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Alumna Profile: Michelle Plumstead

There is a desire to find a true sense of community, an inclusive network that accepts and enriches each individual member within a cohesive whole. Recent AQ graduate Michelle Plumstead ‘14, an English and art dual major, is among the students who have found this sense of community at Aquinas College.

When looking for the right school, Plumstead first thought that she wanted to attend a larger state university. However, in visiting, “I realized just how big they were!” she said. “I’d spent the last couple years of high school in a small town, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to handle larger environment. Also, my dad went to Aquinas. He always said they were the best days of his life, so he kept telling me to apply. I finally applied to appease him, and I ended up getting more financial aid from Aquinas than anywhere else - so it was the most affordable place for me to attend. Then I came on an overnight visit; I saw the way that students interacted and knew that this was the kind of community I wanted to be a part of; that I could grow a lot here.”

Arriving at Aquinas, Plumstead quickly adapted and eagerly took advantage of many opportunities. From being a Residence Assistant for three years, to service learning in Maine, to studying abroad in Ireland, her time at Aquinas could not be described as dull.

Working with the National Park Service on a service learning trip to Acadia, Maine, Plumstead experienced an entirely new facet of life. “It was amazing,” she said, “with all of these beautiful, big cliffs with the ocean right there. It was exciting to help out the National Park Service. And the last day we were there, they boiled fresh lobster for us. I felt a little bit squeamish about that, but it was one of the best meals I’ve ever had in my life. Also, the trip also gave me a lot of material to write about...I think I wrote at least two or three essays that semester just about Maine!”

The following spring, Plumstead again travelled with her Aquinas community, this time to Tullycross, Ireland for a semester abroad. “I felt like I grew a lot from that trip,” she said. “You’re outside of your comfort zone a lot, and you learn so much from that. Also, it’s just such a beautiful place. Your cottages are surrounded by mountains, with the Atlantic ten minutes on the other side. I really enjoy being outside with hiking, and that really was solidified in Ireland. There’s also such a rich literary tradition in Ireland, too. Irish poets I had read, before going abroad, I then read again while I was in Ireland. I would end up realizing that these poems were about the valleys or cities I was experiencing; it really made me feel like I was embedded in the culture there.”

“The people you met there were so interesting, too,” Plumstead said. “I had an internship with Active Age, which is a senior citizens’ group in the area. Every Friday I would walk three miles to the town where they met, and we would prepare a traditional Irish meal for them. We would then go and pick them up, bussing them in from around the peninsula. Eating meals together, I was able to hear a lot of their stories; a lot of the Irish history we learn about they had actually lived through. Their parents had been involved in the civil war, and they talked a lot about the ‘troubles.’ And then we’d play bingo or do traditional Irish crafts. It was a great experience.”

As an English major, all of these experiences had a profound impact on Plumstead’s writing and she developed a new appreciation for poetry as an Aquinas student. “I didn’t really like poetry before coming here,” Plumstead said. “I’ve been an English major since my freshman year, I knew that it was something I wanted to do, but when we would get to poems in class I wanted to get back to short stories and novels! But I took creative writing my freshman year with Miriam Pederson, and we mostly focused on poetry in that class. I think I developed a new appreciation for it, seeing the way that poetry can capture small moments and say things that prose might not be able to. Learning how to say things succinctly like that, sometimes it can be a lot more powerful.”

“It’s something I felt I was supposed to do,” she said, “that discovery of poetry at Aquinas.”

Growing from this discovery, Plumstead was selected as the 2014 winner of the Academy of American Poets University and College Poetry Prize, through the Aquinas Sampler. “I also submitted three poems to the Dyer Ives Foundation,” she explained, “for a reading at the Festival of the Arts. I ended up getting second place and an honorable mention for that competition. I always thought it was just a local competition, but really you compete with a couple hundred people, so that was very neat.”

Having recently graduated, Plumstead has plans to work as an assistant curator for the Grand Rapids Diocese during ArtPrize 2014, and has many options available after the competition draws to a close. Reflecting on her time at Aquinas, Plumstead emphasized that that the overarching sense of community has served as the critical force that has tied her experience together. “I’ve grown so much in the classroom, academically and intellectually,” she said, “but without my experiences outside with my community I would not have grown so much as a person. It’s kind of like an Aquinas family. They care about all of their students; people are nice here, it’s like a small town. Most of my friends from high school went to big state schools, and whenever they visit they’re always surprised by how friendly people are here! I like that, and I think I’ve certainly grown from having small classes and a close-knit community.”

“I think you can make almost any school the right fit for you and find great things about it,” she admitted. “But definitely, having that close-knit community at Aquinas, with professors who care so much about you, being surrounded by so many positive people - it helps you grow so much. The person I started out as in my first year is so different than the person I am today. I feel that morally, intellectually, socially, all of those things have been expanded here.”