Ari Dengler: Exuberance In and Out of Amherst

Dengler has kept her exuberant laugh throughout her college experience as she “intellectually, academically, and ethically engaged” with her academics.

Ari Dengler: Exuberance In and Out of Amherst
Dengler was born in Boise, and attributes her love for nature to hikes taken throughout the nature surrounding the city. Photo courtesy of Claire Beougher ’26.

Ari Dengler has one of those exuberant laughs that make you instantly feel at ease. As we chatted over lunch on a particularly busy day in Val, she took notice of the noise, laughed, and leaned over more so that my phone could more clearly record as she recounted her obsession with the comedy show Broad City (2014).

Dengler, who was raised in Boise, Idaho, credits her laugh to her parents. Her love for nature and a long high school debate career also can be traced back to Boise, where she remembers long walks through downtown as well as the surrounding nature. These excursions frequently included her twin sister, with whom Dengler has stayed very close friends with. However, near the end of high school, the pair decided that they were ready to spend some time apart.

Picking Amherst was a no-brainer for Dengler. She had already known that she wanted to live in a close-knit residential community, and was looking through all the liberal arts colleges with good financial aid. And when her twin sister decided to apply to Williams, Dengler happily picked the better one of the rivalry: Amherst.

Adventuring into Amherst

When sharing the impact of Covid on her first-year experience, Dengler expressed more excitement than grievances. “I was excited to meet new people and make new friends, to see the campus for the first time … and I felt very lucky to be able to be in person,” Dengler said.

Having split her time between studying and debating in high school, Dengler was ready to use the newfound freedom in pandemic-era college to explore new things.

“I just tried a lot of different stuff,” Dengler said. “I did crew for a little bit, I did club volleyball, I was involved in the Food Justice Alliance, and just went to many, many club meetings.”

She also explored many different things in her courseload. Knowing that she enjoyed creative writing and English in high school, Dengler nevertheless dabbled in several departments her first year, from psychology to music. That early exploration eventually landed her in two majors that she had not anticipated: Black studies and film and media studies (FAMS).

Amidst her adventures during her first year, Dengler appreciated the constant, strong sense of community from her cohort of friends. While Covid stripped away many conventions of the typical American college experience, Dengler and her friends turned pregames and parties into picnics on Book and Plow farm and creative writing nights. In those small moments on a yet-strange campus, isolated from large gathering spaces, Dengler brought much creative fun and comfort (and a lot of board games) to those around her and built many lasting bonds. “Those were some of my favorite moments at Amherst, and I’m so glad that I had Ari to share them with,” Jordan Trice ’24 said.

A Knack for Community

As the number of times her friends and professors described her as “funny” and “unself-conscious” suggests, Dengler doesn’t take herself too seriously. Eleanor Winterer ’24 laughed as she recalled the time Dengler got cold after a formal and “was wearing [her] dress with sweatpants over it, socks on top, with a giant puffy jacket, and just walking around in the common room.”

As I learned more about Dengler, though, I realized that her funny and open presence is grounded in an eager, joyful engagement with others in her community. Often, her openness opens up conversations and gives those around her space and comfort.

“She’s someone I can be myself around. I do not have to filter myself at all, like thinking, ‘Am I cool enough for saying this? And that [allowed] us to have a lot of deep, meaningful conversations.’” Winterer said.

It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that I met Dengler at a community gathering and demonstration against L3Harris a couple of months ago. A quick introduction through another friend and some staple Ari humor later, I remember thinking that I would love to befriend this very cool — and also warm — person. I mean, she quite literally brought warmth to me and my friend by hunting down some hand warmers for us on that particularly windy November evening. Dengler also didn’t shy away from the political nature of the community gathering.

In a discussion circle on historical revolutionary figures, she was excited to volunteer some notes on a Black Panther member that she had studied through her thesis work. People say that so much sustained political organizing requires a community that shares love, friendship, and laughter. Without even consciously thinking about it, Dengler was already ready and eager to embrace the many strangers in a new space. Her natural propensity for new people and innate warmth makes her a wonderful friend and community member to so many.

This year, Dengler also decided to finish off her college career in a new community — Humphries House, the co-op house on campus popularly known as the Zü. Beyond cooking some delectable lentil stew for the house, Dengler had relished the unpretentious, joy-filled Zü community.

“Anytime I go downstairs to the kitchen, I feel like I can just have a nice 15-minute conversation with someone about some random things,” she shared. In fact, Dengler had planned to bolt out for an overnight camping trip with other Zü seniors right after our interview.

Academic Curiosity and Personal Conviction

Dengler had entered college hoping to major in English, her favorite subject in high school. However, as she was analyzing films and writing essays on film theory in her English classes, Dengler quickly became enticed to pick up the camera and learn to produce films herself — which started her journey into the FAMS program.

Often, Dengler’s films are witty and whimsical.  In one mockumentary-style project, Dengler interviewed herself about an intense argument over ice cream she had with her siblings (played by her classmates).

However, her favorite project was not a funny piece. Instead, Dengler sat on the back of a PVTA bus and filmed the mundane events that occurred over the course of a few hours.

“I felt like a fly on the wall … It’s just fun with so many people doing their thing … in this public space where a lot of random people congregate,” Dengler said.

The documentary production class she took with Art and the History of Art and FAMS Professor Adam Levine helped her think about the role of documentarians and how they interact with the spaces and people they record, which she continued to explore in her FAMS capstone project.

“Some documentarians include scripted lines within a documentary, or frame shots to make someone look like an authority figure … or to make them look dumb,” Dengler said. “There are just a lot of choices that affect how people do [documentary-filming].”

Dengler’s academic interests didn’t stop with film, however. After a few good experiences in Black studies classes as a first year, Dengler picked up the second major.

“I did not as a white girl from Idaho come to Amherst and [think], ‘I’m gonna be a Black Studies major,’” she said. “But I’ve been interested in creating change and I think Black freedom struggles were something I could explore through the major.”

Black studies Professor Olufemi Vaughan, who taught Dengler in the “Introduction to Black Studies” class her sophomore year, also played a huge role in encouraging Dengler to major in Black studies.

“She was so deeply, intellectually, academically, and most importantly, ethically engaged with the subject matter … and she was able to also translate those ideas into really fine, exciting, wonderful writing,” Vaughan said.

Her interests in Black studies translated into a senior thesis project. She started thinking about her Black studies thesis as early as sophomore year, with the encouragement of Professor Vaughan.

“I knew I wanted to do something about a social movement, mainly just inspired by existential dread about the state of the world. We’re screwed, but how can we find out means of creating change and to see how historically people created change?” Dengler said.

Dengler eventually decided to focus on women’s experience in the Black Panther Party for her thesis, which she title “The Personal is Political.”  In it, she argued that female Panthers’ particular experience, through love, sex, and motherhood in communal living and understanding state suppression, shaped their politics. The thesis project won the Edward Jones Prize in the Black Studies Department and the Asa G. Davis Award in the History Department.

Perhaps it’s difficult to not be inspired into action by seriously engaging with liberation movements such as that of the Black Panther Party. Regardless, Dengler found her studies of Black freedom struggles drawn into sharper focus when she also became involved in political organizing on campus in her senior year.

“Being involved in pro-Palestine organizing has been my first time being super politically involved. It just brought to light a lot of the stuff I learned about while writing my thesis like the need for unity, and not a strong hierarchy — but then how do you get stuff done?” Dengler said.

As she contemplated strategies for organizing, Dengler remained steadfast in using her voice and action to promote a more just world. As one of the two chosen speakers at the Senior Assembly, Dengler gave a passionate appeal to her peers to show up for divestment at Amherst and for justice in Palestine.

“The Amherst we currently live within is one of hypocrisy,” Dengler addressed the senior class. “I, and many of my peers, dream of a different Amherst. We dream of an Amherst where values and investments line up, where we do not have our hands bloodied by investments in Israel and other genocidal actors…We dream of a Free Palestine.”

Next Steps

As she departs the Amherst community, Dengler looks forward to throwing herself into nature again. She will be working at Holden Village, a nature retreat in Washington, as a volunteer and human resources staff.

“I’m just really excited to be in a gorgeous, secluded environment … excited to go on a lot of hikes and do more self-exploration,” Dengler said. She went on to list hobbies she was excited to be able to  invest time in, like writing her horror short story and playing more saxophone. After that, Dengler doesn’t have any set plans but is hoping to explore different options, perhaps doing documentary filmmaking and teaching. Whatever Dengler decides to embark on, though, I know she will find and build a meaningful community with those around her through her infectious warmth, joy, and courage.