I perched on the edge of my seat, held captive by the opening lines of “Hamilton: The Musical.” Aaron Burr stands before me, so close and yet so far away, tied to the present by a melody. This same melody casts a net over the audience, binding me to the past for a few brief moments, before releasing me into the frosty night, the vestiges of song clinging to my mind long after this night has passed.
As I stepped out of the theater that January evening, I thought of the program that was soon to be over but whose lessons now weave around my compatriots and I just like the musical memories we shared. Though it only spanned the last week of January, the Arts and Humanities in Action (AHA) program would continue to follow me through the next several weeks, and I have no doubt that it shall continue to do so for many years to come. The AHA program forever altered my definition of success, as well as my view of the steps necessary to attain it, and that is why I would personally recommend this program to everyone, regardless of definitive plans to major in the arts or humanities.
The AHA program is a brand-new J-Term program led by William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science and Chair of Political Science Austin Sarat and Director of the Loeb Center Emily Griffen. As the name might suggest, it is geared towards first-year students interested in majoring in the arts or humanities, a decision that often comes with a barrage of questions, none of which are particularly encouraging. The program intends to help students explore career options, connect with alumni, and plan their next steps in their professional development. It assists in internship searching and in the development of valuable workplace skills, which to first-years is the equivalent of gold.
Heading into the AHA program, I thought that to achieve success, one needed to do the most, to be the most that they possibly could. Signing up for everything regardless of personal interest, pandering to the needs of future employers, thinking only of programs that would look good on resumés, not ones that I actually wanted to do. These were the steps to success in my mind. Like many first-years, I was stuck in the application mindset. Having worked my entire life to get to a college like Amherst, it’s difficult to slow down when moving at a breakneck speed is what got me here in the first place. The AHA program reminded me that it’s okay to take a breath. I’m allowed to take a photography class because it interests me, not because it’s going towards anything in particular. The AHA program reminded me of why I am here, at Amherst College, but it also reminded me that it’s not necessary to continue trying to earn my place at Amherst when I’m already here.
Toward the beginning of the program many students opened up about the negative stereotypes around majoring in the arts or humanities. Needless to say, confusion and pity are common responses — at least from those who doubt their professional merit — when one announces their plans to be an arts or humanities major. Students often hear that they will end up destitute and depressed should they choose to pursue this foolish path. With this aura of skepticism, it’s no wonder that the arts and humanities majors regret their degrees the most once they graduate. But as we would come to learn during the AHA program, it isn’t that these degrees don’t prepare you well for a career. It’s that we are trained to believe that an arts or humanities major only prepares you for poverty, so that’s all one expects to achieve.
Throughout the course of the AHA program, we met with various Amherst faculty and alumni, all of whom gave presentations on the value of an arts or humanities major. These ranged from Chair of the Music Department and Director of the Center for Humanistic Inquiry Darryl Harper’s presentation on the myth of the starving artist to a talk with the Amherst Investment Office on the importance of relationship skills in investment banking. The AHA program engaged us in conversations that worked to break the stigma surrounding arts and humanities majors. It aimed to prove that with such a major, we could still go on to be, as Sarat drily described, “rich, greedy, and mean.” Of course, I doubt that these three goals were at the top of any of our to-do lists, but the message was clear. With an arts or humanities major, we could choose to be rich, greedy, and mean. We could also choose to be poor, selfless, and kind, or anything in between. The skills developed through work in the arts and humanities — teamwork, communication, critical thinking, reading and writing, and many more — would allow us to pursue any dream, conquer any obstacle, and shatter any glass ceiling or brick wall that might be in our way.
On the second to last day of the program, we were given the opportunity to visit Boston and speak with various alumni working in the city. We dined, laughed, and learned together, all while eagerly awaiting the reveal of the surprise we had been promised earlier in the day. As a long time “Hamilfan,” I was thrilled to learn that we would get to see a showing of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical masterpiece (as were my compatriots, to varying degrees). But the more I reflect on that week, the more I believe that the true surprise was never really “Hamilton.” Instead, my “AHA!” moment was leaving not with the hope that an arts or humanities degree would help me succeed in life, but with the knowledge that there was no better way to do so. In other, perhaps far greater words, do not throw away your shot, and consider joining us in the glorious future of being an arts and humanities major.
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