by Chris Killian

After a high school career chock-full of academic achievement, athletic prowess, and student activities galore, Eric Aiken came to Kalamazoo College looking to kick back and relax a bit - at least in terms of co-curricular activities.

Boy, was he wrong.

After whittling the places where he wanted to pursue a higher education down to three schools - the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Eastern Carolina University and Kalamazoo College - he arrived on "K's" campus. It didn't take long before he made his decision.

"As soon as I stepped in the campus, I knew this was where I wanted to go," said Aiken, a 21-year-old senior. "I didn't even need to take the tour. It looked a lot like my hometown, except for all the snow."

Aiken came to "K" in 2006 from Gastonia, North Carolina, a city of about 70,000 people in the western part of that state. While in high school there, he lettered in four sports, was president of his student body, and volunteered in many activities both at school and in the community.

"I didn't think I'd be so involved when I got here," he said. "But I'm a leader, and people like me don't want to be uninvolved. Everyone has something important to say. You can't deny yourself."

"K" provided Aiken with all the opportunities he would need over his college career to make that desire to be involved a reality. Since he matriculated, all the double major in art and sociology has done is: serve as a residence assistant; become president of the Black Student Organization; volunteer with the Heartbeat program, a once-a-week program that helps high school students find their literary and poetic voice; and serve as a waterfront director/lifeguard, a fellow from the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, and admissions assistant.

He was one of 17 Kalamazoo College students to be given a Sharing Time and Resources (STAR) Award by the Kalamazoo Gazette and the Volunteer Center of Greater Kalamazoo for his work with the Heartbeat program.

He even played football for a year, even though he was supposed to play soccer at the college. His soccer coach said he was "a little too aggressive," Aiken said, but the football coach took interest after watching him maneuver about the pitch. He spent his freshman year playing strong safety for the Hornets.

"In many ways, Eric exemplifies the coming to fruition of the potential that exists in the K-Plan," said David Anderson, senior associate director of admission. "He used the K-Plan as a catalyst to move forward in so many ways. It's just fantastic to see someone go in so many different vectors, to take advantage of so many things.

"We hate to see students like him leave," added Anderson, "but we know he is on to even better things."

The road leading Aiken into the future can go in many different directions. Maybe the Peace Corps. Maybe graduate school, either at home or abroad, with a focus on higher education
"'K' lets you see your true self."
student affairs. Right now, he's not quite sure.

But what he is sure about is knowing how he got to this place in his life. It wasn't without a lot of help from a loving family and supportive friends. And it wasn't without overcoming adversity.

His best friend in high school came from a family that didn't like African-Americans, he said. He would encounter people in his hometown that would smile at him, but then say derogatory things behind his back. He's felt the pain of racism.

So coming to a college like "K," where African-Americans represent 4 percent of the student body, Aiken knew he would be what he called "an extreme minority." But it didn't faze him one bit.

"I know who I am," he said. "Everybody's real respectful around here. There are always going to be areas where things could be better, but the school does a good job listening to minority students. There's just a certain vibe around here. People always say hello to you, the teachers, students, janitors and the grounds crew. Help isn't handed out, but it's given on request."

Aiken remembers an outgoing senior telling him his freshman year: "You will make it through here if you remember where you've been," he said.

"'K' lets you see your true self and a lot of people are afraid of that," he said. "But if you want to find out about yourself, really challenge yourself and find out who you are and what you're made of, then 'K' is the place for you."

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