Ellie Cannon ’15, who received a Fulbright grant as an English teaching assistant in Spain during the 2016-2017 school year, will serve a second year there as a Fulbright culture and pedagogy mentor. Drawn from the previous year’s grant recipients, the mentors guide programming for the new cohort of grant recipients. Cannon credits K with “equipping me with tools for intercultural interactions. Moreover, the College and Fulbright program reinforce the essential understanding that we are global citizens, whether overseas or at home in our own complex societies.”
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.
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.
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.’
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 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.”
I was not the most confident lad as I stood bright-eyed and bushy-tailed one fine August morning in 2006 in front of the Crissey Hall listening to our new enthusiastic head soccer coach welcome us freshmen into the family. These new freedoms and new rules (or occasional lack thereof) were a lot to take in. I didn’t dive flawlessly into the current, quickly hammering down strokes and adjusting to the flow. I belly-flopped, gasped for air, and skimmed the surface for the nearest flotation device. Life at K for my first two years was a constant struggle to keep up and find some sort of balance, some sort of identity.
First-year fall term I was a nervous sweaty wreck, concerned with what everyone thought of me and worried I would screw up. I tried to blend in, which wasn’t always easy. My first-year seminar, “Visions of America-On Stage,” was taught by Ed Menta, and he pushed me from my comfort zone. Normally I would sit in the back of a classroom and observe, taking notes like a mad court stenographer but never really interacting. That didn’t work with Ed. He demanded we take on characters and not only read plays but also interpret and analyze them, more closely than I ever had before. He forced you to question and to face the brutal limits of your adolescent level of understanding. It was after my first paper in Ed’s course that I realized K wasn’t going to be an easy road. I had considered writing my strongest subject and was abruptly taken back when I found a C- written in red pen at the top of my paper.
I realized I had to be more careful and critical of my work. But I didn’t want to put in the time and effort it would take. There were always people in every one of my classes that were smarter and caught on quicker. I didn’t take the time to learn from my mistakes. For the remainder of first year I was searching for answers but not the method or path to find the answers.
And by the middle of sophomore year I was fed up with my college life. I didn’t like my mediocre performance in class and on the soccer field, and socially I felt invisible. I’d been denied a three-month study abroad program in Spain for the spring. Nor would I be allowed to live off campus with my soccer mates during junior year. I was in a hard place.
I’m not sure what exactly clicked, but something began to change sophomore spring term. It started with little risks. The voice within me grew stronger and I started questioning outward. I worked up the courage to pipe up more in classes. I socialized outside of my soccer circle and got to better know the wonderful mix of eclectic students. In our spring outdoor practices and scrimmages I tried different positions and showed my versatility. It dawned on me that I needed a broader perspective on each part of my life before I could identify what I needed to do and how I needed to do it. I was looking at myself differently, not in an overly critical way but instead evaluating goals I wanted to accomplish, examining the paths I could take to reach them, and then forming and executing my plan within a realistic time table. By no means did I have one of those enormous desk calendars for my room where I could fill in every single waking hour of my life, but I did find harmony in a semi-chaotic balance of opportunity and cost, and I picked my battles properly. By the time I was half-way through my junior year my work was improving and I was finding balance. My last two years at K were the best of my life.
By senior spring term I was walking confidently through the sun-filled quad. I was smiling more often. I had finished my final two soccer seasons as team captain and started every game. I made Dean’s List and completed a major in economics and a minor in religion. I participated in on-campus and off-campus events and held strong friendships beyond the circle of my teammates. Those have endured to this day. I still get goose bumps thinking about those last spring days—discussing the financial crisis in Professor App’s senior seminar, throwing a Frisbee or football around the quad, and raucously cheering on the men’s tennis team to another MIAA championship.
K is not a school for everyone. But for me it was the place to learn more about myself and how adaptive I could be. I learned I can jump into the unknown without a lick of experience and rise, ready to take on the world.
Today, at age 29, I work as a senior sales representative at a two-billion-dollar logistics company. It had 250 employees when I started and has grown to an operation of 2,500 employees at 10 offices nationwide. I multi-task daily, providing cost and problem-based solutions to a multitude of customers in a variety of industries. I’ve learned to question even the processes we’ve put in place and to absorb all of the knowledge I can to make insightful and innovative decisions. I push myself to learn what is new and to live outside my comfort zone. (Thank you, Ed Menta!) When I look back, I don’t think about doing anything differently. I smile, and hope that some young nervous first-year student like me will be lucky enough to experience the full metamorphosis that K can offer.
When Kalamazoo College officials went searching for LEED certification for the Fitness and Wellness Center, they looked to the students who will use it.
After plans for the center were announced in 2014, the Kalamazoo College Climate Action Network, a student-organized group that advocates for sustainable and effective measures to address climate change, looked for ways to ensure the new construction was environmentally friendly. One idea was to have the addition LEED-certified.
K’s Sustainability Advisory Committee, which included faculty, staff and students, agreed, but suggested a modification of the idea. Rather than paying for LEED certification, then perhaps the College should instead hire two student LEED-equivalent auditors, training them in the design, energy and sustainability criteria that inform LEED. The College gave the green light to that idea and will divert the estimated $50,000 cost of formal certification to fund the student auditing project.
Junior Michelle Sugimoto and senior Ogden Wright were chosen from a dozen applicants. They have met with designers and builders every few weeks since late last summer. The actual cost of their training and stipends will be a fraction of the cost of LEED certification. The savings will be invested in a 12 kilowatt solar panel array installation on campus that will offset 5 percent of the new fitness center’s energy costs.
The new, $8.65 million center (29,000 square feet) will feature cardio and weight rooms, multi-purpose fitness areas and racquetball and squash courts. The scheduled opening is July 31.
Collaborating with the project’s design and construction teams, Sugimoto and Wright have been evaluating several factors to assess the LEED-like certification potential of the building. Among others, those factors include water and energy efficiency, proximity to public transportation and air quality.
Associate Vice President for Facilities Management Paul Manstrom, who is advising the students, says their work is another example of K’s commitment to provide students experiences with profoundly relevant real-world applications.
“It’s a case of the administration sharing a challenge with students and saying, ‘Join us,’” he says. “While we are using LEED standards to audit the construction of the building,” Manstrom adds, “there’s really no template for what we are calling a student-audited LEED simulation. We’re being creative and designing the process as we go through it.
“Buildings constitute a large part of the amount of waste produced in the United States each year. Putting the money up front saves the College money in the long run, while at the same time giving these students an incredible learning experience.”
The U.S. Green Buildings Council sets the standards for LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). Building projects earn points from certifiers based on the type and degree of sustainable practices integrated into a structure, from LED lights to insulation to the use of alternative forms of energy, and many others.
LEED-certified buildings are resource efficient, use less water and energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Around 1.85 million square feet are being certified daily, according to the Council. Two other buildings on K’s campus are LEED certified: the Hicks Student Center, with a Silver designation, and the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership, which is expected to reach Gold-level certification soon.
“It’s one thing to complain about climate change, it’s another thing to try to change it,” says Wright, a native of Kingston, Jamaica. He participates in K’s 3/2 Engineering Program, a dual degree program where three years of core classes are taken at the College before a student transfers to an accredited engineering school for higher level courses. He currently studies Civil Engineering at Western Michigan University.
Having worked in Facilities Management last summer, Wright applied for the auditor position “because I wasn’t ready to throw away my ties to K,” he says. “It keeps me around here, keeps me grounded in the College, and we’re providing a service for K.”
In return, the students gain vital experience. LEED is the new trend in building, and helps us understand how we are going to treat our environment, planet and people around us,” says Wright. He and Sugimoto are qualified to do the work.
“It helps that we’re physicists,” Wright says. “We know what’s meant by Kilowatt hours, BTUs, R-Factors (the measure of insulation’s ability to resist heat going through it).“
“And we’re not just on our own,” Sugimoto adds. “The designers and builders work with us as colleagues. I think the coolest thing is that the students here are always willing to take on a challenge and engage with the administration on it, and that the administration is willing to support real actions on the ground.”
The students will write a report for the Board of Trustees and the College community. The fruits of their work will be concrete and long lived. Says Manstrom: “The real story of what they did—duplicating the process used by LEED certifiers—will be in the building. We’ll have an idea of what our certification would be even without the official designation.”
Imagine being in the art scene of New York City—and leaving it to return to be an art appraiser in Kalamazoo.
Sound crazy? Not for Kendra Eberts ’07.
“There are hundreds of art appraisers and thousands of galleries in New York,” said Kendra. “But there are more opportunities here in Kalamazoo and southwest Michigan where there are hardly any other art appraisers.”
After graduation, Kendra went to the Sotheby’s Institute of Art in New York where she obtained a master’s degree in American Fine and Decorative Art (accredited through the University of Manchester in England) and a Certificate in Appraisal Studies in Fine and Decorative Arts from New York University’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies.
“My first job in an auction house was at the New York location of London’s Dreweatts & Bloomsbury Auctions,” she said. “It was a smaller auction house, which gave me the opportunity to work in most aspects of the business.” That versatility led to new opportunities.
“Last summer, I assisted an appraiser from Florida who was conducting an estate appraisal for her client’s summer home in Northern Michigan. She hired me in part because I could catalogue and research the client’s book collection.”
Working in the arts in New York during the recession was difficult. Many of her grad school classmates moved away and settled for work outside the field. Not Kendra. She worked as a part-time registrar for the contemporary art gallery of Rick Wester, cataloging artwork for the gallery’s inventory. She also pieced together part-time jobs and internships with private art dealers and the International Center of Photography.
How does she explain her fierce persistence?
“When I was 4 years old, I sat down with an assortment of crayons and carefully designed and created a business plan for an art gallery and café,” she said. “‘Art by Eberts’ would exhibit my own artwork and that of my friends, while ‘Kendra’s Kafé’ would feature my grandmother’s homemade pies and my mother’s strong coffee.”
Soon after that crayoned plan Kendra began taking art classes at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts (KIA), and her family would visit art museums whenever they traveled. In high school she fell in love with the medium of photography, and came to K knowing she wanted to major in art and art history. She interned at the KIA and at the Water Street Gallery in Douglas, Michigan. Before her study abroad in Clermont-Ferrand in France, she pursued a summer study at Sotheby’s in London in 2005. That experience was important.
“I felt I had found my place that summer in London,” she said. “I learned how the historical significance of art played a role in its economic market, and that people actually did for a living what I wanted to do. It was through K’s encouragement to go outside my comfort zone that I was able to navigate my major. Professor Billie Fisher helped me a lot.”
The summer study played a role in her Senior Individualized Project, Edward Steichen’s Influence on the Value of Photography.
“In 2006 there was a major sale of photographs through Sotheby’s. Steichen’s photograph ‘The Pond – Moonlight’ sold for $2.9 million, the highest price paid to date for a vintage photograph. For my SIP I assessed Steichen’s biographical and artistic background, the complicated process he used to create the photograph, and the reasons collectors considered it to be ‘museum quality.’ I also drew upon my economics minor to calculate Steichen’s recent market performance through statistical regression models.”
Kendra has since learned that appraisal methodology is complex interplay of multiple factors, only one of which is the overall economic climate of the art market. Her aptitude for combining art and business has roots in her family. Kendra’s mother is a professional singer music teacher. Her father is an economist and president at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research. Her aunt is an art curator and assistant museum director. She has cousins who are fine artists and performing artists and a grandmother who was an artist and teacher.
In 2012 Kendra took what could be considered an intermediate step in her crayoned business plan. She established Key Art Group. Her duties include establishing the value of fine art, furniture and decorative items for insurance and IRS-related purposes. She also provides collectors market evaluations and collection management services. And she offers artists business services such as managing inventory, marketing and guidance on gallery relationships.
Kendra plans to fulfill her dream to own a gallery, and she hopes to locate it in Kalamazoo. “This community prides itself on supporting the arts and that’s why I love living here,” said Kendra. She expresses that love in action. Last year she helped organize a sale of artwork by students and faculty of the KIA art school. She writes about art in Kalamazoo on her blog, Collective Sightings. And she’s a member of the Art Committee for Bronson Methodist Hospital and facilitates the hospital’s annual employee art show.
“It was great to see a variety of works that people created,” she says. “Showcasing employees’ talents promotes workplace engagement, and employees were excited to see what their colleagues created.”
Let’s hope Kalamazoo sees the “Art by Eberts” gallery and “Kendra’s Kafé” sooner rather than later. Until then, says Kendra: “I’d plan to create more awareness—and more conversation—about the local art scene.”
One of the most frequently lauded characteristics of a Kalamazoo College education is the longevity of its usefulness. “More in four, more in a lifetime” is a promise and reality for many K alums whose strong academic foundations and the personal networks created at K have paid dividends decades after leaving the Arcadian Hill.
But what about K’s value in those first few years after receiving a diploma? For an ever-expanding group of recent grads, like classmates (2009) Brad Flaugher and Will Dickson, Kalamazoo connections have been invaluable from day one. In addition to being classmates, the two share an undergraduate major (economics and business) and study abroad program (London, England).
The Worst of Times
In 2010, after earning his master’s degree in economic history at the London School of Economics (LSE), Brad planned to return stateside and find a job in finance. Unfortunately, the timing was not fortuitous. Facing the gale force headwinds of the worst American financial crisis since the Great Depression, Brad wanted to land in an industry that simply wasn’t hiring. According to Will, the market was “absolutely atrocious . . . probably the worst time ever for new hires.”
Luckily for Brad, Will had just the opportunity that Brad needed—his own. After beating the odds himself in 2009 to secure a job with the Minneapolis-based hedge fund Walleye Trading, Will opted to pursue a graduate degree in accounting at the University of Texas. Upon his departure from Walleye, Will recommended his classmate to take his place.
Will remembers “[Walleye] was a good opportunity for me, but to be honest, Brad was probably better suited for the position,” given his background in computer science. Because of Will’s endorsement and his own acumen in a competitive interview process, Brad was hired at Walleye as an options trader and programmer.
Paying it Forward
Brad later left Walleye. No worries, his K professional networking tree has continued to grow. Former classmates have become colleagues, and other K grads have turned to him for assistance in finding early breaks in their careers.
In 2014, while working to launch Redcurrent, a Twin Cities tech start-up, Brad reached out to computer science major Colin Alworth ’07, wondering if his fellow K graduate would join Redcurrent as a software developer. There was a “full-circle” dynamic at work here: years earlier, just before Brad decided on graduate school at LSE, Colin had offered him a job as a developer. At Redcurrent Brad was happy to return the favor and bring a talented K grad on board. Colin, who studied abroad in Madrid, continues to work at Redcurrent today.
Meanwhile Andrew Mickus ’12 (an interdisciplinary studies major who studied abroad in Caceres, Spain) credits Brad with helping him secure an internship at a London hedge fund, an experience that served as a catalyst for Andrew securing a position as a financial modeler at Fannie Mae. “Brad had an amazing willingness to ‘pay it forward,’” writes Andrew. “And he totally let me crash on his couch for at least a week in London.”
Now a senior engineer for AuDigent, an analytics-based digital advertising company, Brad works closely with another K grad, classmate and computer science major Jerrod Howlett ’09, who works for Google, Inc. Among other responsibilities, Brad purchases advertising for AuDigent’s music-industry clients, and “Jerrod makes me look good,” Brad laughs. “It’s great having an ‘inside guy’ at Google.”
A Much More Helpful Community
Reflecting on the significant role of K connections in the first few years of his career, Brad suggests that “it’s kind of crazy” how it’s unfolded. It’s not “that alumni just swoop in” with jobs gifted from on high. Instead, Brad feels he has organically developed fantastic career connections through his K network. “It’s turned out pretty well for me,” he says.
And Will, who currently works as a managing director of an investment firm in Detroit, is effusive in his praise for K alumni and their willingness to go the extra mile for their fellow Hornets. “With [the University of] Texas there’s a huge network everywhere, but no one returns calls or emails. With K it’s a much smaller community, but it’s a much more helpful community.”
NOTE: The College’s Center for Career and Professional Development provides alumni various ways to network with each other and with students. And the Alumni Directory is a great tool for alumni to keep in touch. Check out the directory and update your profile.
Community organizing had always attracted Jonathan Manuel Romero Robles ’13, and at K it became the most important skill he learned.
The son of Mexican immigrants living in South Central Los Angeles, Romero discovered at an early age that one’s social status greatly affects one’s education and access to resources. He was also keenly aware of how negatively the media portrays people like himself and his parents.
“It bothered me,” he said. “All that negativity was reinforced in school and at home. Then the media’s negative portrayal of us influenced policies that had detrimental consequences, such as decreasing our access to quality education, which in turn adversely affected our self-esteem. Media portrayals made it difficult for us to achieve our best potential and to do great things.”
Romero also learned that Latinos were survivors of a larger political landscape that was steeped in historical oppression.
“I didn’t have a name for that oppression in my early years, but I certainly felt it and was aware of it. It made me angry, but it also inspired me,” he said. “Supporting marginalized groups became what I wanted to do with my life. Later I learned that I could make change through organizing and advocacy work.”
Romero believes that Kalamazoo College gave him a positive foundation and several opportunities to lead by example.
He came to K as a POSSE Foundation scholar. POSSE administers one of the most comprehensive and renowned programs in the U.S. for college access and youth leadership development. It identifies, recruits and trains students from public high schools with extraordinary academic and leadership potential.
“Through the K-Plan I acquired a broad sense of what to do with my life, what that would mean, what I needed to learn,” he said.
“If you can’t articulate injustices, some people will consider them valid,” said Romero. “K gave me lots of opportunities to call out injustices, through the Arcus Center mainly. Jamie Grant, Lisa Brock and other staff were always supportive of my organizing work on campus.”
In the summer of 2011, Romero obtained an internship at the Center for Progressive Leadership (Washington, D.C.) where he developed relationships with other young professionals and met with several congressional policymakers.
“It was the first time I envisioned myself as someone who could implement change,” he said.
That same fall, he had an opportunity to study away at the Philadelphia Center for Urban Studies. There he attended classes and secured an internship position with City Council Member Curtis Jones Jr. At City Hall Romero worked with the communications team during the Occupy Movement.
“The Occupy Movement made me examine the social hierarchies that oppress people on a variety of issues,” he said. “Never before was I prouder to be Latino, and I felt the need to make a point, to validate our experience.”
In spring of 2012 he studied abroad in Costa Rica and discovered immigration to be a global issue. It became clear to him, through observations of the media and various personal interactions, that Nicaraguans are a marginalized group in Costa Rica. Romero was painfully reminded that people too often react to people of color solely based on the color of their skin. It happened to him when he was prohibited from returning to Costa Rica after a visit to Nicaragua.
“Despite my U.S. passport, they wouldn’t let me back in. My peers who were ahead of me in line were let through, but not me.”
His Costa Rican experience inspired him to write his very first Spanish language poem, which he shared at K during a visit of Yosimar Reyes, a nationally acclaimed poet. He also decided to write his Senior Individualized Project (SIP) in the philosophy department arguing why undocumented immigrants should not be deported from the United States.
“I think about the intersectionality of people’s experiences and how oppressive systems win unless those at the bottom take a seat at the table, leading and promoting their own interests,” said Romero. “So my work has been centered around proposing new ideas and innovative ways of handling this oppression among Black people and Latinos.”
Romero is very excited about his current position as jobs coordinator for Strategic Concepts in Organizing and Policy Education (SCOPE) in South Central Los Angeles. SCOPE has been in existence for 24 years. It builds power in the community by training ordinary people to lead by example in campaigns and lobbying opportunities and in neighborhood canvassing. SCOPE’s organizers have learned how to cultivate movements in which everyone takes the lead.
“That is the essence of democracy,” said Romero. “We have to use the system to do the best we can for marginalized groups who have been left out.” he said.
Romero serves people who want to work and to contribute to the community but who face a variety of problems including the lack of legal documentation, limited English proficiency, and discrimination based on LGBT status and nonviolent criminal records.
“At SCOPE I identify and advocate for job opportunities,” he says. “For example, we’ve pushed for civil service jobs at the City of Los Angeles and on-the-job training programs at the Department of Water. These targeted local hire programs are providing proof that our community faces significant barriers to employment and that the situation must change.”
SCOPE sees what South Central LA can be and works for the change that can make that vision a reality.
“Our current system is designed to keep certain people out in order for other people to benefit,” said Romero. “The question for those on the lower rungs of the social hierarchies is how and when will they push back against a system that minimizes their dignity and humanity.
“I help my community identify, articulate and call out systems rigged to oppress us. What I do has policy implications, and it provides a channel for change. The work is an awesome responsibility, and a privilege, too.”
There’s no business like show business. And Kalamazoo College’s Department of Theatre Arts just showed the acting world it means business.
K theatre arts majors Grace Gilmore ’15 and Lindsay Worthington ’17 recently returned from competing at the 47th annual Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival (KCACTF) at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.
The pair beat out thousands of other student artists from across the country to present their work at the week-long, all- expenses-paid festival in the nation’s capital. Only 125 students were invited to attend.
Gilmore, a theatre arts major and religion minor, was one of only eight students in the country competing for the Irene Ryan Acting Scholarship. Worthington, a theatre arts and music double major, traveled to Washington, D.C. to showcase her talents in Sound Design Excellence.
Both categories featured KCACTF students from much larger colleges and universities, several of whom were graduate students enrolled in Masters of Fine Arts (M.F.A.) theatre programs and other specialized acting classes.
“Grace and Lindsay are extraordinary,” says Professor of Theatre Arts Lanny Potts. “They are recognized as the best-of-the-best in the nation in their fields. It’s rare for students from any small program and liberal arts college to achieve this sort of recognition.”
Gilmore spent the week at the Festival immersed in classes that focused on everything from stage combat to situation comedy. She worked alongside professional actors, met with casting directors, and had the opportunity to network with peers from across the nation and in the Washington, D.C. theatre community.
In addition, she went behind the scenes and toured the Arena Stage, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, and the world-famous Shakespeare Theatre Company.
“Just being there was so surreal,” says Gilmore. “It was an unbelievable experience.”
For the 21-year-old, whose first acting role was as a jester in a middle school play, performing on the Kennedy Center stage in front of peers, directors, New York-based casting agents (and even her parents!) was the high point of the week.
Her parents, K alums Sherry (Christy) and Jim Gilmore, class of 1983, were both theatre arts majors.
“You could say theatre is in my blood,” Grace says.
Worthington, meanwhile, experienced her own festival highlights. In her master class she worked alongside professional lighting designer (and six-time Tony award nominee) Beverly Emmon as well as award-winning composer, sound designer, and audio artist Obadiah Eaves.
Emmon and Eaves critiqued the students’ work, offering their feedback, suggestions, and ideas. And the students got the chance to share meals and free time with the two professionals.
“It really was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Worthington says. “We were able to ask them questions about their careers and really get to know them.”
The Road to Nationals
Started in 1969 by Roger L. Stevens, the Kennedy Center’s founding chairman, KCACTF is a national theatre program working to improve the quality of college theatre in the United States. Comprised of 18,000 students from more than 600 academic institutions in eight different regions, KCACTF gives theatre departments and student artists the opportunity to showcase their work and receive outside assessment.
Earlier this year, KCACTF officials visited K and critiqued the work of the students in the theatre department. Gilmore and Worthington, along with 13 others K students, were nominated to attend the KCACTF Region III in Milwaukee. Three additional K students attended as part of their senior class seminar, and two others participated for professional growth and networking. The group joined 2,000 other theatre students from Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin for the weekend competition.
Gilmore, nominated for her performance in Romeo and Juliet, beat out 274 students for the prestigious Irene Ryan Acting Scholarship Award. Of the 16 finalists who competed in the final round of the competition, 13 of the 16 were post-undergraduates working on their M.F.A.
“I was absolutely shocked. We went into it clearly as underdogs,” Gilmore says. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would win. No one from K has ever won. When they said my name, I couldn’t believe it.”
She received a scholarship and an invitation to attend the National Festival.
Worthington was the only student nominated to attend the regional competition for her work on TWO (!) different entries in sound design. Her submission for Peer Gynt ended up taking top honors in Milwaukee—giving her a ticket to the National Festival, which turned out to also be an unplanned, but very welcome, trip home for this Bethesda, Maryland, native.
Neither Grace nor Lindsay took top honors at the National Festival, but they returned to Kalamazoo with a playbill full of experiences, contacts, job and internship opportunities, and memories to last a lifetime.
“I didn’t go into it thinking I would win,” says Worthington, who was awarded the Williamstown Theatre Festival Internship for Sound Design. “I don’t think I would have enjoyed it as much had I been stressed about the competition. Just being there, to me, felt like winning.”
A recent Kalamazoo College alumna is returning to a world stage and shooting for the stars. Emma Kristal ’18 will compete for the fifth time with Team USA July 28 to Aug. 4, 2018, in the World Space Modeling Championships of rocketry in Wloclawek, Poland.
Kristal, of Royal Oak, Michigan, wasn’t always sure she wanted to pursue rocketry. She said her dad was an encouraging influence, persuading her to attend her first National Association of Rocketry (NAR) competition.
“I didn’t want to go compete at first, but my dad had the time off and it was finally in Michigan,” she said of the competition. “He conned me into going by telling me it would be just for fun.”
Kristal set her first U.S. National Model Rocketry records in the E SuperRoc event during that competition. That led to more competitions and the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum accepting one of her rockets for its collection.
The Smithsonian “liked it because a fifth-grade girl used it to set a record and because I made it to look like a giant pink pencil,” Kristal said. Although the rocket is not on display, she hopes it one day might be.
In the nearly 11 years since, Kristal has:
• Set 21 NAR records in various events. Those records include 11 that were set Jan. 1, 2018, in Salome, Arizona, a single-day feat believed to be an unprecedented accomplishment for any individual NAR competitor.
• Won a U.S. national meet.
• Earned individual and team gold medals with Team USA in the world championships.
• Competed in countries such as Serbia, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Ukraine.
Her first event on the world stage in 2016 was the S2P Precision Fragile Payload. In that event, competitors tried to reach an altitude of 300 meters and a flight time of 60 seconds for three consecutive flights while not breaking an egg in the rocket. She was the flyer who came closest to the cumulative target without breaking or cracking her egg.
“The fun part is we can’t check between rounds whether the egg is cracked,” Kristal said. “It wasn’t until an hour after the final round had ended that I found out I was in first place.”
In this year’s Team USA tryouts, Kristal finished among the top three fliers in two events to qualify as a member of the squad. She will compete in both of those events in the world championships. They are:
• The streamer duration event in which competitors accumulate points throughout three flights based on how long a simple rocket stays in the air.
• The altitude event in which competitors fly two-stage rockets three times each with their highest single flight counting in the final standings.
Kristal said the overall experience of rocketry has been more than worthwhile as she has met people from all over the world. That experience pushes her to work harder and never give up when something goes wrong.
She also seeks to boost rocketry as an activity among children and teenagers. As youths flock to video games and online experiences, fewer of them are building things and developing hobbies, Kristal said, leading her to try some publicity on the side.
“It’s hard to make the case for building something with your hands when there’s something that can give so much more immediate gratification,” Kristal said. “Kids used to go to their local hobby store and build something. No one just goes to a hobby store to look for something to do anymore. People don’t even know about rocketry. They just don’t know that it’s an option.”
Kristal graduated June 17 after majoring in psychology and biology with a concentration in neuroscience and a minor in French. She hopes to continue on to medical school after taking some time off from her studies. In the meantime, she will continue pursuing rocketry as a lifetime member of the NAR. The membership was a present her dad recently gave her and she describes it as the best present she could’ve received.
“It’s nice to think that when I have kids someday, I’ll still be a member,” Kristal said.
For more information on the NAR, rocketry and the world championships, visit nar.org.