Scott Brasesco: Seeking an Understanding of Humanity

Scott Brasesco has always had a passion for the history of humanity and society. At Amherst, he has pursued that passion in every way he could — always with unending calm, constant brilliance, and a mug of tea to start the morning.

Scott Brasesco: Seeking an Understanding of Humanity
Scott’s haircut has not changed since at least the 12th grade, according to his headshot in The Nueva Current. Photo courtesy of Scott Brasesco '22.

Scott Brasesco ’22 used to read all the time. He read nonfiction especially — antiquity, ancient cultures, empire, anything that brought him closer to civilizations that weren’t his own, removed from him in space and time. But these days, Scott doesn’t do any of that for fun. He reads nonfiction “basically for a living now,” leaving him without much room for reading for leisure. But he still manages to read for fun with that most special of literary inventions: the short story. Scott wakes up every morning, has a mug of tea, and reads a short story to start the day.

This kind of fiction reading is a novel thing for Scott, for whom historical narrative and argument have been foundational in every aspect of life. From editing The Student’s Opinion section to writing a 90-page thesis in political science to triple-majoring in history, political science, and anthropology, Scott has been absolutely uncompromising in his pursuit of his passions, and has done so throughout his academic career with unparalleled calm and brilliance. On top of that, he’s without doubt the best mentor an aspiring opinion editor could ever ask for.

From The Current to The Student

Scott was born in Hillsborough, California, about half an hour south of San Francisco. He went to public schools in the area until high school, when he applied to The Nueva School, then a brand new high school in the area. He got in, becoming a member of the school’s second ever class of freshmen.

Scott valued his time at Nueva not only as a different kind of high school experience, but also as a unique opportunity to help build a new school environment. After joining the yearbook in his freshman year, he realized that he wanted to produce a more substantive publication, so he started a newspaper, the Nueva Current. What he described as a “ragtag group of volunteer freelance writers and editors” quickly expanded, and soon Scott was lobbying the administration for a journalism class. By his senior year, the newspaper was supported by that class, and it quickly grew in size and became more structured. This was Scott’s first foray into journalism. He fell in love with editing and realized one of his most important skills as a manager: “finding talented young people, to do my job better than me after I’ve left.”

When Scott first came to Amherst, he was interested in looking for an editing role at The Student. But because there were no editor positions open his freshman year, Scott joined The Student in 2020, just in time for the pandemic to upend the world completely.

Getting to know the newsroom on Zoom meetings multiple time zones away from school was “nowhere near as nice as being in the newsroom together,” he says, but Scott quickly formed close bonds with his fellow editors, and before long was making a weekly habit of “staying up really late on publication night with Ryan [Yu ’22] and Becca [Picciotto ’22] … to get everything ready for publication.” The trials of the pandemic bore some fruit. Scott is most proud of the work he did with the Black Student Union to publish their #IntegrateAmherst campaign, and felt honored to be able to help refine those arguments and eventually bring them to the school at large.

Scott worked to ensure that The Student’s editorials reflected the voice of the paper in order to ensure that they would be more effective at reaching their audiences from the student body to the highest levels of administration. Above all, he wanted writers to create arguments that engaged with the campus community and said something about themselves.

Scott says that one of the most important reasons for his engagement with the paper in the first place was a desire to get closer to the community he was a part of, to understand the experiences of as many people at Amherst as possible. As an editor, this desire meant that Scott read every single submission with genuine interest and a desire for the writer to be published and for the article to succeed. That’s why Scott called being an editor a “beautiful experience.” He said, “There’s something about watching people get better with every consecutive article and helping them … that feels just really, really wholesome and uplifting.”

Scott was the first person to edit the first article I wrote for The Student. It wasn’t anything particularly important, just a miniature personal essay inspired heavily by the style of pieces like Cole Graber-Mitchell’s ’22 “Amherst Reorientation,” but Scott’s thorough, thoughtful comments awed me not just because of their effectiveness but also because of the palpable awareness they had of the purpose of the paper as a whole. Working with Scott was inspirational not just because of his immense skill and extraordinary experience in editing, but because of his absolute commitment to the ideals of journalism and to the purpose of our paper. Nothing has taught me more about the practice of good journalism than watching Scott work.

Protecting Democracy, One Thesis at a Time

I interviewed Scott on the first really warm day of the year, just a few weeks after he had defended his thesis. By talking to him it would have been impossible to guess that he had just finished one of the most stressful projects of his life. Scott never seemed to be discouraged by a workload. His thesis advisor, Dwight W. Morrow 1895 Professor of Political Science Javier Corrales, agreed, saying, “You would never know [Scott] is under pressure. He is always in a good mood, optimistic, balanced, and ready for more.”

When he encountered Corrales in one of his first-year classes, Scott was immediately struck by Corrales’ energy, saying “He’s got this youthful, energetic, queer energy, and I really enjoyed that.” Especially considering what Scott calls the political science department’s “curmudgeonly … rigidly straight-man energy,” he felt incredibly supported by Corrales as a queer student entering the political science space.

At the same time, Corrales said, “Since I met him in class, I knew we were talking about a specially talented young adult. He accomplished so much in class that I had to recruit him as my RA [research assistant].” In that position, Scott researched topics in connection with Corrales’ many projects, from Venezuela and the Maduro regime to the state of gay rights (“really fun research”) and women’s rights (“really sad research”) in Latin America.

Corrales would constantly assign him tasks which required, according to the professor, “the very best reading skills in Spanish,” and Scott would handle them with ease. His skill at doing anything in the field, from “literature reviews, to data gathering, to text analysis,” was unmatched, and his level of understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of complicated texts was outstanding. Corrales even said, “Without Scott, I would not have met my deadlines or caught some of the mistakes in my first drafts.”

After defending his thesis, Scott was recommended for summa cum laude in the political science department, an honor which Corrales said befit Scott “from the very start of his career at Amherst.” Corrales seemed to have a similar impression of Scott as I do: He “represents calm and brilliance.”

His thesis focuses on the protection and promotion of democracy, fueled by a passion for democracy informed by long study of anti-democratic movements through classes like “A History of the European New Right” and “Democratic Backsliding.”

For his thesis, Scott used the political scientist Erica Chenoweth’s Nonviolent and Violent Campaigns and Outcomes dataset which, when controlled for points relevant to his research, yielded 286 case studies. He modified the set with a measure that accounted for the support for democracy in the movements that were part of the case studies, and discriminated between movements that were institutional (working within formal governmental structures) and extra-institutional (aligning more with tactics like coups, protests, or strikes).

Going into this massive undertaking, Scott wanted to prove that radical movements were effective at creating positive democratic change and to examine how those movements have changed tactics over time. However, this outsider examination wasn’t wholly satisfying, and so he ended up making that investigation into the first half of a two-part thesis, adding a second section focusing specifically on movements likely to lead to democratic improvement of the country.

Where the first half of his thesis focuses on the patterns of opposition movements and how they adapt to the regimes they oppose, the second half uses large numbers of case studies to establish patterns in long term democratization, and focuses on a few cases specifically to see how choices made within movements determined the impact of those movements on long-term democracy.

“Writing a thesis is a nightmare,” Scott reflected to me. “But also,” he added, “it was super rewarding. There’s something that feels just incredible about looking at this huge thing, and all these things I’ve shown … It’s just thrilling seeing the results of all of this research.”

It Would Have Been Sillier to Not Declare Anthro

Though Scott’s thesis displays a deep interest in political science, his passion has always been for history. In his bio on The Nueva Current’s website, Scott is said to have “attended The Nueva School with a passion for history and journalism,” something which remained unchanged throughout his time at Amherst, even if his path has changed considerably since freshman year. Scott has long been especially interested in ancient history. When he came to Amherst, he thought he would be a history major for certain, probably with a classics double major. But it soon became clear that his ancient history focus wasn’t going to satisfy him. The classics department was small and there were few classes that even focused on ancient history, so it was impossible to really study the subject area.

Scott concluded that he would drop the classics major, but he was intent on keeping that history major — after all, he wrote his admissions essay about his dream of going into history as a professional academic. “What would Augustus do,” little high school Scott asked himself. Apply to Amherst, apparently. So it was clear that he would stick with history no matter what, and even as he fell in love with his area of study in the political science department, he continued to take as many history courses as he could. That class on the European new right that led him down his political science pathway was actually offered in the history department, for example, and he’s jumped around classes focusing on the modern middle east, South Africa, religion in West Africa — that last one taught by Olufemi Vaughan, the Alfred Sargent Lee ’41 and Mary Farley Ames Lee professor of Black studies, who Scott describes as a “chef’s kiss, an absolute sweetheart.”

All of Scott’s jumping around led him to complete the thought and culture concentration in the history department, a theme which resonates deeply with Scott personally and with all of his academic pursuits. “When it comes to my three majors,” Scott said, “what’s really at the core of all of them for me is that I am so interested in understanding and learning about other people, and how people do things differently.” Political science allows for a quantitative sort of measurement of the ways in which people interact at a governmental level. History presents narratives that trace the lives of people and civilizations, telling stories which are unique to a culture and which all mean something profound for the present. Indeed, Scott believes that “history is the best one … at communicating to the public, which is a skill that I think is super important for academics.”

Anthropology, Scott’s final major, ends up actually being the one most obviously connected to his goal. Not only does anthropology, like his other majors, fill his desire for a “sort of scholarly empathy and communication across cultures,” but it connects deeply with his identity. “There’s this thing where anthropology is always full of people who are marginalized in their own societies. In the discipline, they say that’s because those people are situated in such a place that they’re always wondering what it’s like [to exist] in another society, in the rest of the world,” he said. Scott has always been drawn to the classical civilizations and especially to Rome precisely because of “their approach to queerness and sexuality.” He added, “I thought it felt really beautiful.” He qualified that there certainly have been better alternatives to the Roman approach that have been created since, “but even just seeing that there’s a place in time where, like, the straight people were the weird ones, felt cool.”

Anthropology “makes you challenge your own assumptions about what’s natural and … what’s just a cultural thing.” As such, jumping around in the discipline was really enlightening, and some of the professors in the department, like Olin Professor in Asian Studies Vanessa Fong, have created very different kinds of classrooms (Fong has only two assignments to be handed in during a semester, and if a student’s midterm gets a good grade, the second assignment is optional), which meant that Scott was able to “really focus on the discussions in class instead of having to worry about all these papers and [things] to turn in.” Moreover, the content of her classes and others showed a side of anthropology that seemed to be in opposition to the discipline’s staid and colonial reputation. Contemporary anthropology, Scott found, was able “to focus more on the cultural understanding element of it, and less on the exoticism and the focus on “foreign” things.”

At one point, because so many of his classes were cross-listed in these three departments, Scott figured that he “was going to end up like two courses away from an anthropology major,” which “felt almost silly.” All three, Scott said, “speak toward a similar place for me, which is an understanding of humanity and society. And for me that’s really important in thinking about how we can change our own society and improve it.”

Where To Go From Here

Scott came to Amherst wanting to be an academic. Has that held true through his four years? “I’m leaving Amherst still probably wanting to be an academic.” So mostly, yes, but his options remain open. Journalism is on the table, as are different types of academic work, “either within the university or with a think tank … some sort of research.” That tracks with Scott’s time at Amherst, from his classes to the time I’ve known him in the newsroom.

When I met Scott, I was one of a few freshmen who wanted to get more involved in the campus community and believed that journalism would provide a kind of connection that would be impossible to get elsewhere. From the beginning it was clear that Scott truly believed in the paper and in the work he did, and that faith never ever wavered. It is clear to me that Scott is careful with his passions — If he is to follow one, it is a complete kind of devotion.

The level of effort, time, and energy necessary to perform at the level Scott does when it comes to his passions necessitates having as few as possible — which makes it all the more incredible that Scott managed the Opinion section while writing an enormous thesis for one of his three majors. Though, in talking to Scott over the course of this past year, it has become clear that all these things aren’t very disparate at all. Scott loves humanity, loves the people around him, and wants to do everything he can to not only understand them but make the world a better place for each and every one of them. I am so grateful for everything he’s done for the paper, for the school, and for me personally. He has pursued an Amherst education with utmost calm and unending brilliance, and will certainly carry that on to whatever project he works on next. Thank you, Scott. I wish you luck on anything you take on next, but it seems fairly clear that you don’t need it.