By Michelle Alba
The most frequent question asked to an out of state student attending Kalamazoo College is the following: how did you end up in Kalamazoo, Michigan? My first response is laughter because I ask myself that exact same question. The second response is explaining the process of applying to Kalamazoo College. My high school counselors recommended this institution as a ‘safety school’ for me. At first, I was wondering why my high school counselors would want to send me to a place named ‘Kalamazoo,’ but I pushed the thought away because there was a possibility of not attending. However, when financial aid packages began arriving in April of 2015, Kalamazoo College was the most affordable institution for my family, which ultimately meant that I had to leave out of state for my undergraduate career. Half of me did want to leave because I wanted to experience living on my own in a different state, but the other half of me did not want to leave because Kalamazoo College was not the institution I wanted to attend. Regardless, I told myself I would have the ‘best time of my life’ at Kalamazoo College, just as my high school counselors described the college experience.
Unfortunately, college was not the ‘best time of my life’ for couple of weeks. My high school counselors forgot to mention the aspects of missing home, feeling alone, and facing the imposter syndrome. Because I was a first-generation student of color, I could not explain my day-to-day experiences to my parents without making them feel guilty for persuading me to attend a predominantly white institution in Michigan. I also did not know which students or faculty members I could trust with my emotional baggage, which ultimately left me keeping my thoughts to myself. At the same time, I pushed myself to attend social events, such as K Fest, to see which student organizations I could join to make new friends. As I walked around the quad, looking at each table’s decorations, only one table caught my attention to initiate conversations with people promoting their organization: the Latinx Student Organization (LSO). They had bachata playing in the speakers, paletas de mango con chile, agua de horchata, and pictures of people sharing meals with one another because this represented different things from home that I was yearning for, and I found them in one group on campus. The people were also very friendly; they reminded me of when I walked into my abuelita’s house — surrounding me while saying hello and telling me to attend their meetings on Tuesday at 6PM in the Banquet Hall. I thanked them for the snacks and thought “maybe college will be the best time of my life.”
The background information as to how I arrived to Kalamazoo College is essential to include in the beginning of my blog post, for readers to understand why I chose to write about the assemblage between me and the Latinx Student Organization in terms of the physical space where weekly meetings are held. This space played an important role in staying in Kalamazoo College where three years ago, I did not see myself attending, let alone, graduate in four years. I am using theory from Jane Bennett, Anna L. Tsing, and some class discussions to explain how this assemblage has impacted me personally.
Assemblage to the Physical Space – The Banquet Hall
LSO has been a student organization at Kalamazoo College since 2005, and they are mainly known for having the ability to “provide a space for others to learn and celebrate Latinx values, beliefs, and traditions by offering a positive and welcoming environment similar to that of a family.” In my case, I joined LSO because the people made the space welcoming through taking the time to get to know me as well as provide me with aspects of Latin American cultures that remind me of home.
The manner in which LSO organizes their space and meetings connects to Jane Bennett’s explanation of the active role of non-humans in public life. For instance, she states, “cultural forms are themselves powerful, material assemblages with resistant force” (Bennett 1). The physical space where LSO meetings are held is considered a non-human, and the cultural forms, such as music, dance, games, food that the members share with one another, represent the assemblages that are being made within this designated space. Bennett considers the assemblages being made as ‘resistant force’ because each member has a different reason of why they attend LSO, yet we are brought together through the Banquet Hall. Even though the assemblages are occurring through the cultural forms, I am also simultaneously forming an assemblage with the physical space that is the Banquet Hall because every week we acknowledge where we are having meetings, which ultimately demonstrates our connection to the physical space since we look forward in entering the doors of the Banquet Hall to engage with others through our cultural forms. The assemblage is formed because according to one of our class discussions, we (humans) cannot exist without taking the other into ourselves.
In this case, the other is the Banquet Hall and we (the members) are taking the physical space into ourselves because it is part of our shared moments. The Banquet Hall is also present while the cultural forms are bringing me and the members together. More importantly, the Banquet Hall represents a secret locket — people outside of the Banquet Hall on Tuesdays at 6PM do not know what is shared among the members, and as we (humans) leave and enter the space, the Banquet Hall holds our memories for us. I make the claim that the Banquet Hall has the ability to hold memories because as I am reflecting on my past three years here at Kalamazoo College, I see my first-year self, entering the doors of the Banquet Hall and looking for friends. I see myself, both as sophomore and as a junior, sharing laughs, tears, and anger with people I can call family. Being able to reminisce while standing in the doorway of the Banquet Hall represents that regardless of the time frame the assemblages were created (two years ago or three years ago), I know I can return to Banquet Hall and see all of the assemblages I formed due to the shared space that allowed us to come together.
Through analyzing the physical space of the Latinx Student Organization, I was hoping to de-center humans and instead make them supporting characters in my blog post. However, as noted, it is difficult to subtract humans from explaining how a space functions. At the same time, Tsing states, “we need to know the histories humans have made in these places and the histories of non-human participants” (160). This connects to why I chose to talk about my assemblage to the physical space — its history with the multiple assemblages it has helped create through cultural forms is essential to include as a means to demonstrate the pivotal role the Banquet Hall has in building a family amongst the members if LSO.
It also represents a disturbance that “realigns possibilities for transformative encounter” (Tsing 152). This means that the Banquet Hall is a disturbance because it provides the possibilities of forming assemblages with other humans or with other non-humans in the space. More specifically, because the Banquet Hall represents a disturbance, it ultimately means that humans cannot imagine their progress without non-humans. In this context, I cannot imagine progress without non-humans at Kalamazoo College because the Banquet Hall provided me a possibility of forming a support system with the people it holds, and without this support system, I would not be here writing this blog post at the end of my junior year. I must acknowledge that the Banquet Hall helped me navigate my three years of my undergraduate career, for it allowed me to engage in creating assemblages with both humans and non-humans.
More importantly, Tsing’s transformative encounters through disturbance is not limited to an interaction with a human and non-human; transformative encounters can also happen within ourselves. For example, because I continued attending weekly meetings at the Banquet Hall, I became familiar with the physical space, thus, leading to feeling comfortable to move around in different seats rather than staying in one spot. To me, this is a transformative encounter because within becoming comfortable in the Banquet Hall, I gained confidence to use the physical space to develop social skills whether it be through talking to one person or talking with a group. Without the Banquet Hall being the constant physical location where LSO weekly meetings are held, I would not have gained the comfortability or the confidence to navigate physically and socially through the Banquet Hall.
This transformative encounter is apparent in other spaces, such as the classroom and office hours, because I see myself communicating more with my professors and classmates compared to my first-year, and I have to give credit to the Banquet Hall for allowing me to enhance my social skills not only with my friends, but with others as well. Even though I planned to write about a physical space, I was not aware of how much of an impact it has had on my personal growth and on choosing to stay at Kalamazoo College. This is to reiterate that assemblages do not erase; they are always present and will undergo changes just as I shifted how I interact(ed) with the Banquet Hall between now and my first-year.