Planning one of the best-attended senior weeks doesn’t appear, at first glance, to be a major initiative to bridge cultural and racial divides, but to organizer and Senior Class President Alex Kiles, it is.
Kiles, who will deliver the student speech at the 150th Commencement May 20, says that one of his missions since a pivotal experience in high school is to help people find common ground.
He is extraordinarily proud, for example, that about 85 percent of the 1,256-member class signed up for Senior Week events, such as setting a world record for most people to “spoon” together simultaneously.
“The difference is in the class,” says the Arts & Sciences senior. “It just wants to be involved and make the most of everything, which is a theme I’ve seen all four years. Our students see an opportunity, and they seize it.”
James E. McLeod, vice chancellor for students and dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, says one of the reasons Kiles has been successful is his openness and excellent listening skills.
“He is smart, articulate, engaged and very personable,” McLeod says. “But the thing that really stands out beyond that is that Alex works very well with individuals and groups across a large spectrum. He is so comfortable with so many different people. His success in leadership roles is due to that.”
To Kiles, Senior Week was more than the pure joy of celebrating the end of four years of academic striving. He hoped the various events organized for the class would provide not just opportunities to interact with a range of individuals of divergent backgrounds but also a fun way to look past differences and bond.
“At Washington University, the best way to combat racism isn’t through a diversity forum but through dancing salsa, by being friends with everyone,” he says.
“As the senior class, we pulled together people who had never met. We did it by having fun, going on a winery trip or the senior trip,” Kiles says.
“Ideally the way I envision the future isn’t a colorless society; it’s where we recognize our differences without attaching characteristics to it. The biggest obstacle to eliminating racism is being able to recognize the differences in each other without having it define them,” he says.
Kiles, who is from Arlington, Texas, had a life-changing experience while attending a summer camp with 85 students from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds. Toward the end of the camp, he and the other campers were told they couldn’t speak to anyone of another ethnicity or they would be sent home. After five hours, one of the campers flouted the rule and the others rushed to join. The camp counselors asked them why it had taken them so long.
“It made such an impression on me that we were so willing to accept this. I learned that when people are united across a common desire or goal, all the issues of race or gender melt away,” Kiles says.
That’s one of the reasons Kiles majored in Spanish and political science with an emphasis in international politics. It is also why he will be attending the University of Chicago School of Law in the fall. With his fluent Spanish — earned during a semester in Madrid — and a smattering of Italian, he hopes to use his future law degree to work in international diplomacy.
“He has a wonderful vision for himself and what he can give the world,” McLeod says.
The dean won’t be surprised to see Kiles making headlines one day “in a good way,” he says, chuckling.
“I’m planning on becoming involved in international relations to help countries find common threads with each other,” Kiles says. “I’ve been interested in being president one day, and I haven’t ruled that out, but I want to end racism and I want to end war. People laugh at me, but if I don’t achieve them, then at least I’ll have made a difference.”