Kalamazoo College (visited 1/28-30/15)
Kalamazoo has it figured out. There are a lot of good, selective liberal arts schools out there; to get students – especially those from a distance – to view it as a serious choice, they need something that makes them stand out. K (as it’s called) does, and its 92-93% retention rate tells you that they’re doing it right.
Quirky, adventurous, highly independent, intelligent students who aren’t afraid to take some risks, create relationships, self-advocate, and ask questions will do well here. “We can teach students to be less quiet. We can’t teach them being willing to try.” Our tour guide said that she came here because “people were nice and funny and weird. It was great!”
Their “K-Plan” provides depth and breadth in academics, experiential learning, international engagement, and a senior individualized project (SIP). The Flexible Curriculum enables students to take ownership and pursue interests. Only half of their coursework is “dictated.” 32% is in their major, 8% each in foreign language (into the intermediate level) and Shared Passages Seminars (3 interdisciplinary classes taken in freshman, sophomore, and senior years), and “5 small units” in PE/Wellness. The other 50% of their time is open explore other areas of interests, double major, have a couple minors, do more internships, etc.
Classes sizes run from single digits usually about the mid-30s although a couple will have 99 students in the biggest lecture hall on campus. “These are abnormally large classes with abnormally large science majors.” Some of the favorite classes of students we talked to included The Empire Writes Back (exploring the relationship between Imperialism and Empire), Graphic Novels, and Music and Identity.
Experiential and Hands-on components happen in a variety of ways:
- Internships: These only happen in the summer and are offered all over the world. Any student returning to K the next year can do one. A couple specific placements that students mentioned were at Be the Match and Gay Rights Advocacy in the Presbyterian Church.
- Field Experience: These add structure to the internship. They must be at least 6 weeks long, at least 32 hours a week. Students write structured reflections, a learning outcomes contract, etc.
- Discovery externships: These are like mini, 1-4 week internships with a crucial difference: significant contact with alumni. Students often live with the alum, adding “porch time,” aka morning and evening time to talk about life since K. Our tour guide did one in a non-profit. She had just taken accounting so it helped to see the financials.
- Center for Civic Engagement: They work with professors to create classes with a service-learning component such as Psychology of Law (focuses on an alternative to juvenile detention) and Feminist Psychology (works with Planned Parenthood for reproductive justice). Each program requires at least 3 reflections.
- Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership: This supports the pursuit of human rights and social justice by developing emerging leaders and sustaining existing leaders in areas such as human rights, economic justice, educational equity, politics and justice, race and racism, immigration, genders and sexualities, mass incarceration, health equity, etc.
- Senior Individualized Project: this is a required capstone project. It can be a recital, original research, a thesis, etc. Some of the SIPs include:
- Hiking the Appalachian Trail
- Neuroblastoma Research (this student will go to med school after a gap year)
- Compassionate Care for dying Children in Kenya (Anthro/Sociology and Global Health major)
- Sustainable Agriculture in Thailand (Environmental Science and German major)
- National Relationships with the Constitution – is it a healthy one?
- Solar Storms (Physics and Chem major)
- Sustainable Democracy in Africa
- Dance and Math
- Hipster music in Evangelical Christianity
This is primarily a residential campus, and it shows in the engagement on campus. There are 2 freshman-only dorms with large lounges that feel like a home. There are tables, rocking chairs, a piano, couches, fireplaces. Rooms are all different sizes because these are older buildings. Freshmen must attend 5 First Year Forums (on topics like intercultural communication, personal decision making, etc) as part of their First Year Seminar class.
The student center is accessible 24/7 with their ID and really is the center of much of the campus activity. There are no separate “centers” (multicultural, women, etc). The culture here is that they’re all in this together: they don’t want to divide but bring together and educate. The work is done by everyone, not just coming out of one office. There is plenty of support for all students on campus. The health and counseling centers are inside the union so they don’t have to trek to another building. “It actually is nice for privacy although that seems counterintuitive. People don’t see you going into another building.” There are also student-run centers and support groups such as S3A (Student led conseling about sexuality) and Kaleidoscope (LGBTQ).
Students are highly engaged in clubs and other extra curriculars. Music and theater are open to everyone (Band and Orchestra carry partial credit) and there’s a student run dance team.
If students run out of things to do on campus (which is difficult to do), the city of Kalamazoo (pop. Of about 250,000 people) offers quite a bit. Western Michigan University is right across the street and although they don’t mix much, there are some opportunities to take advantage of the much larger school. For examples, skaters can go over to Western Michigan and participate on their teams.
Favorite Traditions include:
- Day Of Gracious Living (DOGL): classes are cancelled and they go to the beach.
- Streaking the Quad – celebratory.
- Monte Carlo – fancy dress-up night.
- Afro Fiesta Desi Sol – held by all the cultural clubs
- Cafgiving, held right before Thanksgiving. “The food is so good! The line is out of the building. It looks like Black Friday!”
- Crystal Ball: a formal dance in the spring put on by the LGBTQ community. Students come in drag “if you want.”
The Common Books series is well developed and well-received by the students. Chosen books are recent and engaging with a relevant theme. Authors come to campus to give a reading and participate in a colloquium Q&A session. Small group discussion is done in First-Year seminars. Recent books include: In the Shadow of the Banyon, We Need New Names, The Good Soldiers, Once Upon a River, Fever, Purple Hibiscus, Brief Wonderful Life of Oscar Wao, and Empathy Exams.
I asked the student panel how K, a CTCL school, changed their lives:
- It made me more aware and more confident. It gave me the education and capacity to act.
- It made me realize I wanted to give to the community.
- I was the shy guy but now I have a boost of confidence.
- I’ve met people I never would have talked to in HS, and see them as friends. It opened my mind to talking to everyone. They all have incredible stories.
- At K, social justice is right up front, even in Sciences. I realize how much I’ve learned here about microaggressions, what privileges I have, being conscious of what I have, etc. I have a whole new perspective.
- To be unabashedly excited about whatever I want – there will always be someone just as excited! I can be loud about what I’m into – or not into – and people won’t bash me for that.
- It gave me an awareness of myself, of who I share space with, of occupying the space in the world.