Empathetic Care from a Versatile Mind
Sarah Wishloff ’19 has many talents — almost too many to keep track of. Her older brother, Thomas Wishloff, said that “growing up with Sarah [was] incredibly rewarding as [I was] very much aware of just how talented she is at multiple things, [whether] it [be] swimming, violin, schoolwork, social activism or something I never noticed and she was secretly the best in the world at it.”
From her constant involvement in various research projects to her leadership in advocating for mental health awareness on campus, Wishloff has made an incredible impact during her four years at Amherst College. In all of her pursuits, she is driven by one thing: her commitment to making the world a better place.
A Boundless Curiosity Originally from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, Wishloff says she came to Amherst College because she “had no idea what [she] wanted to do.” The large public research universities in Canada didn’t offer the kind of intellectual freedom that Wishloff wanted. Although she knew she loved both the humanities and the sciences, she wasn’t sure which direction to pursue — her curiosity led her to Amherst.
Initially, Wishloff thought she would be choosing between English and biology for her major. In the spring of her first year, she declared English.
“I really wanted to do English,” she said. “I love literature … I’ve always thought that literature is about what it means to be human, and biology is the same question but in a very different way.”
But in the fall of her sophomore year, Wishloff took “Medical Anthropology,” a class taught by Professor of Anthropology Christopher Dole, and her outlook changed. She decided to declare anthropology and go on the pre-med track — a process that she noted wasn’t too difficult, considering she had already taken many of the required courses simply out of interest. She later dropped the English major.
“I’ve always had this idea of wanting to be service-oriented,” Wishloff said. “If I do a career, I want to feel like I’m contributing in some positive way to other people’s lives … I felt like with anthropology I could still have that idea of the humanities and trying to understand why people do what they do, while still having the more practical aspect so that if I became a physician, I could treat people.”
An Adventurous Thinker Dole, who is also Wishloff’s thesis advisor, describes her as “extraordinarily hardworking and meticulous.” He especially commended her ability to think beyond the confines of the classroom. “Sarah doesn’t just try to master certain ideas to get a certain grade for the class, but rather really tries to think of bigger life questions. So [her thinking is] a combination of being very focused and rigorous but also big and broad,” he added.
Wishloff’s tenacity and passion for research particularly shone on a trip to Istanbul for Dole’s class. Her project was on a Roma neighborhood where residents had been displaced in the process of urban renewal. She focused on how these displaced residents re-embraced music both as a cultural benchmark and as a means of protest. Despite the language barrier, since Wishloff does not speak Turkish, Dole describes Wishloff as“relentless” in her ethnographic research and spoke of how she interviewed street musicians using a combination of pigeon English and hand gestures.
“She’s at once reserved but really very curious and willing to put herself out there … an active and adventurous thinker,” Dole emphasized.
Wishloff’s limitless intellectual curiosity led her to take extra classes starting her sophomore year, taking either five or five-and-a half-course credits per semester. “The thing about pre-med,” she explained, “is that it’s hard to major in humanities, but even beyond that … you can be pre-med and you can major in anthropology but it doesn’t leave a lot of room to take English or other subjects.” She emphasizes that her decision to intensify her course schedule had both positives and negatives, but overall she is happy that she “got to learn a lot of cool things.” Her favorite class at Amherst was “Narratives of Suffering,” taught by Professor of English Geoffrey Sanborn.
“I love English a lot, but sometimes it has the tendency to be removed from the real world if you get too engrossed in a text,” she said. “For me, the whole impetus for why we care about English is that it’s telling us something about the way people experience the world, and I feel like Professor Sanborn … teaches in a unique way that brings in [real life] to texts.”
For her thesis, Wishloff decided to conduct an ethnographic study of pro-life activists in Massachusetts. While she personally believes all women should have equal access to abortion, she realized the conversations she had with people on campus tended to be “very dismissive of people who are pro-life … that they’re just stupid or unintelligent or ignorant.” She chose her topic because she believes people have very complex reasons behind their beliefs and because she “wanted to take an empathetic look at something I don’t agree with and something that a lot of people in a liberal area like Amherst don’t consider fully.”
Another research project that Wishloff described as “one of the best things that’s come out of” her Amherst experience was co-authoring the book “The Death Penalty on the Ballot: American Democracy and the Fate of Capital Punishment” with Professor of Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought and Political Science Austin Sarat and John Malague ’19.
Her research included reading through microfilm from historical newspapers. The project was “a really collaborative effort,” she noted.
An Endless Variety of Interests In addition to her intense involvement in academic research, throughout her four years at Amherst Wishloff has also been incredibly dedicated outside of the classroom. She was an athlete on the varsity swim team until the end of her junior year, an executive board (E-board) member for the WAMH radio station and president of mental health awareness club Active Minds.
Her friend Shahruz Ghaemi ’19, who first met Wishloff through WAMH, noted that as program manager Wishloff “disarmed complainants with a combination of charm and extensively color-coded emails.” Later, they worked together on the WAMH E-board, where Ghaemi further discovered Wishloff’s talent as an artist.
“I wish people understood just how hard Sarah works,” Thomas Wishloff said. On the occasions that he gets to spend time with his sister, he often finds her hard at work on various projects she’s fully committed herself to. “Her fearlessness is commendable,” he added, “[because] it takes real courage to do many of the things she has done over the past few years, from starting mental health initiatives on campus to [her] missions to Malawi.”
Compassion for Community Despite her various involvements, when asked what she cares about most at Amherst, Wishloff immediately speaks of Active Minds. Her own struggle with depression and anxiety, as well as the stigma associated with mental illnesses, led Wishloff to become passionate about promoting mental health awareness, especially on the Amherst campus.
Even when Wishloff spoke candidly about her own suffering, her compassion for those around her was clear.
“I’ve had a lot of challenges with mental health, but it’s been worse knowing that I have friends who have the same challenges … and not knowing how to help,” she said. “Statistically, ages 18 to 25 is the most common age that people are diagnosed with mental health disorders. College happens to be this confluence of events where you’re in a very high stress environment. And sometimes, Amherst can be this individualistic environment of people trying to succeed … which can be isolating. I think a lot of people struggle with that but struggle unknowingly.”
Wishloff describes Active Minds as a club that “raise[s] awareness about mental health challenges at Amherst, facilitate[s] or encourage[s] discussion and also … advocate[s] for students’ needs regarding mental health.”
One of the club’s biggest accomplishments was “Active Minds at Amherst,” an exhibit for mental health which was held in the atrium of Keefe Campus Center. The project, which Wishloff and her co-chair Nicole Frontero ’20 initiated in 2018, was exhibited again this spring. The members of Active Minds collected submissions of student testimonies on their experiences with mental health, posting photographs of those who had agreed to have their names attached as well as text from anonymous submissions.
“I feel like [the event] opened up a gateway to a lot of discussion,” Wishloff noted. “After that, we met with [President] Biddy [Martin] to talk about creating the Walk for Mental Health, and that was really great too because it was … a reminder for everyone on how important mental health is to students.”
As a varsity swimmer, an executive board member for the WAMH radio station and president of mental health awareness club Active Minds, Wishloff has been a particularly-involved member of Amherst’s community. Photo courtesy of Sarah Wishloff ’19.
Wishloff’s incredible — astounding, really — care for others radiated across campus over her years at Amherst. Ghaemi recounted a specific example of Wishloff’s compassion from their class trip to Istanbul. “Our trip coincided with the end of Ramadan,” he said, “so one of our classmates would stay up into the early hours of the morning to get his last meal of the day in before the daytime fast commenced. Sarah would go every night to keep him company while he waited for his hotel meal.”
After Amherst After graduation, Wishloff will be pursuing community health work in Tajikistan, having been awarded a fellowship through Global Affairs Canada and Aga Khan Foundation Canada. She chose this job over her other options, which included being an English teacher in Japan and doing clinical trials research in New York City, because “it felt like a kind of reset on myself — something that doesn’t clearly lead to any path and could take me anywhere.”
Her friend Kevin Feeley ’19 describes Wishloff as “one of the few people I know who wants to explicitly use her inherent genius to help others” and “among the most selfless people” that he has ever met. He points to her going abroad to do service work as speaking “volumes of her motivations as a person.”
Ghaemi also emphasized that “if most of us have desired to look outside the Amherst bubble, Sarah has simply gone out there and done it … show[ing all of us] what a truly open spirit can do for the wellbeing of others.”
Dole envisions that Wishloff’s future will simply be “limitless … whatever she decides [to do],” while Ghaemi says that wherever Wishloff ends up, she will “make art out of the world she sees around her.”
During our interview, as Wishloff expressed her love for literature, she paraphrased a line from “Dead Poets Society”: “Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”
It is evident that Wishloff has actually managed to transcend the meaning of this line, incorporating humanity into medicine with a constant focus on the need for compassion and love for others.
When I asked her where she sees herself in five years, Wishloff chuckled and said, “I’d like to learn languages. I’d like to have a cat. I’d like to play the cello. I’d like to draw in my spare time. I’d like to cook my own meals. And I’d like to be doing something, whether it’s through medicine or just in general, where I feel like I’m giving back to my community on a daily basis.”