been impressed with what he’s seen of Connor. “Even when he was injured he was upbeat. He has a lot of potential.”

As to where he might go for his study abroad, Connor is considering London—which he has visited (“I loved it there. There’s so much to do!”)—and Bonn, Germany—which would be, surprisingly, uncharted territory for him. “We just never got to Bonn when we lived in Munich.”

Wherever he chooses to go, with five years of overseas study already under his belt, there is little reason to think he won’t adjust quickly to a sixth. And, even more importantly, learn deeply from the experience that author Jim Harrison describes as the “traveler’s displacement,” when “Where am I?” becomes “Who am I?”

Frontier Brothers

Perhaps it was something about Stetson Chapel.

When Robert Sewell, Sr. and Rowene Pionke were married there (October 30, 1948) they hoped the children they planned to have would fulfill their own dreams of graduating from Kalamazoo College.

Dreams come true. Robert Jr. and his younger brother Richard graduated from K. They also discovered careers in Alaska, where their parents eventually moved—a second dream-come-true for their fisherman father.

Robert Sr. retired in the 1980s, left Kalamazoo to visit Rich in Anchorage (and fish for anything with fins) and never looked back. The boys’ mother also embraced the northern lifestyle and found work there. The two now are buried at Ft. Richardson, after a number of happy years in Alaska near their sons.

Richard Sewell ’78  

Rich Sewell in 1982, with Anchorage in the background

Rich Sewell in 1982, with Anchorage in the background.

“I had wanted a small liberal arts college in the Midwest, without a lot of religious affiliation, in a small urban area,” Rich says.  “I’d taken tennis lessons and played on the Stowe Stadium courts from the time I was six years old, and Robert, who is two years older than I, was enrolled at K.”

Rich credits K for preparing him to explore options, seize opportunities, and adapt to circumstances that might otherwise have defeated him.

He appreciated the variety of opportunities at K. “I took hockey ice skating at WMU through a contract they had with K,” he says.

“I worked with hand ringing and we got involved in fund raising to buy the tower bells for Stetson Chapel,” he adds, recalling his parents’ ties to the place they were married.

And Rich found the professors and classes special.

Professor [Lawrence] Barrett taught freshman English and helped me learn to write, and he encouraged me to say what I was thinking,” Rich says. “It was near the end of Dr. Barrett’s career but he was still enthused about helping freshmen.”

During summers Rich worked at the Eckrich meat packing company.

“I was paid well,” he recalls. “With that and my scholarships and grants, I was able to pay my own way. I realize students today can hardly do that.”

After graduation Rich was hired at the South Central Michigan Regional Planning Commission in Kalamazoo. In July 1981, when his job was eliminated because of funding cuts, Rich left for Alaska. He figured he’d stay a few years and then return to Michigan or explore elsewhere. Instead, the economics major sunk his roots in Alaska.

He was hired as regional economist for the department of planning in Anchorage, where in late 1984 he predicted an economic crash.

“I’d been a foreign exchange student from Plainwell High School to Santiago, Chile, in 1973, and I’d seen things go bad there,” Rich says.

“City officials wanted me to revise my forecast. When I refused, I was out of a job.

“In 1987 there was a major economic downturn, forerunner of the national housing crash when 50 percent of Alaskan housing value was lost,” Rich recalls. His predictions had come true, though they cost him his job, but his K experiences had prepared him for change.

After losing the Anchorage position Rich reoriented himself by driving back roads through Germany, Greece, Yugoslavia, Italy, France, and other European countries.

“His K experiences had prepared him for change.”

“At K I had learned to be adaptable to trying different things and figuring things out,” he said. “Travel gave me time to think and reminded me I was supposed to be always learning new things,” he said. “I visited museums, reread Homer’s Odyssey and followed the route the hero took. And I learned there was an opportunity for seafood exports in Europe.”

Rich returned to Alaska, took a French course at the University of Alaska, and started a seafood company that processed and exported salmon to Europe, Asia, and Hawaii.

When the Valdez oil spill occurred, salmon took a hit. So Rich, who had done research about blue crabs during one of his off-campus experiences at K, reviewed what he had learned and obtained a grant through the Alaska Technology System to learn about the live king crab market. He switched to shipping king crab and returned to school for marketing and management classes. That led to the offer of a fellowship in the business school, and he enrolled in a master’s program.

“That proved to be a creative way to move forward with my business and do something productive,” Rich said.

When Alaska law declared that only six companies could buy crab in the Bering Sea, Rich found himself again out of business. He went to work for the Alaska Department of Transportation (2004) where he continues to be employed.

His first assignment was a posting at the isolated borough of Bethel.

“I was a foreigner there,” Rich said. “Some people still speak only Yupik. I needed a translator, so I took a class at the University and learned the Eskimo language.”

Rich has worked for government agencies, owned and operated his own seafood companies, and ridden the ups-and-downs of a volatile economy, oil spills, and unpredictable government regulations. The survival skills he needed, he says, he learned at K.

About 10 years ago Rich met Ellen Provost, a physician who is now director of epidemiology for the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. The couple recently celebrated their fifth wedding anniversary.

“Now I have a stepdaughter, Rachel, and a baby granddaughter, Addison,” Rich says.

“Many people come and go to and from Alaska. To avoid that phenomenon, my solution was to encourage my family to move here.”

Robert Sewell ’75 

Robert Sewell hitchhiking in 1972 near Empire, Michigan

K student Robert Sewell hitchhiking in 1972 near Empire, Michigan. The photo was taken by friend and fellow K student Shana (Goldiamond) Aucsmith ’74.

Rich’s older brother Robert was a student at K when Rich enrolled.

After his first year at K he volunteered at the National Institutes of Health (Bethesda, Maryland) as a volunteer for phase I safety studies of new medicines.

When he returned to the College, he did an independent study internship at the Kalamazoo Psychiatric Hospital, working as a research technician in a study of aggressive behavior. As a result of that experience he became increasingly intrigued by behavior analysis.

Robert eventually transferred to Western Michigan University, where he earned his bachelor’s degree (major in psychology and a minor in chemistry). He continued his education at WMU with a master’s degree (1982) and doctorate (1985), each with an emphasis on behavior analysis.

He visited Rich in Alaska in 1983; and two years later accepted a position as a professor of psychology at the University of Alaska in Anchorage. Like his brother he planned to stay only a few years, but also like his brother he has remained in the “last frontier” for more than 30 years.

Today Robert manages Alaska’s SHARP program, an effort he conceived and initiated in 2007. The State agency, a division of Alaska’s Health and Social Services, provides direct financial incentives for health professionals.

“We need to encourage people to come to Alaska and stay,” Robert said.

Robert has stayed. “Michigan was my home,” he said, “but I love the magnificent scenery, the people, and the native culture here.” He and his wife Olga and his 17-year old son, Luke, live on Douglas Island near Juneau. His stepdaughter, Lauren, is a registered nurse who works in oncology in Portland, Oregon.

The brothers remember the occasion when they were lab partners during a biology class at K. In a sense, says Rich, he and Robert continue to collaborate. Both now are on the Board of Directors for the Alaska State Employees Association. And their adopted home is now, simply, home. Their forbears are buried here.