The Fearless Underdog
Interview by Brianda Reyes ’14
While I do not remember the first time I met Tania Dias ’13, I vividly recall the first time she impressed me. At the beginning of the 2012–13 school year, Charri Boykin-East, then the interim dean of students, scheduled weekly meetings with Dias and me. The dean believed that meeting with the president of the student body and the editor-in-chief of The Amherst Student would be a good way to keep up with student affairs and concerns.
At one meeting, we talked about the college’s drinking policies. Students felt that these policies were becoming stricter. Boykin-East insisted that was not the case, but Dias expressed that the students’ perception was problematic nonetheless and that the perception indicated a deficient relationship between students and administrators. Dias pushed Boykin-East for clearer communication between the two groups. Week after week, I saw Dias represent the student body fearlessly.
Tania Dias '13
Photo by Rob Mattson
When Dias was running for president of the Association of Amherst Students in 2012, she was the underdog. Students, myself included, had concerns about her lack of experience. Throughout the campaign, however, she stressed that experience comes second to dedication. Once elected, she did not disappoint. In what was perhaps the toughest year for Amherst in recent memory, Dias proved to be exactly the leader the student body needed.
In October 2012 The Amherst Student published Angie Epifano ’14’s account of being sexually assaulted on campus; the issue of sexual misconduct framed Dias’ entire presidency. The campus conversation on sexual assault led to others about support for students, particularly through the Multicultural Resource Center and Women’s Center. As Dias guided the student body through difficult discussions, she also tried to put the Association of Amherst Students back on the students’ radar. She fought the perception that student government was inefficient and the reality that it is majority male. Some of her decisions were controversial: Many criticized her selections for a student panel that met with trustees about Epifano’s article. And while a majority of polled students opposed a plan to move the popular game room, she supported putting the Multicultural Resource Center in its place.
Now that she has graduated, Dias continues to involve herself in the life of the campus: This summer she’s working for the Women’s Center, researching female activism at Amherst, and she will soon become a research assistant for the provost. Defeating sexism is one of her life goals. “Let’s not kid ourselves,” she says: “The world is not an equal playing field. It’s not, but we can try and make it so. Every little girl deserves to have the same opportunities as every little boy.”
You are originally from Portugal. What made you decide to come to Amherst?
I had visited a couple of schools around the area, and Amherst blew me away. It was very beautiful. I also remember my tour guide. He was very relaxed, very friendly. I remember thinking he was the kind of person that I would like to go to college with. I never really expected to get into Amherst. My sister was with me when I got the acceptance e-letter. For the first time in my life, I couldn’t stop screaming. I have never reacted like that in my life.
What were some of your expectations as a first-year, and how did your perception of the college change?
I came to Amherst because I felt that what brought us together as a student body was that we all had dreams and ideas to shake up the world, to make it a little better. Though I think we’ve all become more realist, there’s still this same sense.
What was your experience with the Association of Amherst Students before you decided to run for president?
Honestly, I had not heard about the AAS until I attended a town hall meeting entitled “What Is the AAS?” [in the] spring of my sophomore year. My dorm neighbor, who was in senate, encouraged me to run for a seat. I realized I loved Amherst, so why not go for it? Why not try? I ran as a write-in candidate, and that’s how I joined.
When I ran for senator, I could not have imagined I would eventually run for president. During the run-up to the presidential elections, various people had approached me to run, but I had dismissed the whole thing because I didn’t have a lot of AAS experience. The day before the deadline for [declaring] our candidacies, I was with some good friends in town, and they put me on the spot and asked me why exactly I wasn’t running. I couldn’t come up with an argument that convinced them or me that I would be a bad candidate; instead I found myself telling them why I’d be good. That night I decided to run.
Did you know you’d also be writing a thesis?
[I’d] had my thesis topic ready since I was a sophomore. However, when I became president, over my junior summer, I decided I would focus on my presidency and that writing a thesis would be a lot to juggle. When I came back in September, I spoke to my adviser about my new plans, but he made me realize that my thesis was personal. It was my father’s history and story. My thesis is on a group of white Portuguese who were born in colonial Angola during the 1950s to early ’70s and who then “returned” to Portugal during the decolonization of Angola. I studied their identity transformation through time, understanding how their concept of home, nationalism and citizenship changed [or did not change]. My father was part of this generation, and so my thesis was a documentation and dissection of stories like his own.
What issues or problems did you see on campus that motivated you to run for president?
Though I had many things I wanted to address, I had two main ones. The first was increasing the sense of an Amherst community with programs like a college Community Hour. The second was increasing student awareness and education on sexual assault. Two of my very good friends were survivors, and I had begun working on this issue as a junior senator. I wanted to further address this as president.
During your tenure you made at least one decision that went against what the student body wanted: You recommended moving the game room to make way for the Multicultural Resource Center. What did this decision teach you?
I’m really proud of that moment. I felt that I stood up [for] my principles as president. It was a dilemma between doing what the majority of students wanted, which was to not move the game room, and what the minority [was] telling me. The AAS poll had pit a majority against a minority. It had become a matter of what was more important: a game room or a multicultural resource center. The question had been framed in such a divisive way that a huge rift was emerging [in] the student body. The way I saw it, the MRC was erroneously being construed as a minority organization. In truth, a fully functional MRC would bring tremendous benefits to the whole student body. In the long term, the benefits [of] a fully functioning MRC [will] outweigh the short-term repercussions (if we can call them so) of moving the game room one floor up. That instance taught me what kind of leader I want to be. I want to be someone who stands up for people who aren’t necessarily heard.
Less than a third of AAS senators are female. You were the first female president of the student government since 2001. Do you think the AAS is sexist or unfriendly to women?
The problems in the AAS are problems reflected in our society. I don’t think the AAS is more sexist than any other group on campus. The proportions are off because we have to do a far better job of recruiting women. That being said, I can’t sit here and tell you that the AAS is not sexist. Being a president who is female in a group that is majority male opened my eyes to what a lot of women face in society. I felt that because I was a woman who was small and smiley, I had to prove myself more. I had to act tougher than other presidents who had not been held to the standards I was.
The founding [last year] of the Amherst Women’s Network [which promotes a sense of solidarity among women in the college community] is, I think, a great step forward in supporting Amherst women.
Why aren’t there more female AAS members?
This year, I think the perception of the AAS has started to change. The AAS is back on the map, and it is being taken seriously. Students may criticize us, but that is democracy at play. I had many students come up to me and say that for the first time, they knew who their president was. I made myself visible and approachable, and I think I’ve been able to help the AAS in that way. Students, especially women, no longer are so intimidated by the AAS. We are making a particularly active effort to recruit women. The truth is that women are equally as good senators as men. I’ve heard people say, “Women are just less debate-y or less argumentative.” That’s false, and in fact, to be a good senator, you don’t have to be debate-y or argumentative. Quite the opposite: you have to be a doer.
Angie Epifano’s account of being sexually assaulted and her subsequent struggle with the college’s administration reverberated throughout the school year. How did the issue of sexual misconduct shape your presidency?
When I read her account, it touched me profoundly, because I have friends who are survivors. Her story, I would say, framed my presidency. The theme of voices that have to be heard, that are not accounted for, are disrespected or are forgotten—those voices have to be brought to the forefront. That is what I tried to do as president.
Dias introduced Rachel Maddow when she spoke in Johnson Chapel in Spring 2013.
Photo by Mark Idleman ’15
How do you think that being a multiracial woman affected the decisions that you made?
The majority of survivors on our campus are women (not to say that men aren’t sexually assaulted). That [makes the issue] very personal. I got what Angie was saying. I got what survivors were trying to tell us. As a woman and as someone who has had much contact with survivors, my reactions were based on experience, gut and connection.
The Multicultural Resource Center issue was different. I don’t think being of color affected my decision regarding the MRC. What really did is the fact that I’m a black studies major. I’ve had to study racism, affirmative action, the construction of race and privilege. I have the same intellectual background as many of the most vocal MRC advocates. I understood where they were coming [from] in a way that most AAS senators did not.
Is there something you wish you’d have done differently during your presidency?
When Angie’s story came out, Biddy gave me the opportunity to assemble a group of students to speak to the trustees. Because of time constraints, I picked students who I thought would bring different perspectives to campus. I spoke to people who were very involved and asked them for referrals. Going back, I would have opened the process to the whole student body. They could write statements and I would read over them and make my choices based on those applications. In sum, I would have made it as transparent and democratic as possible.
In 30 years, what will you remember about your presidency?
I will look back and see that this was a remarkably hard year for Amherst. I had the opportunity to guide the student body through it. It was an incredible opportunity. Going in, some people criticized me because they didn’t think I had the experience or knew what I was doing. I showed them that you don’t necessarily need [a lot of] senatorial experience to do a good job. I think I did a good job of advocating for the student body. From being part of changing our school’s sexual assault policies, to starting pub nights at Schwemm’s, I am proud of my year as president.
Importantly, I learned what kind of leader I would like to be in the future. I want to be someone who is humble, empathetic and listens always. If you stop listening, you’ve stopped doing your job.
How do you want students and alumni to remember you?
I hope they remember me as someone who looked beyond politics or arguments. For me, it was not about the AAS as a student government but the AAS as the Amherst student body. This year was ultimately about what was best for our community and what kind of community we want it to be in five years and in 40 years.
What are your plans for the future?
This year opened my eyes to the importance of female leadership and women’s empowerment. I want to combine that with my interest in refugees and human rights. I don’t know how yet.
Would you ever consider a career in politics?
Though I am political and follow politics closely, I don’t think I would throw myself into a domestic or national political arena. However, I do like the idea of working on issues at a global level. I could see myself working for international organizations in the future.
How will you use your experience as AAS president?
This year has marked me in such profound ways that I still haven’t been able to fully grasp or understand it. However, I know I’ve honed my skills as a diplomat, learning how to be a bridge between people and achieving compromise. Whatever I end up doing, I have no doubt that the skills I have begun to learn this year will be fundamental to the person, woman and professional I will become. When I look back 20 or 30 years from now, I’ll be able to see the extent to which this Amherst year has marked me.
Brianda Reyes ’14, a summer intern at Amherst magazine, was editor-in-chief of The Amherst Student for the 2012–13 academic year.