KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Alyssa Zamora is passionate about theatre. She always has been. But it wasn't until she came to Western Michigan University that she saw the possibility of making it a career and using it as a vessel for change.
"I really want to use theatre to impact family lives," says Zamora, who will graduate Saturday, May 1, with a degree in music theatre performance and a minor in family science. "The whole idea behind family science is that if you can change someone's family situation and improve it, it will in turn improve society."
Zamora's own family life has had its challenges, growing up in a single-parent home with financial difficulties.
"I've been working since I was really young and have been raised to be a hard worker," she says. On top of financial strain, she dealt with the emotional turmoil of living with a sibling diagnosed with schizophrenia who refused treatment.
Eventually, she had to move into a friend's house for her own safety.
"I was still (at that) time doing musicals, doing choir competitions, trying to live my life—but with the added strain of this family situation…it was a really hard time," says Zamora, adding that her brother is now responding well to treatment and living independently. "Looking back on it, it taught me so much more compassion than I could have learned anywhere else. It taught me how to be patient with people who I don't understand."
Finding Her Place
Zamora's hometown of Brighton, Michigan, is just down the road from Ann Arbor. Initially hoping to stay close to home for college, she considered pursuing a degree in psychology at University of Michigan, where she had received a $60,000 scholarship offer. However, she was also awarded the Foundation Scholarship at Western—an award for outstanding students who've demonstrated resilience in the face of adversity—worth the same amount. She visited the Kalamazoo campus and was hooked.
"I really fell in love with it, and I loved that at Western I felt like I could pursue my dreams and my passion of performing and directing in theatre. I still really enjoy psychology, but I'm so much more interested in using theatre for change."
Like many other first-generation college students, Zamora was unsure what to expect leaving home and diving head-first into college life. She found the support she was looking for in her fellow Foundation Scholars.
"It's so nice because it helps us transition into college and helps us build community and friendship with each other," she says. Foundation Scholars take a First Year Experience class together, learning how to balance the rigors of college academics with work and their personal lives. "My class really clicked. We still have weekly dinners, and it's really nice because we have that common ground. Even though our stories are so different, we are friends that connect because we're all resilient, hard working and motivated."
A Love of Performing
The Foundation Scholarship not only gave Zamora the opportunity to attend college and a built-in support system, but also an avenue to pursue her passions and dreams.
Finding power on the stage, Zamora lists her first WMU Theatre production as one of the most impactful of her college career. Sophomore year she was cast in "The Wolves," a coming-of-age play about a high school girls soccer team navigating life's big questions. She underwent a physical transformation for the role, shaving her head.
"(My character) wasn't acknowledging who she was and was trying to fit others' expectations, and then in the last scene she comes back, shaves her head, and is like, 'This is who I am,'" Zamora says.
"It was powerful to get to tell that story, but it was also empowering for me to accept that it's okay to fully express who I am. It's when I started to really pursue theatre in new ways and go all in for it. I really started to love performing again because it brought a greater meaning and purpose to those around me."
She shared that love with the community as a teaching artist for the Education for the Arts program in Kalamazoo, hosting theatre workshops for elementary and middle school students.
"It's been a really awesome opportunity for me to grow as an artist and give back to the community," she says. "It's fun and impactful because I feel like a lot of the students probably come from similar backgrounds as mine, with different family structures and financial situations, and for me, theatre is what got me through some of the harder times. It's nice to introduce some of those ideas for these students at a young age."
Zamora's passion for her craft and community outreach are also reasons she was named a 2021 Presidential Scholar by the College of Fine Arts—the highest academic honor the University bestows on undergraduates.
A Solid Foundation
Zamora made a pivotal connection with a church her freshman year at Western, which helped her stay grounded and grow her spiritual foundation—a foundation she's now building her career plans on. Rather than moving to New York to pursue theatre immediately, she'll stay in Kalamazoo and attend Radiant School of Ministry.
"I get to go to the school of ministry to receive training in other things I care about, such as learning about the Bible, outreach and worship. I'll also get to fine-tune my skills as a musician on piano and singing there, so I'll still be training that way while embracing and growing in what makes me who I am."
Zamora also hopes to stay involved with Kalamazoo-area theatre companies to continue honing her craft and prepare for the industry's return after the pandemic.
"I'll always associate my time at WMU with my growth in faith and purpose along with my educational success, and that is something I am so grateful for!"
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