Alexandra Williams '19 - Introduction

                                    Me sitting in on a tree branch  

Hello! My name is Alexandra but I like to go by Sasha. Sasha is the Russian nickname for Alexandra, and, since my mom is Russian, I’ve gone by that name for as long as I can remember. It always confused teachers when I was growing up. I’m a senior and a biology major here at Amherst College. I also have a passion for neuroscience that has led me to take a lot of neuroscience courses both for my major and for fun. One of my all time favorite courses I’ve taken here at Amherst is neurophysiology with Professor Trapani. Although the subject material was hard, Trapani’s upbeat personality and excitement for the topic made the class genuinely fun and interesting, and I found that I gained a deeper understanding of how the brain works than I ever thought I would.

I also have been a member of the Karate club here at Amherst since I was a freshman. I’d never done Karate before coming to college, but here it has been an integral part of my life. I love the sense of camaraderie I feel with everyone on the Karate team as we grow and learn together. Every Tuesday I attend the meditation group sessions in Chapin Chapel, which helps to keep me grounded and calm amidst the stress of student life. Throughout my time here at Amherst, I’ve worked as a lifeguard, a phonathon caller, a tour guide, and in Val dining hall. I’ve also tried equestrian club, occasionally attend anime club meetings, and once was the secretary for pride alliance. My Junior year I studied abroad in Japan for my spring semester. I didn’t speak a word of Japanese before I went, but I found that I really loved living in Japan, and I connected with Japanese culture in a lot of ways I didn’t really expect. Coming back to the Amherst after this experience I felt that I was seeing the campus with a different perspective. I’ve decided to continue studying Japanese for the rest of my senior year in hopes of going abroad again after I graduate. I’m also looking forward to going abroad again over Christmas break. I will be joining a group of my peers on a trip to Costa Rica, as part of a research seminar on tropical biology. I’m super excited for this trip!

During my time here at Amherst I feel that I’ve experienced so many different sides of the college and engaged with so many different types of people. Despite this, I am acutely aware of how much the college has to offer that I haven’t taken advantage of during my time here. I’m looking forward to continuing to explore all the different aspects of Amherst college life, and I hope to spend my remaining year at Amherst continuing to connect with all the people that I’ve met here and that have helped to make my life here interesting and meaningful. I hope that I can share a bit of this journey with you through these blog posts.

Surrounded by Talented People

I really admire people who are musically and artistically talented. Although I play a musical instrument, I am much better at science than I am at musical endeavours. So when I see people perform great music that they’ve written, I find it very impressive. I made it a goal to go to more of Amherst’s free concerts my senior year. Every time I go to one of the student performances, I am reminded of how many talented people we have here. A few weeks ago, I went to a senior thesis performance called “the 9th Dimension”. It was a science fiction jazz performance, the musicians wore alien costumes and throughout the performance the lead singer told a story of interdimensional alien shenanigans. It reminded me a lot of the novel “The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy” . The performance was funny and creative and thoroughly entertaining, and the costumes and characters were fantastic.

There was another student performance I went to that really impressed me. This was also a few weeks ago, near the middle of the semester. At an annual event held by the school’s Black Student Union, called Harlem Renaissance, there was a student who played the electric violin. He explained that he made a bit of money playing as a street performer over the summer, and played a few of his most popular songs. He was so good that the audience demanded an encore. When he played again, he did something that he’d “never done in front of a live audience” . On stage, he recorded a beat by tapping the violin and then began playing covers of songs and bits of improvisation on top of it. While he was in the middle of his performance, one of the parents in the audience stood up and placed a dollar on stage for him, more and more audience members followed suit, and by the end of the performance he had a pile of bills on the stage at his feet. He walked off the stage to a standing ovation.

As a STEM major, I spend most of my time in the lab and surrounded by research. I like science, but it’s nice to engage with more creative energy too. I like the student performances because they remind me of all the artistic creativity that goes on at Amherst, and because I enjoy knowing that I am surrounded by talented people working to create wonderful art, and I feel lucky that I get to witness it.   

Meditation Group

The patter of the rain hitting the roof fills the hushed atmosphere of Chapin Chapel, the sound is both soothing and slightly distracting. I try to focus on my breathing and feel my muscles unwind as I relax my jaw, my neck, my shoulders. The slow, soothing voice of our meditation leader, Mark, instructs me to bring my attention to my upper back, and I notice that I have a tag on my shirt and it itches. Damn it. No matter how hard I try to clear my mind, thoughts keep dancing through my head and bringing me out of the calm, peaceful state I'm trying so hard to maintain. Finally, Mark strikes the side of his singing bowl, and as the piercing chime fills the air I slowly open my eyes. I see my fellow meditators start to stir, as people roll out their necks and shift in their seats, gradually coming back to the world of the dimly lit chapel.

"So," Mark says, "What did you all experience during your meditations?"

At first everyone is silent, then one girl speaks up, "I couldn't stay awake, I kept nodding off,"

Several people in the group laugh sympathetically and I nod. I had difficulty staying awake too. Mark seems gently amused,

"Understandable," He says, "Most of us have difficulty staying awake when we’re meditating,” He offers her advice and encouragement. Gradually, others in the group chime in with their struggles with meditation, with their difficulty finding a sense of balance in life, and with their day-to-day experiences coping with frustration, anger, and pain. Mark shares his insight, and others in the group offer their own advice and suggestions.

I never would have expected that sitting in a Chapel with a group of thirteen or so other people, trying to focus on my breath and let my thoughts drift by, would be such a calming and fulfilling experience. I attended the first meditation group my Junior year, and, I must admit, I went with a sense of skepticism. I was never very good at keeping my mind clear, and meditation always seemed like more of a private endeavor to me. However, in this oddly difficult practice and this eclectic group of people (the meditation group includes plenty of students, but we're also joined by administrators, teachers, and other Amherst staff), I found a sense of connection that I hadn't expected to find. My struggles and my own doubts about the world were reflected in the words of those around me. Even in our different stages of life, we all still shared common difficulties and emotional experiences. The meditations themselves helped me to find a sense of calm and connection with my inner world, but sharing them with others reminded me that different people are having their own experiences of the world. By taking an hour every week to share this moment in Chapin Chapel with this small group of people, I've slowly grown a bit more compassion for myself and for those around me.