HawkStrong: Honors student Savanna Vela researches Spider Man through the lens of metaphysics
For HFC student Savanna Vela, her presentation, “An Interpretation of Personal Identity through Spider-Man,” at the April 28 Winter Honors Symposium was a labor of love.
It gave her the opportunity to showcase her love for the Marvel Comics superhero Spider-Man by allowing her to explore personal identity in metaphysics from Spider-Man’s perspective – more specifically, the philosophies that surround personal identity through the character’s actions, fears, and relationships with himself and others.
“I went through years of verbal and emotional abuse, and each time I gave myself over to Spider-Man. He literally saved my life!” said Vela, of Dearborn. “Since then, I’ve created psychological connections with the superhero that could guarantee the survival of my personal identity over time. His loyalty to his friends and family, his honesty to himself and those around him, his ability to forgive himself and his enemies, and his compassion makes him admirable.”
Weaving a web that connects Spider-Man to philosophy
Spider-Man is the alter-ego of the character named Peter Parker. After being bitten by a radioactive spider that gave him superpowers, Peter learned the hard way after his beloved uncle’s death – a death he could have prevented, in hindsight – that “with great power comes great responsibility.” He has fought crime ever since. He always tries to do the right thing. Even if he fails, he keeps trying. Even if he’s not lauded for his efforts, he keeps trying.
“Peter struggles with finding a level ground between himself and his Spider-Man identity because he believes both identities cannot be continuous or parallel with one another without someone close to him getting hurt or killed,” said Vela.
Debuting in 1962, Spider-Man is one of the world’s most popular and recognizable fictional characters, having appeared in comics and other media, most notably a slew of blockbuster movies in the 21st century. Vela based her presentation on these movies – 2002’s Spider-Man, 2004’s Spider-Man 2, and 2007’s Spider-Man 3 – all of which were directed by Royal Oak native Sam Raimi and starred Tobey Maguire as the titular hero.
Vela applied the work of philosophers Derek Parfit, René Descartes, and John Locke to understanding Spider-Man’s personal identity.
“Parfit argues that continuous personal identity over time is possible when we have strong psychological connectedness with ourselves, such as overlapping memories and personality traits,” explained Vela. “Descartes was not supposed to be part of my presentation, but – ultimately – because of his reasonable doubt of everything, I decided he would be a great philosopher to demonstrate the ‘I think therefore I am’ phrase, as Peter struggled with trying to accept that both identities could exist at the same time. I used Locke to explain the memory criterion of personal identity: ‘If I remember who I am now, and I can remember who I was last week or three weeks ago, then I must be the same person.’”
Going for the ultimate spin
For Vela, the best part of her project was rewatching the movies and applying them to the philosophies of personal identity that she had been studying all semester.
“Interpreting each philosophy and presenting them through different media was the most expressive project I’ve ever worked on,” she said. “I loved writing my own blogs and creating a website for my audience to explore and learn about each philosopher and their philosophy and how it could be interpreted through Spider-Man.”
The most challenging part was interpreting the philosophies.
“Personal identity has been discussed among philosophers for centuries. To this day, there is no clear answer on how personal identity survives over time. I finally concluded that personal identity over time can be interpreted differently depending on the theory and how many holes you decide to poke through these theories,” explained Vela. “I personally like Parfit’s theory of personal identity over time because it supports my argument that Spider-Man has become part of my identity due to the strong psychological connections that I’ve made to him in the last 21 years.”
Vela acknowledged the support of HFC English instructor Dr. Michael Hill, who nominated her for the Henry Ford II Honors Program and is also a fan of Spider-Man.
“I don’t know if this project would have been possible if I did not have the help and guidance of Mike Hill. If I didn’t take his Introduction to Philosophy class last fall, I really don’t know what kind of project I would have produced this semester,” she said. “I do know that because of him, I have achieved self-acceptance and forgiveness that I have struggled to give myself for over a decade. I am proud of myself and the work I produced because he has always supported and listened to my voice as a writer.”
“She pushes me as a professor”
Hill learned a lot from his student, as is often the case.
“Every once in a while, a professor gets to encounter a student who makes the professor's work more meaningful, fulfilling, and even fun,” said Hill. “Savanna is that type of student. She pushes me as a professor to be prepared and thoughtful because she doesn't simply want to know what I'm teaching; she wants to know what she wants me to teach. Her questions, reflections, and writing all reveal a student of exceptional curiosity and desire from whom professors can learn even as they are teaching.”
English instructor Scott Still, who served as Vela’s Honors mentor, agreed.
“Savanna is an engaging and charismatic young woman with an active and agile mind,” said Still. “Her interests are so varied and her intellect so adaptable that she unsurprisingly has still not yet settled on a specific major or career path. Regardless of what they may end up being, I have no doubt that she will excel in her future pursuits once she puts her mind to them.”
Vela's siblings also attend HFC
Born in Wyandotte, Vela is the second of four children. Her sister Marena and her brother Nicholas also attend HFC. Her father Jaime attended HFC (then called Henry Ford Community College) in the late 1970s.
Vela attended Edsel Ford High School her first two years and graduated from Centennial High School in Phoenix, AZ. Returning to Michigan, she enrolled in HFC for the Fall 2020 semester in the midst of the pandemic. She is working toward her associate degree in general studies, expecting to graduate in late 2024. She is thinking about going into law.
“I would love to be a lawyer. I have always been passionate about the law and learning about our justice system. My mom went to prison when I was 10. I remember Googling her court documents to see if there was anything I could find that maybe her defense team didn’t. I am driven by a younger version of me who aspires to be a criminal prosecutor or an immigration defense attorney,” she said.
Discovering her superpowers by stepping out of her comfort zone
In April, Vela was one of a team of honors students that did exceptionally well at the Student Cupola Contest at Sloss Furnaces in Birmingham, AL. Fellow honors student Jay Elias recruited her, along with Alayna Kondraciuk and Bryant Bagnall.
“Jay has always been vocal about his involvement in metal arts. At the end of 2022, he asked if I would be interested in pouring metal. Without question, I said ‘YES!’ Jay has proven himself to be very influential in my growth as a student during our time together in class and outside of school; he’s been a great friend and leader, someone I’ve been able to depend on for advice, comfort, and inspiration.”
To make the team's victory even sweeter, this was the first time any community college participated in this contest.
“Jay was the ringleader behind the formation of our team,” recalled Vela. “I have been incredibly blessed to work alongside Jay, Bryant, and Alayna. Bryant was the first person I talked to as a student at HFC and the first person I’d sit next to during lecture. He and Alayna made this experience the best for me. I struggle with depression and anxiety, so having them around to support me has been rewarding. They are made of iron, and how they work together as a team is as fluid as hot metal. I am so grateful for the friendship they’ve showed me.”
Outstanding work ethic
Elias saw something special in inviting Vela to the team.
“Savanna has a work ethic and attention to detail that really stands out,” said Elias. “These are the qualities I look for when trying to put together a pour team, and she was a natural fit. Even though she had no idea what to expect, Savanna jumped outside of her comfort zone and never looked back.”
Another highlight of this experience was Vela’s favorite TV show, Ghost Adventures, did an episode about Sloss Furnace, which was built in 1881. Considered a dangerous place to work, many workers died there, and their souls are believed to haunt the factory.
“I found spots on the site where the crew took photos,” she said. “I decided to take some of my own! That was pretty cool!”
Vela met Bagnall and Kondraciuk in 2021 during an Honors Colloquium course on climate change. They reunited the next semester in the Honors section of College Writing and Research, where Vela also met Elias.
“Jay has taught me to love myself and care for myself in ways countless others have tried. He exposed me to iron casting, which has been an indescribable experience,” she said. “Pursuing this form of self-expression is something I look forward to with Jay in my corner. I am forever grateful for all three of them being my teammates, classmates, and friends.”
For Hill, it has been an honor to witness Vela’s growth and development as a student and a creative thinker.
“Savanna embodies the transformative mission of a college education. Like most of us, she has a busy and complicated life off-campus, but once she’s here, she’s able to focus, think, and study to transform herself into a scholar,” he said. “The fact that Savanna focused on superheroes for her honors project is fitting. Her transformation into a scholar has allowed her to uncover superpowers in textual analysis, personal and scholarly writing, and meaning, generating the strength that she is only beginning to understand…. I'm a little sad that I won't be able to continue teaching her as she moves on to her future academic pursuits. I am certain each of those pursuits will be as earnest, dedicated, interesting, and innovative as Savanna is herself.”