A Meandering Path to Higher Education

A Meandering Path to Higher Education

At the beginning of this past semester, I was not the biggest fan of the English class Arthur Pero ’19 and I shared.

There seemed to be an underlying competition of who had the brightest idea, and this led to disjointed conversations about the texts we read.

Nevertheless, as the semester moved along and I got to know my classmates a little better, my opinion changed, and Pero’s in-class contributions played a significant role in that change.

There was a certain humility or a self-deprecating humor that softened a tense class environment. I noticed that Pero liked to begin his remarks by saying, “This is half-baked but…” And while his insights were anything but half-baked, this small preface was a gift because it invited others — myself included — to participate without hesitation.

As I think back, this invitation of vulnerability and acknowledgement of uncertainty was incredibly valuable in the classroom and something I am grateful for.

Pero has had a wide array of experiences both in the world of academia and out, which is something I think is oftentimes missing from Amherst classrooms. He took an unconventional path to our small liberal arts college and his approaching graduation. Very simply, he’s lived a lot longer than the rest of us; he has experienced more, which proves beneficial and advantageous for everyone in the classroom.

Searching for a Direction Pero describes his early relationship with education, saying “I did very poorly in high school [and] dropped out for a little while. [I] ended up going back and graduating but spent the next handful of years not doing much. I just worked a lot of minimum-wage jobs for a long time and moved out when I was pretty young and lived with friends and hung out.”

There are moments on the Amherst campus where one can feel deceptive pressure to get on the fast-track towards a career and money-making. Certainly, that’s what a lot of students at our school do.

They work in consulting right after they graduate and work nine to five jobs at the age of 22. Maybe there’s nothing wrong with that, but I see enormous value in taking time to figure out what you really love. Doing so allows the rest of your life to be all the more enjoyable and rewarding. That is especially exemplified in Pero — he took his time.

Before going back to school, Pero said, “I spent a lot of time doing the things I wanted to do, which was watch movies, hang out with my friends and play music and play in bands.”

Over time Pero’s taste changed — naturally, because it’s unreasonable to know what you want to do for the rest of your life as a young adult. Pero said that the time he spent before deciding to go back to school was “fun but it got monotonous … for me. [I] was feeling very stagnant and feeling like my only options were to work in food service for the rest of my life or retail. And the future didn’t look very appealing in that line of work.”

His curiosity for more sparked his decision to go to college. “I just wasn’t on the same wavelength with [my friends],” he said. “Everybody was just very content to do very specific things, but I found myself more interested in — I don’t want to sound pretentious — reading and things that I couldn’t really talk to anybody about.”

So, he chose to go back to school and enrolled at Holyoke Community College.

Learning for the Sake of Learning It was a big step. Originally, Pero “didn’t really concern myself so much with going to college or anything like that because it never really seemed like an option,” he said. “Nobody in my immediate family had and at that time none of my friends were. It seemed like a very separate world from me.”

Nevertheless, after spending time away from academia, it seems that the decision to go back to school occurred very organically.

It was a decision he, and he alone, made without outside pressure, which adds a certain degree of vigor to his commitment to education.

I have always admired an intrinsic dedication to and love of learning. Learning for the sake of learning is invaluable, and Pero began his experience in higher education with this mindset.

“I decided to go without anything like a career in mind,” he said. “I decided to go to learn a little bit, and I kind of had a chip on my shoulder too because I thought that I was kind of smart even though I had never applied myself. So, I wanted to see if I could push myself to do well in school while learning about the things that I wanted to learn about.”

After a successful and rewarding time at Holyoke Community College, Pero was encouraged to apply to four-year schools to obtain his bachelor’s degree.

“I got in [to Amherst], and I didn’t think I would, and now I’m graduating,” he said.

Tracing A Path in the Written Word At Amherst, Pero majored in English and worked on a creative writing thesis this past year. Just like learning, writing is something Pero discovered he deeply enjoys doing.

“I wouldn’t consider myself a writer by trade or anything like that, but I do like to write and am considering getting an MFA [master in fine arts]. Because the whole thesis process went really well and I’m really happy with how it turned out.”

The independence of the thesis process was particularly appealing to him.

“It was just great to work mostly independently, check in and get free rein to be as creative and strange as I wanted to be,” he said. Professor of English Judith Frank, Pero’s thesis advisor, reflected on the experience of mentoring him.

“He went from wondering his first semester whether he was going to be able to succeed at Amherst to writing this confident and powerful collection of linked short stories that expressed his full range of intelligence, imagination and humor,” Frank wrote in an email interview.

“It was a privilege to witness,” Frank added.

Pero describes his senior thesis as “a collection of short stories that’s interlinked through the characters and thematically. So it’s about a working-class family and their struggles with monotony, alienation, loss, grief and uncertainty about the future.”

This final theme — uncertainty about the future — is what stood out the most from my conversation with Pero.

Time Well-Taken When I asked him about the future, he said, “That’s the problem, I have no plans as of right now.” I don’t think that’s a problem in the slightest. All too often on this campus we’re told to have a plan; we’re encouraged to map out our futures and our careers.

I look to Pero’s trajectory to and through higher education as an incredible story of success and accomplishment.

A story of passion that didn’t necessarily have a plan or structure from the beginning. It was his genuine love of learning and later writing that brought him to Amherst.

Hopefully, Pero’s story can serve as a lesson in taking time for ourselves and in using it to discover our genuine interests. There is no rush. Pero, after all, took his time — and his college degree is all the more rewarding because of it.