You often hear Amherst College referred to as a “bubble” partly because the campus can feel like a disconnected island, but it’s more because of how easy it is to forget how privileged we are here. We don’t run into homeless people every day (or, for some, at all) nor do we have to scrimp and save to afford our next meal. We are surrounded by greenery of Memorial Hill and jazz at Schwemm’s, by on-campus events with free food and swag as well as puppies and Insomnia cookies during finals week. If we are to say that we are familiar with the town itself, we are referring to Panda East for team formals, LimeRed for a hearty sip of boba, and CVS for restocking Tide PODS in our dorm rooms. We get so engrossed in our own daily activities that we forget that there are communities that consist of more than dining hall/janitorial staff, professors, and people in the ages of 18 to 22.
I, too, for a whole academic year have stayed in the comforts of Amherst. I can easily count on the fingers of my hands the number of times I left campus, much less engage with the real world on a regular basis. During the week, my classmates and I discussed issues often inconceivable and intangible to most of us. On the weekends, regardless of how much our eyes were opened by a discussion on corporate greed or a debate on what it means to be gay, we would eventually return to the comfort and familiarity of churning out research papers and cramming for midterms.
But don’t get me wrong! I am grateful that Amherst provides an inclusive environment that is built to nurture students and that provides a safe haven from some of the very real hardships within society. We are able to focus solely on feeding our minds - exploring, grappling, challenging and being challenged - rather than dealing with problems that could impair us.
This past summer, however, I have made the walk from Greenway to a small office downtown nearby Bruegger’s on North Pleasant Street every weekday. For eight weeks, I immersed myself into the Amherst community, shedding the label of a college student and assuming the status of a fellow community member. I met a great man by the name Timothy who shared his life story on growing up in a homeless family of nine and is now a junior at the Honors College at UMass Amherst. I talked to Shekenah, a young black woman, about the struggles of navigating through a predominantly white community. Every Wednesday morning, I went to the Unitarian Church to meet and chatter away with the community members over a hot breakfast free of charge. Other mornings, I would tackle the housing market to find affordable housing units for our participants at the Amherst Community Connections - and yes, there were days where we ran out of luck and I left work frustrated at the housing famine. I stuffed and stamped 3000 fundraising letters until my shoulders and back would cramp up from endless repetition; however, for the sake of raising money that would help someone get off the streets, it was totally worth it. And best of all, I have had the extreme pleasure of being part of Olga’s difficult journey to finally securing long term affordable housing through the Amherst Housing Authority after eight grueling years of being chronically homeless.
Instead of interpreting the world based solely on readings, news articles, and my daily experiences at Amherst, I was able to immerse myself in understanding and interacting with the kind of communities that I was hoping to impact. So now when I see homeless people sitting on the sidewalks of North Pleasant Street, I say hi as they are Jennifer and Rob and Gilberto and Maria - just another handful of Amherst community members whom I know by name. When I go to Val or am in the residential buildings on campus, I try to get to know the dining hall and facilities staff - for they, homeless or not, are also members of the Amherst community who are willing to take low-paying, labor jobs so they can support themselves. I thank Amherst Community Connections for giving me an internship opportunity that has profoundly changed the way I perceive Amherst - officially marking my popping of the “Amherst Bubble.”