A nonpartisan and nonprofit initiative is saluting Kalamazoo College today as one of 394 U.S. institutions doing the most in higher education to encourage student voting.
K is being recognized as a 2022 All-In Most-Engaged Campuses honoree, meaning that the College:
Reported its 2020 student voting data to the National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement (NSLVE), which is run through the Institute of Democracy and Higher Education (IDHE) at Tufts University.
Shared that data with the All-In Campus Democracy Challenge, an effort that strives to improve and increase democratic-engagement activities on college campuses.
Developed and submitted to the All-In challenge a 2022 voter-engagement action plan.
Signed on to a national list of institutional presidents committing their colleges to efforts that increase student turnout at the polls.
K Votes, the Mary Jane Underwood Stryker Center for Civic Engagement’s (CCE) nonpartisan coalition to inform the College’s students, faculty and staff members about voting and civic engagement, is the primary driver of K’s efforts in increasing voter participation. In 2020, K eclipsed national averages for voter turnout as 83.7 percent of the student body cast ballots in the presidential election. That rate was the highest among all campuses in Michigan and put K in the top 4 percent of colleges and universities nationally that reported their data to the IDHE.
K Votes representatives work in partnership with their student peers, the local League of Women Voters and the national Rock the Vote organization—which is led by Executive Director Caroline DeWitt ’04, a K alumna—to register new voters, mail absentee ballots, provide rides to the polls, and distribute candidate information with maps to local polling places.
Those endeavors are the hallmarks of a robust get-out-the-vote effort, currently led by CCE Program Associate Riley Gabriel ’20 and K Votes Civic Engagement Scholar Thomas Lichtenberg ’23, along with students, faculty, emeriti faculty and staff.
“In addition to CCE staff, we could not have done any of this without the rest of the K staff and faculty who were eager to help with driving, helping register voters, and just getting the word out,” Lichtenberg said. “We appreciated the contributions of students Eleanor Carr, Lyrica Gee and Abby Stump, who worked closely with the CCE’s Students for Reproductive Freedom, and we collaborated with the NAACP and League of Women Voters of the Kalamazoo Area, registering voters at the Women’s March and assisting with their candidate forums, led by the LWVKA’s MerriKay Oleen-Burkey and Denise Hartsough.”
“Young people are shaping our future in myriad ways, and their informed engagement in elections is vital,” CCE Director Alison Geist said. “The CCE is grateful to our student leaders and all of the people in our community, both on and off campus, who energetically encouraged and enabled students to vote, many for the first time. Voting isn’t a panacea for social change, but it helps.”
Growing up in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, near the border with Mexico, Canales saw many families separated due to immigration cases and other reasons. She herself spent time in foster care as a child and was adopted at age 13. Those experiences have shaped both her desire to volunteer and her plans for her future.
Canales has been heavily involved with the CCE, where Assistant Director Moises Hernandez ’17 has served as a mentor for her, and many of its partner organizations. She has worked with Kalamazoo dual-language elementary school El Sol, Latino community foundation El Concilio, and foster care organizations.
Majoring in art history, she plans to teach art for a few years before going to law school to become a child advocacy attorney.
For her CBI, Canales helped plan and run the EASEL arts and science experiential learning summer program for grades 1–5 at Eastside Youth Strong. The organization aims to help young people in the Eastside neighborhood in Kalamazoo graduate and develop social and emotional strength.
“When I read the mission statement of Eastside Youth Strong, I was really emotional about it,” Canales said. “I cried during my interview, and she told me, ‘It’s OK. It’s good that you’re passionate about children coming from low economic backgrounds and diverse backgrounds.’ Being with kids outside of the traditional school environment was important to me.”
Through the CBI, Canales was able to observe different teaching styles and also practice advocating for children.
“There were two different teachers in the program and they had such completely opposite teaching styles and ways of interacting with the kids,” Canales said. “I could pick and choose what I thought was working and what I thought wasn’t that great of a strategy for me personally. It was almost like shadowing in a classroom; it was a lot of input in how I would like to run my own classroom.”
In addition to helping with lesson planning, Canales was responsible for ensuring the students’ physical, social and emotional needs were being met.
“A lot of it was making sure everybody felt comfortable, everybody was respectful, everybody was having fun while learning,” Canales said. “While the teachers were teaching, my job was to make sure the kids felt like they were being heard, they were being seen. If they needed anything, I was the one to make those calls to parents, like, ‘Hey, does your kid need shoes? We can get them shoes.’ Or, ‘Your kid said they can’t eat XYZ, we’re going to work to get them a lunch provided that they can eat with their dietary or religious needs.’ Making sure the kids felt supported was my role.”
While Canales was initially intimidated by that role, by the end of the program she found herself feeling connected to the families and pleased that she made a difference. Many parents expressed appreciation for her efforts, and some asked her to babysit or tutor their children.
Watching kids who started the program shy and reserved blossom in confidence was Canales’ favorite part of the internship.
“It was so special seeing them grow and be more confident in themselves,” Canales said.
Canales learned a lot about supporting students’ social and emotional growth through the CBI.
“A lot of what I was learning was about the social emotional stages the kids are in, never getting upset or showing that you’re upset about something, no matter how stressful the kids’ behaviors could be,” she said. “I was always trying to find a solution and be the one in control of the tone, the mood, everything, and understand where these kids are coming from.”
Canales hopes to stay involved with Eastside Youth Strong in the future.
“I really appreciate that a lot of the people are women or people of color and that they do programs all year round,” she said. “You can really tell that they care about where these kids are coming from and where they’re going.”
In addition to the CCE, Canales has been heavily involved at K with the Pre-Law Society, Women of Color Alliance, Anime Club and K Desi, and this year she will serve as an interfaith leader. She has worked in the library, where Collection Services Librarian Leslie Burke and Digital Services Librarian Ethan Cutler particularly mentored her with helpful conversations about life after college. Professor of Art and Art History Christine Hahn and Assistant Professor of Japanese Brian White have also been mentors for Canales.
“I feel like so many people at K have impacted me,” Canales said.
She is grateful for the opportunity to pay that forward to the young students on the east side.
“As a full-time student who has to work, I don’t always have time for everything I want to do,” Canales said. “But I do my best to help when I can.”
Tom Massura, an instrument technician in both the physics department and chemistry and biochemistry department at Kalamazoo College, is this year’s recipient of the Lux Esto Award of Excellence. The award, announced Friday to celebrate Founders Day, marking the College’s 189th year, recognizes an employee who has served the institution for at least 26 years and has a record of stewardship and innovation.
The recipient—chosen by a committee with student, faculty and staff representatives—is an employee who exemplifies the spirit of K through excellent leadership, selfless dedication and goodwill. Massura started at the College in 1987. Today, he maintains more than 50 machines used exclusively in the College’s Science Division while managing general science instrumentation and setting up physics labs.
Massura’s “kindness, patience, quick wit and positive attitude brighten the days of everyone he interacts with,” Kalamazoo College President Jorge G. Gonzalez said in presenting the award. “Nominators noted how helpful, dedicated and easy to work with he is with a sense of humor that helps days move along even when they’re challenging. His considerable technical expertise has helped generations of science students.”
In accordance with Founders Day traditions, two other employees received individual awards. Assistant Professor of Music Chris Ludwa was given the Outstanding Advisor Award and Associate Professor of Chemistry Jennifer Furchak received the First-Year Advocate Award.
Ludwa is the director of K’s College Singers, the Lux Esto Chamber Choir and the Kalamazoo Bach Festival. Before arriving at K, he served as the director of music at the Federated Church Cleveland, where he led four ensembles, presented an annual concert series and maintained a voice studio for exceptional singers enrolled in performing arts academies and high schools.
Nominators for the award said Ludwa is always a thoughtful and kind source of advice and encouragement, and Gonzalez added Ludwa is being honored for his “caring commitment and dedication to the growth and well-being of our students.”
Furchak teaches courses in chemical composition and structure, analytical chemistry and instrumental analysis. Her research interests are in analytical separations and spectroscopy.
Furchak has, through her first-year seminar, “not only illustrated how scientific work needed to evolve into a more equitable and inclusive form, but how our own work will contribute to this institutional shift and real, tangible benefits,” Gonzalez said. “Her instruction illustrates the importance of being one’s authentic self while pursuing one’s aspirations, scientific or not.”
Student soloists Julia Ghazal and Sophia Merchant also performed and, in a special appearance, State Rep. Julie Rogers attended Founders Day to present an honorary certificate to the Mary Jane Underwood Stryker Center for Civic Engagement to recognize its 20th anniversary. The certificate was signed by all the state representatives and state senators from Kalamazoo County, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist.
“In looking back over 20 years of the Mary Jane Underwood Stryker Center for Civic Engagement’s history, it’s clear that the hard work of the faculty and students has impacted many,” the certificate says. “Through thoughtful and ethical engagement, students gain skills, knowledge and critical perspectives that prepare them for meaningful careers and a lifelong commitment to the public good.”
CESs are student leaders who work through the Mary Jane Underwood Stryker Center for Civic Engagement (CCE) to coordinate ongoing community partnerships with Kalamazoo organizations that promote literacy, youth development, gender equity, food security and sustainability, immigrant rights, health equity, voting rights, the arts and more.
Independently or in pairs, scholars work with community liaisons and recruit and manage K students who participate as volunteers or through federal work study. CCE staff provides support while allowing CESs the freedom to shape and manage their program.
CESs also participate in reflection sessions with other scholars, and run reflection sessions for the K students involved in their programs.
With a wide variety of programs and community partners, the CCE offers diverse opportunities for students seeking a leadership role in engaging with the local community. Some shape students’ path after Kalamazoo College; all teach valuable skills. Read on for the stories of three current CESs and their advice to other Kalamazoo College students.
Reyna Rodriguez, El Sol Elementary CES
In her second year at K, Reyna Rodriguez ’22 committed through the CCE to volunteer at El Sol Elementary, a Kalamazoo magnet school with dual language immersion where all students spend half their instructional time in Spanish and half in English.
“I knew being able to speak Spanish to those kids was going to feel a little bit like I was home,” Rodriguez said. “I loved it. I grew up thinking I wanted to be a teacher and while I had steered away from that path, being in the classroom has steered me back into education.”
After spending the 2020-21 school year learning remotely, Rodriguez applied to be a CES for the El Sol program. In that role, she has recruited, educated, interviewed and submitted background checks on K students, coordinated their schedules with El Sol, and participated in and led structured reflections.
“I’ve enjoyed it more than being a volunteer, because I get to see more of the behind-the-scenes work,” Rodriguez said. “While I’ve been in school settings, tutoring and things like that, I never thought, ‘How is this possible that we can enter the schools?’ Seeing the logistics and rules the district has, like background checks, is going to be important for my future work.”
Observing different teaching styles in the classroom has also been a valuable experience for Rodriguez. A chemistry major with a minor in psychology, Rodriguez currently plans to take one gap year to work in an elementary school or continue her job in adult computer literacy before going into a master’s program for educational administration or leadership.
Leading the reflections was a learning process, from the big picture—finding ideas and researching—to the little details, such as reserving a room.
“My winter quarter, I led a reflection about social emotional learning,” Rodriguez said. “I talked about what I learned in my SIP (Senior Integrated Project), which was on some of the challenges that English learners were facing in virtual learning, and what we could do about that.”
Rodriguez has also led reflections on learning how Kalamazoo city government works, as well as other aspects of Kalamazoo and the Vine neighborhood, where El Sol is located.
“K students are residents of this community,” she said. “Do they know the local restaurants and local shops; do they support them?”
Rodriguez enjoys the structured reflections CCE staff puts on for the CESs.
“I’ve been able to appreciate that more because I know what it takes to lead them,” Rodriguez said. “I love the CCE. I feel like they’re a close-knit family. They’re definitely always checking in, respond quickly and are always ready to support us.”
For students interested in the CES role, Rodriguez said, it is important to understand there is a lot of behind-the-scenes work and to be organized and ready to help both the community partners and the K students who participate. She encourages all students to consider working with a CCE program even if they are not yet ready to fill the CES role.
“As long as you have a year of experience in the program under your belt, you’re more than ready to take a bigger step,” Rodriguez said. “Just be ready to make a difference in their lives and yours as well.”
Emmeline Wendel, Students for Reproductive Freedom CES
Emmeline Wendel ’24 spent her first year at Kalamazoo College virtual due to COVID-19. Learning virtually from Seattle, Wendel knew she needed to find ways to engage with other students and the K community. After looking into a few student clubs, she connected with Students for Reproductive Freedom.
“I found a bit of myself in that program because I’m adopted from China and was personally impacted by governmental family planning,” Wendel said. “I thought it would be a good way to look at the different intersections of my life and my journey and also learn more about a topic I’m passionate about.”
Wendel began attending the weekly virtual meetings, making an effort to engage and share her thoughts—something that did not come naturally for her.
“In high school, I wasn’t a very outspoken individual,” Wendel said. “It was only my senior year that I found my voice. One of my goals for college was to integrate and engage and get to know many students.”
Wendel’s passion for the topic helped her overcome her shy feelings, and the CES that year, Ruth Butters, took note and invited her to help plan a meeting. Eventually, Butters invited Wendel to apply to be her co-CES for the 2021-22 school year.
“I’m very grateful she reached out,” Wendel said. “I consulted with Ruth a lot about what the position was, what it would entail, the responsibilities, any advice she would give me.”
Wendel decided to apply for the CES position based on the benefits she thought it would afford both herself and others.
“I wanted to have the space to explore my own personal reflections, and also hear what others think and reflect on their thoughts and opinions and questions,” Wendel said. “I wanted both to raise my own voice and to be a part of the K community.”
SRF works with community partners OutFront Kalamazoo and Planned Parenthood as well as other student organizations to help educate students, facilitate discussions and host events.
“I’ve met so many wonderful individuals who are passionate about what they do and are making a positive impact on the Kalamazoo community and Kalamazoo College students,” Wendel said. “It’s inspirational to see how hard people work and it’s rewarding to make those connections.”
Working with the CCE has been a positive experience as well.
“I have really enjoyed working with my advisor, Riley Gabriel,” Wendel said. “They are super understanding and kind and communicative. We meet weekly to check in and see how SRF is going. I appreciate their support. I also often communicate with Alison Geist. They are both amazing coworkers and delightful to chat with, helpful with brainstorming and organizing logistics, and a lot of fun.”
Wendel has learned a lot from the CES role.
“One thing I’ve learned is how important it is to go into a community and listen and respect their boundaries, requests, decisions and community guidelines,” Wendel said. “I hope and believe Ruth and I are trying to support and spread awareness of the issues the community wants to have and needs to have addressed.”
The job has also improved her interpersonal skills.
“I feel like I’m much better at making connections than I was—talking with people for the first time, reaching out and using my voice in a larger community setting,” Wendel said. “I was very shy and didn’t like talking. I would engage through writing and art, not orally. I have found my voice through the CES role.”
Engaging and getting involved is key for all students, Wendel said, especially those coming from far away.
“For all students, I would really advise getting connected and engaging with the CCE,” Wendel said. “It has provided space for me to reflect individually, and also given me a powerful mindset in how community plays a huge role in many intersections of discussions. For out-of-state students, I highly suggest it. Being away from home can feel lonely at first. It has been really powerful to work together with passionate individuals and integrate myself into the community in a way that respects the community.
“I’m very grateful for the opportunity.”
Ryley White, Woodward Elementary CES
Ryley White ’23 started at K in fall 2019 and learned about the CCE’s CAPS (Community Advocates for Parents and Students) program at her first K Fest. She quickly fell in love with the program, which provides tutoring for Kalamazoo Public Schools students who live at Interfaith Homes on the city’s north side.
“Having a chance to connect with the community, especially a community that I identify with, was empowering,” White said. “Sometimes as K students, we forget the power we have, and that’s the power to make change. Just being consistent with tutoring makes a big difference in those kids’ lives.”
The CES for the CAPS program, Aarzoo Qureshi, inspired White to apply to be a CES, a process that was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. She spent her sophomore year taking K classes remotely while working at a childcare facility that provided remote tutoring camp for elementary students. In the spring of that year, White applied to be a CES for the CAPS program. The CCE staff, however, thought she would be a better fit for the Woodward Elementary program.
“I thought, I’ll take it, because there must be something they see in me that I’m not seeing in myself,’” White said. “I thought I would give it a shot and see how it goes, and I’ve loved it ever since.
“The CCE staff knows the community partners; they know the needs of each program, so people should go in with an open mindset.”
White started as a CES for Woodward in the fall of 2021. The fall quarter was heavy on recruitment at K events, working to rebuild the program after COVID-19 interruptions. White also instituted interviews with K students who signed up to participate, leaning on her childcare experience to discern if participants were a good fit for working with children. During winter quarter, White took the initiative to recruit more diverse K participants.
“The students at Woodward are predominantly African American,” White said. “We wanted them to see more representation of themselves. Currently, about 50% of our K participants identify as students of color, which is really great for the kids.”
In addition to recruiting K students, White communicates with a community partner at Woodward to coordinate scheduling, taking into account teacher needs and student availability, while juggling issues that pop up, such as snow days and COVID-19 contact tracing.
Leading and participating in reflections is a crucial piece of the program.
“The last reflection we did was about how COVID-19 has impacted education,” White said. “We watched a YouTube video from the Harvard Dean of Education talking about how remote learning has caused delays or additional setbacks. Then we asked our participants to talk about how they see this happening with our students or what they think we should do with this information moving forward. Structured reflections provide a chance to think about why we’re doing the work we’re doing and I think that’s critical. We probably all volunteered in high school, but I don’t think that we actually thought about the work we were doing and engaged meaningfully, which is something the CCE does very well.”
The CCE also promotes work-life balance, White said.
“The staff is really good at trying to get student workers to think about how we can be better leaders while also taking care of ourselves,” White said.
The CES role has taught White about setting boundaries and interpersonal communication.
“It can be awkward managing your peers,” White said, especially if there are issues with a student’s attendance or performance. “You have to be okay with setting firm boundaries because you have to think about what’s best for your community partner/program, and in my role, I also have to think about what’s best for the kids.”
The role has also honed her public speaking and pushed her to speak up and advocate for her program.
“I was never a huge talker,” White said. “I was kind of shy. In this role, you’re forced out of that bubble. If you want participants for your program, you’re going to have to learn to advocate.”
White has also benefitted from seeing and building connections between her psychology classes, her interactions with students at Woodward, her work as a certified nursing assistant and her plans to apply to physician assistant school after graduation.
“The CCE supervisors are so amazing and supportive,” White said. “If I have any ideas or have something I want to chat with them about, they’re always open to having those conversations. They’ll say, ‘That’s a good point. I didn’t think about that,’ or, ‘What do you think is the best way to go about that?’ Sometimes on campus jobs, you’re just told what you have to do and you just do it. This role allows independence and the ability to make bigger decisions that can shape how your program moves forward. The amount of independence and self-sufficiency you have is something unique to the CCE.”
White plans to serve as Woodward CES again her last year at K. She said students who are interested in the CES roles should talk with current CESs.
“Hearing the student perspective and getting a deeper understanding is more impactful than just reading the bullet points listed on the job application,” White said. “Even though this role can seem overwhelming, once you are a CES, you will see the flexibility and support that you have from other CESs and the CCE staff. You will know there’s a whole community of people who rooting for you to succeed and are more than willing to help you in various ways.”
Students should not be afraid to apply, White said.
“Get out of the K bubble. We’re here for four years, get out and connect with the community. There’s work you could be doing that’s so impactful and meaningful and it will change your life in ways you never expected.”
Student actors, through monologues about abortion, will dramatize experiences that were shared in interviews. A talk-back panel discussion on reproductive justice will follow the event. Snacks will be provided. Attendees must wear masks, be fully vaccinated and show proof of vaccination with ID.
Kalamazoo College announced today it has received a $5.25 million gift in support of its Brighter Light Campaign from alumnus Larry Bell ’80.
This transformative gift will establish endowed funds to support the Center for Environmental Stewardship, a distinguished chair in American history, and food justice and sustainability programming. Additional funds will support both the Larry J. Bell ’80 Endowed Scholarship, which was established in 2017, and the Kalamazoo College Fund, which provides immediate funding toward financial aid and the student experience.
“I am proud to support Kalamazoo College with this gift and I look forward to seeing the resulting positive outcomes for K’s students,” Bell said. “I hope that the coming Larry J. Bell Library Foundation can be a help and resource to the history department in the future, and having an endowed chair there will elevate and strengthen this part of the College.”
As a student at K, Bell majored in political science before going on to found Bell’s Brewery Inc. in 1985. Since then, Bell’s has grown into one of the largest craft breweries in America, distributing to 43 states, in addition to Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. In November 2021, Bell reached an agreement with Lion, an Australian-based brewer, for the sale of Bell’s. The move will see the Michigan-based craft brewer come together with Colorado’s New Belgium, which Lion acquired in 2019, aligning two great American craft brewers. Bell officially retired from the helm of Bell’s Brewery at the end of 2021.
Bell has long been an active supporter of the College. Along with the scholarship he established in 2017 for students with financial need, in 2006 he contributed to an endowment named for his friend and mentor, Paul Todd ’42. His funding to support K’s food justice initiatives over the last decade has been crucial to the College’s student-led programming through the Mary Jane Underwood Stryker Center for Civic Engagement, allowing the center to maximize the impact of this programming in the Kalamazoo community.
“Larry’s investment in Kalamazoo College has supported and will continue to support the College’s experiential education offerings, as well as faculty teaching and scholarship for years to come,” President Jorge G. Gonzalez said. “His gift to endow and name the Larry J. Bell ’80 Center for Environmental Stewardship, for example, will help us enhance the curriculum, integrate these curricular initiatives with student organizations and provide new ways for students to engage in environmental leadership efforts on our campus and throughout the greater Kalamazoo community. We are so grateful for Larry’s generous support and commitment toward expanding opportunities and access for our students.”
About Kalamazoo College
Kalamazoo College, founded in 1833, is a nationally recognized residential liberal arts and sciences college located in Kalamazoo, Mich. The creator of the K-Plan, Kalamazoo College provides an individualized education that integrates rigorous academics with life-changing experiential learning opportunities. For more information, visit www.kzoo.edu.
The Brighter Light Campaign is raising $150 million to provide endowed and annual support for students, faculty and staff, curricular and co-curricular activities, athletics and campus facilities. For more information, visit the Brighter Light Campaign page: www.kzoo.edu/brighterlight
For 20 years, the Mary Jane Underwood Center for Civic Engagement (CCE) has prepared students to build a more just, equitable and sustainable world, starting here in Kalamazoo.
Civic engagement takes place in courses and research, through student-led programs, and during summer internships, all involving long-term community partnerships. Within these interconnected programs and partnerships, students work alongside local residents and organizations to address complex and interrelated issues in food justice, educational and health equity, neurodiversity, reproductive rights, youth development, girls’ leadership and immigrant rights. Through thoughtful and ethical engagement, students gain skills, knowledge and critical perspectives that prepare them well for meaningful careers and a lifelong commitment to the public good.
Works with faculty to develop and support more than 20 community-based courses, offering logistical support, small grants and faculty stipends, pedagogy workshops and community connections.
Trains, guides and supervises students who get hands-on experience as paid civic engagement scholars coordinating ongoing community partnerships. They lead their peers—more than 200 students in a typical term—who work in Kalamazoo organizations that promote literacy, youth development and college attainment; food security and sustainability; immigrant rights and the arts. Students work every week and can earn their federal work study or serve as volunteers with programs that include Kalamazoo Public Schools, Kalamazoo County ID and Juvenile Home, Goodwill Adult Literacy and other non-profits.
Administers the Summer Community Building Internships (CBIs) program that connects K students with at least 20 of the CCE’s local partners, from AACORN Farms to the YWCA of Kalamazoo. Interns, selected with assistance from K’s Center for Career and Professional Development (CCPD) and the Financial Aid Office, are on the job for 30 to 40 hours a week for six weeks while earning a stipend, meeting as a group with CCE staff for dinner and reflection once a week.
In the mid- to late 1990s, a national movement to connect communities and campuses inspired a small group of faculty, staff and community partners to do just that. Those who participated in these service-learning classes observed that they could be of reciprocal benefit to community residents, organizations, K students and the College itself. The College’s long commitment to experiential learning and the K-Plan made it receptive to these civic engagement initiatives, which are rooted in the liberal arts.
“This work grew straight out of the College’s mission and history,” said Alison Geist, the director of the CCE and K’s Community and Global Health concentration. “It is a renewal and recommitment to K’s fellowship in learning, not just on campus but in Kalamazoo. For more than 50 years, K had been sending students across oceans to study. What about encouraging students to cross the street to learn from our own community? So K was ready to support the idea of students engaging locally through courses and then on an ongoing basis.”
Among their first course-based partnerships were two that remain vital today. Building Blocks, an organization supporting low- to medium-income neighborhood-association projects, was founded in 1995 through a sociology course at K offered by Professor Emeritus Kim Cummings. In addition, a partnership with Woodward Elementary, a Kalamazoo Public School two blocks from campus, was seeded when Kenneth Mulder ’92, who was teaching in K’s math department at the time, arranged for students in his calculus class to tutor there.
The success and the potential of these initiatives, for both K and its partners, inspired Ronda Stryker and Bill Johnston to endow the Center in 2001 with a $1.5 million gift that honors her grandmother, Mary Jane Underwood Stryker, a schoolteacher; and Stryker’s friend, Marilyn LaPlante, a former dean of students at K. This endowment and vote of confidence, along with grants from national and local organizations, enabled the CCE to expand its programming and gradually grow. With anonymous donations, endowments from alumni and space in Dewing Hall, the CCE took its place among the College’s Centers for Experiential Learning, and today works with about 45 community partners.
If the last 20 years is an indication, the CCE will keep changing and growing.
“Civic engagement is necessary for democracy to thrive, and like anything we study, it takes both theory and practice to learn,” Geist said. “Ideally, learning from communities should be woven throughout the curriculum and into the lives we lead after K. That’s why we’re developing new ways to intertwine and integrate community-based learning on and off campus across disciplines and boundaries and connect alumni and current students to inspire one another as they work on compelling contemporary issues.”
Alumni Praise Their Civic Engagement Experiences
The CCE kicked off its platinum anniversary this fall with a party at Homecoming 2021. More than 150 alumni, students, faculty, staff and community partners reunited to share stories, photographs and the accomplishments of thousands of students and dozens of community partners who have collaboratively contributed to the city we call home.
The event was held in a tent next to the campus Hoop House, a CCE-led initiative imagined, built and maintained by students in the Just Food Collective, and their staff mentor, Amy Newday. At the event, the CCE presented video testimonies from K alumni who have participated in its programs over the past 20 years to mark its anniversary. Among those who credit the CCE with influencing their pathways and passions is J. Cooper Wilson ’11, a teacher in New York City Public Schools, who volunteered to tutor non-native English-speaking students in Kalamazoo schools during his time at K.
“When you become a Civic Engagement Scholar, you are the leader who runs your program,” Wilson said. “It’s a combination of student leadership and a comprehensive vision of social change that makes the CCE really special.”
Sashae Mitchell ’13 learned of the CCE during her first weeks on campus, shortly after arriving from her native Jamaica. She ended up participating in a couple of CCE programs, including Community Advocates for Parents and Students (CAPS) as a tutor. The program, founded by Kalamazoo educators, offers enrichment programs for youth who live at Interfaith Homes Neighborhood Network Center, making it accessible for the youth and their families who live there.
“I fell in love with CAPS, I fell in love with the students, I fell in love with the people in charge of CAPS, and I felt like that was my thing,” Mitchell said. “It was my niche. Sometimes at K, I didn’t feel like I belonged or that it was my space. Interfaith Homes gave me that sense of belonging.” Mitchell, who also worked as a staff member in the CCE for a year after graduation, now runs her own math education business in Jamaica.
Arianna Schindle ’08 chose Columbia University in New York over K when she began her journey in higher education. At the time, she worked for a conflict-resolution group called Seeds of Peace. However, she desired more opportunities to pursue social justice within community engagement.
Schindle reapplied and transferred to K. Today, Schindle is the founder of the Rhiza Collective, a women-led group of cultural workers and facilitators using storytelling, healing, organizing and research to support social transformation and environmental justice.
“I think community engagement is something all colleges and universities should do,” Schindle said. “It’s taking learning and putting it into action. You transform the community with every lesson you learn. It’s seeing learning as something that lives outside our classrooms. It connects people in the community with some of the vital resources universities can offer, including students, energies, time and new learning.”
The United Nations can count on a Kalamazoo College student group along with its networks and outgrowing nonprofit organization to embody the spirit of Human Rights Day—which is every December 10—on any day of the year.
The U.N. observes the day to mark the anniversary of the General Assembly adopting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948. The declaration proclaims a series of inalienable rights to which everyone is entitled regardless of one’s race, color, religion, sex, language, opinions, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. According to the U.N., it’s the most-translated document in the world given that it’s available in more than 500 languages.
This year’s theme for Human Rights Day is “Equality: Reducing Inequalities, Advancing Human Rights.” Equality includes addressing and finding solutions for deep-rooted forms of discrimination that have affected the most vulnerable people in societies including women and girls, indigenous peoples, people of African descent, the LGBTQ community, migrants and displaced people, and people with disabilities, among others.
Within those groups of vulnerable people, those who face displacement have advocates in the Refugee Outreach Collective (ROC). The group, first organized as Refugee Outreach Kalamazoo at K in 2017, has since grown to seven campuses in Michigan—including Western Michigan University, Grand Valley State University and Michigan State University—and has even become a full-fledged nonprofit organization with national and international reach.
Emily Worline ’19, who is now in law school at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, was the founder of ROC at K and still carries out official duties as the full organization’s chairperson. She’s been inspired to extend her work with ROC as a result of witnessing first hand the conditions at refugee camps around the world.
“The unifying factor at all of these camps is that no one wants to be there,” Worline said. “ROC works to shake the narrative that encampments are normal places to house people by organizing advocacy efforts and leveraging networks to alleviate the injustices people face while living there.”
In staying involved, Worline oversees ROC’s Global Classroom, a program that helps displaced individuals from the Dzaleka Refugee Camp in Malawi, Africa, get access to university-level educational opportunities through digital courses at Michigan campuses, such as Northern and Central Michigan universities, while offering one-on-one tutoring assistance. The courses combine theory and practice to create space for students to challenge themselves intellectually and learn skills. The first cohort of students is working to receive their associate’s degrees.
“One hope is it will bolster their asylum claim and provide a better chance to resettle somewhere,” Worline said. “Oftentimes, when people are able to prove they have network connections, that can also help the process of resettlement. The other hope is that they can get a job in Malawi with a recognized, accredited associate’s degree.”
Currently at K, ROC amplifies narratives involving migrant and displaced communities through alliance and relationship building. In other words, it collaborates with local organizations in its efforts to make the Kalamazoo community a more welcoming and inclusive place for students and families of diverse backgrounds. Maddy Harding ’22 serves as the organization’s president.
“We have the chance to work directly with people at refugee camps overseas, but additionally, we’re able to have volunteer programs that help recently resettled refugees in the Kalamazoo area,” she said. “I think that’s pretty unique. When I first started with ROC, we had a family partnership program in which I would go into recently resettled refugees’ homes and help out the family in any way I could. I’ve learned how to interact with people who have cultural differences from me and I love that.”
One of these programs is the Homework Champions Tutoring program, which was developed in partnership with K’s Mary Jane Underwood Stryker Center for Civic Engagement (CCE) and the local ROC. The tutoring benefits displaced students in Kalamazoo Public Schools. Katia Duoibes ’23, a civic engagement scholar, helped the program start virtually during the pandemic.
“There previously was an afterschool program that I joined at Maple Street Middle School with Emily Worline,” Duoibes said. “When the pandemic hit, I was close with all of those students. I was contacting them and we were still working together virtually because all of their support systems and the support they received completely stopped. That spring, it was me and some other tutors who were doing that program just informally, helping them virtually with their homework.”
That effort continued through fall 2020 as she and Worline reached out to Samaritas, a Michigan social services nonprofit, which helped ROC connect with more resettling refugees. Afterward, about 20 tutors were paired with students who needed help through winter.
The program kept growing when Duoibes and Worline later connected the local ROC and Western Michigan University Professor of Educational Foundations Dini Metro-Roland to make the tutoring a service-learning component for the professor’s introductory education course, allowing 50 WMU students to join their efforts.
“Emily and I quickly realized that we needed a lot more administrative instructional support to keep the program growing and improving, so I was connected with the CCE,” Duoibes said.
CCE representatives including Associate Director Teresa Denton were ecstatic to add this program to the its previous initiatives working with the English as Second Language programs at Kalamazoo Public Schools. Now, Duoibes and Sydney Lenzini ’24, another civic engagement scholar, are working to restart the tutoring program’s in-person components.
“I’m inspired by educational equity, especially in public education,” Lenzini said. “Growing up in Chicago, I saw very unequal opportunities in the public-school system. Some kids got a lot of resources and others didn’t. I feel that can be internalized, and then create a lot of problems down the road. In the realm of public education equity, I feel like all students can succeed. Some students just need different support systems, and public-school systems often can’t or don’t want to provide those supports. I feel education is powerful. I think addressing educational inequities is a big step because education and access to it is like freedom.”
The CCE will couple its efforts with the Homework Champions Tutoring program with a service-learning course at K next term that will help more KPS students whose families are new to Kalamazoo. Plus, the ROC nonprofit will continue its international outreach with open-to-the-public events and fundraising for the sake of advocacy, outreach to people subjected to poverty and socio-political constraints such as refugee camps, and connecting individuals to job opportunities, internet access, healing circles and more through its existing networks of people and organizations.
“ROC’s biggest focus right now is on education,” Worline said. “We’re opening doors to making educational spaces more accessible. With every camp I visit, whether that be at the U.S.-Mexico border, in Greece and Serbia, or in Malawi, it’s very obvious that displaced people are being pushed to the very margins of society. They’re excluded from participating in various political processes. They’re excluded from attending college. Their movement is restricted. And to me, the idea of just excluding an entire 84 million people from the rest of society is a huge violation of human rights. I think ROC efforts are placed in reversing that and trying to make it so people aren’t so excluded.”
Kalamazoo College eclipsed national averages for voter turnout in 2020 as 83.7 percent of the student body cast ballots in last year’s presidential election. For that achievement, the Institute of Democracy and Higher Education (IDHE) at Tufts University has awarded K its platinum seal in the All-In Democracy Challenge, marking the colleges who achieved voter-participation rates of 80 to 89 percent.
K is the only campus in Michigan and one of 48 out of about 1,200 participating institutions nationwide to receive the honor. That puts K in the top 4 percent of colleges and universities in the country for its voter turnout among the institutions reporting. The primary cause for the outstanding benchmark at the polls, according to IDHE, is unclear. However, Center for Civic Engagement (CCE) Director Alison Geist credited K Votes, the CCE’s non-partisan coalition to inform the College’s students, faculty and staff members about voting and civic engagement, for its efforts in boosting the College’s voter participation.
Based on a look at incomplete data for 2016, K’s student voting rate was estimated at 54.1 percent, which was in line with that year’s national average. But in 2020, K Votes representatives worked in partnership with their student peers, the local League of Women Voters and the national Rock the Vote organization, which is led by Executive Director Caroline DeWitt ’04, a K alumna. Those partnerships helped K Votes provide services such as new-voter registration, the mailing of absentee ballots, rides to the polls, and the distribution of candidate information and maps to local polling places.
“I am proud of K’s students, especially the CCE’s K Votes Civic Engagement Scholars, Kaitlyn Dexter and Mahum Khan,” Geist said. “They were so ably led by then-Assistant Director Emily Kowey ’17, whose dedication and creativity, in the midst of a pandemic, drove the College’s impressive turnout and registration rates in the 2020 election. Voting is but a small part of what we mean by civic engagement, but it is essential to our communities and democracy, and it seems particularly so as voting rights are increasingly under siege.”
The IDHE’s report, titled the National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement (NSLVE), notes the national average of voting rates was 66 percent this year, putting K well above it. However, the report also shows K must continue to encourage students of color to vote, as their participation rates generally trailed those of white students. About 53 percent of K’s Asian students, and 66 percent of Black and Hispanic students voted in 2020 compared with 88 percent of white students.
The NSLVE is the nation’s largest study of college and university student voting. It measured voter turnout at campuses ranging from community colleges to research universities, women’s colleges, historically Black colleges, state universities and private schools. The dataset reflects all 50 states and the District of Columbia, includes 49 of the nation’s 50 flagship schools and tracks nearly 8.9 million voting-eligible students.
“That students, often younger and first-time voters, turned out at rates commensurate with the general public in 2020 is nothing short of stunning,” IDHE Director Nancy Thomas said. “We attribute this high level of participation to many factors, including student activism on issues such as racial injustice, global climate change and voter suppression, as well as increased efforts by educators to reach students and connect them to the issues and to voting resources.”
As an aspiring librarian, Nionni Permelia ’22 knows much of her job one day will involve community engagement.
“You have to know so much about literature, but you have to know so much about your community as well,” said Permelia, an English major from Battle Creek. “People might come in to a library for résumé help or to learn how to print and fax. They also might come in because they don’t know where their next meal is coming from. They might ask, ‘I don’t know where I can go to get fresh food. Can you help me?’ Being a librarian means you have to know a lot about everything around you so you can give people those resources.”
That idea made a Community Building Internship (CBI) this summer an ideal opportunity for her. Permelia was among the K students who worked at local organizations from AACORN Farms to the YWCA of Kalamazoo in CBIs through the Center for Civic Engagement and the Center for Career and Professional Development. The positions, offered each year, last about six to eight weeks, and interns are on the job for 30 to 40 hours a week while earning a stipend.
Permelia worked for Zoo City Farm and Food Network, a nonprofit organization founded and operated by Black women, that centers Black women’s voices and experiences while designing a comprehensive, responsible and sustainable food-industry ecosystem that is beneficial for everyone. In other words, they want everyone to have access to fresh, healthful food regardless of who they are and their economic status.
“Fresh food should be a human right for everyone,” Permelia said.
On a regional level, the organization nurtures food sovereignty by expanding food systems literacy in communities that have little to no education on the food ecosystem, primarily in Kalamazoo and Battle Creek. Outside Michigan, Zoo City wants to make its model accessible for communities across the country. While its model is designed with Kalamazoo and Battle Creek in mind, the organization welcomes partnerships with cities around the U.S. that could benefit from initiatives that champion food sovereignty.
“In the inner city of Battle Creek, there are no grocery stores. Battle Creek sits in a food desert,” Permelia said. “My work with Zoo City and their Food and Farm Network helps them create a framework for how places like Battle Creek could eliminate their droughts in food systems.”
Permelia used her writing skills to develop email templates for Zoo City that will allow the organization to approach volunteers about its initiatives and how they can help. One of those initiatives helps farmers and small businesses sell the food they make at a farmer’s market in Kalamazoo.
“Zoo City purchases the booth, and local businesses who might not be able to pay for their own booth take it over,” Permelia said. “The community gets access to fresh food that way, and hopefully, the businesses and farmers will have more people visiting them outside the booth.”
Permelia also performed research for the organization’s Zoo Syndicate, a visual editorial that will show local residents how food is connected to everything.
“I helped them do research on graffiti art and urban interventionism, which are very different to, yet very similar to Zoo City’s core values,” she said. “Graffiti art connects to their initiative of urban farming because it usually happens on vacant property. The idea is that even vacant parking lots can become safe places for neighborhood activities. Instead of figuring out how we can make money off of it by developing houses the neighborhood can’t afford, why not grow food there? It might prevent higher taxes and living costs that make the neighborhood unlivable because people can’t afford it anymore.”
As a result, in addition to the job experience relatable to her future career and the opportunity to be involved in the community, Permelia learned about the administrative roles of people such as Zoo City co-founder Remi Harrington, making the internship beneficial on multiple levels.
“I thought I might be gardening and growing food, but I got to see the admin side of things,” she said. “That inspired me. I saw how people’s ideas to help others can actually come to life. It was amazing to see people like Remi writing all of her plans on a board, before I got to go to a farmer’s market or neighborhood event to see it happen. It was amazing to see it come to fruition.”
She adds, “I’d never worked for an organization owned by Black women before, which is really sad, yet this showed that I could have an opportunity to do it. Getting to see a Black-women led organization helped me to realize that I am also able to bring my writings and ideas to life. Not only that, but it’s possible for me to lead. It’s possible for all Black women to lead and see their imagination become reality. Remi has so many beautiful ideas for Zoo City. I am so happy we all get to witness her work and continue to see her vision unfold.”