Away from Amherst

This summer, I spent the longest period of time away from Amherst in my two years as a college student. Semesters at Amherst seem to pass by with the blink of an eye, and yet after ten weeks in Huntsville, Alabama of all places for a summer internship with NASA, I feel as if I’ve come up for a gasp of air after far longer than I realized. It’s given me the space and physical distance to reflect on what it means to be an Amherst student – and what it means not to be.

Almost no one I’ve interacted with in Huntsville actually knows about Amherst, something that feels strange after either living at Amherst or being around people aware of Amherst ever since receiving my acceptance letter. I’ve found myself forgetting that I’m an Amherst student, and it actually feels incredibly liberating. I’ve been able to envision what a life after graduation might look like, and it’s done wonders to alleviate some of the anxieties and stress that usually come with the start of a new semester. Amherst is just a place, that one day I will leave. My ability to succeed and fail during these four years will not be the defining factor for my life after, in the same way the successes and failures I had in high school beforehand are not the defining factors of my life now.

In many ways, I’ve found that my identity as an Amherst student has become less important to me. I love Amherst and the life I have here, but I’ve also begun to recognize the ways in which thinking of myself as an “Amherst student” has affected my outlook on life and my future, in ways that have much more to do with the reputation Amherst has than my experiences at the school itself. The relationship between student and school is especially complicated at Amherst, because of the school’s selectivity and consistently high rankings. This manifests itself in the self-doubt I think a lot of us feel, but also in the way Amherst can seem to be the most important thing in our lives, and the only path leading to our futures. We think we’ll find success through our alumni networks or our diploma, that Amherst’s reputation will carry us through to success.

That’s kind of terrifying, that this place we’re in right now will define us and our futures. It makes actually living inside it difficult, as if we owe the very ground we walk on and learn in something that we’ll be making up for in the years to come. This isn’t intangible – we are expected to donate as early as our senior year to Amherst, and to continue throughout our lives. It can feel like we’re being asked to pay back our success, our future, that’s being provided as a product or service by Amherst CollegeTM.

Of course this isn’t the intention, and I don’t write this to blame Biddy or the administration for asking for alumni donations. Especially in the current climate, donating as a sign of support for Amherst’s recent steps towards inclusivity is a positive way to contribute to our community. But being in this environment with that expectation of further monetary exchange creates almost a power imbalance of sorts. Regardless of the intentions behind the system that’s in place, it can elicit the feeling that we have an obligation to pay Amherst back throughout our lives, because it is responsible for giving us that life. Especially for students on large or full financial aid packages, there is this sense of expected eternal gratitude, because it’s Amherst that has transformed our lives and brought us success.

All of this makes it easy to be consumed by Amherst, in ways that don’t always feel (and arguably, aren’t) negative. Amherst is providing us with a path towards success, which will shape our lives, something we’ve earned by entering into a highly selective institution. As one of the most diverse and academically rigorous institutions in the nation, there are many reasons to wear the label of an Amherst student with pride. But as important as having an identity as an Amherst student is for building a community, I think it’s equally if not more important for us to have stronger identities outside of that. I guess that’s something that seems obvious, but after spending almost a full two years in the same place, with no more than a month away at a time, it can be hard to imagine yourself elsewhere. And for some students, finding the physical space away I was lucky enough to have this summer isn’t an option. Last year’s performance of “Destiny” was powerful on so many levels, but especially in its depiction of the experience of a student unable to leave campus, and the effects that can have.

I’m not sure what kind of a “solution” there is to any of this, if there’s a way to create spaces in and around campus that don’t feel like they are necessarily a part of “Amherst.” But maybe there is some way we can rethink our relationship with “Amherst,” at least in a psychological if not physical sense. Instead of being made to feel that it is “Amherst” which will bring us success in the world, which will define our futures, we should take ownership of our future selves. Our experiences at Amherst will define and influence us, and our time here is – in part – time spent developing skills and bettering ourselves. But those experiences could be found at any college, those skills developed without going to college at all.

Our future successes – in whatever terms we define our own success – will be born from the fruits of our own labor. Perhaps, if there is a “solution” at all, it is letting go of the idea that Amherst is a vastly superior educational institution. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t be proud of our school, but perhaps we should consider the way in which firmly believing in our educational superiority actually inhibits our ability to learn. It creates a pressure to be hyper intelligent not only to professors, but to peers as well. It means we gain less from our interactions with other students and faculty in the Five Colleges and beyond. It means we only think of ourselves as intelligent beings because of our connection to Amherst, not because of our own skills and abilities, and the work we’ve put in to develop them.

Instead of forming a community around the fiction of our educational superiority – the idea of “Amherst” in the way it presents itself to the wider world – we should try to relate to each other as people first, interesting and intelligent not because of who will give us our diplomas, but because of who we are. I don’t think this means framing our identities at Amherst as against the institution or its reputation – since that would still involve being inversely shaped that structure. Instead, perhaps we need to reclaim “Amherst,” and think of it not as some external institution benefiting us – something that exists on lists by Forbes and USA News, or in articles from the New York Times – but a communal thing created by the people learning and creating together on this campus. Thats the Amherst that I feel like I’m a part of, when this community is at its best. It’s the Amherst a lot of us discovered for the first time in Frost Library last October, and that put up a musical in an ice rink last May. The larger-than-life elite institution we hear about in the news is something that exists more as a fog of sorts that gets in the way of what we actually have before us. Let’s try and get rid of that, at least in our own psyches, and see what Amherst looks like without it. That, I think, will be a place I am proud to call home.

(Photo courtesy of Amherst College)