Student Squared: Erica Ayala ’26

In this edition of Student Squared, Managing Features Editor Humphrey Chen ’26 interviews Erica Ayala ’26, a close friend of his, discussing her career goals, transition to Amherst, roles on campus, and more.

Student Squared: Erica Ayala ’26
Erica Ayala ’26 is a sociology and Spanish major at Amherst. Photo courtesy of Erica Ayala ’26.

Q: Hey Alexa, turn on rain sounds. Perfect. Thank you so much for coming! How’s the end of your sophomore year going?

A: It’s going really well. I’m very busy. I think I have a lot of projects that are going to kind of be in their culmination phase.

Q: What are you studying at Amherst?

A: I’m a sociology and Spanish major. But I’m in the process of considering doing education studies as well.

Q: Why this combination of majors?

A: Originally, I just wanted to be sociology and Spanish because I want to be an immigration lawyer. And I think having the sociology background going into law school is really important [to enable using] a different lens to look at the way people and societies interact with each other and the way that society informs the way people behave. And I want to be an immigration lawyer — I’m a native Spanish speaker, but some of my Spanish skills aren’t so refined, specifically writing and reading — so I wanted to be a Spanish major in order to refine all of those skills and be able to use them professionally as an immigration lawyer. One of my big goals is to go back to my community, which is predominantly immigrant and near Chicago, and be able to support them and give back to the community that gave so much to me growing up.

Q: That’s such a thoughtful way of structuring your coursework. How did you settle on Immigration law?

A: My dad’s an immigrant. Not only my dad, [but] a lot of my extended family [are] immigrants. Some of them are documented, but others are in the process of becoming documented. Others have been in this country for 30-plus years, [while some] haven’t been able to complete that process. Not only them, but also all of my friends at school, all of their parents were immigrants.  And I would see people who reminded me of my dad everywhere, in grocery stores on the streets like they were my lunch ladies, they were janitors. But they were also a part of community organizations, and churches and stuff like that. I got to know a lot of them, because I would always talk to them in Spanish whenever I would meet them and so I got to learn about their immigration stories. [I heard and saw] the inequities in their lives and how unfair it is that they aren’t able to become documented. I wanted to use my privilege as a second-generation immigrant to fight for their rights. It’s always been one of my passions to pay back my father for all of the sacrifices he made. Not only my father but also to pay back all the immigrants in my community for all of the sacrifices they made. I don’t want to be some altruistic immigration lawyer [who is] going to fix everything. I want to work closely with the community and listen to their needs, and be able to support them the best I can. And I think that kind of ties into why I want to be why I’m considering education studies. I went to a public school that was pretty underfunded. It was a Title I school, which means that seventy percent or more [of its students] were on free or reduced lunch, so we received a lot of federal funding. Seeing the difference in the types and quality of education and the different pathways [among] my peers was stark.

Q: What was that transition like, coming from a Title I School District to an environment like Amherst?

A: It was very crazy. I was invited [to] Be a Mammoth when I was a senior in high school. And so we only came to the school for a few hours one day, so I never really got a true snapshot of how glamorous it is. I was semi-prepared for it because Belem [Oseguara Duran ’24] graduated last semester. She went to my high school, and she was a big, big inspiration for me. And I was able to talk with her a little bit before coming in. She just warned me, “they’re not like they are at home here.” So it was interesting. I came in feeling very small, very isolated. Even though my roommate [freshman year] is also a first-generation low-income student, she had a different background because she went to private school. So we were experiencing similar but different forms of alienation. While being here. I think she was a little more used to it, because she had already experienced the shift earlier on. It was hard to be in conversations with very wealthy people [who weren’t] quite aware that people have different financial backgrounds. Nobody would do anything to me or say anything to me that was outright classist or racist or anything. But it was just to myself. I was comparing myself to them in my own head, like, oh, their parents were lawyers, their parents were doctors. There were big differences there, but it was mostly internalized … What helped me cope is [that] I had a friend group who were all from different financial, racial, even geographic backgrounds. So it was nice to know that it was possible to overcome those barriers.

Q: Yeah, I really appreciated the variety in our friend group.

A: It was really crazy. All of my friends [from high school] were Mexican, all of them. Now, I have my first real Black and Asian friends, and white friends. I don’t think I’ve really reflected on how important that is to me. Now I can say that I’m best friends with people of all different cultures, and they’ve had such a huge impact on me as a person. They’ve taught me to navigate life differently. I’ve been learning from them [and] I hope that we’ve all been learning from each other in the process.

Q: Absolutely. Okay now [Kiss], Marry, Kill: Val, Grab-n-Go, Frost Cafe.

A: Oh my god. Val, Grab-n-Go, Frost Cafe. This is so hard. I have a soft spot for Frost Cafe. I can’t lie.

Q: What do you get at Frost?

A: Well, literally just a chocolate chip scone.

Q: But they give those up for free at the end of the night anyway.

A: I’m never there at night, but the chocolate chip scone just has a special, special place in my heart. That’s literally the only thing I buy from there except sometimes I’ll get a nice coffee. So [kiss] it. I think I have to [kiss]. Yeah.

Q: Interesting.

A: This is so hard. I love Val and I love Grab-n-Go. I think people are too mean to our dining halls on this campus. They work so hard and of course, they’re not perfect, but they try their best and it’s edible. Val makes me mad because they don’t always have seating available, so I think I'm gonna have to marry Grab-n-Go, [kiss] Frost Cafe, and kill Val. But I don’t want to kill Val. Just let it be known to Val workers: I don’t want to kill you.

Q: What’s one thing you would bring from your old community back to Amherst? It could be a person, place, or thing.

A: I would bring my mom. I miss my mom. Oh, I’d bring my mom or my niece.

Q: The redhead?

A: Yes. I think I’d bring her because she’s the oldest and she loves me the most.

Q: You can pop her in the drawer.

A: She’d sleep on the bed with me. She’s tiny.

Erica with her eldest niece, Avery. The redhead. Photo courtesy of Erica Ayala ’26.

Q: Where could we see you on campus?

A: I’ve been working in the education studies department as a teacher’s assistant for the class “Race, Education, and Belonging” with [Professor of American Studies and Education Studies Kristen] Luschen, and “Writing the College Experience” with [Director of the Intensive Writing Program and Senior Lecturer in English] Professor [Kristina] Reardon. My main role in this position is to work with Margo Pedersen [’25], my coworker … for College Access Day. There’s a community engagement component in both classes that culminates into a big event [which] hosts 50 middle school students in April. Our main job is to facilitate the volunteering the classes do at the middle school. Right now, we're partnered with the family center, Amherst public schools, and students from the “Race, Education, and Belonging” class will go once a week in the morning at seven [a.m.] to Amherst Middle School’s Morning Movement and Mentorship program. That program is mainly for first-gen[eration], low-income students of color in the community. We’re trying to build these relationships over the course of the semester, so that when they come to visit us, they can see people they recognize and they can feel like they belong on this campus. Middle school is really early to start thinking about college, but we want them to see themselves in a space like this and to see themselves reflected in the student body. We have a very diverse class. And I think that also really helps. For these Brown, and Black kids who are in the program to see themselves like “I can be in a community like this, I can be a part of a school like Amherst College.” Even if they don’t end up wanting to go to Amherst College, we just want them to know that they can succeed.  

Q: Absolutely. That’s such powerful work and no one else could do it like you would.

A: I feel like anybody could do it. All you have to do is send emails.

Q: And deal with kids. What’s the craziest thing a middle schooler has done to you?

A: They’re so wild. They make me do burpees because they have a rule where if you say a bad word you have to do ten burpees. Like, we played volleyball — and they get very intense — so I’ll swear and they’ll literally point at me and be like “You have to do ten burpees.”

Q: So you do them?

A: I do fake push-ups.

Q: Good on you.

A: Yeah, but the kids are so sweet. And honestly, I think middle schoolers get a bad rap. Middle school is a very hard time. I think they’re sweet. They just want to be basketball players or volleyball players. So we kind of just want to go out into the community and get to know them. One of the big things that we focus on is reciprocity, and making sure that we are [also] learning. That's why we have weekly meetings with the family center with [Out-of-School Time Coordinator] Dwayne [Chamble] and [Steps-for-Success School Adjustment Counselor] Michelle [Rodriguez] and they tell us what they need rather than us imposing ourselves. We also do a lot of work with [Associate Director of Community-Engaged Learning] Zoe Jacobs, and the Center for Community Engagement as well.

Q: It is September 2025, three months after the second Amherst insurrection. A student-led coup d’état overthrew the administration and students are looking for a new mascot that's neither purple nor a mammal. What should it be?

A: Neither purple nor mammal. Oh my god, I feel like we should do something that’s true to us. Would it be crazy to say the “Memorial Hills?” Because our whole campus is hills and we love our Memorial Hill. If a visiting team ever came, they’d look around and be like, “Where’s the mascot” and we’d be like, “Look up!”

Q: On that note, you’re secretary of La Causa! What sorts of things are you responsible for?

A: As secretary, my main role is taking meeting notes, then doing most of the communication with other organizations over email. I do a lot of the behind-the-scenes organizational stuff. In the spring semester, our roles are a little bit different or more expanded, because of Voices, the big poetry slam event that we host. This year, it’s gonna be on April [20]. And everybody kind of takes on a little bit more, to be able to create this event. Because otherwise if we only did our original roles, it would be too much on one person.

The La Causa Valentine’s Day Cookie Decorating event. Photo courtesy of Erica Ayala ’26.

Q: Why did you choose to be secretary?

A: In the past I’ve had a lot of experience as a secretary with different organizations. Since I got here, I knew I wanted to take on some type of leadership position. I love organizing things. I love planning. I like hosting events. So, being able to host events where Latino students can come and feel a sense of community has always been very important to me. As soon as I stepped onto campus, especially as a marginalized identity where it can feel pretty alienating … Even if it’s not predominantly white, it can still feel very alienating. Especially from where I came from, it’s like, “Oh my God. Where are my people?”

Q: Has this leadership role been rewarding in that sense?

A: Absolutely. I especially see it in the process of planning Voices, a [slam poetry] event we’ve held for the past 25 years. Because of Covid, a lot of the community on this campus was lost in general. Being able … to plan an event like Voices with my e-board has been super important to me. We've been reaching out to different departments for funding and different affinity groups for their support and their participation. And it’s really a community-based event. We want to bring together everybody on this campus and we also want people from the greater Amherst community to visit. We plan to work with the Center for Community Engagement for more town outreach.  

Q: On the topic of visiting people, how was your Latinx alumni weekend?

A: It was really, really fun. One of the most impactful [programs], I think, was La Platica on Friday, where we invited alumni to come and speak to us. The topic was mental health, so it was really nice to be able to hear about their struggles with mental health while at Amherst. Also the ways they overcame and coped with being in such an alienating position, as a minority, at Amherst. at that time especially. And it was really nice to talk to get to talk to them one-on-one. They were so kind, and they really, really cared about us and about Amherst, and they love Amherst. A funny story is that we invited them to a La Causa party on Saturday night and they were thrilled. Thrilled! They were so excited to be back on the campus. And so they joined us for a night. We danced bachata, salsa, and merengue. It was honestly such a joyful night — we were all dancing.

Q: It sounds like every detail of everything you’re involved with on campus relates so deeply to what you want to do, where you came from, and what you care about. [Coming to Amherst], there was a lot for you to reckon with, but you’re also growing into the things you love. So, what does Amherst mean to you right now?

A: I think Amherst looks like a place of opportunity. A chance to do what my ancestors couldn’t do, or a chance to do what my dad couldn’t do. And a chance to become a lawyer one day, and hopefully make a lot of money to make a difference in my community. Yeah, I think that the word opportunity is a great way of describing what Amherst is like to me because it’s also an opportunity for me to meet so many different people from different backgrounds who are helping to shape me into the person I am and will continue to shape me as I form lifelong friendships.

Q: If you had to take someone on a tour of Amherst of your favorite things and your favorite people, what would that day look like?

A: Oh, okay. It’s a Saturday, okay. We’d start at Val and we’d be eating Tandem Bagels. With cream cheese. And we’d be eating a banana. We’d get there at 9:55 [a.m.] right before Val closes. Then I would go to my friends’ dorms throughout campus. I would stop at Drew and go to Tiernee [Pitts ’26] or I’d go to Cohan and show them your room. I’d come back and we’d hang out with Gina [Durazo ’26] and Evan [Yang ’26]. Then I would take them into town and we'd get Antonio’s and then we’d come back and we’d nap because Amherst College students nap. Then we would go to the [José Martí] room, La Causa’s [cultural space] in the basement of Keefe [Campus Center], and show them all the cool artifacts and pictures of alumni. And then I guess it’d be dinner time. Oh my god. For dessert? I’d make a waffle with cinnamon sugar butter. Maybe I’d take them to Newport at one point in the day to see the mural.

Q: That sounds perfect. Is there anything else you’d like to say before we wrap up?

A: Yeah, Humphrey is too good for this world.

Q: Aww. Do you have a good outro in mind?

A: Alexa, play “It’s Closing Time.”

Closing time, open all the doors and let you out into the world…