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Colin Smith

American Studies

Grand Rapids, MI
American Studies
Study Abroad:
Nairobi, Kenya
Favorite Ice Cream Flavor:
Salted Caramel
Best Adjective to Describe You:

In 10 words or less, why should a student want to be involved in this department?
You spend your undergraduate years immersed in quality literature, watching films, listening to jazz and rock music.  (And on top of having fun, you get to understand our own culture better. You learn how to articulate your opinions succinctly while using examples, research effectively, and write better.)

What initially drew you to this department?  What keeps you coming back?
A Constitutional Debate team called We the People in high school sparked my interest in American history, politics, and culture.  We won the State competition, and our team eventually placed top five in the nation after we debated in the House of Representative’s Agricultural Committee Room. However, when I arrived on campus I knew I wanted to delve deeper into American history and culture. But, it’s the music that keeps me coming back.

What’s your biggest piece of advice to first years and sophomores in this department?
Get in the habit of working little by little. Chunking assignments into smaller parts and taking breaks for your brain becomes more effective than the all too familiar procrastination and cramming.

How does your department connect to your other interests and activities?
As both a writer and a musician, a strong background in American Studies grants me greater context to analyze the works of my favorite writers and music artists. And then there are classes like “Jazz Explorations,” which opened me to a new world. Jazz allowed me to learn more complex voicings, better improvisation techniques, and a new way to approach music. It also granted me the background to better appreciate musicians in the community—such as jazz groups who play downtown at the Union, or free jazz artists who play at the local record store.

What’s the most valuable thing you’ve learned at K?
At K people juggle multiple responsibilities and work at a faster tempo than the outside world. Here I found balance becomes key. It’s about balancing one’s academic, professional, and social lives. It’s better to excel in a few things than spread yourself thin. Now as an upperclassman who returned from abroad, I’ve become keenly sensitive and intuitive about my sense of balance.

What has been your favorite class at K?  Why?
“Music and Identity,” a sophomore seminar, was essentially the history of rock and roll, and it combined all my interests: history, writing, and music. Dr. Zaide Pixley honed my writing and critical thinking skills through her assignments, but she also gave us the liberty to choose our own topics. We shaped the discussion of the class, and a few pivotal topics we covered included: Robert Johnson’s soul at the crossroads, the onset of rock and roll with the likes of Chuck Berry and Elvis, Beatlemania, Bob Dylan going electric, and the foundation of funk. And it’s the only class that let’ you listen to Patti Smith wail “Jesus died for somebody’s sin, but not mine.”

What is your SIP?
It’s a series of narrative essays on the Gibson Guitar Corporation that started here in Kalamazoo.

What are your career aspirations/next steps after K?
I’d like to write for either a newspaper or magazine while recording music on the side. These days anyone can make music, so long as you have a laptop and the intuition to sensibly promote yourself. But, while it’s easy to gig either in town or out of town every weekend, playing music hardly pays the bills, and so I hope to balance my time with writing.

Music and writing are cathartic activities that I do daily. Whether it’s learning the changes to a Miles Davis song, basking in the impressionistic works of Erik Satie, or channeling the likes of Brian Wilson in the home studio, I find myself happiest when immersed in music. While music excites me, I find long-lasting satisfaction in seeing my writing in print—especially when telling the stories that need to be told.

In a year I hope to attend Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and be playing in Chicago regularly with my band King Median. If not Medill, then I’d like gain more experience either writing for a newspaper like the Detroit Free Press or an arts and culture magazine in Chicago. Eventually, I’d like to set up a makeshift recording studio and tour across the country periodically. Kalamazoo is a city big enough where there are a lot of things happening, but small enough where it’s easy to get involved and connected. That said, it feels like a small town disguised as a mid-sized city, and I see myself in a big city.

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