The first time I became aware of the existence of Amherst was through the memoir of a woman who had spent her childhood here. She wrote of the beautiful house she had lived in and mentioned how she would visit Amherst College to buy something from the soda fountain. There, Amherst College had made an entrance into my life. Amherst was a remnant of her idyllic childhood, a place she largely idealized. I came in expecting a toy college and Amherst has certainly satisfied that imagined aesthetic. As a student of Amherst College, I’m a resident of Amherst, the town. I tell people I’m from Los Angeles (and am quick to reassure that I’m that cool, laid-back Californian you assume I am) but the undeniable fact is that Amherst is the location where I’ve spent the most time and exerted the most energy these past years. When I come back from breaks and see the familiar swaths of Route 9, I instinctually think home. This place, not only the college, should hold some significance to me. But I’m utterly ignorant about the surrounding area. Once, a resident of town asked me if I had done any of the hikes that were close by. I couldn’t name a single mountain or road in the area besides Route 9. It led me to wonder: what is my role in town?
A few weeks ago, the town of Amherst hosted its annual block party. Our basketball team made an appearance but otherwise there were few Amherst students out there. UMass Amherst had a noticeable presence, and its school colors shone brightly. I asked my friends later if they’d gone. They hadn’t even known it was happening We go to restaurants in town, we hear the pleas from our professors to buy our textbooks from Amherst Books, we buy liquor from Russell’s. But town is a distant location in our minds, a place we only venture to when we need to consume something instantly or grab cash.
Amherst College originated from Amherst Academy; our institution was named for the town-not the man. The Amherst bubble leaves the town and its inhabitants out of our imagination. We live here, shouldn’t we know more? “Townie” is a term I detest yet I hear it thrown around often. It’s a word that classifies a whole population as a faceless, ignorant mass. The irony is that we’re the ignorant ones here.
I fear that our absence in town stems from an elitism that is inculcated from the moment we step on campus. A portion of first-years go on community engagement trips where the objective is to interact with the community but its largely to create some obligatory memories while you walk around Holyoke or Amherst. Once you return to campus, it’s up to you to decide if you want to actually volunteer at the Amherst Survival Center. The CCE sponsors programming where we go and “help.” But servicing, genuine volunteerism and wanting a community to grow is not merely stepping in as an hour-long savior on a weekly basis. It’s respecting the town, its inhabitants and maybe even going so far as including oneself in the process.
People assume we’re assholes, sixty percent of us probably are. Our actions can consolidate or discredit the aloof, snooty image that we all too easily fit. We’re already insular by virtue of attending a small college; our motto the ever ambitious “terras irradient.” There’s already a light burning brightly; like the wonderful students we are assumed to be, let us seek, explore and reflect upon.