It was only fitting that my Zoom interview with Dylan Momplaisir ’21 started with technical issues. A double major in computer science and architectural studies who has served as digital director of The Student for the past three and a half years, Momplaisir is well-accustomed to jumping to the rescue when something’s not working. But of course, the software that all of us have spent the last year learning to navigate still managed to confound the both of us.
After a few minutes of troubleshooting, various meeting restarts and some frantic messages exchanged over Slack, we finally were able to start talking. In a way, that relatively minor inconvenience encapsulated everything that Momplaisir has spent his last four years at Amherst accomplishing. Underneath his calm and lighthearted exterior is someone who just wants to help people and find a way to make their stories heard by any means necessary. Now, it’s time to tell his.
“I’m gonna make a way out”
Born and raised in New York City, Momplaisir has always been surrounded by people different from himself. He grew up in a small community in the outer borough of Queens, in a neighborhood filled with people from different countries all around the world, including the vibrant Caribbean community that he and his family are proud to be a part of.
He credits this blending of cultures with shaping his desire to learn more about the people around him and help them achieve their goals. It has also influenced his ideas about his own goals — this community taught Momplaisir that to make his way in the world, he would have to carve his own path.
Everyone around him growing up was hungry for greatness, said Momplaisir, desiring to create opportunities for themselves to make their way out and find greener pastures. He was no different. Never wanting to say no to a project, Momplaisir would pick up what he described as “random hobbies,” including learning Latin on a whim, and it was here that his love for telling stories would first develop.
One of these hobbies was graphic design, which would eventually lead to him joining his high school’s literary magazine, introducing him to journalism for the first time. He later became editor-in-chief of the magazine, and after that experience, it was only natural that his interest in technology and storytelling would grow. It was here that he found that the things he created for others allowed him to connect with people and enter spaces that he wouldn’t have otherwise had the chance to interact with, and is something he credits as his pathway into the world of technology. “As a 13- or 14- year old in New York, the fact that I could go into rooms and be like ‘I might be 14, but look at this code I got right here, there’s something really [interesting] here,’ that was always my peak interest,” said Momplaisir.
It was this inclination towards technology, and his love for his community, that sparked his enthusiasm for showcasing the stories of people around him and drove him to ask the question of how he could make his city a better place. This question was one that stayed with him as he left bustling NYC to the relative quiet of Western Massachusetts.
From Storyteller to Digital Director and Back Again
Momplaisir didn’t take the traditional path to Amherst. He enrolled after being offered a spot off the waitlist, which he jumped at the opportunity to accept. As someone who cherished his community so much, having the ability to be close to home while also fulfilling his desire to find his voice was a chance he couldn’t pass up.
Coming to Amherst was a way for Momplaisir to foster the connections he wanted, as well as better himself and others in a way that he hadn’t been able to in high school. On New Year’s Eve in 2017, shortly after Momplaisir finished his first semester at Amherst, he made a resolution: “I’m not gonna talk crap about things unless I can do something about it. I need to face what I want to be and what I want to do because if I don’t speak for it, it’s not going to happen.”
It was this philosophy that led him to join The Student and become its digital director, an experience that has become foundational to his time at Amherst. In the newspaper’s staff, he saw a group of people who were deeply engaged in the stories they wanted to tell, but didn’t have the technological infrastructure in place to do so in an efficient way. He decided that he would be the person to fix this.
But Momplaisir’s dedication to The Student didn’t stop at just fixing what Editor-in-Chief Emerita Natalie De Rosa ’21 bluntly stated was “a janky website that looked like it came from the ’90s.” Rather, he transformed the website into a modern, functional platform that was iterable and changed with the times.
“I remember the countless hours [I’d] spent with Olivia Gieger [’21] (my co-editor-in-chief) gawking at The Atlantic’s website, or comparing The Student’s layout to The Harvard Crimson,” said De Rosa. “While Olivia and I were simply gawking, Dylan had a vision. He showed us the skillset and the tenacity to take these fantasies we had for The Student and attempt to make them a reality.” In the span of a few short months during his sophomore year, Momplaisir had used his skills to completely remake the website, and enabled The Student and its staff to better use technology to report the stories that he had come to Amherst looking to tell.
Back to the City
Working on The Student wasn’t the only outlet for Momplaisir’s interests. Momplaisir took his first architectural studies class during his first year and loved that it connected his education back to his pre-college experiences growing up in New York. Specifically, he was drawn to the idea of depicting and exploring how he could give a voice to marginalized identities in the city space, both through photography and through construction of technology that could create anti-poverty solutions for those people.
This passion is what motivated him to declare as a computer science and architectural studies double major, and eventually write a thesis with Professor of Art and the History of Art and Architectural Studies Gabriel Arboleda focusing on the “People’s Plan” and the mandatory promise of urban planning. In particular, he studied the neighborhood of Bushwick, Queens, and how technology can be used to empower communities to take control of their own destinies.
“Dylan is a keen urban thinker, a critic of how cities are presently conceptualized in ways that often end up normalizing them as spaces of exclusion,” said Arboleda. “In search of an answer, Dylan has been reflecting upon the possibility for people in South Queens to act as their community’s own planners … I feel honored [to] hav[e] worked with Dylan as his advisor, and in this capacity having witnessed his intellectual and personal growth throughout the past four years.”
Like in his time with The Student, Momplaisir’s goal for his thesis was to find a platform for people to express themselves. In doing so, he deepened his roots both inside and outside the Amherst bubble. He credits this experience with sparking his interest in data journalism, which he will continue to pursue after graduation while working as a data journalist at The Atlantic.
This intellectual and personal growth that Arbodela highlights even continued to shine through during the Covid-19 pandemic. Momplaisir has had a blast being back on campus this year, even saying that his last semester was one of his best. He sees the pandemic as having allowed him to reconnect with people on a deeper level than he otherwise would have, creating an intentionality in his relationships that he didn’t have beforehand.
Specifically, Momplaisir has made time to support the people who have made his time at Amherst so special to him, even if he needs to take time out of his day to do so. Of this quality, Gieger explained, “I noticed his great desire to support his friends, his teams and his larger community. It is truly amazing how much Dylan lets empathy drive the work he does in everything. It’s … so unique, that no matter how poorly people treat him, he still is able to see humanity and goodness of people underneath the surface and act on that (even if he sees the badness too!).”
Gieger isn’t the only one who has noticed this exceptional quality. “This past year especially, I’ve found it incredibly easy to beat myself up for all the things I haven’t been able to accomplish, but Dylan encourages me to give myself grace,” said De Rosa. “He sees the value in people beyond their labor and productivity, and really treasures his relationships and the people around him.”
This is certainly why so many people are sad to see Momplaisir leave Amherst. As someone who has only been a member of The Student’s Editorial Board with him for the last four months, I already share this sentiment. His hard work and dedication to everything he does and the care he shows for his friends, family and strangers alike is what makes Momplaisir so unique. The world can only become a better place with him there to advocate for anyone that needs it and create opportunities for people to tell their, as well as others’, stories.