An Interview On
Amherst College

Background

Interview Date:May 2019

Gender Identity: Female
Race/Ethnicity: Black
Sexual Orientation: Heterosexual
Graduation Year: 2021
High School Experience: Private school in New York City with a graduating class of 57 students. There was a culture of going to college.
First Generation College Student: Yes
Major: Political Science – there are no minors at Amherst
Extracurricular Activities: I’m in two different affinity groups for students of color on campus, and I work for the Annual Fund and the library café.

Have any of your extracurricular activities had a particularly big impact on your experience?
Being part of the two affinity groups has because it’s been incredibly unique for me to be able to meet people who identify with me culturally in ways that oftentimes aren’t really explored outside of the classroom. They also become people who are my classmates and can understand my academic experience as well.

Academic Experience

Can you describe your weekly coursework for your major?
For Political Science, the major assessments are all in the form of essays or projects. On a week to week basis, it’s mostly readings and short reading responses. That is the way most of my other humanities classes are as well.

Is there anything you feel your major’s department does especially well or especially poorly?
They do a really good job of having diverse interests represented in the major itself. It does a good job of presenting an array of different classes per semester. I have noticed that oftentimes the more specialized classes that have to do with marginalized identities or other things that aren’t as often talked about in political science don’t seem like the main focus and are taught by guest professors. But, that could also just be my experience.

How would you describe the learning environment? Do you think it’s competitive or collaborative?
I think it depends on the professor. I’ve found that, in general, it’s not a competitive environment when considering the extent of the academic rigor, so I’d say it’s very collaborative. Sometimes the work we have to do in class and the assignments that we turn in for grades we do in groups.

How accessible are your professors?
I think that depends on the student. In terms of accessibility, like office hours and the ability to meet with students, I’ve found that the majority of professors are accessible. I just think that a lot of it falls on the student to be willing to reach out to certain professors. Some professors may seem less accessible because of classroom dynamics or other things, so students don’t reach out to them.

Do you feel people are open to multiple schools of thought in the classroom?
In every sense but politically my school very much promotes [bringing up ideas that are contrary to the general opinion of the classroom]. Oftentimes I’ll have professors let students battle out their ideas before moving on to the next student who has their hand up. In that way, yes, very much open to it. Politically, just because it’s such a polarizing aspect of one’s identity, that manifests itself a little bit differently with who you ask.

Why did you pick your major? Are you happy with your major choice?
I had no idea what I wanted to major in when I came to Amherst. I was drawn to a class on African politics, so being able to explore some of my cultural identity in an academic context is something I haven’t gotten the opportunity to do before. To the extent that I’ve been able to, I’ve been able to continue to explore those types of interests in Political Science and that’s why I decided to major in it. It allows me to have access to as many of the culturally invested classes I can take at Amherst.

How was transitioning academically as a first-generation student? Were there any resources that helped you adapt?
I was tremendously privileged to have the opportunity to go to a private high school. I will say that the transition was harder for me in terms of what is expected from professors and college writing. That’s something that had a big impact on my academic career because I am a Humanities major. One of the ways I think I’m privileged from my private schooling is feeling the tangible accessibility of professors and that is something I chose to partake in. What helped was finding the resources and reaching out to professors instead of trying to fend for myself, which is usually what I do. I didn’t find as many resources as I could have now looking back and thinking about how many resources I use now.

On and Around Campus

Where have you lived on campus?
Freshman: Charles Pratt with one roommate but it was a two-room double.

Sophomore: Seligman in a double with one roommate.

How was transitioning from living in New York City to Amherst, MA?
That was definitely a tough one for me because of the small things that I couldn’t have foreseen. Like, at night it gets really dark here and is very quiet and it kind of freaks me out. Those small things actually affected me more than the bigger transitions. Generally, I think it’s been fine because I can go home for breaks because it’s not too far.

Can you describe the level of safety you experienced on and around campus?
The safety at Amherst is something that people talk about, and relative to where I’m from, Amherst seems that much safer. We have the blue light system and what is considered a long walk on campus is like eight or nine minutes, so that’s really awesome. We also have a resource called Safe Ride that will pick you up if you’re studying late at the library.

Pros and cons of being in Amherst, MA?
Pros:
1) The element of safety here.
2) Not being in a city puts me in a different mindset and is a different experience than living in the city that I value.

Cons:
1) It’s not a city.
2) It can feel a little monotonous to be around people who you’ve recognized for so long, both at Amherst and with the Amherst residents. If there is someone in the town who makes you feel uncomfortable, the odds of seeing them are high because it’s such a small space.

Social Opportunities

What kind of weekend activities or nightlife do you like to participate in?
In terms of weekend activities, Amherst does a really good job of providing students with a lot of different opportunities to do things on Amherst’s dime. They will have movie screenings and groups on campus will have performances. That’s something that my friends and I like to go to together. It’s nice to be in a smaller community of your friends and be supportive but also find the larger Amherst community there supporting the same people. I also love attending sports games on the weekends. Although it’s not very common here, I have a lot of school spirit [laughs].

What nights of the week do you regularly do things?
I go out on Saturdays. I used to go out Fridays and Saturdays, but I’ve found that it’s not really worth it for me on Fridays and it also makes Saturdays that much more fun. Friday is also a nice night to recharge.

What is the impact of sports teams on the weekend activities at Amherst?
Usually, they are the ones hosting the parties and registering them. They’ll start by having mixers which happen between teams but those open up to the rest of the community on campus. Even at the initial point of the mixer, I’ve found that it’s not a very exclusive thing. It’s more of a labeled exclusive thing in terms of who’s technically supposed to be there. The community of people who goes out is mixed between athletes and non-athletes, but they do play a role. I also think that some people don’t think they are wanted and lack that feeling of belonging.

How happy are you with the weekend activities at Amherst? Is there anything you would change if you could?
They definitely can get repetitive. Sometimes I go out knowing that I’m going to be back early. Especially if I go out on a Friday, I keep my expectations low. I’m the kind of person can not only find comfort but is also excited for returning and chilling in my room. For people who I know have expectations of going out, it can get repetitive, especially if you don’t try to forge new connections at Amherst or UMass. It’s very easy to talk about how bad the Amherst social scene is, but I think that’s something that’s pretty universal to small schools in general.

Campus Culture

How did you meet your closest friends?
I did the Summer Bridge Program and I became really good friends with one of my counselors and ended up becoming friends with people in the program after the fact. I do think that familiarity had something to do with our friendship. Also, I would hang out in the common room at Charles Pratt a lot and people would just congregate there because we didn’t have anything better to do, so through that, I also met a couple of my good friends.

How would you describe the social scene?
It’s diverse, and not in terms of the people who make up the social scene, in terms of the experiences that people have within it. I know even within my group of friends some people think it’s the worst place ever socially while some people thrive. Some of that does have to do with forms of privilege that I don’t think are oftentimes acknowledged, but I do think that some of it has to do with it being a small school.

To what extent do people of different races and sexual orientations mix socially?
No matter how many initiatives the school does about diversity, going out is where I feel like I see the most segregation of people of different races, sexual orientations, and [socioeconomic] class. For example, Black Students Union parties are something I really look forward to and are something I bring my friends to, some of whom are White. But, they can sometimes feel discomfort in those spaces, which is uncomfortable to talk about. I don’t think I can speak to sexual orientation because it’s not as physically obvious as race, but, I have seen parties that are advertised as for people who are gay.

How would you describe the Black community on campus? How strong is it?
One on hand there is an inherent connection among people in the Black community that I think manifests itself most evidently in moments where we’re forced to come together. I think there are divisions that also exist in other racial communities when you look at people who go to Black Students Union versus African & Caribbean Students’ Union (ACSU) or Council of Amherst College Student-Athletes of Color (CACSAC) and what their interactions look like outside of those affinity groups speaks to some division that I hope can be alleviated but is, to my understanding, longstanding.

How do you like the size of Amherst in terms of undergraduate enrollment? How has that impacted your experience? [Amherst has about 1,900 students.]
Because I went to a really small high school it didn’t feel as drastically small as it did to my friends who went to high schools that were bigger than Amherst. I think part of what makes Amherst special is its size in that you maybe don’t know everyone but you’ve seen their face. I’m one of those people who supports having one dining hall and also being a small school because it’s part of its charm and it’s something that I have appreciated more than I thought I would have.

If at all, how has being a first-generation student impacted your social experience?
I’ve been lucky in that I’ve befriended people who are Black, White, athletes, non-athletes, and lots of other identities. Because of that, my social experience has manifested itself in a way that I’ve really enjoyed. In terms of how it impacted my social experience my first year, I think I just got lucky by making friends from the beginning and through the Summer Bridge Program.

Careers

Have you learned any computer programs or languages through your coursework that will be helpful to you professionally?
No, I have not.

Financial Aid

Have you used financial aid? If so, how easy is the office to work with?
I think it’s just an intimidating office and part of that has to do with what they represent and have to delegate to the community. There are small things, like having a tissue box on the front desk, that indicate you might get upset here. Amherst advertises this seeming lack of students with no loans which is incredibly frustrating as someone who that is not the case for. They’ve been very generous with my financial aid but it’s still not enough. I have had too many friends go through the appeal process and be shut down to be willing to do that myself.

Advice for Prospective Freshmen

What is something you wish you knew about Amherst before entering?
This is kind of a personal thing, but I wish I knew how good of a school it is and how much of an accomplishment it is to go here. The environment I was in during high school was very much so Ivies or bust and once I got here I saw the caliber of people who were here and understood why it is so well respected.

What is something a prospective first-generation student or Black student may want to know that we haven’t touched on?
This is kind of cliché and something that maybe not everyone would agree with, but you’ll find your people. It doesn’t always happen the first year or even the second year, but there are qualities about going to an institution like this that are special that you can’t know about until you’re here and you’ve gone through something here.

What is something that a student may miss on a visit that’s worth checking out?
I would sit in Frost Café because you see a mix of so many different types of students and professors. Sometimes you’ll see professors and students interacting which speaks a lot to Amherst.

Reasons to attend Amherst:
1) It’s a really good school academically.
2) For people who live in the city, it’s a really insightful experience to be taken out of your comfort zone.
3) There are a lot of special people here you otherwise would not get to meet or engage with.

Reasons to not attend Amherst:
1) It’s important for people to contextualize what it means to go to a small school in every sense of your life and that’s something that I don’t think people recognize what that will look like.

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