Close to Home
By Katherine Duke ’05
One of the many reasons I chose to attend Amherst College was that it was far away. Or, far enough away. My parents could do the three-hour drive fairly easily when I wanted them to—but only when I wanted them to. The other serious contender, Vassar, was only an hour from my hometown. I cringed when I realized it got the same radio stations. I have nothing against my family or my high school, but I wanted my college experience to feel separate from them. So Amherst it was.But there are a few members of the Amherst Class of ’12 whose drive up to Orientation this week will take only minutes. When Letha Gayle-Brissett, assistant director of Alumni & Parent Programs, counted nearly a dozen first-years from the Amherst area (Worcester to Pittsfield, Mass.), she was amazed. She contacted Brent Alderman Sterste ’00 and Owen Freeman-Daniels ’01 of the Pioneer Valley Alumni Association, and together they arranged a welcome reception for these newcomers.
As a Campus Buzz reporter and member of the Association, I attended the reception on Sunday, Aug. 10. Over soft drinks and hors d’oeuvres in the Alumni House, some local ’12s and their families mingled with graduates who have settled nearby—many, including me, to work at the college.
I spoke first with Freeman-Daniels, the new leader of the Association. He grew up in Northampton and lives and works there today. While a student at Amherst, he was teased for being a local. But he loved the school and chose it because he knew how much the surrounding community and other nearby colleges had to offer. He wanted to assure these students that home for them is “as close as you want to make it. You can go into ‘The Amherst Bubble’ for four months and then emerge. Or you can be out and about.”
“I really like the area,” Freeman-Daniels said, “and I’ve come to like it more than I did in college and certainly than I did in high school.” I agreed: As a student, I remained largely oblivious to the businesses and events beyond the campus, but the longer I live and work in the Pioneer Valley, the more I appreciate its geography, wildlife and cultural opportunities.
Roy Jung ’12 started his Amherst College career while still a senior at Amherst Regional High School, taking a discrete math course with Professor David Cox and playing violin in the college orchestra. He plans to continue pursuing these interests, and many more, now that he’s officially an undergrad here.
For Todd Volkman ’12, of Pittsfield, as for most of the other local students, Amherst’s proximity was one of the few things that worked against it. “I wanted something a little bit farther away from home,” he said. “But it’s just such a fantastic school that spoke so much to what I’m looking to get out of my college experience that I was thrilled to come here.” It showed: throughout the reception, I never once saw the smile leave Volkman’s face. His father, Karl Volkman, graduated in 1980 and was likewise thrilled that his son would also be an Amherst man.
T.J. Keyes ’12, of Shutesbury, represents the youngest of multiple generations of an Amherst College family. Keyes’s great-uncle was the beloved Robert “Gramps” Keyes, who worked with the Campus Police for decades and then as a Dining Services checker until his death in 2004. Today, both of Keyes’s parents, Cindy and Ted Keyes, and several other relatives are employees of the college. “The deciding factor was the quality [of the education],” he told me. “Them working here and it being so close to home was really the only con.” His mom and dad, standing nearby, didn’t seem to take offense.
“Amherst is just a little bit too close for me,” agreed Luke Menard ’12, who lives in Belchertown and whose siblings attended UMass. “But I’m hoping, since it’s such a small school, I’ll have better relationships with my peers, and I won’t have to go back home every weekend. I’m sure it won’t be a big deal.” Though she understands her son’s need for independence, Johanne Menard is “real happy he’ll be close.”
“You’re worried about ‘the pop-in’ and everything,” Freeman-Daniels tells the first-years later in the evening, “and believe me, it’s not easy to duck your parents.” But he assures them they’ve made a good choice. At Amherst, they’ll be surrounded by other outstanding students from around the world, and everyone will help educate and inspire one another.
Before I go, I chat with my friend Gillian Woldorf ’01, who has brought along the youngest potential local Amherst student: Her daughter’s nametag reads Tovah Woldorf 2030? Tovah has spent all four months of her life in South Hadley. No pressure, kid, but your mom’s college friends would all love to see you, 18 years from now, back at the Alumni House, being welcomed at a reception like this.
If you are an Amherst College graduate living in the Pioneer Valley, and you would like to get involved with the Pioneer Valley Alumni Association, contact Owen Freeman-Daniels '01 at firstname.lastname@example.org.