Amherst Privilege

I sat at Valentine several nights ago and couldn’t help but overhear two students sitting nearby:
“Whoever designed this place was so stupid — I don’t even know what he was thinking.”

“I know, right? Even the redesign failed miserably. Like, why would you put booths over here — you can’t get in and out of them! And then those new tables in the front room — I get the “social atmosphere” hope they were going for, but it makes it so there’s never enough seating.”

“Everything about this dining hall is a fail — even when they try to make it better.”

It took a few days for their conversation to sink in with me.
At the time, I did not think much of it, and my first reaction was simple: I like Val. It’s a decent place. The college puts a lot of money into it and, heck, people cook and cut food for me. Sure, it’s got its problems, but what place doesn’t?
And what the hell do I care how easy it is to find a seat? I’m sitting somewhere right now, am I not?
I didn’t speak up then, but I wish I had. At the very least, I think now, I could have offered a “be grateful for what you have.” But I did not want to be a moralizer, nor was it my place to intrude on their conversation. (In my defense, though, they were rather loud.)

I will make the following case instead: when you’re in Frost during your last week or so on campus, take a walk up to the second floor to examine the display, “Signs of the Times,” which illustrates the lives of the homeless in the Pioneer Valley. The photographs are jarring.

The people, men and women, are a collection of individuals from around the area who live on the streets with no more than a few dimes or quarters at a time. Some suffered a debilitating work injury and are unable to collect benefits in our post-Reagan austerity policy country; others faced domestic abuse and had no choice but to flee for the streets as a means to save, literally, their skins.

In fact, one of the homeless men featured in the pictures is wearing black sweatpants that read, “Amherst College Jeffs.” I doubt very much that he would mind sitting with a tray of food at Val and having a tough time getting in and out of the booths.

Yet here, two buildings away, are two privileged Amherst students complaining about the layout of a space not ideally suited to their social criteria. Frankly, it doesn’t matter whether they are here on full scholarships and come from backgrounds of depravity — if anything, that makes their complaints all the more appalling.
I would hope that in that case, the students would recognize the privilege that comes with attending an institution such as Amherst.

My senior year is just a summer away. If anything, I would like to think that the one thing I have learned between the first day of my first year and now is gratitude: for the physical place, the people, the privilege and the very pennies upon which my ability to be here is based.

Between my first and sophomore years of college, I took two years off. It was supposed to be a semester, but medical issues and family struggles alike converged to extend it. The time away was far from easy, but it proved enlightening: upon returning, the privilege of life at Amherst had never been more apparent. Studying was no longer a burden: never before have I been happier to have an “excuse” — school, really — to sit in a beautiful library and read and write as though it’s my job. The same is true of the ability to walk out of a beautiful dorm and arrive at a dining hall where food laid out before me as though I were a guest at Versailles after a king’s hunt. And, of course, the joy of going to class, having professors share with me their own intellectual pursuits and receiving counsel and support on my own ideas.

Behind it all, though, is choice: I choose to be here. I’d like to think my fellow students make a similar choice in coming to Amherst. Excuse my preachy nature here, but if you have a choice — to be at Amherst, to be anywhere in this world — be grateful. And if you don’t like the dining hall, the library or a class, but made the choice to go there? Well, shut up and accept the consequences: choice is a tremendous privilege.