Getting politically involved at Amherst is exceedingly easy but also somewhat intimidating. There are so many activist groups and activities available on campus that it is easy to become overwhelmed by the choices. You could go with the extremely general College Republicans or College Democrats, each united by their vote for or against President Bush, respectively. On the other end of the spectrum, you could get involved with a group that has as specific a mission as does the Juarez Activism Group, which concentrates on raising awareness about Juarez, a town in Mexico that is plagued by abuses against women.
I was drawn to several of these groups, but several months into the year I was presented with another outlet for my political urge: the Association of Amherst Students (AAS), our College’s student government. Student government at my high school was, at best, a pretty good joke: Our senior year, the treasurer used school funds to obtain a copy of “Madden NFL Football 2003” and accompanying controllers, an ethical lapse which the school never really got around to correcting.
By contrast, the Amherst system seemed like something out of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”-it consisted of a dedicated group of students who really cared about and had influence over all the most interesting on-campus issues. It was open to me as a freshman, and it didn’t take long for me to decide to run.
Having beaten the competition, I entered a few weeks later as one of eight freshman senators. AAS meetings are held in Converse Hall, in the Red Room, which is large, fancy and very official-looking. I took a seat in the back, with the other frightened newcomers, and quickly set about trying to make Amherst a better, more understanding, more enlightened place.
And then I learned an important lesson about student government (and, I imagine, government in general): More often than not it is about consistency and stability rather than dramatic change, and that’s probably a good thing.
During my year on the AAS very few opportunities came along for heroic speechifying and spectacular legislative reform. Instead, my fellow senators and I worked to make sure that certain things that needed to happen happened (most significantly, the funding of student activities on campus)-and occasionally, someone would find a way to improve, slightly, life at Amherst.
In fact, the best senators, in my opinion, were those who never tried to be more than what they were; they were the senators who found ways to use the AAS to improve little things around campus. (Hence we now have lights on the stairs on Memorial Hill and a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles video game in the Campus Center.)
This is not to say that there are never controversies on the senate floor, or when there are, that they do not require careful debate; however, generally, they are controversies only to us, comfortably ensconced in our Amherst bubble. And the best approach to resolving them is usually the one that is most modest rather than most impressive.
So the type of person whom the AAS needs is not the one with outsized ambition or a love of debate for debate’s sake; instead, it needs someone who enjoys the kind of behind-the-scenes work that keeps a place like Amherst moving along. I don’t think it’s me, and before you decide to throw your hat in, I encourage you to take a moment to consider whether it’s you.
Robins can be reached at