Life Stories: Nathan Needham ’18E Speaks About Taking Risks

Offered by the counseling center’s campus mental health and wellness campaign, “Life Stories” is a series of talks that aim to “[provide] a forum for the Amherst community to come together to listen to a student, faculty or staff member talk about their lives.” The talks are held in the McCaffrey Room in the Keefe Campus Center, and this week’s speaker was Nathan Needham ’18E, on his time spent in the Air Force, and the topic of “Taking Risks.”

The talk was scheduled to begin at 12:00 p.m., and before a few latecomers strolled into the room, Needham was carrying casual conversations with some people who’d already arrived. He spoke with confidence in a room that, otherwise, had a quietly awkward disposition. If he had any butterflies before his speech, he showed no signs of it, and kept a calm, yet energetic way about him throughout his talk.

Jessica Gifford, Mental Health Educator, stood and introduced the series as a way to bring the campus together and create a dialogue that promotes mental health wellness and initiates campus involvement. Needham then took the hot seat, and began telling his stories of the days he’d spent in the Air Force.

As a member of the Air Force’s Special Operations team, Needham spent six years as a language specialist in Spanish and Portuguese, and had been deployed to locations all around South America to support Green Beret units, who were stationed to develop national militaries against possible insurgencies. Needham then went into depth about a particular deployment, his first, and the obstacles he’d faced in landing an aircraft in Honduras.

Within the narrative, Needham focused on teamwork, mental preparation and facing risks head-on in order to fulfill his duties with the Air Force. He spoke about the dependency that others weighed on him to complete his obligations, and the faith he had to bestow in others when there were obstacles presented to the team that were out of his own duties.

In Needham’s stories, an overarching theme he’d intended to land on us was that when faced with any obstacles, fixed within is an opportunity. Decisions can succeed or fail dependent on the ways that they’re approached. Needham’s palpable confidence when talking to the audience drove this point home as much as his stories did; it was evident that he’d followed his own advice and lived with this poise.

He shared three steps he follows when making a decision; the example he offered was when he was considering the continuation of his training with a group that was set on competing in the famous “Tough Mudder” competitions, or if he would follow his duty of deployment. First, Needham said to recognize a situation, and what was unique about it. Both of the situations, he said, were unique and captivating for him; he wanted to see his training through and compete with his team, but he also saw the opportunity of deployment as a life-altering chance to serve and protect. Then, his next step was to find what he could gain from either decision. For one, he would fulfill all of the hard work in a culminating test of strength and endurance, and in the other, he would fulfill a dream of serving his country with active employment. His final step to making the decision was to act swiftly and confidently. An obstacle won’t be overcome when the leader is apprehensive in what they’re doing; there must be a sense of urgency and self-assurance. Needham decided, through this process, that his best option was to forgo the competition and serve his country.

At no point, spoke Needham, was there any regret in the decision that he made. He approached the opportunity with head-blinders; there was no looking back or side-to-side, this is what he had put his mind to and that was going to be that. With conviction, he told us that any risk can turn into reward if there is energy and confidence put into what you do.

With only 20 minutes of speaking time, Needham’s stories were inflicted with a few ambiguities, but the confidence that pervaded his words led to fascinating narratives and a heart-felt, central focus.

These talks are a great opportunity for students who want to engage with the Amherst community and gain wisdom from personal, honest speakers. On a campus where anyone can fall victim to feeling overwhelmed and misunderstood, the “Life Stories” series is a chance for the normalization of human struggle, and for speakers to share, “how [they] have navigated challenges, difficult decisions and pivotal moments in [their] lives…”

The next talk will be held in the McCaffrey Room on Friday, Oct. 28, with a talk from Manuela Picq, Karl Loewenstein Fellow and Visiting Associate Professor of Political Science. I strongly encourage anyone to stop by, if only for 15-20 minutes, and listen to people of the Amherst community share their stories.