On Connections and Conversations

Note: this post will (apparently) be narrated by an editor (a.k.a future me) in parentheses. Also, this is a long one (I’m not kidding). Prepare yourselves, folks (but there are lots of pictures).

A couple weeks ago, I posted my answer to the most frequently asked question this summer (after, of course, "Where are the bathrooms?"): "Why did you choose Amherst?" (scroll down for the answer). This week, I intend to answer yet another frequently asked question: "What is your favorite thing about Amherst?" 

There are certainly several things I like about Amherst, but I’m going to talk to you about two in particular that are also (go figure) two of my favorite things about life, because I feel that Amherst is especially good at making them happen: 1. Connections, and 2. Conversations (and, of course, the close relation between the two). Without any further ado, here are my rambling thoughts (I answer the question eventually, I promise, but first I must tell a few stories):

Nine-year-old Maria, with similarly-minded friend.
Here's me, before the devastating realization that
I'd never get to be a unicorn.

When I was small, I read a lot of books. In Georgia (see below), my tiny body was small enough for me to curl up on the ledge of a circular window in my room and enter the worlds of my books as I looked out at the city. At first, I did not quite understand what I was reading (I didn’t speak English), but in time I began grasping the meaning of most words and odd colloquialisms (it took me forever to figure out what a carpool was). As I read more and more, I began believing that I would one day get to live all the lives I was reading about. It seemed like common sense to me, and I honestly expected I’d eventually get to live all the possible lives. As I grew older (and failed to receive my letter from Hogwarts on my 11th birthday), I realized this impossibility, and though I still read many books, it made me very sad that I would never get to personally experience all the lives and journeys I was reading about. Recently, one of my residents sent me a link to a TED talk by Sarah Kay, a spoken word poet. She described a similar experience, and her words resonated deeply with me, so I’ll share them with you:

“When I was little I could not understand the concept that you could only live one life. I don’t mean this metaphorically, I mean I literary thought that I was going to get to do everything there was to do and be everything there was to be, it was only a matter of time. And there was no limitation based on age or gender or race, or even appropriate time period; I was sure that I was going to actually experience what it felt like to be a leader of the civil rights movement, or a ten year old boy living on farm during the dust bowl, or an emperor of the Tang dynasty in China.”

Sound familiar? When I first heard this, I felt a deep connection; someone else had felt the same way I felt, and felt the same disappointment that I felt, but had somehow found a way to be encouraged by it rather than disheartened:

Sarah Kay, like a bawss.

“But as I grew up, I had the sinking realization that I wasn’t going to get to live any more than one life. I only knew what it felt like to be a teenage girl in New York City—not a teenage boy in New Zealand, not a prom queen in Kansas—I only got to see through my lens. And it was around this time that I became obsessed with stories, because it was through stories that I was able to see through someone else’s lens however briefly or imperfectly. And I started craving hearing other people’s experiences because I was so jealous that there were entire lives that I was never going to get to live and I wanted to hear about everything that I was missing and by transitive property I realized that some people would never get to experience what it felt like to be a teenage girl in New York City. Which meant that they weren’t going to know what the subway ride after your first kiss feels like, or how quiet it gets when it snows. And I wanted them to know. I wanted to tell them. And this became the focus of my obsession. I busied myself telling stories and sharing stories and collecting them.” 

Note: The above is an excerpt from this video, and I highly suggest watching all of it. And while we’re on the topic of Sarah Kay, you might as well watch this one, too. I know I joke about clicking on videos that could change your life, but this one…actually might.

We cannot possibly live every single life. We cannot possibly be part of every single community. We cannot know what every possible experience feels like. But if we can share stories with each other—whether we do it by reading, or writing, or conversing with friends, or visiting new places (there are infinite ways to reach)—only then can we begin to understand the lives that exist around us. We can live through stories, and with others.

Maria, growing older and wiser.

That connection I felt while listening to Sarah Kay is the same connection I strive for on a daily basis with the people around me. (Think of one that you’ve had—you must have at least one.) They’re addictive. And they can be difficult to find (though with some people, incredibly easy). As I grew older, and people began asking the routine “What do you want to do when you grow up?” I decided that, no matter what I ended up doing with my life, I wanted to make those connections with as many people from as many different places as possible. Sure, I may never get to experience every life—I may not get to hitchhike through the galaxy or be a young magician on my way to wizarding school—but I can still find connections with the world around me, and be moved by the experiences of others just as I can move others with my own. Here’s some more Sarah Kay on this (sorry for the SK overload):


“I see the impossible every day. Impossible is trying to connect in this world, trying to hold onto others while things are blowing up around you. Knowing that while you're speaking, they aren't just waiting for their turn to talk—they hear you. They feel exactly what you feel at the same time that you feel it. It's what I strive for, every time I open my mouth—that impossible connection…When I meet you, in that moment, I'm no longer a part of your future; I start quickly becoming part of your past. But in that instant, I get to share your present. And you, you get to share mine. And that, is the greatest present of all.”

(Okay Maria, you’ve deviated enough, now connect it back to Amherst.) Because I had decided this, and because college is a time for soul-searching and thus a very formative part of our lives, I knew I needed a college that would provide me with the opportunity to meet and connect with as many different people from as many different places as possible. Amherst College was, to me, the obvious choice. Because it’s so diverse (I won’t throw statistics around to sell the school to you – come to an info session for that) and because it is so small, it creates the perfect environment for making deep connections with people from all over the world.

We stayed up all night to watch the sunrise during Orientation.
The first connection I found in college was with these wonderful people.

And it really does make a big difference in your college experience. Take, for example, a class with a group of people from your own town. We are, to a large extent, a product of our culture and our upbringing, so if you take a class with people from your area, you’ll probably all be thinking about the topic in a similar way, and you’re most likely not going to get very much out of the class because you won’t learn anything new. However, if you take a class with people who come from all sorts of different backgrounds and cultures from around the world, you’re going to end up having a very productive and enlightening conversation because everyone in the class will be able to bring something new to the table. (Example: say you’re talking about a historical event—perhaps someone in your class has actually lived through it and witnessed it personally. Or perhaps the way it was presented in their country’s news was completely different from your own local news channel.) Amherst is kind of an anomaly in the world—in very few other places will you find people from so many different places within such a compact area—and people who are all very excited to learn and share their stories, too.

And it’s not only the diversity in Amherst but also the structure that makes it easier to find connections in conversations: because we have the open curriculum (no required courses), it means every student in your class is there because they have chosen to be in that class as one of four out of ~800 courses they could have picked that semester (or, if you count 5 College classes, ~5,000). And just by nature of the type of student Amherst attracts, you’re going to have great class discussions and dinner conversations with people who might disagree with you, or who agree with you, who challenge you, who share their stories with you, and who strive to make personal connections with you through those conversations.

transferring inspiration.

I went to a friend's lake house last weekend, and sat down on the dock of the bay, and put my feet in the water. And something struck me, as waves rippled out from the dancing of my feet: waves are like conversations (or thoughts, or stories); we don't always know where they start, but they ripple through the whole sea (or lake). And even when we start them—as when I dipped my feet in the water—we don't know how far the waves we start will go, or who they'll reach. And there's something beautiful in that not-knowing. And there's something beautiful in dipping our feet.


dipping my feet.

I shared that story with a friend the other day, and he said it inspired him to write a story he’d been putting off writing for a while. So he thanked me, and I thanked him back. And that is part of the beauty of it; that we get to thank each other for that connection. That somehow, we both have more. As he put it, “That we both, somehow, are richer, and the seas are deeper, and the waves gentle but strong. That strikes me as something close to magic.”

It is magic.  More than a waving of a wand, the connections we feel with each other are magic. So I do get to be a magician, after all.

I don’t know if my stories or my experience will move you or wash over you, but I certainly know that some of the stories people in Amherst have shared with me, and many of the conversations I’ve had here, have changed my life (and I promise I’m not just being corny. I truly mean that.) So before you dip your dancing feet into the madness of college applications, consider where best you might find these connections, and where best you might have conversations that move your seas.


And remember (lest we get too serious):