When I asked about the origins of her frequently-used nickname “Shark,” former-President of the Association of Amherst Students (AAS) Angelina Han’s ’22 eyes lit up as she erupted into laughter. She recalled being unsatisfied with the nicknames “Ang” or “Angie” her freshman year. “By the end of my four years, I want[ed] to be able to walk around campus and [have] people just call me ‘Shark,’” Han said. “[And] it happened!” When later asked about her most significant personal achievements, Han joked, “My first instinct is to just say ‘Shark!’”
Han’s humble response to this question — one of many — is a testament to her character. In truth, Han’s (or Shark’s) reputation and the great things she’s achieved at Amherst precede her. Even if you do not know her personally, you are likely to have heard of her or encountered her through the many spaces on this campus that she occupies and enriches — whether serving as AAS president, taking photos of campus events, Val-sitting, hosting her aptly-titled radio show “Val Sits,” participating in Juggling Club, rowing on women’s crew, as a Community Advisor, as an economics teaching assistant, or working on research within the geology department.
It is clear to anyone that Han values all of these involvements and achievements for one reason above all others: the ways that they bring her close to others. “The people,” Han responded without hesitation to my question about what she cares about most at Amherst. “I think the relationships that I’ve been able to build and establish have been the most meaningful for me. With friends, with just random acquaintances, with the staff and faculty, with professors and classes. I think those are what I’m taking away obviously. So I put a lot of care into those.”
This commitment to people is something that seeps into all of Han’s actions, and is noted by everyone who interacts with her. “Angelina is an inspiring person to me because she believes that the better is possible and that she can do something to help achieve that progress,” said Professor of Economics and Environmental Studies Katharine Sims, her major advisor. “She tries to find a way to help others in everything that she does.”
Growing Up in Upper Dublin, Pennsylvania
How much Han cares about people was evident in the ways that she spoke about her time growing up in Upper Dublin, just outside of Philadelphia. One of five siblings and a twin, Han described her upbringing as “very loud, and very, very supportive.” She attributes much of her motivation to work hard and get through college to this “very encouraging support system.”
Han’s involvement in her community and engagement with the people around her is not something that started in college. She has participated in service-oriented clubs from a very young age, like the reading buddies group she joined in middle school, where she would help elementary schoolers work on their reading skills. Once she got to Upper Dublin High School, Han was involved in “quite a few extracurriculars,” Her participation in student government in high school, where she was also student body president, was particularly influential for her trajectory at Amherst. Han gleefully recalled the time she helped organize a “Dancing With The Stars” night for charity — instead called “Dancing With The Cards” for the school mascot, the Cardinals. One year, dancing a routine that a friend choreographed for her and her partner, Han had to step out of her comfort zone but ended up winning second place. In addition to this accomplishment, Han was also able to help with the fourth annual “MiniTHON,” in which the school had set a fundraising record for raising about $35,000 for pediatric cancer awareness and research.
As Sims remarked about Han, “She does so many things well! She always seems to have another hidden talent waiting to be revealed.” This is reflected by the host of other activities Han was also involved with in high school, which included the business leadership club — which she described as “just a fun club” — tennis, and school musicals. While chuckling about her time in the school orchestra, Han modestly remarked, “I played the cello, not well! I was always there, though, much to the chagrin of everyone else who was very good. But I had a great time.”
This commitment and perseverance in the face of potential failure is something that Han herself attributes her success to: “I think I learned to fail a lot. I think I struggled and [...] I struggled in my classes and I ended up doing well, but just from [...] learning how to work very hard.” She attributes her ability to take academic and social risks to these foundational experiences.
Adjusting to Amherst Life
This ability to step out of her comfort zone is something that Han has carried with her to college. Her decision to attend Amherst was a risk in itself since very few people in her town attend liberal arts colleges. Nonetheless, the people and atmosphere on campus made Han confident in her decision. “I had been touring a bunch of more elite institutions and I think I only remember feeling very comfortable and very welcomed by the people I saw around [at Amherst] and really ran with that during the college application process,” she said.
Aside from the personal accomplishment of coining her nickname, Han described feeling very happy and “affirmed in the choices that I made” during her first year at Amherst. She attributes this to the people she found on campus: “I was so surprised at how kind I thought people were. It felt like summer camp at the beginning.” Although it took a little bit for her to get out of her comfort zone and open up to people, when she did, she was able to develop friendships that have lasted throughout her time at Amherst.
Han has made Amherst her home, even being called the “quintessential Amherst student” by Henry Buren ’22. The connections Han has formed are visible in the ways people speak of her. Buren says of Han, “She has this unstoppable gravity that makes you want to be friends with her. You cannot fight against her gravity [...] I don’t know what it is about Angelina that gives her this gravity. I’m no scientist. However, I think no one would disagree that she has it. Her smile brightens your mood, and her laugh forces you to laugh. I’m going to miss Angelina’s gravity.”
Juanita Jaramillo ’22, another friend of Han’s, would agree with the notion of Han’s “unstoppable gravity,” providing some possible explanations: “She is one of the most welcoming, generous, and thoughtful people I know. Her authenticity is disarming, making everyone around her feel like they can be their most genuine selves. She is deeply intentional in forming and maintaining relationships, and serving her community [...] Angelina is incredibly humble amidst all of her academic and personal accomplishments. Overall, she has touched the lives of so many people [on] this campus, brightening the day of everyone she interacts with.”
More academically, Han’s risk-taking abilities led her to be interested in geology. A geology and economics double major, Han originally became interested in geology through her fascination with the environmental aspect of economics. Han was a little nervous about entering a white-male-dominated field like economics, but she says that taking “Introduction to Economics with Environmental Applications” with Sims made the space feel very accessible.
This course inspired Han to pursue more environmental economics, but when she couldn’t get into an economics elective she was interested in, Han decided that she would take introductory geology with Massachusetts Professor in Chemistry and Natural History Tekla Harms as a “throwaway class.” Han joked about her mindset at the time: “[I thought,] ‘Whatever, [I’ll] learn how to use some rocks. Cool.’ Um, turns out I love it.” Harms’ teaching style made her fall in love with the way geology works. “The way Professor Tekla Harms teaches it was just like, I just loved how [...] geology material really builds on itself. It’s like a puzzle that’s [been] split together. And it’s all like, once you put the pieces together, it really makes sense. So that’s why I keep doing it.”
Like most of her activities, what really drew Han in was the people. “What really clinched it for me was [that] I really liked the community in the geology department, like people talking on first-name basis. It was just so welcoming and collaborative, and [...] there [were] just [...] so many great resources and just such a close relationship with all the professors that I felt really able to push myself in a very safe environment.” She has been impressed with every geology professor she has taken a course with: “With every semester, with every professor, I was like, ‘Wow, I’m really glad I took this class.’”
Han’s love for geology and the geology department eventually led her to pursue research in the field. She began research in geology with Professor of Geology and Environmental Studies Anna Martini, with whom Han got exposure to lab work studying Permian-Triassic extinction. This exposure to a geology lab led her to conduct her thesis under Assistant Professor of Geology Victor Guevara. For her thesis, Han studied the exhumation of young, high-grade metamorphic rocks from the western Himalayas, working with diffusion modeling and the department’s Scanning Electron Microscope to measure the chemical composition of small mineral grains in the rocks.
According to Guevara, Han was the first to use this microscope, which meant she was “also the first person to discover its problems.” Guevara elaborated, “In times of adversity over the course of her senior thesis project, when I think many would have given up out of frustration, Angelina maintained an admirably positive attitude through it all. Her tenacity in collecting data for her thesis project was unyielding.”
Han plans to return to school and attend graduate school in the future. She is excited to pursue a career in public policy, and to continue helping others. When I asked her what her parting advice was for underclassmen, Han’s response once again showed her love for the people around her. “I think it’s important to really open yourself up to new friendships and just relationships in general. Just being open to lean into it and just nurture those relationships,” she said.
“Oh, this is one,” she added. “I think people should romanticize their life more. People don’t do it enough. That is my advice for the undergrads. Romanticize the heck out of your life. It just makes things a lot more fun.”