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Charleston native returns from travels as a Whiffenpoof

Lawrence Pierce
Mitchel Kawash, a senior at Yale University, arrived home in Charleston for a short break from touring the world as part of the renowned a cappella group the Whiffenpoofs.
Lawrence Pierce Yale senior Mitchel Kawash, a George Washington High School graduate, spent his summer traveling the world singing as a member of the Whiffenpoofs, a singing group at Yale.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Mitchel Kawash says he owes his freshman roommate big-time.

"I was just walking past a sign about an a cappella group at school, and my roommate said, 'You sing, right? I've heard you in the shower,'" Kawash said, now a senior at Yale University.

That was the day that led the George Washington High School graduate to get involved in singing groups on campus and eventually become a member of the Yale Whiffenpoofs -- the nation's oldest a cappella group that travels the world performing.

"If you're into a cappella at all, you dream of becoming a Whiffenpoof," Kawash said. "I don't think I've ever been as nervous in my life as I was the day I tried out to be a Whiff."

Fourteen senior Yale men are annually chosen to be a part of the prestigious group, which was founded in 1909 and is one of the Ivy League school's most celebrated traditions.

The student singers take a year off from classes for strict rehearsals in preparation for a world tour.

This year, Kawash and his fellow Whiffs performed on all seven continents -- yes, Antarctica too -- and even stopped in his hometown to play at the Clay Center, in March.

Though the commitment to the group means pushing graduation back a year, the theater studies major said the lessons he's learned outside of the classroom are invaluable.

"You learn a lot of things as a Whiff -- like how to roll off a plane at 6 a.m. and be ready to perform by 8, or how to feel the energy of an audience -- but the greatest learning experience comes with traveling," he said.

Kawash hadn't traveled much before becoming a Whiffenpoof and visiting more than 30 countries in a whirlwind summer tour.

"I just loved getting to see how different cultures really are all over the world, and how they're also the same in some ways," he said. "There are so many different ideas about what's important in life. I can't believe I had never really known what it was like. My ideas were challenged in the best way."

Now, as Kawash settles back into life at Yale for his final year, he has his eyes set on acting -- not counting out a move to New York City to land a dream gig on primetime TV.

But, thanks to the Whiffenpoofs, he's learned a new appreciation for cherishing history while looking forward to the future.

"I'll never forget those moments you really feel the history of this group that's been singing for more than 100 years. We always invite alumni to sing with us -- this year, we sang with the U.S. ambassador to France at his home in Paris. He was a Whiff. It was incredible," he said. "It's cool to know that in 20-some years, you have that bond with strangers from all over the world, and they'll feel immediately familiar."

Reach Mackenzie Mays at Mackenzie.mays@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5100.


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