I first met Ryan Kyle ’23, surprisingly enough, not in a class in law, jurisprudence, and social thought (LJST) — our shared major — but in TA hours for our Fall 2021 philosophy class, Logic. I was a young freshman severely regretting my decision to take the class in the first place, and Ryan was a slightly older and much wiser junior, reassuring me that failing Logic would most certainly not be the end of the world. I remember leaving Cooper House that day feeling slightly more reassured about my decision to major in LJST and feeling so incredibly welcomed by Ryan’s words.
Because that’s exactly the kind of person Ryan Kyle is: kind, compassionate, and incredibly open to talking to anyone, no matter who they are. And from my interviews with her friends, her deep love for the people around her only became more apparent. “Ryan really makes you understand that she cares about you,” One of her friends, Hannah Gariepy ’24 told me in a group interview. “She is so incredibly kind and loving, and she knows everyone’s names — not just students and professors, but staff as well.” Her friends spent most of our time together extolling Ryan’s various academic, extracurricular, and personal virtues alike — with Tina Zhang ’24 in particular describing Ryan as a secondary academic advisor to her.
Ryan herself laughed when I told her all this, and told me that her friends were probably exaggerating a little. From learning about how much Ryan has done on this campus and how much she plans to do in the future, I doubt there was any exaggeration at all.
Finding Her Footing
Ryan grew up in Chevy Chase, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C. Ryan described her hometown as “lovely, but a very white, wealthy bubble,” adding: “Leaving D.C. is funny, because you realize not everyone has that upbringing of casual conversation about politics that a lot of D.C. parents have, but even with this cultivated public service interest, it was definitely a bubble.”
Ryan knew that she wanted to leave this bubble for college. In many ways, Amherst seemed like a foregone conclusion: her grandfather and mother both attended the college. Despite Ryan not wanting to go somewhere her parents went, she soon realized Amherst would be the perfect place for her.
“I realized how interested I was in going to a liberal arts college.” Ryan said. “If I want the big university experience, I can someday do that for grad school, but this would be the only time in my life I could have that New England small liberal arts college experience.”
Despite her eventual surety about attending Amherst, Ryan’s first year was difficult for her. “I wouldn’t say that I was really happy here, even though I knew how much my mom loved this place,” she said. “I think I was super overwhelmed by the school and I didn’t know how to balance how intense Amherst [academics were] with a social life.”
“My friends like to say that there’s freshman-year-Ryan and the rest-of-college-Ryan,” Ryan added, laughing.
It was Professor of LJST and Political Science Austin Sarat, Ryan’s first-year seminar professor, who first sat her down to tell her that she couldn’t spend all her time working. It was also he who inspired her to become an LJST major. “My friends like to joke that I was in denial about being an LJST major for nine months,” Ryan said. After [my first-year seminar] “Secret and Lies,” I spent a lot of time trying to figure out — do I like LJST, or do I just like Sarat? Then came the first semester of my sophomore year, when I took “Arendt’s Judgements,” taught by Professor [of LJST Adam] Sitze, and there was no going back. I knew this subject was for me.”
Rooted in Research
Both Sarat and Sitze alike would go on to play pivotal roles in Ryan’s LJST experience at Amherst — Sarat as her research mentor, and Sitze as her thesis advisor.
Over the summer of 2020, Ryan performed research alongside Sarat on the death penalty during crises. This research would become the backbone of the paper she later co-wrote with Sarat. Ryan describes the paper in question, “The Death Penalty in Dark Times: What Crises Do (or Do Not Do) to Capital Punishment,” as exploring the way in which “crises are barometers of the resilience of certain things.”
“When resources are not invested in a certain thing during a crisis, that’s telling,” Ryan said, “so the fact that the death penalty stopped during Covid is maybe reflective of the larger sort of downward trend in how committed we are to the death penalty as a country.”
Reflecting on her research experiences, Ryan said they were extremely rewarding. In particular, she recalled someone who reached out to her about their own family’s personal history with the death penalty. “It’s so cool that someone read my words and found this personal connection,” Ryan said. She also especially enjoyed working with Sarat: “I can’t say enough about Professor Sarat. He’s really become my person.”
The sentiment is mutual, Sarat told me. “Ryan Kyle is simply one of the most impressive students I have ever taught.” He said. “She is brilliant, thoughtful, judicious, and generous. She exemplifies all a scholar should be. And, as impressive as she is as a student and collaborator, she is even more impressive as a person.” I can’t help but echo Sarat’s words that Ryan is a “total mensch.”
Ryan’s time doing research with Sarat only increased her certainty that she wanted to eventually pursue a thesis, though the subject of her thesis — dignity jurisprudence — actually originated as a suggestion from Sitze during his “Introduction to Legal Theory” course.
“In a lot of other constitutions around the world, dignity is this really central concept, but not in the U.S. Constitution,” Ryan told me. “While researching, I thought about dignity jurisprudence in connection to disability, because [philosopher Immanuel] Kant, who is considered the father of secular human dignity, really grounded dignity in capacity to reason, and there’s always been this risk that that will exclude individuals who we deem as not having the capacity to reason.”
“I think it was almost fate that I would settle on case law about the death penalty and intellectual disability,” Ryan added, characterizing her thesis as a culmination of everything she has learned at Amherst.
Extending Her Mentorship
Beyond being an LJST powerhouse, Ryan has engaged in plenty of other activities during her time at Amherst. She is the TA for Justice, the In/Out Program class taught by Professor Bumiller that enrolls half Amherst students, and half incarcerated students at Hampshire County Jail. Kyle, who took the class last year, highly recommends it: “It’s so important for students like us to get into prisons and see what the reality is, because it adds another level to your advocacy and really makes you appreciate just how much the carceral state is one of the biggest injustices of our time.”
Beyond TA-ing, Ryan has also been a leader of Big Brothers Big Sisters (a mentoring program connecting Amherst students to elementary school children) and served the Hampshire County Advisory Board for Big Brothers Big Sisters in her junior year. A lot of her time post-Covid has been spent recruiting for the program, which used to be fairly popular on campus before the pandemic hit.
Ryan described one of the toughest things about graduating as leaving her Little Sister behind. “It’s been so cool watching her grow up,” she told me. “Especially thinking about how I’ve essentially been there for most of her conscious life.”
Aside from Big Brothers Big Sisters, Ryan has also been co-President of the Glee Club, co-leader of 3D (an organization connecting students with adults with disabilities), and a member of the Educations Professions Fellowship, which offers a variety of funding, learning, and training opportunities for those interested in careers in education. Ryan described the fellowship as “life-changing” and highly encouraged others to participate in it.
“The Office of Fellowships actually gave her an award for bringing in so many people into [the Education Professions Fellowship], unlike most people who don’t want to tell other people about fellowships to avoid competition,” Anna Lyons ’23 told me, as another way to emphasize Ryan’s sheer kindness and commitment to the community around her.
Despite Ryan’s impressive list of resume-worthy activities and accomplishments, she hoped to emphasize to students that it’s never too late to get involved in campus activities — most of the things she does now, she joined in her sophomore year or later.
After graduating, Ryan will be holding a Fulbright English-language teaching position in Uruguay, which she is excited for. “Fulbright has been on my radar for a while because my Spanish teacher in high school, who was a huge mentor to me, did it. And I didn’t get the chance to study abroad in college so going abroad for me right after graduation was a goal,” she said.
Uruguay was the right choice for her for a number of reasons: she knew she wanted to a program oriented around teaching, she wanted to improve her Spanish skills, and the program she’s doing in question will allow her to work in high schools, middle schools, and elementary schools, rather than universities like most other Fulbright programs.
After the Fulbright, unsurprisingly, Ryan sees a clear career path in teaching, stemming from her desire to “give back” to others in the ways that her mentors throughout her life have helped her. Olivia Fajardo ’23 told me that she could go “definitely see her becoming a middle school teacher,” while Victoria Gallastegui ’23 added that even as a teacher she’d probably “volunteer everywhere she could.”
“I think if you asked me in high school, I would have said I want to be a lawyer,” Ryan admitted. “We all know how LJST [majors have] this joke that it’s about convincing you not to go to law school, and well, I think it worked for me, because right now, I see a future in teaching. I’d love to go into a classroom somewhere in the U.S.”
Thriving in Community
With the interview approaching to a close, I asked Ryan if she had any advice for me — and the other students reading this article.
“You’ve got to act like every semester’s your last semester,” She told me. Much of our meeting was spent reflecting on this: the never-ending struggle of balancing friendship, work, and play at Amherst.
“This semester, I have done so much stuff that I never would have done but I’m so glad I did. I think everyone who comes to Amherst to some extent is on a grind and has to kind of work at balance,” Ryan shared. “I’m really grateful because I feel like my friends, from day one, had a much better perspective on what we came here to do — the fact that we’re not just here to go to school — and without them, I never would have branched out as much as I did.”
When reflecting on what thoughts and feelings she had as she graduated, Ryan’s biggest emotion was gratitude.
“I can’t list everyone, but Professor Sarat, Professor Sitze, Robert Siudzinski, the Director of Careers in Education Professions, Susan Daniels, the Writing Center, the Office of Fellowships, my parents, and my friends are just a few people [I’d like to thank],” Ryan said. “School is often considered this solitary endeavor, but I’ve realized that it’s taken a village not just to raise me, but to get me through Amherst. I could not have been as happy as I am, or flourished and thrived as much as I did, without the people around me.”