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Preparation for Turbulent Times

The College’s Alumni Relations department invited (via an e-mail titled “Welcome to the Class of 2017″) the friends and alumni of the College to share in this year’s Summer Common Reading experience, part of the annual Orientation program. SCR 2013 featured a campus visit by author Vaddey Ratner, who spoke with faculty, staff, and the first-year class that had read her book, In the Shadow of the Banyan. The e-mail invited alumni to “join in on the reading as you think about a new chapter that begins in the lives of our new K students, and remember your first year experiences through this process.” The e-mail also included an old photo (at left) of the inside of Stetson Chapel, and to its call was received at least one response–from Moses Thompson ’70, from quite a distance. “I am in remote, actually very remote, Zambia,” he wrote. “Nevertheless I will find the book on line and join in. Just looking at that photo of the chapel,” he added, “reminded me of the last time I was there, in 1970, well after midnight one evening, sitting in the balcony preparing to graduate and leave the next day: somehow a very powerful place. And musing over the cornerstone: ’The end of learning is gracious living’, which we enjoyed transposing as ’the end of yearning is gracious loving’. Yet, that chapel had a powerful effect on me. It was at a time when the College was in a great transition of culture change, not smooth but turbulent change: for the students then it was a transition from in loco parentis, required chapel, and closed dorms, to personal responsibility, choice about chapel, and mixed dorms–a huge uproar this caused at the time. Trivial issues of change when compared to the enormous and sweeping transformations about to be unleashed around the globe; still, in a microcosm these small changes captured the energy and heart of new directions. It was not to be a simple coming of age for a generation of young people pushing the limits of their local environment. This would be a change in the way we understood personal responsibility, in and beyond our narrow community and interests.

“In 1972 I became director of a predominantly black organization, hired by phone and assumed to be black because of my name, and spent a few years in the midst of the nation’s worst racial tension. I went on to 30 more years in international development assistance. And the decision, and to be sure the desire, to take on these challenges might have been formulated at K, perhaps that evening, in the dark of Stetson Chapel, seated in the back row of the balcony, feet up on the pew before me: chapel no longer required, now a choice. The locus of motivation had changed from the outside and others trying to coerce, to the inside with a personal desire to go out and create something of value.

“Kalamazoo is a wonderful college and a great place to prepare for turbulent times.”

Thompson would have enjoyed the ways in which, during the course of two days, the author, her novel, and its readers touched one another and learned from one another. Ratner posted her reflections of her experience at K. She wrote, “My journey there was as enriching, exciting, and full of life-affirming discoveries and learning as any fantastical adventure conjured up by the magic of imagination. Indeed, I felt I was walking into a sanctuary of learning, where the essence of youthful energy and curiosity is focused in a shared endeavor to know, to understand.”

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