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Peripatetic First-Year

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.

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?”

Complicated Yearnings

Stetson Chapel is an architectural mix—part Colonial Revival meeting house, part Italianate tower, and part Beaux-Arts classicism with Ionic columns supporting the outside pediment and Corinthian columns in the interior. The Chapel offers a sense of order, quiet, and peace. Architectural boundaries cross there, and so do other boundaries. At its renovation and rededication in 1987, Stetson Chapel was identified as “the soul of the campus,” a place for students to ask each other important spiritual and ethical questions and to cross religious differences.

“K has helped me speak about the things I believe.”

The Office of Religion and Spiritual Life under the direction of Reverend Elizabeth (Liz) Hakken Candido ’00 encourages students to intertwine their spiritual growth with their academic, intellectual, and emotional growth. One program that helps students make those connections is Interfaith Student Leaders (ISL)—a group of K students (some 26 volunteers and five paid interns) who are particularly interested in exploring religion further and helping other students do so. Most ISLs have a religious background in a Christian tradition (Catholicism, Mormonism, and Protestantism); several bring to the program other faith traditions, including Buddhism, Bahá’í, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, Pantheism, and Unitarian Universalists; a few are atheist.

“We share conversation about important topics that students want to discuss” said Candido, whose objective is to help students take ownership of the answers to their questions.

“College students are hungry for talk about God and religion,” she said, even though they may perceive religion negatively, as divisive and authoritarian. “At K, we provide ways to engage each other about faith and spirituality so that students can find a better way to be religious—in whatever way they find applicable to their lives.”

Many parents of today’s youth have left their faith traditions, which may contribute to some of their children’s difficulties approaching the spiritual. At K, 40 percent of students do not identify with any religious tradition or with just one religious tradition. Religious identity is complicated and the answers to questions of meaning and purpose are complicated, too.

“And yet such questions and complications are the very purpose of religion,” says Candido.

“Ours is a world of vibrant diversity,” says Candido. “We grow and flourish when we support one another.” Most ISLs are not seeking to become religious professionals. “We use the name ‘Interfaith Student Leader’ to reflect the diversity of religions represented as well as the work they do.”

We invite the reader to meet four of them.

Arik Mendelvitz ’15

Arik Mendelevitz ’15 earned his bachelor’s degree in philosophy and minors in history and theatre. His plan after graduation is to go to professional circus school in Illinois and then to “run away and join the circus.” On campus as an ISL he saw himself as a resource on Judaism.

“Education is the best way to defeat prejudice,” said Arik, “and being an ISL is a great education to do just that.”

Arik is a devout Jew who keeps kosher and served as president of the Jewish Student Organization (JSO). He has helped organize several events including this year’s campus Passover Seder meal, attended by some 50 students and administrators. Arik also coordinated the annual Community Reflection on the Holocaust.

Keeping kosher for Arik means he does not eat pork or shellfish, and he separates meat and dairy products. It’s part of what identifies his Conservative Jewish practice. “It’s not a faith question to me, but rather something ingrained that I grew up with,” he said.

One of Arik’s favorite places was the Cavern, a small, informal space located in the Chapel basement. ISLs and interns regularly meet there. Candido shares her own collection of religious books there for anyone to read.

“It’s interesting and enriching to learn about a variety of perspectives,” said Arik. “Some see religion as a ‘we-versus-them’ contention, but that’s not the way it is here.”

Honey Sunmonu ’16

Oyindamola “Honey” Sunmonu ’16 is the daughter of a Muslim father and a Christian mother. She is also a native-born Nigerian who has been in this country since she was 11 years old. She considers multiculturalism a strength, and she lives each day as a Black woman, an African, a Muslim, and a Christian.

“I come to the Cavern when I’m lost,” says Honey, who has been visiting the Cavern since her first year. “I had problems balancing the social and the spiritual.”

A friend told her about the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life. She discovered (to her relief) that she didn’t have to identify with any specific religion. And she has found her service as an ISL a path that suits her.

“I aspire to be a mediator between Muslims and people ignorant about Islam,” said Honey, who finds that most people are surprised when they find out about her religion. “I love the expressions I sometimes get,” she said with a chuckle. “But I don’t like it when certain groups get a bad reputation. If I can soften someone’s heart and talk with them, maybe things can change.”

Honey also brings her mediator skills to the classroom when the subject of religion or Islam surfaces and arguments develop.

“I’m able to explain Islam and correct misconceptions about the religion.”

The call to be a mediator doesn’t mean it’s easy for Honey.

“During the early half of my life, I hid my identity as a Muslim and refused to display my religion in public. Slowly, over the years, I have accepted it.”

Part of the problem is the conflation of Islam and violence in the minds of many people, due in part to unbalanced media coverage.

“When someone asks me about Islam, I often use Christianity to explain it,” says Honey. “Without Christianity, I couldn’t understand the Quran. The Prophet Mohammed is the last prophet after Jesus, whom Muslims also consider a prophet. I read the Bible in English. What I learn about both religions is they use the same wisdom, the same God, and they come from the same place.”

Honey finds Candido particularly helpful when she feels “lonely in the middle. With Liz it’s OK for me to be Black, Muslim, Christian, and anything in between,” says Honey.

Being a Black African also presents certain identity problems for Honey because African-Americans and Nigerians come from very different cultures.

“I can’t erase the Nigerian in me,” she said. “I have Nigerian memories, language, and music in me. However, after 10 years in the USA, sometimes I’m torn.”

The notion of struggle and pain as a test is more Nigerian than American, according to Honey

“‘You’re not special,’ my father will tell me. ‘You need to go through the hard stuff sometimes. Everyone struggles.’”

“It’s a great thing to fall back on my culture and my values,” adds Honey.

Caroline Barnett ’15

Caroline Barnett ’15, a recent graduate from Prairie Village, Kansas (near Kansas City), plans to be a Presbyterian minister. She felt a call to ministry in her senior year of high school after spending “every possible free hour” with her church’s high school youth group. Over the years she has spent a lot of time with church people and discovered that she likes being with them and doing what they do, namely, helping others through a faith community. She hopes to pursue pastoral care and counseling for the elderly, which she learned about through her father’s elder care business.

“The faith journey often gets harder for older-aged adults who may be sick or who have experienced death among their families and friends,” says Caroline. “There is value in just sitting with people and experiencing their pain.”

Public speaking also attracts Caroline to the ordained ministry.

“K has helped me take my feelings and put them into words,” she says, “to speak about the things I
believe because I have to be articulate to be understood and to be understanding of listeners.”

Her interest in the relationship between religion and language has provided her opportunities as an ISL to elicit conversations about faith and spirituality, especially those regarding the meaning of life and one’s purpose in the world.

“These conversations happen on campus even though students don’t happen to think in religious terms,” she explains. “However, once you engage people, you find that many of them are actually thinking about spirituality and religion and how it affects their lives.”

For example, one important question students ask when they arrive on campus is what to keep of their parents’ values and how to build a life that reflects their own values.

“I see it everywhere,” said Caroline. “I am surrounded by people doing religious things.”

An interfaith perspective comes naturally to Caroline because her father is Jewish and her mother is Presbyterian.

“All my cousins and I grew up with Christmas and Passover celebrations without any tension,” she said.

Caroline has learned that all faiths are connected in their quest to build relationships with others, even though their practices are different.

Being an ISL also helps Caroline “get out of my head,” which is a comfortable place for this double major (religion and anthropology and sociology). She regularly joined the group at the Cavern when the ISLs met, to play music and just hang out.

“They are a fun group of people,” said Caroline who considers herself a quiet, introverted person. “I feel more connected spiritually when I’m with other people because they draw me out and remind me why I believe what I do.”

Candido, a fellow Presbyterian, has been especially influential to Caroline. “When I had something on my mind, she is always open to listening to me. She’s a calm person to be around.”

Dan Michelin ’18

Dan Michelin ’18, from Los Angeles, is a secularist and an atheist. He’s not opposed to religion, but he doesn’t believe in God. Instead, he is heavily influenced by Soto Zen Buddhism, which focuses on stretches and poses.

“Everyone is looking for fulfillment in life,” says Dan. “That’s where religion comes in. Anyone can get being good and doing good works. I focus my efforts on the earthly stuff because that’s the only thing I can experience in the here and now.”

“Nature is central to the earthly experience,” adds Dan. “Anything that affects sentience is earthly. I have a sense of empathy toward sentient beings—humans and animals.”

Dan attributes his attraction to Nature to his year off between high school and college when he lived in Nepal. And, even though God is not at the center of Dan’s spiritual experience, he can still relate to other students as an ISL.

“I lend a voice to the atheist community here,” he says. “We talk instead about secular things like how to make life on earth better for us. We’re inclusive. We talk about morality, what it is and why it’s important to be moral. We talk about how to live a happy life.”

Students can deal with things like death in secular and non-secular ways, too, he adds. Christians see death as going to Heaven. Some seculars see death as a part of life where one’s energy still stays around.

“Matter can’t be created or destroyed, according to the law of conservation,” said Dan. “It can only be moved around and changed.”

Dan’s father is an “apathetic atheist” who doesn’t care at all about religion, and his mother grew up in a Christian Scientist household, but later became a Baptist and now incorporates meditation into her practice.

Dan has been on a spiritual path most of his life, starting as a devout Christian and then giving it up because he lost a sense of meaning from it. A friend got him into Buddhism through its literature.

Dan started the Secular Spiritual Group on campus, which meets weekly to discuss various moral and ethical issues. People from all faiths attend.

“We live in a world with both religious and non-religious people,” he said. “We can all benefit from this group. Spirituality is about finding meaning. Atheists seek this, too.”

Dan loves working with Candido. “I get feedback from her when I need it,” he says. “She is very professional, but she also shows warmth and understanding. She’s just a wonderful human being.”

“Next” Questions

May 2014, the first ever Kalamazoo College Economics and Business Development Senior Individualized Project (SIP) Symposium was underway, and the excitement at Hicks Center was palpable. President Eileen B. Wilson-Oyelaran walked from project to project, leaning in to examine the details, taking time to question the seniors. The economics professors mingled, glowing like proud parents.

President Eileen B. Wilson-Oyelaran asks senior economics and business major Kari Paine about her SIP.

“For me, seeing these SIPs is seeing the culmination of a K education,” President Wilson-Oyelaran said, pausing between posters. “We are seeing the power of faculty mentorship. I’m thrilled the department of economics and business is doing this. I hope it will become a tradition.”

“It will be!” assured Ahmed Hussen, the Edward and Virginia van Dalson Professor of Economics. “This is our new tradition. We had workshops with the students and saw great improvements—we had only 14 of our majors participate this year, but we expect the symposium to grow over the years.”

Topics varied greatly: crowdfunding and the lean startup; new growth opportunities in Detroit; economic analysis of property rights in outer space; measuring the effectiveness of a buy-local campaign; economic impact of hosting the Olympics; analysis of produce pricing dynamics in Kalamazoo; effects of patient protection and the Affordable Care Act on the medical cost trend; a marketing plan for a luxury travel planning business in Spain; and more. Something for everyone, yes, even those who might one day prefer to live in outer space.

Among students, faculty and administration, and here and there the proud family members of seniors, wandered Will Dobbie ’04. A decade from his own school years at K, where he majored in economics with a minor in political science, he has made a name for himself as a result of his research on school effectiveness. Dobbie today is an assistant professor himself, teaching economics and public affairs at the Princeton University Woodrow Wilson School of Public Affairs. He was back on campus to deliver the keynote address for this inaugural symposium.

“When I received the invitation to speak at K,” Dobbie said, “I wondered – about what? Then my fiancé reminded me. She said, ‘Everything you do, Will, everything you are today is because of K. Talk about that.’” Dobbie smiled. Obvious. His talk on this evening at K would be about the value of a liberal arts education in business.

“We raised the bar immeasurably this year,” said Timothy Moffit ’80, associate professor of economics and business, in his remarks at the dinner that concluded the symposium. “All in the spirit of learning,” he said. “Friction was natural in this process of making improvements. It was the friction of change.” Then Moffit introduced Hussen, who serves department chair as well as (in Moffit’s words) “the SIP czar.”

Senior Katie Moffit answers discusses her research with “SIP Czar” Ahmed Hussen.

“I loooove talking about my former students!” Hussen crowed, and his audience laughed. “It’s a way for me to brag about what I’ve done, to claim that everything this former student has done is because of me,” Hussen smiled. Then he became more serious.  Will Dobbie, was special. Will, Hussen explained, earned the highest grade he had ever given a student.

“Will Dobbie’s SIP on the decentralization of government in Kenya is one of the best, still, that I’ve seen,” Hussen said. After K, Dobbie earned his master’s degree in economics at the University of Washington, and his Ph.D. in public policy from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Just a few weeks prior to the economics department SIP symposium, he had been in Kalamazoo to receive the W.E. Upjohn Institute Dissertation Award for best dissertation on employment. In addition to his teaching at Princeton he serves as a research fellow at the Education Innovation Laboratory at Harvard University.

Dobbie’s speech that evening was titled “The value of an (economics) liberal arts education,” and Dobbie illustrated that value by talking about his November 2011 study, “Getting Beneath the Veil of Effective Schools: Evidence from New York City,” in partnership with Roland G. Fryer, Jr.

In their study, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, Dobbie explained, the two professors compared 39 New York charter schools to find out if the charter schools were any more effective than traditional models of education. Did class size make a difference? Would spending more money per pupil improve quality of education? Did teachers with more credentials and advanced degrees teach better?

Quite simply: no.

Dobbie and Fryer state in their study: “Improving the efficiency of public education in America is of great importance. The United States spends $10,768 per pupil on primary and secondary education, ranking it fourth among OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries. Yet, among these same countries, American fifteen-year-olds rank 25th in math achievement, 17th in science, and 12th in reading.”

When the two conducted interviews with school principals and teachers, studied lesson plans and conducted student surveys, made video observations, and examined homework assignments, the usual remedies to improve the quality of education made no measurable difference in student outcomes.

“We looked at social outcomes, we looked at health outcomes, we looked at crime outcomes in terms of incarceration,” said Dobbie. “The conventional solutions were ineffective. We seem to be spending a lot of money on education, but not getting a lot out of it. Everything we’ve tried, if it worked at all—it was barely.”

What Dobbie and his research partner did find was that looking at a child’s life in the classroom was not enough. Other influences in that child’s life could have just as much, if not more, effect on how well a child does in and after school, throughout life.

“Community programs also seem to have little to no effect,” Dobbie continued. “Yet they are fantastically expensive. Head Start, for instance, as popular as it is, does show some positive effect, but it’s very small.”

“Everything you are today is because of K. Talk about that.”

So what does make a difference? What are the magic buttons of quality education? Dobbie smiled as he gave the answer, and more than one audience member reflected that smile. What he described often sounded like a description of a Kalamazoo College education.

“It’s basic stuff,” he said. “The five tenets of effective schools are: extended day, week, and school years; individualized tutoring; rewarding teachers for performance and holding them accountable if they are not adding value; data-driven instruction, with students being assessed frequently, then being retaught the skills they haven’t yet mastered; and students buying into the school’s mission that education will improve their lives.”

No surprised faces lit up in the audience. Preaching to the attentive choir.

“Charter schools educate only about five percent of our kids nationwide,” Dobbie said. “Can we duplicate their success in traditional schools? When similar policies were implemented in 20 of the lowest achieving schools, they worked. They worked everywhere. Having high expectations for kids, expecting them to go to college, was effective. Making them fill out just one college application, that alone increased the number of students going on to college by 10 percent.”

More: in schools where the five tenets were implemented, incarceration rates dropped to zero. Education proved to be the solution to keeping kids away from crime. Teenage pregnancy rates also appeared to take a dip.

Dobbie then flashed the next question on the screen above him. It said: “The value of a K education?”

“Passion,” he began. “Intellectual creativity and flexibility. Critical thinking, or asking the ‘obvious’ question. Professors at K really care about their students. When I was at K as a student, when there were speaking events, we had standing room only—people were that interested. People at K study what excites them, not just what they should be studying. That’s passion.

“We develop critical thinking skills. When we wrote a paper, we didn’t just write the facts, but how they fit together. As it turns out, that is remarkably rare out there in the world. Asking the obvious question seems normal to us at K, but out there,” Dobbie raised a hand and held it out in a gesture that would encompass the world beyond the campus, “out there, asking that obvious question is incredibly rare. Even rarer is what K students learn to do well: ask the next question.”

Dobbie’s words seemed to resonate with the K students in the audience. When he opened the room for questions, the passion to which he’d referred was evident. He was peppered with “obvious’ questions and “next” questions.

Why is education not a priority in the United States the way it is in some other countries? How to get past the political pushback of extending the school year? What about funding? What is corporate responsibility and how does one get corporations involved? What are the incentives? It was a lively interchange of passionate inquirers.

“So many people do things by default,” Dobbie concluded. “People choose their jobs because that’s where Dad worked or what Mom did or wants. I wanted to do what I wanted to do.”

For Dobbie, what he wanted to do and what still drives him as a lifelong learner today is to keep asking the next question.

Jewish Life at K

When Associate Professor of Religion and History Jeffrey Haus came to Kalamazoo College nearly a decade ago, the Jewish Studies program was almost non-existent.

Associate Professor Jeffrey Haus with students.

With just a handful of classes that focused on Jewish faith, culture, and history, Haus got to work building a comprehensive, multi-disciplinary curriculum from the ground up. Today, he directs a Jewish Studies program that boasts 14 classes, ranging from beginning and intermediate Hebrew language courses to “Women in Judaism” to the “American Jewish Experience.”

“I’d like to say it’s all been my doing,” jokes Haus, who came to K from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. “But you can’t start a program if nobody cares. The College made a commitment to support the program; the administration made a commitment, too. There’s an openness on the campus to Jewish students.

“It’s indicative of how K has changed over years and become more diverse. The Jewish Studies program is part of that change for the better.”

It’s hard to pin-down exactly how many Jewish students there are at K, Haus says. The College does not ask students their religious affiliation and doesn’t keep track of such information. But his best estimate puts the number somewhere between 100 and 150 students.

It’s a demographic that has more opportunities than ever before on campus to celebrate their faith, engage with other Jewish students, and feel a sense of inclusiveness.

“I have heard from Jewish alumni from the ’70s and ’80s who said when they were students here, they didn’t feel out of place, but there was no real organized Jewish life.” says Haus. “It’s different when you know you have a critical mass of Jewish students to support one another and create some cohesion.”

The history of Jews is a history of extraordinary communal creativity ….

During the 2013-14 academic year, six students (Jewish and non-Jewish) signed up for the Jewish Studies concentration. As the program continues to grow, its deepening reach bodes well for the College in many ways. In addition to increasing awareness of and appreciation for the Jewish history and traditions, the concentration’s courses provide an arena for discussing issues of identity, power, and social justice.

“Jewish Studies,” says Haus, can therefore “serve as a nexus where K students can connect different parts of a liberal arts education. Studying Jewish history and religion, they can apply lessons learned from other subjects.”

In addition, the College’s curricular emphasis on social justice increases the relevance of Jewish Studies courses. “Social justice, human rights, and the relationships between majorities and minorities are central themes in Jewish history, religion, and culture,” Haus says. “Jewish communities the world over have always been committed to caring for the less fortunate. The history of Jews is therefore a history of extraordinary communal creativity in areas such as education, economics, and charity.”

Currently, there are two study abroad sites in Israel for K students—one at the Rothberg International School at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and the other at the Ben-Gurion University in Be’er Sheva, located in the Negev, a starkly beautiful desert region in the south of the nation. Both sites have their advantages, Haus says, but the Be’er Sheva site might provide a bit more authentic experience—and a better deal.

“Jerusalem is where the action is, but it’s also more expensive, and there are more limits when it comes to course offerings,” says Haus. “There are also many more Anglophones in Jerusalem, and you can get by just speaking English. In Be’er Sheva, you have a little more diverse course offerings and it’s a bit more cost effective. There are also more chances to use and learn Hebrew and hang out with Israelis. You can get by with English, but you need to use Hebrew.

“I think that no matter how many Jews there are on campus, there’s never been a better time to be a Jewish student at K,” adds Haus. “Between the strong support from the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life, strong support from the administration, and growing number of Jewish activities on campus, as well as this program, it’s leaps and bounds better than what was seen here decades ago. It’s great to have that in a liberal arts setting.”

Jewish students looking for a sense of belonging have traditionally become a part of the Jewish Student Organization, which is open to Jewish and non-Jewish students and has been on campus for decades.

Claire DeWitt '14 prepares for the Passover Seder.

Claire De Witt ’14 is deeply rooted in K’s Jewish student culture and community. The East Lansing native and double major (history and religion with a concentration in Jewish Studies) is the president of the JSO.

About 10 to 15 students are part of the JSO each year, De Witt says, and they are involved with organizing campus-wide events for Jewish and non-Jewish students, faculty, and staff. Many events center around Jewish holidays, when traditional meals are prepared, such as baking hamentashen for Purim. Other activities include building a sukkah on campus for Sukkot and donating trees to Israel for Tu Bishvat.

The biggest event the JSO organizes is a Passover Seder, with a full dinner and service put on by student members. About 60 K community members annually attend the Seder, De Witt says, a time when JSO members can educate other College members about the Jewish faith.

“I enjoy JSO because of the community I am able to cultivate through our events and weekly meetings,” says De Witt. “We are a close-knit group that enjoys movie nights and cooking events together throughout the year.  As a Jewish student I truly appreciate having a safe space to gather, celebrate, and share the cultural heritage with which I so strongly identify.”

JSO isn’t the only group that has become a support network for students of the faith.

“Even six years ago, you didn’t have an option about what kind of Jewish student you wanted to be on campus. Today we have Jews from many different traditions,” says K Chaplain and Director of Religious Life Elizabeth Hakken Candido ’00. “There is more diversity among Jews. JSO used to be the primary vehicle for support, and in the past there was a feeling that if you were Jewish, you needed to be involved with JSO. There is enough room now to not have to be in JSO, if you don’t want to, and still feel supported.”

Madeleine Weisner and Jennifer Tarnoff feel that sense of belonging. The two seniors will graduate in June and have seen the campus become more inclusive and supportive of those who share their faith.

Several days a week, you can find Weisner, from Minneapolis, and Tarnoff, from Chicago, in the basement of Stetson Chapel in a cozy, albeit cramped, space called “The Cavern.” It’s a safe spot for sharing stories, hanging out and sampling free cookies and tea, or picking up “George,” the Cavern’s communal acoustic guitar. Although not tied to any particular religious tradition, there is an element of faith that permeates the space.

Currently, there are eight Jewish student chaplains, the most ever, Hakken Candido says. Student chaplains are the primary volunteers who help organize activities for the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life. Haus recalls that when he arrived at the College there were no Jewish students in those roles.

Tarnoff is a student chaplain, while Weisner works a paying job as a chapel intern.

“My dad wanted me to look at big state schools that had Hillels (a well-known Jewish campus organization),” Tarnoff says. “But I wanted to find a school that could continue the community feeling I had growing up Jewish. There were many other things that trumped going to a big school. There’s a lot of Jews at K. There’s definitely a community here.”

All too often, the Jewish high holiday of Yom Kippur occurs during orientation and move-in week. Although there is not an official College policy for them to do so, many professors and teaching staff will let Jewish students out of classes to attend services if they wish to, Hakken Candido says, and her office works with JSO to provide free rides to the synagogue of their choice. There are two synagogues in Kalamazoo—the Congregation of Moses, affiliated with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism; and Temple B’nai Israel, a Reform temple. Similar efforts are made for Rosh Hashanah, which also takes place in the early part of fall term.

The Office of Religious and Spiritual Life also hosts a “Break the Fast” dinner after Yom Kippur for new and returning Jewish students. The event is a great opportunity for freshman Jewish students to meet their older counterparts on campus, develop connections, and find out about Jewish life at K right at the beginning of the year.

“I didn’t grow up perhaps as religious as Jennifer. I didn’t really seek it out,” Weisner says. “But as my college life went on, I looked into my faith more. Having the college support me meant that I had room to grow in my own spirituality.”

Ghost Voice

You know you want to. Go ahead, do it. Just don’t get caught.

Sneak into your sister’s room while she’s out to the party, fish under her fluffy ruffled pillow—and there it is, with its tiny gold key attached by a thin orange and black ribbon. Read her diary under the bedcovers at night, using a flashlight to skim her rounded handwriting. All her secrets …

A picture of Claire Wight Payne from the scrapbook of her classmate, Lydia Buttolph ’16.

It’s a lot like that. Only these diaries are one hundred years old, they’re available online, and the girl sharing her secrets on the written page is Claire Wight, Kalamazoo College Class of 1916. She’s a student (and athlete) at K, walking the Quad with her boyfriend Ralph, tennis racket under her arm, telling him how she’s pretty darn sure that “Tuffy,” her math professor, is going to flunk her this time.

Some things change and some never do.

The diaries, nine of which may be viewed by appointment at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum, are dated between 1909 and 1938. In 1909, Claire Wight is 15 years old and attends Kalamazoo Central High School. “Mamma gave me a lovely new diary,” she writes. And she writes in her diary most every single day.

“She’s at the stage of figuring out who she is, what love is, what she wants to do with her life,” says Lisa Murphy ‘98, College archivist at Upjohn Library Commons. Wight’s diary entries about her years  at K begin with 1913. Her entries for the year 1912, when she was a freshman in the fall, are missing.

September 17, 1913:

“College opens! It seemed good to see all the students back and it was regular ‘pandemonium’ with them all talking at once.  I have a very stiff program. The hardest there is and I don’t know how I will come out with it. I have 7:55 math, 9:15 german 10:15 public speaking, 11:15 history 1:30 Chemistry besides Lab work gymnasium etc. I have Prof. Williams, Prof Bacon, Prof Dagistan, Dr. Balch, Prof Smith, This P.M.  E & I went down town and got our books then came home & went over to the gymnasium & practiced tennis against the brick wall Oh I hope I can beat Miss Gregg, It was quite fun watching the Freshmen and helping them out of their dilemas [sic]. This evening I studied a while then Ralph & I went walking through town out onto East Main got some ice cream & candy then came home.”

Murphy has been in close contact with Paula Metzner, assistant director for collection and exhibit services, who has been meticulously transcribing the diaries to the Kalamazoo Valley Museum website, entry by entry, with spelling and grammar mistakes intact for authenticity. In the Kalamazoo College archives (third floor of Upjohn Library Commons) are collections of photographs, programs, notes and various mementos from Claire Wight and from her school years at K in general.

Reading these diaries is a great way to get an idea what K was like a century ago.

“Claire Wight was the daughter of a Baptist minister, Rev. Wallace Wight, who also went to K and graduated in 1892,” says Murphy. “The Baptist roots of Kalamazoo College were very strong during that time, so it makes sense that she came here. Women had few career choices back then—maybe teachers or nurses—but a minister would have thought it was important for a young woman to be educated.”

Students back then, explains Murphy, would not have declared majors and minors, but rather designated a course of studies. It appears Claire Wight studied chemistry along with Latin and German, and other general courses, including what was then known as “hygiene class.”

“Hygiene class promoted health and efficiency,” says Murphy. “It would have included gymnastics, dancing, graded physical training, and games.”

Claire Wight ’16 donated her many MIAA tennis medals to the K archives.

Wight made her mark most, however, in tennis. She won eight MIAA medals in Tennis Women’s Singles throughout her years at K, one silver and seven gold, all but one of which are in Kalamazoo College archives. She credited her father with teaching her how to play and notes elsewhere that he was “an instigator” of building the tennis courts at Kalamazoo College.

Lillian Claire Wight was born in South Dakota in 1894, but moved to Kalamazoo, where she lived on Ingleside Terrace with her parents when her father was appointed to minister at First Baptist Church and later Bethel Baptist Church.

“Women lived in the Ladies’ Hall at that time,” says Murphy, “but Claire would have lived at home since she was from Kalamazoo. The men lived at Upper Hall.”

During Wight’s years at K, Herbert Lee Stetson was president; she writes in her diary at times about her friendship with his daughter, Elizabeth, who was also a student at that time. The student body included 253 students; some 22 were women members of the senior class. A master’s program was available, but with only one graduate student attending. Two students from Egypt attended Kalamazoo College during the same years.

“Reading these diaries is a great way to get an idea what K was like a century ago,” Murphy smiles. “I can identify with some of the pressure she feels about doing well in class, her panic over exams, and how busy she is. Like Claire, I had a professor tell me that I can do better.”

In an entry dated December 6, 1913, Claire writes:

Claire often alluded to her math professor, C.B . Williams, as “Tuffy” in her diary entries.

“Well diary I’m going to College and we do have the parties and spreads and receptions and stunts that you read about and I guess I’m in my share all right but somehow it’s different from what I supposed it would be. I think the books of college stories hide the hard work of college life too much because really most of the time we’re working away at our books and recitations and then too [it] isn’t just having a banquet but we have to get busy and wash the dishes same as ever and sometimes I get so tired out that I feel like the old woman… but I love college just the same and we do have grand times.”

All in all, Claire seems to have done well in her studies, although she was not beyond playing occasional hooky. She was also apparently popular with the boys, although one in particular, Ralph Payne ’15, was most attentive and persistent. Claire wrote about his frequent attentions, as he often asked her to go walking with him, or to attend various events or parties.

“She kept writing in her diary that she had doubts about her feelings for Ralph,” Murphy concedes, “but as often as she went walking with other boys, she kept coming back to Ralph. Eventually, in July 1917, she married him, and she writes in a note later that they had a good marriage for 59 years.”

The diaries illustrate a time very different from today in terms of women’s rights and choices of lifestyle. Claire writes on February 11, 1914:

“This evening Helen and I and Mother and Gene & Mrs. Weaver went to a woman’s meeting at the 1st Baptist Church and heard Evangelist Drum speak on the subject ‘How to chose[sic] a husband.’ It was a fine address but I thought it was more of a woman’s duty than a man’s to talk of such things and while the address was helpful and good I wish a woman had given it. I’ll jot down some of the points that appealed to me. Have the home tidy when your husband returns. Always be tidily dressed and dress young and wear a bit of color. Get what you want done by your husband by indirect suggestion. Don’t tell your Mother the faults of your husband. After the lecture Mother & Helen & I stayed down town to see the new gas lighting system, chester lights, turned on. It was beautiful and a pine tree in the park was all wired with red, white and blue lights and flooded with water so it was just a mass of sparkling icy crystals when it was turned on   the display of soft and sparkling light was beautiful and wonderful.”

While writing that she worried if it was “sinful” to attend the theatre, Wight several times remarks, “but it doesn’t feel sinful.” She took roles in several plays staged at Kalamazoo College. Murphy has found her name listed on theatre programs, including playing the part of Queen Elinor in a production of “Sherwood” in 1916, staged in the woods rather than on a stage.

In an alumni survey, to the question “Who was the most significant and influential College person in your own Kalamazoo College experience?” Wight answered: Lemuel Fish Smith, a chemistry professor.  She writes of other transformative experiences, too, such as hearing Helen Keller speak, attending many concerts, and enjoying many cherished friendships with fellow students.  And pranks, too …Wight relishes writing about freshman boys who crawl through stealthily opened windows to steal ice cream from school freezers, and sophomore girls who sneak into the dorm rooms of freshmen girls to steal all of their clothes.