A few days ago, I had the honor of joining President Biddy Martin and 17 fellow students for dinner. We discussed, among other things, what we liked and disliked about Amherst College. Some students expressed dissatisfaction with the advising process, saying that they almost never met with their advisors. Some students said they were unhappy about the athlete/non-athlete divide. Some felt that it was difficult to make new friends after First-Year Orientation ended. Within this mixed group representing all four classes, there were bound to be some for whom Amherst felt like home and for whom Amherst was anathema.
It was a nostalgic evening for me.
I remembered my freshman year. I had wanted to transfer. To go home. To get back to the few loved ones I cherished there and to pursue an academic track that I didn’t think Amherst could fully satisfy. I had halfheartedly immersed myself in some campus life here and there, but I had mostly reserved my affections for home — an honorable title I didn’t think Amherst could ever earn. Thus, I refused to let it try and woo me.
But things would turn out for the best, which I didn’t understand at the time. Amherst was simply too financially generous, and the school to which I wanted to transfer could not compare.
As soon as I came back on that first fall day, the then–director of my a capella choir, Terras Irradient, insisted that I come to practice. I was in no mood to see anyone, let alone sing, but our annual boot camp was in session and I dragged my boots to a steaming, stale practice room in Arms. There, the smiling faces of my friends — people who had watched me become a person of faith, consoled me through my homesickness, loved me when I was most unlovable and challenged me to grow — greeted me. My heart swelled, and I resolved to make peace with Amherst. There had to be a reason for my returning.
I only recently discovered the extent to which people were desperate to leave campus. I thought I had the worst cabin fever of all. I was surprised to hear from a friend of mine who’d taken time off and returned that she was normally surrounded by students who left campus for someplace new almost every weekend.
Why did so many students seem unhappy here, at the “top liberal arts college in America?” Both of my former roommates transferred to other schools; I can’t help but note the irony that I’ve stayed. I often wonder if they could have been happy here.
After my semester abroad, I was again afflicted with an insatiable desire to leave campus. To leave the country, really. I had since started to carve out spaces at Amherst — not very deep, but comfortable enough — that were home-like: a few chords strummed from inside Chapin Chapel, the sound of the stairs sighing in Arms and footsteps as they reached the top floor, the put–put sound of the music library door closing, the rustling of branches over the bike path…
Still, I was restless. Thus, when I left for Ethiopia a month ago to finish my thesis research, I expected to be enamored again, swept up once more by my desire to leave. Instead, I was surprised to find that I was grateful, even thrilled to be back.
There was nothing wrong with Ethiopia. I simply missed Amherst while I was gone. Here, we start but also end email wars. We instigate AAS drama and we exonerate. We name-call on The Student website, but we also reconcile and listen. We complain about the athlete/non-athlete divide, but we also celebrate the athletes’ great accomplishments. We suffer awful snowstorms, but we also help to clean the campus early in the morning with hundreds of our schoolmates. We endure the monthly haunting of Philly cheese-steaks, but we do it together.
For these and countless other reasons, I’ve grown to love Amherst.
When I came back from Ethiopia, I was offered a job in town for the upcoming year with a non-profit I love and respect. I’m not surprised, but I’m still excited. Without a doubt, I believe that God works things out for the best. I could not have conceived of staying here four years ago, but now I can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be. At the time, I couldn’t think of any reasons for returning, but now the reasons are countless: to make and cherish best friends, to hear great concerts, to love my family from a distance, to celebrate the 2008 Presidential Election on the freshman quad, to pick up that girl’s dinner tray when she spilled it, to talk with a friend when she needed it, to complete that thesis and prove to myself God’s abundant sustenance … the list continues. Each of these is a good enough reason.
My own story is no foolproof blueprint for a panacea to the discontent you may feel about Amherst. But I tell it to say that Amherst has something for you, not because it’s a perfect institution, but simply because you are here and because you are crafted with resilience, beauty and the desire for lasting joy. You certainly can find joy here. I believe that each of us is here by God’s grace for a reason — maybe many reasons.
I thought for a long time about what I would say in my final column. This wasn’t what I’d had in mind. Still, it seems appropriate now, in these unfurling spring days when seniors crack open those blessed black binders and underclassmen dance in a desperate grab for housing.
I’ll be around next year, and for those of you who will be here too, hit me up. The discussion won’t end here. Meanwhile, I sign off now to enjoy my last undergraduate spring. Have you noticed the lilacs blooming on the path to Valentine?