Good Business ‘Scents’: K Triple Major Launches Fragrance Company

Darsalam Amir examining the supplies that go into her scents
Darsalam Amir ’24, a triple major in business and economics, biochemistry, and religion, is launching a natural fragrance company based on her family’s heritage from her dorm room.
Students test samples of scents
With the help of a student team from Amy MacMillan’s Principles of Marketing class, Amir held a fragrance testing in Hicks Student Center to narrow down which scents she should produce and sell first.
Darsalam Amir holds operculum onycha shells in her hand
Operculum onycha shells from Chad are a key ingredient in the handcrafted perfumes and incense Darsalam Amir ’24 makes in her dorm room and sells at

Darsalam Amir ’24 started pondering the idea of launching a fragrance business based on her family’s cultural heritage in high school.  

At Kalamazoo College, she found the support she needed to bring that dream to life before she graduates. As of November 15, Oud Al Salam is up and running, offering body oil, incense and perfume in two different sandalwood and musk scents at  

A triple major in biochemistry, economics and business, and religion, Amir was born in Sudan. Her mother is Sudanese, and her father’s family is from Chad. The two African nations share a border, and Amir’s parents grew up in similar cultures. 

After living in several different African countries, Amir’s family settled in Ghana when she was 3 years old. When she was 11, they moved to Lansing, Michigan—both times for educational opportunities for Amir and her siblings. At the same time, her father insisted that they speak only Zaghawa at home and maintain connections to their cultural background through food, dress and music. 

The creation and use of natural scents represent a big piece of that cultural connection for Amir. On the Oud Al Salam website and on her Instagram at oud_al_Salam, Amir shares both updates about her scents and insights into their cultural significance.  

“The scents and fragrances I create are a direct reflection of the cultural significance of perfumes and incense in my community,” Amir said. “They have held a special place in our lives for generations and have been a part of our traditions and rituals. The art of crafting perfumes and incense is a communal activity in my family and community.” 

In Ghana and in the U.S., Amir’s mother found Sudanese communities that gathered often at each other’s houses. 

“I vividly remember the gatherings, the sharing of fragrances, and the discussions about formulas and tweaks to create unique scents,” Amir said. “This cultural practice fostered a sense of togetherness, identity and appreciation for our heritage. By sharing these fragrances with a broader audience through my company, I am preserving and promoting the cultural heritage of my family and community. The scents are not just products; they are a bridge that connects people to our roots, evokes memories and fosters an understanding and appreciation of the beauty of diversity.” 

Having completed an early college program, Amir came to K with both a high school diploma and an associate’s degree in pre-health studies. She planned to earn a bachelor’s in biochemistry and proceed to medical school. 

“I came to K thinking, ‘I know exactly what I want, I’m going to get in and out,’” Amir said. “I only needed a few courses to get my degree. Then the K culture got me and I wanted the full experience.” 

Darsalam Amir ’24 worked with a student team from Amy MacMillan’s Principles of Marketing class
Darsalam Amir ’24 worked with a student team from Amy MacMillan’s Principles of Marketing class to help launch her natural fragrance business. Pictured at the end-of-term presentation are (from left) James Dailey ’26, Helen Le ’26, Amir, Francesca Ventura ’26, Zach DeVito ’26 and Eric Paternoster ’26.
Students participate in photo shoot with fragrance products in front of them
Principles of Marketing students James Dailey ’26 (left) and Eric Paternoster ’26 stage a photo shoot for the natural fragrance business launched by Darsalam Amir ’24.
Promotional image for fragrance and scents business
Amir’s Principles of Marketing student team staged a photo shoot to create this promotional image for her website.

Amir realized business classes at K might help her budding entrepreneurship more than her years of unsatisfying internet research had. She started with introductory economics classes and basic accounting—which she found fascinating—before working her way up to marketing classes with L. Lee Stryker Associate Professor of Business Management Amy MacMillan. She found inspiration in MacMillan’s Principles of Marketing course, where students work with clients to build a marketing plan. 

“Our client was in nonprofit work,” Amir said. “She wasn’t making any money, but she was running this business, and I thought, ‘If she’s doing it, I could do it, too.’ It was a real-world situation. I had thought I was doing market research by watching YouTube videos and reading online articles. Now we were doing real market research and it was so impactful.” 

Amir had been working in a pharmacy and saving as much as she could to invest in her company. When she finished the Principles of Marketing course as an enrolled student consultant, she approached MacMillan about returning as a client. 

“I knew Darsalam to be a very dedicated student, so I knew that she would follow through and make it a worthwhile project,” MacMillan said. “I was also intrigued with her idea. When you introduce a new product, you want to make sure it is truly something new and different that meets a meaningful need. In this case, the idea of this high-end perfume that would incorporate ingredients from Chad seemed like a unique positioning that would have appeal.” 

While the class has had a few past clients who are current K students, that happens rarely—and MacMillan gets excited about it every time. 

“What I love about it is students supporting other students, and the recognition that you don’t have to wait until you’re grown up to be an entrepreneur; you can be an entrepreneur now and have these great ideas,” MacMillan said. “What really excites me about this is that peer-to-peer experience.” 

Working with Amir provided her team with real-time, hands-on experience. 

“The student teams work with the client the whole term,” MacMillan said. “The final presentation is usually a plan the client can execute sometime in the next six to 12 months. What is just wild about this project is that they’ve actually been off and running. They did fragrance testing in Hicks where they helped test both the appeal of certain fragrances and which ideas resonated most to help Darsalam understand not just how to choose the fragrances, but how to position and market them. It’s unfolding under their eyes, a business using their input in real time.” 

Darsalam Amir visiting Chad while surrounded by sheep
During summer 2023, Amir traveled to Chad for the first time since her family settled in Ghana so many years ago. While conducting interviews, visiting museums and translating texts in service of her Senior Integrated Project examining how the Zaghawa people of Chad embraced Islam and synchronized it with their pre-Islamic beliefs and practices, Amir also spent time with family she had never met and visited local markets, with a cousin as her guide, to buy fragrance ingredients.
Fragrance ingredients for Darsalam Amir's scents
Amir’s ingredients for her fragrances include musk stones, sandalwood and operculum onycha shells she purchased in markets in Chad.
Darsalam Amir tests the scent of a fragrance
Darsalam Amir ’24 is launching a natural fragrance company, Oud Al Salam, to share an important aspect of her family’s culture. “My work is a tribute to the traditions I cherish and a means of sharing the richness of my Sudanese-Chadian heritage with the world.”

Helen Le ’26, a member of Amir’s Principles of Marketing student team, agreed. 

“Everything we have learned in class we apply immediately to our project,” Le said. “I feel like it is a more authentic experience and perspective. This class allows me to quickly apply the knowledge I’ve learned in practical situations.” 

The project experience taught Le about handling workload, working in a group, time management, how to promote and execute ideas, and more. 

“Darsalam’s energy and attitude will bring her and the business more success in the future,” Le said. “‘Where Fragrance Becomes a Cultural Connection’ is one of my favorite Oud Al Salam mission statement sentences. This is the part I like the most about this start-up; it is not only about selling a product, but also the experiences and the cultural promotion.” 

“It’s exciting when you see a student take an idea and make it into a reality, especially when it aligns with a passion of theirs,” MacMillan said. “It’s a way for Darsalam to blend her business skills with her cultural heritage and to bring something new and different to the market.” 

The student team has provided crucial marketing research, surveys, product testing and pricing assistance, Amir said. Her friend Amalia Kaerezi ’25 helped design the logo. An entrepreneurship workshop with David Rhoa, visiting assistant professor of economics and business, has helped inspire and shape Oud Al Salam. Her chemistry knowledge and lab experience proved invaluable in the process of developing the fragrances. Even her religion major has played a role, as a summer 2023 trip to Chad in service of her Senior Integrated Project in the religion department offered an opportunity to learn from family, practice perfumery and purchase ingredients—musk stones, sandalwood and operculum onycha shells. 

Other supplies, such as bottles and labels, have been purchased online.  

“One of the main hurdles has been finding reliable vendors who understand and share my vision for designing unique and appealing product packages,” Amir said. “This process has taught me the value of persistence and the importance of building strong partnerships with suppliers who believe in the same aesthetic and quality standards that I uphold. Balancing my business with my other commitments both on and off campus has been another significant challenge.” 

In addition to her three majors and her pharmacy job, Amir works in the College library and as a residential assistant for Trowbridge and Dewaters halls. She also serves as president of Kalama-Africa and as an active member of the diversity committee for Kalamazoo College Council of Student Representatives. 

“Sometimes we walk behind Harmon past the K buses that say, ‘More in four,’” Amir said. “Whenever my friends see that, they’re like, ‘That’s you, Darsalam! They said more in four, you said more in a lifetime, and you’re doing it.’ That slogan speaks to me right now. I tried to get all the experience that I could in these four years.” 

Amir plans to graduate in spring 2024 and take two gap years to develop Oud Al Salam before beginning medical school. She is looking into fellowships that could help her travel around Africa to learn more about the art of perfumes and incense. 

Launching Oud Al Salam is just the beginning of the dream. Amir wants to explore sustainable and eco-friendly packaging, collaborations with local artisans, support for the communities where she sources ingredients, and classes for people interested in learning more about perfumery. 

“I’m genuinely excited about the future of my company,” Amir said. “My primary goal is to see it thrive and reach new heights, with our scents becoming household names that people trust and love. I envision physical stores opening up across Michigan, offering our customers a tangible and immersive experience with our fragrances. 

“My goal is not just to sell products but to create a brand that resonates with people on a deeper level and contributes positively to society.” 

Logo for Darsalam Amir's fragrance business says Oud Al Salam
Amir said her fragrance company’s name is derived from the Arabic word for “comes from wood” as well as from her name.

Author, Historian to Deliver Thompson Lecture

An author and historian of religion in the Americas with training in Latinx history; American race, ethnicity and immigration; and the American West and Mexico borderlands will deliver the 2023 Thompson Lecture, sponsored by Kalamazoo College’s religion department, at 7 p.m. Wednesday in the Olmsted Room. 

Lloyd Barba is assistant professor of religion and Latinx and Latin American Studies at Amherst College. His most recent and ongoing research on the Sanctuary Movement (1980s to present day) brings together questions from religious history and immigration studies to understand the context of social activism and politics. His teaching incorporates these research topics but more broadly asks questions about the many communities that comprise American religion. 

Barba’s lecture, titled The Sacred Amid Exploitation: How Mexican Farmworkers Forged a Religious Movement in California’s Big Business Ag (1916–1966), will draw from his new book, Sowing the Sacred, to demonstrate that Mexican Pentecostal farmworkers carved out a robust socio-religious existence despite harsh conditions while producing a vast record of cultural vibrancy. 

The Paul Lamont Thompson Lecture, named for the K president who served from 1938–1949, brings in speakers who enrich the ethical understanding of the College’s position in society. The lecture was established by a gift from Thompson’s sons and daughters-in-law to recognize the crucial role he played in guiding the College through the Depression and World War II. 

Thompson Lecture Speaker Lloyd Barba
Lloyd Barba, an assistant professor of religion at Amherst College, will speak Wednesday in the 2023 Thompson Lecture.

Free Concert Brings Devotional Indian Classical Music to K

The Virupannavar Family Merging Rivers Endowed Fund for Hindu Faith and Cultural Studies at Kalamazoo College is sponsoring and organizing a free concert of devotional Indian classical music on Tuesday, October 3, at 7 p.m. in Stetson Chapel.  

The concert’s title, Bhakti Rasamanjari, includes references to devotional worship emphasizing mutual attachment and love of a devotee and a personal god; essence, in particular the characteristic quality of music, literature and drama; and the blossom that flowers on a tree before the fruit, according to Chandrashekhar and Sushila Virupannavar. The couple established the fund to enhance experiences for current and future students while honoring the opportunities K offered two of their children who graduated from K. 

“Like all art forms in Indian culture, Indian classical music and dance art are believed to be a divine art form, originating from the Hindu gods and goddesses,” the Virupannavars said.  

Two Indian classical music performers with sitars
Utsad Rais Balekhan and Utsad Hafiz Balekhan will be among the musicians performing Indian classical music at 7 p.m. Tuesday, October 3, in Stetson Chapel.

The concert features world-famous, seventh-generation Hindustani vocalists and sitarists the Khan Brothers—Utsad Rais Balekhan and Utsad Hafiz Balekhan.  

Hindustani music is associated with north India and primarily uses Hindi, Punjabi, Rajasthani, Urdu and Braj Bhasha languages. The sitar is a plucked, stringed instrument used in Hindustani classical music. A sitar can have from 18 to 21 strings, with six or seven running over curved, raised frets and being played directly, while the remainder resonate with the played strings. 

The Khan Brothers will be accompanied by Atul Kamble on tabla and Shri Gangadhar Shinde on harmonium.  

A tabla is a pair of small hand drums of slightly different shapes and sizes, somewhat similar in shape to bongos. A tabla is the principal percussion instrument in Indian classical music and is essential in the bhakti devotional traditions of Hinduism and Sikhism. 

The harmonium is a stringed instrument that, in Indian music, is a portable, hand-pumped wooden box. 

The Khan Brothers are of the Kirana/Dharwad gharana, which means they are part of a school of music tied to Kirana, a town in Uttar Pradesh, in northern India. The Kirana style emphasizes perfect intonation of notes. The city of Dharwad, where the Khan Brothers have seven generations of family roots, lies in a region particularly associated with the Kirana gharana. 

The Virupannavars said the concert fits the focus of their family fund on Hindu faith and Indian cultural studies. 

“This will be a display of Hindu devotional music, expressing love and devotion to one divinity,” Chandrashekhar said. “Secondly, it will be a beautiful display of Indian musical cultural tradition by eminent performers and esteemed scholars who come from our region in India.” 

Merging Rivers in the fund’s name is borrowed from the 12th century Shiva saint Basava, who spread his messages in simple, short poems called vachanas, which ended with the Lord of the Merging Rivers, amplifying the concept of unity, union and oneness with the eternal. 

The Virupannavar family expressed appreciation for the College’s support of the fund, including support from Sohini Pillai, assistant professor of religion and director of film and media studies, in helping to shape the fund’s focus and bring the concert to campus. 

“Hopefully, this will be a long and beautiful journey,” Sushila said. “Two of our three children attended K, had a great education and became doctors. We are proud of their accomplishments and of our decision to send them here.” 

 The Virupannavars hope the concert inspires K students to learn about and try sitar and tabla. In service of that, the performers will also deliver a demonstration and talk to a music class the day of the concert. 

“Kalamazoo is a renowned location on the world’s music map,” Chandrashekhar said. “Our family is excited to celebrate that great and long Kalamazoo music tradition, by adding a small element of Indian classical music essence, with a very sincere hope that it will grow and blossom.” 

New Star Wars Religion Class Fills with Hyperspace-Like Speed

Sohini Pillai standing in her office with some Star Wars merchandise
Kalamazoo College Assistant Professor of Religion Sohini Pillai displays some of the personal Star Wars merchandise she has in her office including a painting of Grogu gifted to her by a student.
Star Wars-related pictures in Sohini Pillai's office
Pillai’s office leaves no doubt of her status as a Star Wars fan. The picture at left shows her likeness as a Jedi with her dog, Leia, dressed as Chewbacca. The picture at right is the dog’s face imposed on an image of Princess Leia’s clothing in the franchise’s first movie, “A New Hope.”
Student wearing Jedi robes and carries a lightsaber
The Force is strong with the Star Wars community at K. Paige Anderson ’25, for example, wore Jedi robes and wielded a lightsaber for an Epic Epics presentation on the Star Wars film “Revenge of the Sith.”

Some Kalamazoo College students will learn the ways of the Force this fall in a new Star Wars-themed class that examines religion’s role in the franchise.

Students in Jedi, Sith, and Mandalorians: Religion and Star Wars, taught by Assistant Professor of Religion Sohini Pillai, will watch seven of the films along with The Mandalorian Disney+ series, and read from books such as The Tao of Yoda, The Gospel According to Star Wars: Faith, Hope and the Force, and The Myth Awakens before writing a research paper in which they analyze a Star Wars film or show not discussed in class.

Their goals are to gain a better understanding of religious, cultural and historical contexts related to Star Wars while investigating key concepts in the study of religion such as canonization, myth, invented vs. traditional religions, cultural appropriation, colonization, indigenous cultures, orientalism and racism.

“There are so many themes in the Star Wars universe that are applicable to the study of religion,” Pillai said. “Just in the first week, for example, we’re going to be talking about orientalism and the exoticization of the Eastern world. The world of Tatooine was filmed in Tunisia and the whole planet is essentially based on the Middle East, the Ewoks speak in highspeed Tibetan, and many of the characters have names based on Sanskrit words. I’m really looking forward to it.”

The idea for the course developed not so long ago, in a classroom not so far away, when—in 2021—Pillai began teaching a First-Year Seminar, Epic Epics. The class used The Odyssey of Star Wars: An Epic Poem, along with nine other narratives about a variety of heroic warriors and colossal battles, to examine how such stories have changed over time and influenced cultures.

Revenge of the Sith, a Star Wars prequel released in 2005, took center stage in final presentations that term with two students reflecting on the film through themes found in the epics. One of the students, Paige Anderson ’25, even offered her presentation while wearing Jedi robes and wielding a lightsaber. The conversations from those presentations and throughout the term pleased Pillai, who also is K’s director of film and media studies.

“Those students are hardcore Star Wars fans,” she said. “I was especially surprised by how much they loved the prequel trilogy. The story, if you haven’t seen the original Star Wars movies, is compelling and exciting. It’s a story about Anakin Skywalker turning to the Dark Side to become Darth Vader. But my students would have been in high school and middle school when the sequel trilogy came out. I thought they would’ve liked those more.”

Regardless of their favorite movies in the franchise, it was evident that student interest, not to mention her own fandom, could help Pillai develop Jedi, Sith, and Mandalorians: Religion and Star Wars. Pillai said she remembers first being interested in the Star Wars universe when she was in kindergarten and her parents introduced her to the first three films after she heard about the films from a classmate. When she was 9, The Phantom Menace, the original prequel, was the first Star Wars movie she saw in theaters. Today, her fandom continues with a variety of merchandise in her office, the Disney+ streaming shows, and an Instagram-famous Yorkshire terrier, Leia, named after the princess who is Pillai’s favorite character in the franchise.

“I distinctly remember growing up and seeing movies like The Little Mermaid, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty where these princesses are basically sitting there and doing nothing,” she said. “And then in kindergarten, seeing Princess Leia with a blaster and defending herself while also being a diplomat and speaking so eloquently, I was impressed by her. I think she’s one of the most incredible female characters in cinema. I liked the idea of Padmé being a queen at the age of 14, and I enjoyed Rey’s character in the new trilogy as well. And speaking of the new Ahsoka show, I love that three women including two women of color are leading it.”

If you were concerned that some in and around K would question the value of a Star Wars class in the curriculum, Darth Vader—and Pillai, for that matter—might say, “I find your lack of faith disturbing.”

“I remember in the faculty meeting when we were voting on new classes that about 10 people all at once seconded the motion to adopt the course,” Pillai said. “I’ve had a lot of people—like Director of Athletics Becky Hall—say, ‘Send me the syllabus! I want to sit in on the class.’ I think there’s a lot of excitement for this. K has a solid Star Wars community.”

Pillai dresses her dog, Leia, as a Jedi while she dresses as R2-D2.
Sohini Pillai wears a sweatshirt that says Yoda Akbar
Pillai wears one of her favorite sweatshirts, which combines Star Wars with the film “Jodhaa Akbar,” which she covers in her Religion, Bollywood, and Beyond class.

The broader K community, from staff to alumni and beyond, has been equally supportive. One recent Twitter/X post said, “As a @kcollege alum, I am stone cold jealous of the students taking this class.” Another said, “The fact that I graduated from @kcollege 30 years too late to take this class is a big disappointment to me as a #StarWars fanatic!”

Then there are the junior and senior K students who didn’t exactly have to be scruffy-looking nerf-herders to realize that the course would be fun, entertaining, and educational as they filled the last seats in it during the second day of fall registration.

Pillai can’t be certain that Jedi, Sith, and Mandalorians: Religion and Star Wars will be offered again. As Yoda would state, it’s “difficult to say; always in motion is the future.” She hopes, however, that first-year students, sophomores, and students on study abroad this term will have opportunities to register for it, too.

“I’ll probably want to teach it again because I imagine it’s going to be super fun for me,” Pillai said. “In the future, I think I’m going to have to reserve spots for underclassmen because I feel bad that they weren’t able to take it this time around. But it’s great we have so much interest in it. I think that Star Wars can be used as an important teaching tool, especially in the world that we live in.”

Thompson Lecture Slates Author, Lecturer as Guest Speaker

Author, podcaster and Bates College Visiting Assistant Professor Megan Goodwin will be the
guest speaker at this year’s Thompson Memorial Lecture at 7 p.m. October 18.

An author, podcaster and Bates College visiting assistant professor of religious studies will be the guest speaker at this year’s Paul Lamont Thompson Memorial Lecture at 7 p.m. October 18 in the Hicks Student Center Banquet Room.

Megan Goodwin’s lecture is titled “Undrinking the Kool-Aid: Mis/remembering Peoples Temple.” The presentation will provide popular incorrect memories of the Jonestown Massacre and invite the audience to consider who benefits from the erasure of many Black women’s deaths at the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project in Guyana. The material is excerpted from Goodwin’s current book project, which is tentatively titled Cults Incorporated: The Business of Bad Religion.

Goodwin is the author of Abusing Religion: Literary Persecution, Sex Scandals and American Minority Religions (Rutgers University 2020). She earned a Ph.D. and a Master of Arts in religious studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; a Master of Arts in women’s studies at Drew University and a Bachelor of Science in print journalism at Boston University. Goodwin writes, teaches and produces podcasts about race, gender, sexuality, politics, popular culture and American minority religions. Her podcast, “Keeping it 101: A Killjoy’s Introduction to Religion,” is available on most podcast platforms.

The Thompson Lecture was established by a gift from the sons and daughters-in-law of Paul Lamont and Ruth Peel Thompson. A committee of alumni and friends of the College worked diligently to build the fund with gifts from those many students whose lives were enriched by Thompson’s leadership during his days as the College’s president from 1938 to 1949.

The lecture, hosted by the Department of Religion, brings to K speakers who enrich the community’s ethical understanding of its position in the larger society, beyond the College. Please note that masks are required at this event.

K’s Best Friend: Yorkshire Terrier Leia Makes Friends On Campus and Off

Sohini Pillai holds her Yorkshire terrier for International Dog Day
Photo courtesy of Faris Moghul. Assistant Professor of Religion and Director of Film and Media Studies Sohini Pillai holds her Yorkshire terrier, Leia.
Two students with Yorkshire terrier Leia for International Dog Day
Photo courtesy of Sohini Pillai. Iris Chalk ’24 and Abbey McMillian ’24 enjoy outdoor religion class with a visit from Leia, a Yorkshire terrier belonging to K Assistant Professor of Religion and Director of Film and Media Studies Sohini Pillai.
Photo courtesy of Kathryn Sederberg. Leia, a Yorkshire terrier belonging to Assistant Professor of Religion and Director of Film and Media Studies Sohini Pillai, poses along a mindfulness path in Lillian Anderson Arboretum.

August 26 may be the officially designated day, but every day is International Dog Day for Sohini Pillai and her Yorkshire terrier, Leia.

Pillai, who is the assistant professor of religion and director of film and media studies at Kalamazoo College, adopted Leia two years ago in California. It was early in the COVID-19 pandemic and Pillai was cooped up at home writing her dissertation for her Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley.

Photo courtesy of Kathryn Sederberg. Leia, a Yorkshire terrier belonging to Assistant Professor of Religion
and Director of Film and Media Studies Sohini Pillai, poses along a mindfulness path in Lillian Anderson Arboretum.

“I grew up with a Labrador retriever, and he was wonderful,” Pillai said. “I am an only child and I asked my parents for a brother or sister or a dog, and eventually, they got me a dog.”

Originally, Pillai planned to get a dog when she got a job. Then she realized that adjusting to a new job, a new city and a new dog all at the same time could spell disaster. Maybe, she thought, this was actually the perfect time to get a dog.

Having lived with greyhounds during fieldwork in India, Pillai hoped to adopt a greyhound. However, she found herself sharing space with neighbors with dog allergies, so when she visited the shelter, she applied for hypoallergenic dogs.

“I think I applied for, like, 25 different dogs,” Pillai said. “During the pandemic, everybody wanted to adopt dogs because we were all at home. I’d never had a small dog before. She was the one who was available, and I met her, and even though she’s tiny, she really has a big dog personality.”

Sohini Pillai holds Yorkshire terrier Leia. Leia is wearing a K bandana
Photo courtesy of Sohini Pillai. Assistant Professor
of Religion and Director of Film and Media Studies
Sohini Pillai and her Yorkshire terrier, Leia,
show off Leia’s K bandana.

Named for the Star Wars princess, Leia challenged the stereotypes Pillai held about Yorkies being loud and rude.

“She definitely barks and lets people know she’s there, but she’s so friendly with kids and other people,” Pillai said.

Leia became Pillai’s writing buddy. Weighing in at just 12 pounds and suffering from separation anxiety, Leia would settle on Pillai’s lap and sit with her the whole time she wrote. In addition to keeping her company, Leia forced Pillai to take regular breaks, to get outside and move, and even to realize she needed glasses when she noticed how fuzzy their early morning walks seemed.

“She’s made my life better in multiple ways,” Pillai said. “She’s made me a lot healthier and happier.”

Although she was used to a warm climate, Leia adjusted well to Kalamazoo when Pillai began teaching at K in 2021. Despite never having seen snow before that, she doesn’t mind snow on the ground. Falling snow or rain, however, is another story.

“She hates the rain,” Pillai said. “I have to put a raincoat on her, and she’s held her pee for 17 hours because she hates the rain so much. She doesn’t like things falling on her. She’s a bit of a diva or princess in that way.”

Other than the weather, Leia is thriving in Kalamazoo. She has enjoyed meeting neighbors, loves her local doggie daycare—where her best friend, Flower, is part hound and part boxer—and has made many friends among K faculty, staff and students.

She takes part in the religion department’s Sunday potluck dinners and regularly gets invited to other faculty gatherings and events. She has met several faculty members’ dogs—and even, once, a cat (through a screen door). She served as the model for photos of a forest mindfulness path in the Lillian Anderson Arboretum, created by K German students with Kathryn Sederberg, Lucinda Hinsdale Stone Assistant Professor of German Studies, in October 2021.

Leia has visited Lake Michigan, explored other outdoor activities in the Kalamazoo area, and loves to go for walks on K’s campus. Sometimes people recognize her from her social media presence, including her own Instagram account as @LeiaTheEwokPrincess. At doggie daycare, she has made friends with Tank, professor of chemistry and chair of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry Jeff Bartz’s dog, although Bartz and Pillai have yet to meet in person.

A huge Star Wars fan, Pillai teaches the saga in her Epic Epics course and mentions Leia fairly often in her classes. Her office is dotted with photos of Leia, including an image of her as Princess Leia and another of her as Brienne of Tarth, a Game of Thrones character.

In May, Leia got to attend two of Pillai’s classes when beautiful weather coincided with doggie daycare closing for a week. Pillai was returning from her Ph.D. graduation ceremony in California, where she received the news that her 100-year-old grandmother had passed away in India.

It was a difficult week for Pillai, who had been very close to her grandmother. Yet that day has been one of her favorite days at K.

“We sat outside and Leia was going around the circle and sitting in everybody’s laps,” Pillai said. “The students were holding her and cuddling her, and some faculty came out and met her, too. My students knew that my grandmother had passed away, and some of them brought condolence gifts, and it was really sweet and just the best day.”

Pillai is grateful for the circumstances that led her to Leia, on International Dog Day and every day.

“She’s living a pretty awesome life here,” Pillai said. “I’m jealous sometimes. She eats, she sleeps, she gets pets and cuddles, and she’s pretty popular. She’s got a lot of friends on campus.

“I can’t imagine life without her.”

Thompson Lecture Spotlights ‘Jesus and John Wayne’ Author

Thompson Lecture Speaker Kristin Kobes Du Mez
Best-selling author and Calvin University Professor
Kristin Kobes Du Mez will speak Tuesday, May 10,
at Kalamazoo College’s Thompson Lecture.

The public is invited to hear from a New York Times best-selling author and professor of history and gender studies at Calvin University at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the religion department’s annual Thompson Lecture at Kalamazoo College. 

Kristin Kobes Du Mez will speak about her latest book, Jesus and John Wayne and the White Evangelical Reckoning in the Olmsted Room at Mandelle Hall. The book is an account of the past 75 years of white evangelicalism, which shows how American evangelicals have worked to replace the Jesus of the Gospels with an idol of rugged masculinity and Christian nationalism. The talk will further explore the recent history of evangelicalism and politics, and examine divisions within the evangelical movement while reflecting on what it could mean for the future. 

Du Mez earned a Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame and her research focuses on the intersection of gender, religion and politics. She has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, NBC News, Religion News Service, and Christianity Today. She has been interviewed on NPR, CBS and the BBC among other outlets.  

The Paul Lamont Thompson Memorial Lecture was established by a gift from the sons and daughters-in-law of Paul Lamont and Ruth Peel Thompson. Serving as president from 1938 to 1949, Thompson played a crucial role in K’s development during the Depression and World War II by emphasizing high academic standards and selectivity in the student body, enhancing the reputation of the College as a quality institution of the liberal arts. He also founded the College’s annual fund and pension plan, ensuring K’s financial integrity.  

For more on the lecture and its history, visit the religion department’s website

Lecture to Address Ancient India’s Mahabharata

Assistant Professor of Religion Sohini Pillai to Discuss the Mahabharata
Assistant Professor of Religion Sohini Pillai

Assistant Professor of Religion Sohini Pillai will represent Kalamazoo College at 9 a.m. Eastern time Sunday in a YouTube lecture titled “The Multiplicity of the Mahabharata Tradition” that she will present through Karwaan: The Heritage Exploration Initiative.

The initiative is an independent, student-led initiative based in India, which aims to revive the love for India’s heritage and history and inspire young minds. Throughout the pandemic, it has organized scholarly online lectures on Indian history, culture, art, literature, film and religion. 

The ancient Sanskrit Mahabharata (c. 300 BCE–300 CE) is a massive epic poem 15 times the length of the Bible that focuses on the war over the Bharata kingdom between two sets of paternal cousins in the royal Kuru family, the five Pandavas and the 100 Kauravas. Pillai said the Mahabharata has been presented as poems, dramas, ballads, novels, short stories, comic books, television shows, feature films, children’s fantasy series, podcasts, YouTube videos, social media posts and more.   

Pillai’s talk Sunday will illustrate the rich multiplicity of the Mahabharata tradition through the close examination of 12 renderings of a single Mahabharata episode that was created over a span of at least 2,000 years. She will focus on the most disturbing and popular scenes in the Mahabharata tradition, the attempted disrobing of Draupadi, the shared wife of the Pandavas, and the heroine of the epic.  

In May 2021, Pillai co-edited a volume with Nell Shapiro Hawley of Harvard University titled Many Mahabharatas, which was published by State University of New York Press. Some of the Mahabharatas she will discuss Sunday will be prominently featured in her current book project which is tentatively titled Krishna at Court: Devotion, Patronage and the Mahabharata in Premodern South Asia.

The talk will be available free of charge to the public at the Karwaan initiative’s YouTube channel.  

Kalamazoo College Welcomes New Faculty Members

Kalamazoo College is pleased to welcome the following faculty members to campus this fall:

Assistant Professor of Spanish Tris Faulkner

Assistant Professor of Spanish Tris Faulkner
Assistant Professor of Spanish Tris Faulkner

Tris Faulkner, who is originally from Jamaica, lived in Chile for about two years, working as a translator and interpreter at a prominent law firm before earning a Ph.D. in Spanish linguistics from Georgetown University. She also has professional experience as a translator and interpreter at the Embassy of Venezuela, and in similar roles at a legal firm and a business school in North Carolina.

Faulkner has lived in Spain and visited various Spanish-speaking countries, experiences which have helped her to observe the diversity that characterizes the Spanish language. Her research investigates the semantics and pragmatics of variation in verbal mood, tense, and aspect, as related to the Romance language family, English, and Jamaican Creole.

In addition to her Ph.D., Faulkner has master’s degrees from Georgetown (M.Sc. in Spanish linguistics) and Wake Forest University (M.A. in interpreting and translation studies), and a bachelor’s degree from Louisiana State University (B.A. in Spanish language and literature and international studies). She will teach seminars in Spanish linguistics, as well as various other courses in the upcoming academic year.

Assistant Professor of Religion Sohini Pillai

Assistant Professor of Religion Sohini Pillai
Assistant Professor of Religion Sohini Pillai

Sohini Pillai will teach courses this academic year on religious traditions in South Asia. She is a comparatist of South Asian religious literature and her area of specialization is the Mahabharata and Ramayana epic narrative traditions with a focus on retellings created in Hindi and Tamil.

Pillai is the co-editor of Many Mahabharatas (State University of New York Press, 2021), an introduction to diverse retellings of the Mahabharata tradition in the forms of classical dramas, premodern vernacular poems, regional performance traditions, commentaries, graphic novels, political essays, novels, and contemporary theater productions. She’s also a member of the Steering Committee for the Hinduism Unit at the American Academy of Religion.

Pillai has a Ph.D. in South and Southeast Asian studies from the University of California, Berkeley; a master’s degree in Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African studies from Columbia University; and a bachelor’s degree in South Asia studies and theatre studies from Wellesley College.

Assistant Professor of Theatre Quincy Thomas

Assistant Professor of Theatre Quincy Thomas
Assistant Professor of Theatre Quincy Thomas

Quincy Thomas earned his Ph.D. in theatre and his performance studies certification from Bowling Green State University. His research centers on subjects including counter-storytelling, Black performativity in American culture, representations of the marginalized in popular culture, comedic and solo performance and performative writing. At K, he will teach directing, theatre history and playwriting, with further prior experience teaching theatre, performance studies and film.

His courses are informed on issues of cultural marginalization and misrepresentation in the arts, specifically of racial and ethnic minorities, women and members of the LGBTQ+ community. His work has been published in peer-reviewed academic journals, including the International Review of Qualitative Research and Puppetry International, and presented at national conferences, including the Mid-America Theatre Conference, the International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry, and the Mid-Atlantic Popular and American Culture Association (MAPACA). He currently serves as president of MAPACA. His most recent directorial offering was Robert Patrick’s Play-by-Play: A Spectacle of Ourselves: A Verse Farce in Two Acts. Thomas also has a background in acting. Some of his favorite roles played include Christopher in Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange, Albert in Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park, and most recently the role of Actor in Nassim Soleimanpour’s White Rabbit; Red Rabbit.

Assistant Professor of Economics Darshana Udayanganie

Assistant Professor of Economics Darshana Udayanganie
Assistant Professor of Economics Darshana Udayanganie

Darshana Udayanganie earned her Ph.D., with specializations in environmental economics and college teaching, and a master’s degree in economics from the University of New Hampshire. She also has a master’s degree in resource economics and policy from the University of Maine and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka. Before joining K in 2017 as a visiting assistant professor, she taught at Central Michigan University from 2014 to 2017, Merrimack College in 2013 and 2014, and the University of New Hampshire’s global student success program from 2011 to 2014.

Her current research focuses on urban economics and environmental economics. She also has published book chapters on economic growth in relation to military expenditure and international trade.

Assistant Professor of Japanese Brian White

Brian White will teach courses in Japanese language, literature and culture at K.  He specializes in contemporary (post-1945) Japanese popular culture and media studies.

He earned his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago, where he wrote a dissertation on 1960s Japanese sci-fi literature and film, asking specifically, “What can a genre do?” He will delve into that history when he teaches a course in the winter term this year on Japanese science fiction and media history.

White earned a bachelor’s degree in East Asian languages and civilizations at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Across his undergraduate and graduate careers, he has spent a total of two and a half years living in Japan, primarily in Tokyo, Yokohama and Kyoto. 

Assistant Professor of Chinese Yanshuo Zhang

Yanshuo Zhang’s research addresses multiethnic Chinese identities in literary and visual cultures produced in China and the U.S. Her research on multiethnic Chinese cultural productions helps diversify scholarly understanding of and teaching about modern Chinese national culture.

She was a lecturer in Stanford University’s Program in Writing and Rhetoric (PWR) from 2018 through 2020, where she designed classes on cross-cultural explorations of diversity, particularly in Asia and the U.S. She also has been a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Michigan.

She earned a bachelor’s degree from St. Catherine University and a Ph.D. from Stanford University.

Visiting Assistant Professor Vijayan Sundararaj

Vijayan Sundararaj leads a biology course this term in ecology and conservation. He has prior education experience as a lecturer, teaching assistant and topic lecturer between Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Canada, and Texas A&M University-Kingsville. His teaching interests include evolutionary ecology concepts, animal behavior, foraging behavior, predator-prey interactions, conservation biology, wildlife ecology, waterfowl ecology, mammalogy, spatial ecology, and introductory geographic information systems.

Sundararaj received a bachelor’s degree with a specialty in zoology from Gujarat University in India before earning a master’s degree in ecology from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel; a geographic information systems applications specialist graduate certificate from Sir Sandford Fleming College in Canada and a doctorate in forest sciences and wildlife ecology from Lakehead University.

Visiting Assistant Professor Eunice Uhm

Eunice Uhm specializes in modern and contemporary art, with a transnational focus on the United States and East Asia. Her work examines the conditions of migration and the diasporic aesthetic subjectivities in the works of contemporary Japanese and South Korean art from the 1960s to the present. She has previously taught courses on modern and contemporary art, East Asian art, and Asian American studies at Ohio State University. She has organized panels and presented her work on Asian American art at national conferences such as CAA. She is an active member of numerous grassroots community organizations for Asian Americans and immigrant rights, and she is involved in immigrant rights campaigns such as Love has no borders: A call for justice in our immigration system. Her essay, “Constructing Asian American Political and Aesthetic Subjectivities: Contradictions in the Works of Ruth Asawa,” is forthcoming (Verge: Studies in Global Asias, University of Minnesota Press).

Uhm received a master’s degree and a doctorate in the history of art from the Ohio State University. At K, she teaches courses on Asian and Asian American art, art and race, and transnationalism.

Visiting Assistant Professor Fungisai Musoni

Fungisai Musoni has joined the history department where she will teach courses in African civilizations, decolonization in West and Southern Africa, and U.S.-Africa relations since World War II.

Musoni has prior teaching experience in African literature, American politics and global issues, and social studies between the Ohio State University, Georgia State University, Gwinnett County Schools in Atlanta and the Zimbabwe Ministry of Education and Culture.

She fluently reads, writes and speaks the African languages of Shona and Manyika. Her education includes a bachelor’s degree in economic history and Shona from the University of Zimbabwe, Harare; master’s degrees in political science and history from Georgia State University and Mercer University respectively; and a doctorate in African American and African Studies from the Ohio State University.

Visiting Assistant Professor Badru-Deen Barry

Badru-Deen Barry teaches Introductory chemistry and biochemistry at K this fall.

His education includes a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Fourah Bay College in Freetown, Sierra Leone, master’s degrees in chemistry from Northeast Normal University in China and Michigan State University, and a doctorate in chemistry from Michigan State.

He previously served Michigan State and Northeast Normal as a graduate research assistant, Société Générale de Surveillance in Freetown, Sierra Leone, as port supervisor and chemist, and Fourah Bay College as a laboratory and teaching assistant.

Visiting Assistant Professor Mikela Zhezha-Thaumanavar

Mikela Zhezha-Thaumanavar is teaching courses in Spanish this fall as well as a course in foreign language teaching methods. In addition, she serves as the coordinator for the Spanish Teaching Assistants at K. She received her bachelor’s degree, master’s degree and doctorate in Spanish linguistics from Western Michigan University.

She has previously taught courses in Spanish at Western Michigan University, Davenport University, and Kalamazoo Community College. She also served WMU as a guest professor, teaching in the institution’s Summer Translation Program. She previously has worked in translation and speaks Albanian and Italian in addition to English and Spanish.

Visiting Assistant Professor Jennifer Mills

Jennifer Mills is leading courses including seminars in psychology and health psychology this term. Mills holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Georgia, master’s degrees from Georgia College and State University and Western Michigan University, and a doctorate from WMU.

She is working on an executive master’s in public health at Emory University with an emphasis in prevention science. For the past 10 years, Mills has owned and operated MindBodyWell, a private counseling practice that focuses on science-based approaches to stress, depression and anxiety. 

Mills is an active member of the Institute for Public Scholarship, a local, anti-racist organization that works on issues of place and belonging. Her research interests focus on preventing and mitigating the impact of early childhood adversity on health. 

Visiting Assistant Professor Robert Mowry

Robert Mowry is teaching two sections of Introduction to Society and Culture offered by the Department of Anthropology and Sociology. His additional teaching interests include quantitative methods, disaster, the intersection of politics and the environment, and ways of seeing and knowing.

Mowry comes to Kalamazoo College from the University of Notre Dame, where he recently earned his Ph.D. in sociology. Previously, he earned master’s degrees from the University of Notre Dame and the University of Sheffield, and a B.A. from Earlham College.

As a teacher-scholar of disaster and politics, Mowry employs multiple methods to study the processes and outcomes of globally diverse, high-stakes political arenas—from post-disaster contentious politics in the U.S. and Japan to the gendered dynamics of protest participation in Europe. A related stream of research looks at how cultural processes of learning, memory, and thinking spur spontaneous laughter outbursts during Supreme Court oral arguments. His work has been published in Sociological Theory.

Visiting Assistant Professor Jennifer Perry

Jennifer Perry leads courses at K including General Psychology, Sensation and Perception, and Psychopharmacology in the Department of Psychology. Her credentials include a Bachelor of Arts from St. Olaf College and a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota. Perry’s research includes studies on the ethics of laboratory animal research and the role of impulsive behavior in drug abuse.

Professor Joins Other Religion Scholars to Extol Research

Alyssa Maldonado-Estrada religion scholars Sacred Writes
Sacred Writes, a network of religion scholars committed to helping a broad global audience understand the significance of their work, has selected Kalamazoo College Assistant Professor of Religion Alyssa Maldonado-Estrada to be one of 24 scholars from around the world receiving a Public Scholarship on Religion for 2021.

When religion scholars share information about their research outside their academies, they help the general public understand matters of the sacred and the importance of religion and religious diversity in contemporary life.

Enter Kalamazoo College Assistant Professor Alyssa Maldonado-Estrada. Sacred Writes, a network of religion scholars committed to helping a broad global audience understand the significance of their work, has selected Maldonado-Estrada to be one of 24 scholars from around the world receiving a Public Scholarship on Religion for 2021.

With the scholarship, Maldonado-Estrada will receive a $1,000 stipend to participate in real-time collaborative sessions and multimedia training with other scholars from May 1 to August 31. Since 2018, similar cooperative work has helped 41 scholars of religion place 140 print, audio and video pieces with 52 media outlets including the Washington Post, PRI’s The World and CBS Religion since 2018.

“I am deeply committed to making my scholarship accessible and interesting to a broad array of readers,” Maldonado-Estrada said. “From writing about religion and tattoos to gender and gentrification, it excites me to tell stories about the ways religion is embedded in the everyday lives of individuals, communities, and cities. I am excited to be a part of a vibrant group of scholars, where we can hype each other up, learn new genres of writing, and craft and celebrate good work about religion.”

Sacred Writes also has chosen Maldonado-Estrada to write articles about architecture and sacred space, subjects important in her classes at K. The articles will appear in DigBoston, an alternative weekly newspaper.

“At K, I teach a class called Urban Religion where we learn how to be ethnographers and observers of space and social life,” she said. “Together we explore how religious communities shape the urban environment and how the city shapes the feel, look and experience of religion right back. I am so excited to write about architecture, development, and sacred space in this collaboration with DigBoston. These are the topics that really brought me to the study of religion back when I was an undergrad at a liberal arts college.”

In addition to Urban Religion, Maldonado-Estrada teaches classes at K on religion and masculinity, Catholics in the Americas and the religions of Latin America. She is an ethnographer, and her research focuses on material culture, contemporary Catholicism, and gender and embodiment.

Elsewhere, Maldonado-Estrada is a co-chair of the Men and Masculinities Unit at the American Academy of Religion and is an editor of Material Religion: The Journal of Art, Objects, and Belief. She was chosen for the 2020-2022 cohort of Young Scholars in American Religion at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis’ Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture. She received her doctorate in religion from Princeton University and her bachelor’s degree in sociology and religion from Vassar College.

“I look forward to finding exciting ways to meld my teaching and research and to bringing what I learn from this partnership back to the classroom at K,” she said.