Nathan Needham ’18E

Major: Spanish
Before Amherst, lived in: Sequim, Wash., and served in the U.S. military in Colombia and Honduras

On the idea of belonging:

I think it’s about home and seeing that Amherst can become a different type of home for students here. I always relate it back to my military experience—it was six years of my life; it’s natural. I was in Colombia and Honduras with U.S. Special Forces as a translator. I also worked as the liaison bridging the gap between the intelligence community and the actual special operators on the ground.

When I think of what happens here, when I see students coming in from all these different places, I relate it to the experience of joining the military. You have all these people from all around the world. You even have other people from different nations coming in and trying to get their citizenship through national service.

Immediately, from basic military training, it begins to create this collective, cohesive organization where you’re proud to be a part of this unit. You feel like it is a home away from home.

In the military, we were working in a tight-knit team. So everyone trusted each other and everyone had each other’s backs. Even though I had those two jobs, like, when I had a little downtime, I’d go out and help the loadmasters just load up the plane. Everyone was always just helping each other out. Even the pilot, with his command responsibility—he’d roll up his sleeves, which he definitely did not need to do, and helped load up the plane.

I’d like to see Amherst have that sort of cohesive community. I don’t know entirely how to solve this problem, but I think it’s something where we just need to start trying something and see what happens. With the Belong campaign, that’s just a new option to try to do something and see if it actually pans out.

As for the idea of belonging at Amherst: I think there’s a lot of emotions that go into it, so it’s not something that can be very neat. I think it’s definitely going to be something that’s fluid, that it’s something kind of based off of how people feel that day. You know, if they had good experience with friends, “I love this place.” Or if they just broke up with a girlfriend, then they might not.

So what’s my sense of belonging? For me, I’m in this really strange niche as an older student, and not just any older student, but also a specific veteran. That gives me the advantage of having immediate access to the other veterans, and we all have that shared experience. That definitely helps out with that sense of belonging. However, at the same time, that age differential and experience differential, and then the academic experience before coming here? That’s a huge gap to overcome.

It’s really difficult to fit in with the other students. For me, it’s difficult to say I really feel like I belong here, just because I’ve taken such a nontraditional track to get here. And my experiences are just so far away from the typical Amherst College student.

I’m very, very appreciative of the fact of all the opportunities that Amherst has given me, but I still feel like there is a gap that’s going to be very difficult for me to bridge to fully feel like this is a home away from home.

In terms of the greater community, the idea of belonging is definitely something that I worry about when I look at these students who, definitely from my perspective, all share similar experiences. Yeah, they might come from different socioeconomic backgrounds, and there are slight differences there. However, it seems like so often students really focus in on those differences instead of looking at where their shared experiences are.

Amherst students are civilians, and they’re kids. That means that, basically, they’ve spent their entire lives in academic studies. It doesn’t matter where you come from—it is difficult to get into a place like Amherst. They’ve all worked really hard to get here. I think there is a lack of that common understanding among a lot of students, which should be addressed and will hopefully, through campaigns like this one—the Belong campaign and future campaigns—will start to help make Amherst feel like a home away from home for students.

On the experience of being photographed:

It was a great chance just to meet some new people on campus, to meet Maria and Jonathan  [Maria Stenzel, College photographer and collaborator Jonathan Jackson ’19I met them earlier at a meeting with Norm [Jones, Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer]. But it was just a quick, formal meeting, so we didn’t really get a good chance to actually talk to each other.

But the photo shoot was a very much more intimate setting. We were working together for, I don’t know, half an hour or 45 minutes. It was definitely, for me, a little awkward. I’ve never done a photo shoot before. Just putting yourself in that type of situation, you really have to trust those people who are around you. You very quickly build a relationship just because it’s, “This is weird. All right. So how are we all going to navigate through this?”

You kind of have to rely on each other and build that trust very quickly. You realize that you’re just people. For me, living off campus, being an older student, I don’t always have the best opportunities to really engage with a lot of the different people that are on campus. For me, it was a really cool chance just to meet two really cool people here on campus.