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Further Exploration: Self-Discovery Through Education

Seewai writes about how she developed her bi-racial identity through her education. This is the third article for the Defining Amherst column in The Amherst Student.

Before coming to Amherst, I had a very noncommittal stance on my mixed race. I laughed along with both comments of “you’re basically white” and “you’re so Asian.” Depending on the situation, I was one or the other. Without realizing it, I let myself believe that I could only be one race at any given time. When I got an A on a math or science test, I was Asian. When I had slumber parties with my friends, I was white. The only time I was ever really both was when I was explaining to someone “what” I am. My lack of self-confidence only made matters worse. I was very quiet and found it difficult to speak up. Explaining the pronunciation of my name was the farthest I could get when it came to asserting myself. Although I was smart, I didn’t feel like I had any authority over matters of race. When I was only Asian sometimes and white sometimes, how could I ever really know what it meant to be either of those things?

My high school in New Mexico had very few Asians compared to Amherst, so when I came here I found myself faced with a new, stronger force of authority. My new friends grew up in communities where white people were the minority. They have shared understandings of what it means to be a young Asian American. As we got to know one another, they would make jokes about their own culture or reference childhood experiences. I understood some of their jokes and references, but each one I didn’t get felt like a wrong answer on a test. While my new friends didn’t care too much about how Asian I was, I could feel their confusion on where to place me. Their usually silent hesitations about my race were enough to return my mind to the question of whether I am more Chinese or more white. The more I thought about it, the more impossible it seemed to answer.

I have since slowly come to the decision that I’m always both Chinese and white. Recognizing the unchangeable nature of my multiple races sounds straightforward and obvious, but it hasn’t been easy to get here. The thing that has helped me the most is the academic growth I’ve made at Amherst. I have learned not only how to develop my ideas more fully but also to trust that they’re good enough. It’s this small confidence boost that has made me realize that my opinions have value and that my voice has authority.

It also allowed me to start feeling like I have a place in the classroom. Class participation is something I always have and still do struggle with. I used to attribute this to my quiet and shy temperament, but I have discovered that classroom dynamics are much more complicated than can be explained by students’ dispositions. Our race is an important piece of who we are and for many people, it is a defining part of their lives. Inevitably, the way we feel about our own race and how we see others perceive it contribute to our sense of self-worth. We have to feel like we are worth something as people, before we can feel our ideas are good enough to be shared in a discussion.

I still often feel conflicted by my dichotomous race and by others’ perception of it, but I no longer feel like I need to choose between its two components. This experience has showed me how my education can help me grow personally, which is not something I expected. Coming to Amherst, I knew education was important, but I saw college mostly as the inevitable next step in my life and as a place to figure what I want to do with my life. Now, the purpose I ascribe to my education is more meaningful. Its purpose is to give me the tools I need to figure out who I am.

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Observing the Observer: An Interview with Luisa Santos ‘14

Our interview with Luisa Santos is our second article for the Defining Amherst column in The Amherst Student.

For Luisa Santos, observing is essential. As an anthropology major with a passion for mindfulness, she is a participant-observer in her own life. “Mindfulness is, in its purest sense, really just noticing what is happening as it’s happening. What mindfulness is not is filling in the gaps with our ideas, judgments, evaluations, or assumptions of what’s happening,” she said. “By being open and not rushing to analyze what is happening to you, you are being mindful, and, thusly, can genuinely come closer to the reality of what is happening in the moment.”

In this interview, Santos explains how paying mindful attention has helped her understand others and herself, love more deeply and question her Amherst education.

VM: Are there any classes you have taken that have stood out to you or kept you thinking?

LS: With each class, you start thinking differently in general, so I want to speak more generally to that. Whenever I say I’m an anthropology major, there’s so much to it that I personally associate with. I am an anthropologist in my own life at all times, trying to distance myself from my situation enough so that I can get a better picture of what’s going on. You can get a lot of information from just being fully present and seeing what’s going around you. I feel like a participant-observer in my own life.

I’ve been noticing that I started thinking about the way that we think about things, even more than what it is that we think. I am also paying attention to how the professors are teaching, and how students are interacting with each other and with the professors in the class. That’s a huge side of education that’s doesn’t get talked about. The experience of being educated is a very educating experience.

VM: What is the purpose of your Amherst education?

LS: I want to get to know people. It is not just getting to know as many people as possible, but also getting to know the people I know even better. I think that’s an underlying thing that fuels everything I do. Professor Daniel Barbezat is the first, if not the only professor whom I met that really cared to ask the question, “Why are you doing what you’re doing?” It really stuck with me.

VM: What do you mean by “getting to know” people?

LS: Knowing is exchanging understanding more than anything else. You don’t want to assume that you know what the other person is thinking, which is what anthropology taught me. But I want to hear people out more and try to reach a deeper level of understanding with people.

VM: How do you do that?

LS: What one would do is listen. That’s the most foremost thing. Listening is very important, in the sense that you pay attention to other people’s emotional manifestations and physical beings.
VM: How can we listen?

LS: Part of it is how you interact with other people, but a big part of it is knowing how you are and centering yourself. For example, if I’m talking to someone and not listening in that moment, there’s probably a reason. It’s probably not anything about the other person that’s causing that, but something within myself that’s causing that. Ask yourself, “What is keeping me from connecting with the person?”

Once you’re really present in the conversation, the other person will eventually take on the kind of energy that you’re giving out. They will start to be more open themselves once they see how open you are. That’s such a beautiful thing, because we are able to transfer that energy by engaging with someone. Have more energy transferals going on— that’s why I want to get to know people.

VM: Do we all have a larger, common purpose as students at Amherst?

LS: There may be a common purpose, but we can’t necessarily prescribe that, which is why I go to [the idea of] paying attention and asking [ourselves], “What is going on with me?” I realize that some people might not be ready nor want to do that now. I think that should be respected as well. To respect everyone’s process is a questionable thing to say too, because sometimes there are processes that are just wrong.

VM: What advice would you give to students?

LS: I would suggest not to limit what you think your options are. A lot of the limits that we see are imposed by someone, or imposed by ourselves. We should question everything in general. If that’s too overwhelming, start with questioning our expectations.

VM: Is learning about questioning assumptions?

LS: Yes, but that’s not necessarily what a formal education is. In a formalized education system, there are going to be notions that are taken more seriously than others. There are certain opinions that are going to come out while others aren’t. The education system becomes too often, or too easily a system of indoctrination. Sometimes in formal education, you’re not getting people to think, you’re getting people to know how to do a thing and repeat it over and over.
VM: Do you think Amherst encourages us to question?

LS: Amherst is trying to get us to question, while in the method of it all, reinforcing those things. It’s a very contradictory type of thing and it causes dissonance in people, depending on how sensitive you are to that. It really causes this tension to be taught one thing at the verbal, direct level, but when you look deeper down at what’s actually happening, you think, “Wait, that’s not what I’m being taught.”

It always threw me off that I’d have professors professing about the way things are, and how we should question it and do something about it. But even to allow you to say those words to me, there was so much that took for it to happen that was not completely wholesome. This is my personal experience, but it seems that even if a professor says that s/he wants to help students as much as s/he can, it’s really obvious that there are institutional constraints on that.

VM: How did your values change and develop at Amherst?

LS: I was very unthinking right out of high school. My values were to please a certain subset of people, which includes my professors or people who evaluate me in some way. That changed through meeting the people whom I would now call my best friends. They care to see me grow, learn, and improve. It was by opening myself to these relationships to these best friends that I was able to love others and to love myself. I can evaluate myself and know that’s going to be the golden standard, not what some higher authority determines to be the golden standard.

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Exploring our Education

Seewai and I decided to write a weekly Defining Amherst column for The Amherst Student. Our first piece, which originally appeared in this week’s issue, introduces the purpose of Defining Amherst. 

What is Defining Amherst about?

VM: Defining Amherst is a student initiative about exploring the purpose of an Amherst education. It is an opportunity for students, faculty, and staff to share their college experiences with each other. “How do I want to shape my own education? What do I value? How do I want to live my life? Which meaningful experiences at Amherst kept me thinking or changed my perspective? What is my purpose at Amherst (and beyond)?” These are all hard questions with no easy, immediate answers. Yet, these are the very questions that have the biggest impacts on our lives. I hope that Defining Amherst will provide the space for us to bring these questions into our conversations.

SH: I also think it’s about community building. I’m interested in looking for commonalities among students and hearing about their different definitions of Amherst education, as well as how they see their lives here.

VM: I’m sure that a lot of students are reflecting about what they’re doing here and the purpose of their education. I would love to hear what other people have to say, because we can learn from each other’s ideas.

SH: Giving people the space to talk about these things is a big part of it for me because our lives here are so crazy and busy. I think it’s very hard to find the time to reflect on what we’re doing. And if you do find the time, you’re more likely to do it on your own. I think that turning this internal dialogue into an external dialogue would be useful.

How would you define your Amherst education?

VM: That’s a really hard one. It’s something that I’ve been thinking about constantly. Obviously, it’s probably different for each person, but I think that my purpose here is to explore and learn different things. I want to figure out how I want to best live my life. And I think that part of the reason why I’m here at Amherst is to learn how to write well and think critically, learn about social issues, and learn more about myself.

SH: For me, a lot of it is about self-discovery and figuring out what I value most in life. I don’t want to say that I’m here to figure out what to do with my life because I don’t think that I will necessarily happen.

VM: Because preferences change.

SH: You hear all the time that people can completely change their careers when they’re thirty-something, or however old they are. I don’t expect to discover what I’m going to be doing, but I want to discover the values that will guide me through my life in general.

VM: But values also change as well.

SH: Changing your values is not an easy thing to do, but I think sometimes it’s very necessary. I think my education here involves learning how to deal with changing values, or how to deal with the fact that things in life are always changing.

What can we do to be more aware of how our Amherst education relates to our personal lives?

VM: It helps to incorporate what we’re learning in class with what we’re learning through our interactions with people outside of class. For example, how does what we learn inform our decisions, our choices, and our behavior towards others? I also think that finding out what matters most to us through the class material can help us see that our education does have importance in our personal lives. What do you think?

SH: It seems like a common trend for people to talk about college education in general as a means to get a job. And I think if you go into classes with only that mindset, you’re less likely to get something meaningful or applicable to your personal life out of it. Getting good grades is important, but we should also try to look at how the material relates to our lives outside of the classroom.

Everyone has their own different purpose here. Do have a larger, common purpose as Amherst students?

SH: I think our purpose on campus is to foster a safe learning environment for each other and to try not to judge each other. We should strive to make Amherst a place where people who come from vastly different backgrounds can interact comfortably with each other. I think that is something that I would like to see more of on campus— more cohesiveness and fewer divisions.

VM: One possible answer is that the larger, common purpose of an Amherst education is to develop our own purposes. That’s what life is about, right? People want to have a sense of meaning and identity. Through Defining Amherst, I hope that we can continue to think about the purpose of an Amherst education.

- Seewai Hui and Vivian Mac

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Seewai on Defining Amherst

For me, Defining Amherst is the result of a discontentment with the community, or lack thereof, at Amherst. We’re a small school, but instead of being a cohesive community we are simply groups of strangers living in the same place. Why is it that we can’t find a common experience or sentiment to bond us together when the human experience itself has so many universalities?

Defining Amherst is about finding that common thread or human connection that is often so undervalued in our society. We want to encourage everyone to think about and talk about what it means to be here. What does Amherst College mean once you’ve left campus? What does it mean when you’re sitting in a classroom? What does it mean in that moment you have to breathe in between the paper you just finished and the project you’re about to start?

-Seewai Hui

What do you think about the campus community, both inside and outside of the classroom? How do you think you might view your experience at Amherst after you graduate?

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Being Thankful is Not Enough

I cried on my way back to Amherst. My parents were driving me to campus before this fall semester started. I was looking out of the window as we passed tree after tree and hill after hill, when I was washed with an overwhelming sense of gratitude.

I finally have the freedom to shape my own education, I thought. The freedom to explore what is meaningful to me. The freedom to be myself. To have my parent’s support through this process is one of the best forms of love and acceptance I’ll ever get.

But being thankful is not enough. 95% of sexual assaults on campuses are unreported. 52% of Amherst students “felt so depressed it was difficult to function” and 8% attempted suicide. We all have struggles and fears and vulnerabilities. Many other forms of inequality, repression, and suffering that plague this world affect all of us.

We’re here at Amherst not only to appreciate what we have, but also to support each other. We’re here to learn what it means to care. At the end of the day, we all want is to understand and to be understood.

So, my challenge for all of us is to go beyond thankfulness. Tell someone how important he or she is to you. Call a friend who you’ve been meaning to talk to. Meet someone new. Learn what it is like to truly listen to someone without creating a counter argument while he or she is still talking. Be there for the person. Human connection— that’s all we really have in this world.

-Vivian Mac

Listening When Listening

For a long time, I’ve thought of myself as a good listener. It is a role that I’m comfortable with, and I appreciate it when someone is willing to share a part of their world with me. But until I had a conversation with my advisor, I was not fully conscious of the act of listening. When I’m listening, am I really listening? If I weren’t aware of this question, how would I truly know the answer?

After the idea of “awareness of listening” settled in my mind, I began to see that I could improve my listening skills. “There’s no such thing as perfect… only almost perfect,” my music teacher used to say. I agree with this view, not because it says, “You’ll never be perfect no matter how much you try,” but rather, “There’s always room for improvement.” Like playing music (and many other things in life), listening takes practice.

“Be patient, let them finish talking. Don’t worry, you won’t forget what you want to say.” “Let’s make sure that I understand what he means.” “Is your mind wandering away from the conversation?” “Respond to her concerns first and try to empathize before trying to problem-solve.” These thoughts became my mental “Post-Its” whenever I listened to someone. Two things happened at once: my attention to these reminders as if I observed my mind from afar, and my attention to what the other person was saying.

What was more apparent was how the theme of listening appears both in and outside of class. In the “Literature of Madness,” we used the Laingian approach to understand the narrator in the “mad monologue.” This humanistic approach is about seeing patient (or in this case, the narrator) as a person, and trying to empathize with him by putting yourself in his shoes and understanding his world as he sees it. To do so, we have to listen.

During a Student Support Network session, we talked about how empathetic active listening is about being attentive, non-judgmental, and open. To listen is to be present with the person during the conversation.

For last week’s Insight Meditation, we did a walking meditation on the grass in front of Chapin. (See Jayson’s post about walking meditation.) We walked, step by step, feeling the shifting of our weight as our feet touched the earth, noticing how the sun’s rays tinted the grass turquoise.

In our daily lives, we often rush to get somewhere. We get distracted by our thoughts as we walk around campus. We forget to notice the act of walking, like we forget to notice the act of listening. When we’re walking, are we really walking? When we’re listening, are we really listening? This is awareness.

- Vivian Mac

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In the Temple of these Hills, Beauty has her Altar…

Hymn To Amherst (Courtesy the Amherst College Choral Society)

This week I noticed things. A lot of things about our campus I may otherwise not have noticed if I hadn’t been paying attention.

Perhaps the strangest experience was when I decided to do a walking meditation to class. A walk that would typically take me 5 minutes took 10, and I got my fair share of puzzled looks and was even asked by friends in passing how come I was walking so slowly. But what I learnt during that experience was what an incredibly beautiful place (filled with exceedingly rushed people!) our campus is.

Of course, we all know this. But its a kind of knowing that we shelve away, that you take out on a rainy day to reminisce. That excites us on those first few days of each year, and is lost on the days in between.

That is, until we ‘do’ with our knowing. Until we experience beyond our concept and live the experience (beauty, in my humble opinion) that is Amherst.

So let’s slow down a bit and not miss this! :)

- Jayson Paul

A student initiative about exploring the purpose of an Amherst College education

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