A Better Amherst

Darrian Kelly no longer has any affiliation with the Amherst College chapter of To Write Love On Her Arms.

People struggle with many things in silence. Depression, anxiety, addiction and trauma are a common few. While many students ache for genuine connections within their college community, their isolation with these unvoiced realities often leaves them unable to gain a true stable sense of belonging. Community is often where healing happens. For those struggling, community allows them to know that they are not alone.

What constitutes community, and how students, faculty, staff and administrators go about creating it, has transformed during my time at Amherst College. Along with students struggling in silence, many important things on this campus can often go under the radar.

The national headlines for our campus’ superiority have often failed to correlate with the trend lines of students struggling on campus for the past several years. As Amherst sought to develop an inclusive student body and actively pursue students outside of its traditional northeast demographic years ago, the school eventually acknowledged that, in many ways, it also lacked the necessary campus resources to properly invite students to its residential community.

Student activism has been central to my own college experience. During my first semester, I created a mental health community group that now has a following of over 600 individuals — including students, alumni, faculty, staff, administrators and community partners. With essential collaborations, we conducted mental health programming on the campus when there was none. This year the Amherst chapter of To Write Love on Her Arms continues to bring speakers, performers and even dogs to the campus as we host a variety of weekly meetings, regular awareness events, our third annual benefit concert, our third annual PostSecret Submission Event and its sixth biannual Dog Days.

Despite Amherst’s academic rigor, student activism to create genuine, inclusive community has been the most challenging — and rewarding — part of my college experience.

As I spent countless hours over the past three years working with student leaders, staff, community partners and members of student government to organize campus programming, I knew that mental health was a concern contingent upon other social issues on the campus. Mental health is part of a threadwork that impacts how a community is held together. Recent efforts for dialogue by administrators, staff and students present an opportunity for the Amherst community to give light to itself and develop even further.

As a senior, several realities have been made clear through my own campus activism. One of those realities is that student involvement deserves to be celebrated. Students deserve to be recognized for their sacrifices and applauded for taking such strong initiative to bring the campus together, especially when done through nontraditional channels amongst the extensive pushback and odds they may encounter.

In addition to the need to celebrate student involvement, there is the common reality of personnel prioritizing loyalties among respective departments over the interests of students who want to make a difference in the school’s community. This has often conflicted with their very mission of serving students. Among the lawsuits against the institution, the pressure particular staff members put on themselves to produce effective results have often lead them to respond irrationally and act in ways that are never within the best interests of students. It has been common for their frustrations to be taken out on student leaders through negligence and insignificant attention to the crucial realities at hand.

If one were to take these matters lightly, many students would be disheartened to ever use their voice and abilities to make the very change that many folks have been craving. To make progress with community also means addressing the sole perpetuators of campus politics and incapacities. Acknowledging that problems cannot be solved by using the same thinking that created them, it is has only been until recently that student-administrator partnerships have begun to play more visible roles in efforts for a better Amherst.

While students are not able to make change alone, the stakes have always been — and will continue to be — much higher for us as students. Unfortunately, it is very easy for the concerns of some factions of students to go unrecognized amongst the concerns expressed by other students that staff and administrators may deem as most critical. We are individuals that live in this community and go about our daily affairs — the academic, the social, the extracurricular. In some ways, the focus of campus personnel has often been on marginal affairs compared to the stakes involved for students. It is my hope that Amherst apathy will begin to become a thing of the past as nontraditional campus involvement gains an appropriate spotlight.

As Amherst is beginning to learn, listening to the unvoiced realities of students means continuously providing appropriate venues and inviting honest conversation around the ineffective structures and hegemony at this school. While this has been long overdue, these venues of conversation should be continuous components of the campus experience. This should not only be used as a response to apparent tension in an effort to grasp solutions.

During my time at Amherst, I have received many personal testimonies on the impact TWLOHA-Amherst has made on people’s campus experience. Struggle should not be shameful; it only means you’re human. While some may choose to overlook mental health, it is something that is universally relatable. It is not a matter of the “normal” person versus the incompetent or crazy one; it is my belief that the mental health of any individual is on a continuum and has impacts beyond those that struggle in silence.

Continued isolation allows people to further drown in the things they are dealing with. Community and connecting with others allows for clarity and a sense of relief as people yearn to make sense of their lives’ overwhelming questions. Despite existing progress, there are still going to be issues that people suffer with in silence and that people struggle through in isolation. But having trusted resources and a warmer community can allow us to beat the odds.