Determination, Buddhism, hip-hop carry URI student to success

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KINGSTON, R.I. – May 20, 2008 — After a variety of internal struggles forced Kingston resident Kalyana Champlain to abandon her second year of studies at the University of Rhode Island, she took some time to regroup and returned to school several years later with a strong sense of determination and purpose.

As she prepared to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in communication studies on May 18, Champlain said was looking forward to graduate school and the release of a CD that includes two selections she wrote and performed.

“When I turned 27, I discovered Nichiren Buddhism, which helps you overcome your darkness so you can polish your fundamental inherent worth and become your very best,” Champlain explained. “Through the practice I met my spiritual mentor, Ramona, who helped me through my problems and who told me that I needed to go back to college.”

She started out studying human development, but one day as she walked down the aisles of the URI bookstore, she saw the titles of several communications books and “I got this crazy, wonderful vibe about them and decided then and there that this was going to be my major,” she said. “It sparked a passion in me, and I’ve made sure that everything I do reflects what I’ve learned.”

When Champlain heard about URI’s 2006 Honors Colloquium on “Songs of Social Justice,” she enrolled in the Honors Program and ultimately wrote an 82-page thesis on the rhetoric of hip-hop. The research paper examined how capitalism had been built on a foundation of slavery, and she argued that it may be dangerous for African-Americans if hip hop music becomes aligned with capitalism and commercialism.

Her interest in hip hop stems from an early affinity for writing poetry and her discovery as a teenager that she had a gift for public speaking and singing.

“I’ve always been a poet, I’ve always loved music, and I see tremendous potential in hip hop,” said Champlain, who spent her early years in Narragansett before moving to South Kingstown for high school, and who attended the Community College of Rhode Island for a year. “Poetry and music have always gone hand in hand to me. I wrote my first rap song in response to an old boyfriend who said I couldn’t rhyme.”

The URI student is working on an album of her music and spoken word performances, and she was pleased that two pieces have been selected for inclusion in a CD being produced to support Habitat for Humanity in Rhode Island, which will be issued in October.

“The first is a spoken word piece called Faceless about how we don’t honor people suffering from poor housing conditions as human beings,” she said. “It’s a call to wake up our inner humanity and realize that we’re all connected. The other is alternative hip hop called Habitat, which discusses my own experience with low income housing.”

Recipient of a Black Scholars Award and a Communications Excellence Award during her senior year, Champlain has been honored with a Minority Fellowship from URI to enroll in graduate school in communication studies beginning next fall.

“I have a hunger for learning, and I know that eventually I want to teach my discipline,” she said. “I really think that communication and dialogue is the way that our nation is going to heal itself, and I want to be a part of that. It’s also important that more African-Americans and Native Americans get their master’s degrees. I want to set a great example for the people in my community.”

After grad school, Champlain plans to move to New York, where she hopes her rhymes “will awaken a sufficient number of souls,” and continue working toward her goal of becoming a college-level communications professor, maybe even in her home state.

“Rhode Island might need me again,” she said with a sly smile. “I can’t bail out on her now. There’s still work to do here.”