Danny’s film “The Stories They Tell” was accepted to the inaugural Royal Starr Film Festival at the Emagine Theaters in Royal Oak Michigan. It screened there last October. In this feature-length documentary, Kalamazoo College students enrolled in Professor of Psychology Siu-Lan Tan’s “Developmental Psychology” course collaborate with first and second graders to write children’s stories together. As they create these whimsical, amusing and surprising stories, the connections they make with each other has a lasting impact not only in literacy and learning, but in understanding their past and future. More recently, the documentary was an official selection of the Made in Michigan Film Festival and screened in Frankenmuth, Michigan, on Sunday, February 5.
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.
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.”
Kalamazoo College Professor of Psychology Siu-Lan Tan exits Olds-Upton Hall, walks across the campus quad awash in the deep green of mid-summer, sits under a towering maple tree, and removes her laptop from a bag. Pasted to the keyboard are yellow, pink, and baby blue Post-It notes capturing reminders, ideas, and appointments.
“I’m a Post-It person,” she says.
Tan, a professor of psychology at K, wouldn’t disagree if you interpreted the paper stuck to the computer as a slight aversion to technology—or at least social media. She is not on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, or any other similar platform. Until a year ago, she didn’t even know what a blog was.
She does now, however, and a lot of people are noticing.
In September of last year, Tan received a phone call from the senior producer of the World Science Festival, sort of like a TED talk organization but devoted to the hard sciences. The group was putting together an event focusing on neuroscience and film music and had discovered a film-music study that Tan had published, and which an esteemed panel of artists – including filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen and actor Alec Baldwin – wanted to replicate on stage and broadcast over the Internet.
It was a big honor, Tan says, but she had to decline due to copyright issues she thought might creep-up. The producer called back. Baldwin was disappointed, she said, as was another panelist, Tufts University neuroscientist Aniruddh Patel, Ph.D. Instead, Dr. Patel would describe Tan’s research during the public presentation and organizers wondered if Tan might write a blog post about her study.
Tan agreed, and called her sister – herself an author – and asked what exactly a blog post was, and how to write one.
“That was my first trial,” Tan says. “But it paved the way for what would come next.”
Editors at Psychology Today, the popular general interest magazine published every two months, had wanted Tan to contribute content to their website for years. The journal asked to publish her post for the festival. Then Oxford University Press asked to do the same on their blog site.
Both were so impressed with Tan’s writing that they asked her to be a regular contributor to their sites. And that’s where Tan’s burgeoning notoriety began.
By October, Tan had her own personal blog on the Psychology Today site, named “What Shapes Film?” The posts present an interesting analysis of the often overlooked psychological aspects of films and how human developmental themes resonate within them.
Other posts offer content that can be both quirky and thought-provoking. Examples include “Why You Can’t Take a Pigeon to the Movies” (hint: Where you see scenes that are fluid, a pigeon would observe each frame due to its highly developed sense for visual stimuli) and “Gravity: Developmental Themes in Space,” which explores themes of human growth, development and rebirth.
Some of her work takes a closer look at viral videos, ones that become immensely popular due to their inherent humor or heart-tugging message. But where you laugh heartily or shed a tear, Tan sees more.
An example of that deeper perception was her post, “Why Does This Baby Cry When Her Mother Sings,” which garnered her significant recognition on the Psychology Today site. That post explored the developmental phenomena of “emotional contagion,” where humans absorb and reflect the intense emotions around them—in this case, a mother singing sweetly and passionately to her 10-month old daughter in a viral video viewed more than 30 million times. Interestingly, within 24 hours of publishing the post, Tan was surprised to hear from the baby’s mother herself, Amanda Leroux, who thanked her for the article and for sensing the special emotional bond with her daughter, Mary Lynne. Tan’s post was No. 22 on Psychology Today’s “Top 25 Posts of 2013,” competing against 13,000 posts that year. The same post on Oxford University Press’ blog was the fourth most popular post there last year.
“It can be an uphill battle to blog about things that are educational, or at least deal with more of the fundamental and research-oriented aspects of psychology,” Tan says. “But when you can present a fascinating research study or two in a fun and interesting way, people are more likely to read it and take away something that’s useful. People are more likely to learn.
“Most people are interested in movies. I wanted to do something that wasn’t esoteric. I wanted the blog to be inclusive and positive. I wanted people to read it and say, ‘Wow, that’s really interesting. I don’t think I will experience that the same way again.’”
In addition to her penchant for blogging, Tan is a published co-author of two books, The Psychology of Music: From Sound to Significance and The Psychology of Music in Multimedia. Two more books are in the works, she says, dealing with music and child development.
Psychology isn’t just about counseling, and Tan is quick to point that out. The discipline also deals with revealing the diverse facets of human nature, what we have in common and how the mind and behavior works.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in music at Pacific Union College, Tan began studying the pedagogy of piano, with the goal of teaching music as a career. When she took a required developmental psychology class, everything changed.
“I fell in love,” she says. “I thought, ‘This is the greatest thing. Why didn’t I get into this before?’ I kind of took the long route.”
So Tan dropped out of her master’s degree program and enrolled in California State University Sacramento where she took enough psychology classes to get into a graduate psychology program. She earned a Ph.D. degree several years later from Georgetown University, with a focus on developmental psychology and the psychology of music.
She came to K in 1998, where she began teaching courses in child psychology and human development.
“I love, love teaching,” she says. “The blogs are an extension to my teaching but on a larger scope with a more diverse audience. It’s also an opportunity for me to continue to be curious about many things and keep learning. I have to read extensively and fact-check every post.”
In fact, many of her blog post ideas have come from the K community, she says. She consistently bounces ideas off of her students and colleagues, and has formulated posts based off themes discussed in her courses. K students often ask her to blog about something. Her husband, himself a filmmaker and blogger, also serves as an idea generator and sounding board for ideas, she says.
For instance, a blog post titled “3 Reasons Why We’re Drawn to Faces in Film” includes research published in 2007 and co-conducted with K alumnus Matt Bezdek ’07, who now holds a Ph.D. degree in psychology and is still doing research on psychology and film, Tan says.
Another post, “Video Games: Do You Play Better With the Sound On or Off?” included research co-conducted with K alumnus John Baxa ’09.
“K students and classes are the primary inspiration for the blogs,” she says. “I’d say 80 percent of the posts relate in some way to the College. They are really our blogs. There is no disconnection. They belong, in many ways, to K.”
Watch The Stories They Tell, a professionally produced documentary about Siu-Lan’s developmental psychology class’ Co-Authorship Project, from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m., in Dewing Hall Room 103 during Homecoming Weekend, Saturday, October 18.
Sally (Warner) Read ’08 wastes no time. Two months after graduation from Kalamazoo College she began taking doctoral classes in education at Michigan State University. And in seven short years she she’s landed her dream job as head of the Kazoo School, a private, independent, progressive school less than two miles from K.
“It’s all been a whirlwind, and I have a lot of learning to do as I figure things out,” said Sally.
Like many first-year K students, Sally was open to many post-graduate possibilities. She did know that she loved children and wanted to change the world. During a pre-admission visit to K, she sat in on her sister’s (Becky Warner ’04) developmental psychology class and knew that she wanted to major in that field.
During her first quarter she became a self-described “Dr. [Siu-Lan] Tan [Professor of Psychology] groupie” and signed up to be a teaching assistant for her, which she did throughout her four years at K. Sally particularly enjoyed the co-authorship program at the Woodward School where K students help the children write and illustrate fictional stories.
“I loved Dr. Tan’s class, even though I was a little scared of her,” said Sally. “She really challenged me to do better and to think more deeply than I ever had before.”
Sally’s Senior Individualized Project occurred at the University of Texas (Dallas) where she conducted research on social aggression for the Friendship Project, a longitudinal research project about aggression among children. Sally analyzed the Project’s data bases to discover how gender differences affected the children’s self-reports of social and physical victimization. Going to Dallas was also an opportunity to be with her boyfriend and future husband, Courtney Read ’06.
Near the end of her K experience Sally decided that a career in education made sense for her, and she applied for and was accepted into a Ph.D. program in teacher education at Michigan State University. At age 21 she was the youngest, most inexperienced student in the program, a fact that didn’t intimidate her at all. If anything, graduate school solidified her tendency toward fearlessness (well cultivated at K) and her passion for learning. Both have served her well in her new job.
During doctoral studies Sally was influenced by two progressive educators whose ideas have become cornerstones for her research and for her work at the Kazoo School. John Dewey (1859-1952) was a philosopher and psychologist who advocated for an education based on democratic principles that would prepare young people to be productive, responsible members of a democratic society. Alfie Kohn (1957- ) advocates the viewpoint that education is effective when the learner actively makes meaning as opposed to absorbing information. Knowledge, argues Kohn, should be taught “in a context and for a purpose.”
For her dissertation Sally interviewed and observed third grade students at the Kazoo School who were working on an election year project. She also followed kindergartners as they learned mathematics through the symmetry and patterns of nature at the nearby Kleinstuck Nature Preserve.
“I immediately fell in love with Kazoo School,” said Sally. “Progressive schools often get a bad name for being laissez-faire. My research focused on seeing what progressive education looks like in a real, 21st-century school. I wanted to know how teachers find meaning in their work when they are given the autonomy to teach and learn without the use of a standardized test.”
Sally’s first job after receiving her doctorate was at the Eton Academy in Birmingham, Michigan, an alternative school that specializes in working with students who have learning disabilities. She liked the experience and planned to stay at Eton to teach Spanish. Destiny intervened. Sally received a call from the former Kazoo School board chairperson who invited her to become the interim head of school (for the 2014-15 academic year) and to apply for the permanent position.
At first Sally declined.
“What do you do if you’re 27, and you’re offered your dream job?” said Sally. “I didn’t feel ready for it.”
Then she did a lot of soul searching and sought out the advice of her mentors. She concluded that she would regret missing this opportunity if she didn’t apply.
“I lived and breathed Kazoo School during my dissertation, and I liked it,” said Sally. “It was really what I was looking for in a school: small classes; children’s art everywhere; a spirit of collaboration among students, teachers and parents; and, of course, a vision of the school that I believed in.”
Kazoo School has 96 children in grades pre-kindergarten to eighth grade and it employs 18 full- and part-time teachers. Since 1972 the school has focused on challenging and nurturing children to become independent thinkers and lifelong learners in an environment that seeks academic excellence, social responsibility, and respect for others.
One of Sally’s favorite things to do at school is to interact with the students. She leads school assemblies on Friday mornings and talks with students in the halls. She also sees students at work when she visits classrooms to evaluate teachers. While most teachers fret over evaluations, Kazoo School teachers are comfortable with having Sally come to their classes. They know she misses being with the children, and that takes the edge off her official business.
“The children here are so awesome,” she said. “I take as many opportunities as I can to visit their classrooms and interact with them. The pre-kindergarteners are especially excited to see me. They call me ‘Dr. Sally.’”
Sally enjoys meeting with the children for another reason.
“It’s interesting to see how much they have changed and grown from the few short years ago when I was doing research here,” she said. “I can’t wait to see what they’ll look like a few years from now.
Although the new job has been exciting, Sally admits it hasn’t been easy. In her first month, the office assistant left. A short time later she hired a new business manager. One fine fall day she had a flood in the school basement that began on Friday at 4 P.M. Late in her first fall she had to call an early snow day. Sally got through it all—and she conducted her first fund-raising campaign.
The school had not done a big annual fund drive before, but Sally decided to try it. The results? More than $100,000 and an 80 percent parent participation rate, both significant increases from previous years. The key to her success?
“Follow-up, a great team of parent volunteers, and, more follow-up, with a personal touch,” she said. “I learned a lot about the culture of giving from my time at K.”
Although Sally’s academic background isn’t specifically in educational administration, she has turned out to be a natural leader who uses a collaborative approach with her parents, teachers, and the school’s board of directors. This style has worked well for her at a school where only two teachers are younger than she is.
“There are so many decisions to make all the time, which can be tiring,” she said. “I have been strategic in how I’ve chosen to approach it.”
Sally promised teachers she wanted to make everyone successful by drawing on everyone’s expertise rather than telling people what to do. She set up a shared file of expertise on Google Docs. And she readily consults with teachers whose long experience (15 to 20 years) at Kazoo School has given them deep institutional knowledge of the place.
Sally’s journey has combined vision, hard work, mentoring, and the execution of a plan. It all just happened quicker than she anticipated. Last May, the board of Kazoo School named Sally permanent Head of School.
Zak Montgomery ’02, M.A., Ph.D., and Sarah (Rupp) Montgomery ’02, M.Ed., Ph.D., are co-authors of “Reconsidering the American Dream and U.S. Latino Culture in a College Spanish Service-Learning Course,” published in The Journal of Community Engagement and Higher Education (Vol. 6, No. 1, 2014). The JCEHE is an on-line, refereed journal concerned with exploring community engagement and community-based learning perspectives, research, and practice.
The paper (which the Sarah and Zak co-authored with four colleagues) describes a 14-week study of a community-based service-learning partnership between an upper-level Spanish course about Latinos in the United States at a small liberal arts college and a racially- and linguistically-diverse class of sixth graders, including many Latinos, at a local urban public school.
Zak is an assistant professor of Spanish at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa. He earned his B.A. degree in economics and business at K. He earned a M.A. degree in Hispanic literature and a Ph.D. degree in Portuguese literature at Indiana University (IU) in Bloomington.
Sarah is an assistant professor of elementary education at the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) in Cedar Falls. She earned her B.A. degree in psychology at K. She earned an M.Ed. degree and a Ph.D. degree in curriculum and instruction at IU.
They are married and the parents of two young children.
In the study, individual college students partnered with a public school student to photograph, analyze, and narrate their own emerging understandings of the American Dream. The partners showcased their co-constructed knowledge at three public gatherings, thus engaging the local community in meaningful dialogue about the potential implications of reconsidering the American Dream.
By the end of the 14 weeks, concluded the authors, “the college students viewed the American Dream from a new perspective than they had previously, shifting away from the archetypal personal success narrative toward a more civically oriented approach.”
“Although the partnership was certainly not a panacea for intercultural understanding,” said Zak, “the trajectory of college student reflections demonstrated a blurring of beliefs about themselves and others, whether related to race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or linguistic background.”
Sarah added, “Our research showed that the cultural competence gained from this experiential learning opportunity helped students enact their civic responsibility to educate others and combat ignorance about diverse groups in the United States, particularly immigrant populations.”
Sarah and Zak are in various stages of publication on three additional articles from the research project.
Alison Geist, M.P.H., director of the Mary Jane Underwood Stryker Center for Civic Engagement (CCE) at Kalamazoo College, said, “Sarah and Zak were very involved with civic engagement projects during their time at K, and their current focus on collaboration, co-creation of knowledge, and social justice characterizes critical service-learning at its best.”
Zak was the Center’s first Civic Engagement Scholar, mentoring students at Kalamazoo Central High School in what many K alumni will remember as the AMIGOS program. Sarah worked all four years mentoring elementary school students at Woodward School for Technology and Research, near the K campus. She was also the student member on the campus task force that led to the creation of the Center in 2001.
“Civic engagement must run in the family,” Geist added. Zak’s sister, Breigh Montgomery ’06, served as CCE assistant director from 2006 to 2012.
Kalamazoo College Professor of Psychology Siu-Lan Tan, Ph.D., said that Sarah was the first “co-organizer” of the Co-authorship Project, a key element of “Developmental Psychology” (Psych 210), in which K students learn about child development by co-writing a book with an elementary school student. Since 1998, when Tan began teaching the course, more than 1,500 books have been co-authored by K students and their elementary school partners from the Woodward school.
The thread of this project runs through one of several civic engagement courses Sarah has taught at UNI. Her “Books Without Borders” project was a collaboration between students at UNI, Wartburg, Cedar Falls High School, and Waterloo East High School. Her students wrote and illustrated bilingual children’s books for orphanages in Panama and Haiti. As a result, approximately 300 books were sent to orphanages to support the literacy development of children.
“We are grateful for the many ways that we were able to take on the leadership roles in service-learning at K,” said Sarah and Zak. “Thanks to the forward thinking efforts of dedicated faculty and staff–particularly Alison Geist and Teresa Denton at the CCE, and Doctor Tan–we learned how to create civic minded experiential opportunities that benefit not only our students, but the larger community as well.”
According to Geist, both Sarah and Zak have been recognized for their innovative, community-based pedagogy. Zak was recently a finalist for the Ernest A. Lynton Award for the Scholarship of Engagement for Early Career Faculty, a national award that recognizes a college or university faculty member who connects his or her teaching, research, and service to community engagement.
“He was the only liberal arts faculty member among the finalists,” said Geist.
About the Montgomerys’ recent study and published paper, Tan said: “Studying children’s ideas about the American Dream is such an innovative idea for a civic engagement project. It’s so neat that their data assessed outcomes for both children and college students.
“It really makes your day to see two of your former students making positive changes and curricular innovations like this,” she added. “I remember when they were dating!”
Their paths to the peaks of their chosen academic fields might have been different, but they all shared a common first step before having completed the arduous climb to the top: a Kalamazoo College education that still informs, inspires and invigorates their work.
Three K graduates—Steph Anderson ’06, Rose Grose and Monisha Berkowski (both members of the class of 2008)—earned doctorate degrees in various specialty fields of psychology recently.
Professor of Psychology Karyn Boatwright taught all of them, and was an inspiration to each. Now, Boatwright says she’s the inspired one.
Steph Anderson well remembers her “eureka moment.” She was a student in Boatwright’s feminist psychology class, a course that was routinely challenging and one that helped her redefine her views on all sorts of issues related to gender and the expression of sexuality.
“I had this moment where it all clicked—‘gender inequality is everywhere,’ I thought,” says Anderson. “K taught me how to think critically, that there were no absolutes in things. It instilled in me an intellectual curiosity. The College challenged my worldview, then let me out into the world to see where I could go.”
A psychology and religion major, she was undecided about graduate-level study of psychology and moved to Quito, Ecuador, after graduation, where she taught English. There she began applying to graduate schools and was accepted at City University of New York. In spring of 2016 Anderson earned a Ph.D. in CUNY’s critical social/personality psychology program. Perhaps not surprisingly, she has been attracted to researching issues surrounding gender inequality and oppression, still riding the wave of that moment of inspiration so many years ago at K.
Her research examines the role of gender expression and race in antigay discrimination, looking at the issue from two perspectives: those who are targets of discrimination (cisgender and transgender LGBQ individuals) and those who may discriminate (straight individuals).
She continues to explore the gendered nature of homophobia, to draw attention to how discrimination against LGBQ people is deeply held within traditional beliefs about how people ought to behave and present themselves to the world in relation to their birth-assigned gender.
In her senior year at K, Anderson helped institute “Women in the Weight Room,” a two-day-a-week time for female-only camaraderie while working out. Some women did not feel safe working out in the oftentimes male-dominated gym, she says.
“It wasn’t without controversy,” she says. “But it showed me the College was all about activism, about seeing an issue and dealing with it.”
Rose Grose wants to talk about sex. And if she had her way, we’d all be talking about it.
“I think there should be compulsory comprehensive and evidence-based sex education,” says Grose. “Human sexuality exists on a broad spectrum, and I think that should be celebrated because sexuality is important to our identities, and relationships make up so much of how we identify ourselves.”
Grose recently earned her Ph.D. in social psychology with an emphasis in feminist studies from the University of California- Santa Cruz, last spring. Her work addresses social justice, gender and sexuality. She is currently working as a postdoctoral research fellow in global health at Emory University (Atlanta, Georgia).
For her, the study of human sexuality and how it plays out in society is viewed through the lens of social justice. Injustice based on sexuality is rooted in societal power dynamics and how they play out in the often diverse realms of human sexuality, Grose says. Gender and sexual injustices intersect in complex ways with inequality based on race, ethnicity, class, ability, nationality, and more. The expressions of those power dynamics and how they contribute to the oppression of women, transgender, queer and gender non-conforming members of society is the focus of much of her research.
“Humans are diverse, and we like to put folks in boxes socially,” she says. “When we dehumanize and objectify those different from us, we open the door to violence against marginalized groups.
“Everyone has the ability to decide to treat someone equally. Diversity shouldn’t be viewed as ‘we can all get along,’ but rather that we are distinct and equal. We’re all fully human and deserving of dignity. Healthy and positive sexuality is about these bigger values. There is no way to objectify someone if you acknowledge their full humanity.”
Grose was drawn to K because of the progressive, open-mindedness that permeates so many facets of campus culture. “The encouragement of critical thought—that’s what made my time at K so worthwhile,” she says. “And the people I met there, students and faculty, they were the best part.”
Her study abroad experience working in Kolkata, India, at the All Bengal Women’s Union—an organization that advocates for women’s rights—solidified her passion for gender and sexuality rights justice and equality.
The criminal justice system views a person charged with a crime as someone in need of punitive action and separation from society; Monisha Berkowski may see the same person as an individual with a mental illness in need of support.
That’s not to say that justice should not prevail, but those accused of committing sometimes violent crimes deserve help with psychological issues, assistance which they may not have received prior to becoming involved in the criminal justice system, says Berkowski.
“I’m working with impoverished rural communities from Appalachia, and with poor urban communities from Charlotte and other areas,” she says. “There is a lack of resources, there’s poverty, there’s a lack of access to mental health care. Often, these facts contribute significantly to entanglements with the criminal justice system.”
Berkowski earned her Ph.D. in clinical psychology in 2015 from the University of Detroit-Mercy, after completing a pre-doctoral internship at Broughton Hospital, a state psychiatric facility in Morganton, North Carolina, where she currently works with patients with persistent and severe mental illnesses, some of whom are making their way through the criminal justice system.
It’s easy to see a patient as one-dimensional, she says. She takes a more holistic look at those she’s helping, so they can better understand charges against them and more optimally work with their attorneys.
“How you perceive the patient impacts how you treat that patient,” she says. “I’m often working with patients who have lived on the street. They have experience living in an environment that’s dangerous, where they’ve had to develop certain skills in order to survive. But this might not always be considered when some providers look at a person and conclude, ‘He’s paranoid; He’s aggressive.’ A more empathetic, textured view of someone makes for better treatment.”
Although mental health practitioners are mostly women, positions of power in the profession are still mostly the realm of men, Berkowski says. She is breaking through this glass ceiling, proposing treatment modalities that are rooted in social justice and feminist beliefs in equality for all, directly challenging traditional psychological theories rooted in patriarchy.
“K definitely fostered the idea that you need to look at an issue from many different angles,” she says. “I’m trying to do that in my career. The critical thinking piece is so ingrained at K — to think beyond what you are told.”
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
“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.
“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
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.