Kathy: Hi, Attila. Where are you from originally?
Attila: Budapest, Hungary. I grew up in Hungary for the first 18 years.
Kathy: And what did your parents do for a living?
Attila: My mom was primarily a secretary while I was growing up.
Kathy: Do you have a father as well?
Attila: No. I never had. My mom did remarry right around when I was 16. That’s the person with whom we came to the U.S. with, right before I turned 18.
Kathy: Do you have any siblings?
Attila: I do not.
Kathy: Why did your family move from Hungary to the United States?
Attila: Well, it was always my mom and me growing up, and she really couldn’t be there for me for the most part of my childhood: depression, alcoholism, etc., etc.
Kathy: I’m sorry.
Attila: It happens. Now I sort of understand that she did what she could at the time. Back in the post-Soviet Union Hungary, they didn’t really know, they didn’t understand what depression meant. You know, she tried. Anyway, I don’t think I liked Hungary since a very, very early age. During the communist era, everybody grew up to be watching each other and stabbing each other in the back. That culture has largely remained. I didn’t like being there. When the opportunity presented itself for us to move to the U.S., I persuaded my mom to, “Let’s do that.”
Kathy: What was your stepfather doing, that he was able to bring you to the U.S.?
Attila: By then, he was retired I think. That’s why he went back to Hungary. He was a dual citizen. He moved to the U.S., and then moved back to Hungary, met my mom, fell in love, they got married and then I was pushing for moving out.
Kathy: I see. When you came to America, where did you live?
Attila: Florida. New Port Richey, Hudson, and then in Orlando. We arrived, and my stepfather became possessive and aggressive with my mom and we didn’t really understand why. A week after arrival, my mom woke me up in the middle of the night and said that I should pack my stuff because we’re leaving, and we did. Two days later, he ended up flying back to Hungary, and two days after that, he died. He had a slow-forming aneurism in his brain, which, of course, explains the behavioral change that we had no idea about. So, we were here in the U.S., knowing nothing or nobody or not the language or anything else.
Kathy: You really had to raise yourself, it sounds like.
Attila: I did, and my mom.
Kathy: How old are you now?
Attila: I’m the oldest one in the class: 32.
Kathy: I’m going to ask you to continue the story. You’re in Florida, your stepfather goes back to Hungary. Now do you have citizenship?
Attila: I do now. At the time, I didn’t.
Kathy: I was wondering, because your mother had married him. So did that qualify her for a green card?
Attila: Her and me, as well. That’s why I had to move right before I turned 18, so that I would have a green card. That is how we came, conditional residency status. After my mom woke me up in the middle of the night really, we left. From then on, it was a dictionary in the hand, one for Hungarian to English and one English to Hungarian because I didn’t speak a lick of English. I had these words: “hi,” “hello,” “yes,” “no.” That is it.
Attila: There was a shiny DVD in Publix in Florida called Finding Nemo.
Kathy: Oh, I love that movie. I watched it with my kids all the time. Did you watch it over and over?
Attila: About 50 times.
Kathy: [Sings] “Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming…”
Attila: I used to speak perfect whale. Not quite anymore.
Kathy: That’s great! That’s very funny.
Attila: At around the fourth or fifth time, I realize what subtitles meant. It was exciting. So, I watched that a lot. Then I applied for a temporary position at Disney World, after we moved to Orlando. And they did hire me. At Epcot, they put me in Germany, because that’s close enough to Hungary, I guess. Even though there was a Hungary stand, I don’t know why they didn’t put me there.
Kathy: Did you know any German?
Attila: It was rough, but it was okay. The rest of the English that I didn’t learn from Mr. Ray, I picked it up by communicating with the guests and by going to the grocery store, and all that stuff.
Kathy: What kind of a student had you been in Hungary?
Attila: At first, very good; excellent, actually. I had read hundreds of books by the time I was 12, 13. I had a small library. Then puberty hit. I had to cope with a nonexistent mother and being gay in a country where they, at the time, often threw Molotov cocktails into establishments that cater to places that I was hoping to go to. So, I was very rebellious. I was skipping school. Technically speaking, I am a high school dropout.
Kathy: What were you best at, at school?
Attila: In eighth grade or so, in the country of Hungary, I was the 17th and the 21st best in chemistry and physics, respectively.
Kathy: Did you work really hard? Or did it come naturally to you?
Attila: My teachers were phenomenal. For me, that was always the thing that makes a huge difference. If I respect the person and they’re passionate about teaching, whatever the subject may be, I’m going to be interested in it. That’s why I love Amherst. I can pick up just what I’m interested in, and learn only from professors who are here because they want to teach, not because they need the paycheck.
Kathy: What are you majoring in?
Attila: I’m making my own major. It will be somewhere along the line of consciousness from a quantum theory perspective and then the jurisdictional and ethical implications of using artificial intelligence in the U.S. legal system. I don’t know what I’m going to call it yet because this is too long.
Kathy: That’s true. What would that even be?
Attila: It’s computer science, neuroscience, LJST and philosophy.
Kathy: So, you’re at the Germany area at Epcot. How long were you there?
Attila: I [worked] for about a year or so at Walt Disney World, at the end of which I started working at 7-Eleven.
Kathy: It sounds like you were supporting yourself. Was your mother working at this point?
Kathy: You were supporting her too. Okay.
Kathy: So, you were a clerk at 7-Eleven. Did that last for a little while?
Attila: About a year or so. I did become an assistant store manager in about four months because I understood how to do merchandising. It wasn’t really anything to know. It’s just know what to order, when to order it, how much to order so that the customers have what they want, when they want it, as much as they want. It was fairly simple. . Our profit increased by 140 percent in a matter of five months.
Kathy: Wow. How cool to go in there and just make things so much better. That must have felt empowering actually.
Attila: It was awesome. I was 19. I barely knew the language but I was able to understand the numbers and graphs. That was a pretty universal language that I could understand. A year after I started working there, I kind of burnt out. Then my best friend’s brother brought me back to Hungary as a birthday gift to my best friend.
Kathy: Best friend from Hungary, you mean?
Attila: Yes, as her birthday gift. I had to pop out of a trunk with a gigantic bow on my neck. It was awesome.
Kathy: Did you really?
Kathy: That’s fantastic.
Attila: On the way back to Orlando, I had a connection from Amsterdam to Philadelphia and I had this nice lady sitting next to me. She was about 80, 90 or so. We talked the whole way through. Two days later, I moved to Philadelphia.
Kathy: What was it about speaking to her that changed your life?
Attila: I barely remember, to be honest. I know that we talked a lot about culture. We talked a lot about her life growing up in Philadelphia and having a walkable city where you don’t have to have a car. I hated having a car. You are so isolated.
Kathy: You moved to Philadelphia. What happens then?
Attila: I got an assistant manager position at a local fast food restaurant, but I had to have a car. The car broke down of course. So that was completely a waste of money. Then I did odds and ends jobs for about six months. I moved to Center City to a roof garden apartment, which was absolutely amazing with two roommates, two girls, one of whom was practically my English teacher. She was the person who would correct me. Not at first, but I kept nagging her to fix me.
Kathy: Make your English better?
Attila: Yes, because I heard that I was saying stuff wrong but I didn’t know just how. She was very, very instrumental in me actually learning English. My other roommate was in the Pennsylvania National Guard and that’s how she paid her way through college.
Kathy: Did she say, “You might want to look at the National Guard?”
Attila: She didn’t say it to begin with, but I kind of reached the highest potential I could get, without a bachelor’s degree. I had reached those within each company, in each position I had, fairly quickly. So, I either had to suffer through working two jobs and try to pay myself through college, or have the military pay for you. I always wanted to move either towards law or health care. With the military, I would be trained in one or the other, for a particular job that I would be picking. I chose combat medicine. I went for advanced training for that and it was awesome. I loved it.
Kathy: Which branch of the military are you?
Attila: I was in the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. I took the GED, at age 20, right before I enlisted.
Kathy: That’s right, you didn’t finish high school because of the move.
Attila: I did not. That was the plan. I was supposed to go to high school in the U.S. but then, you know, my stepdad decided to die.
Kathy: So many twists of fate. Okay, so you take the GED.
Attila: Yeah. I scored in the 99th percentile, which I’m pretty sure says more about the GED than me. Then I enlisted in the army, the Pennsylvania National Guard, shipped off to boot camp and then advanced training. I would have never in a million years thought I would be in the military. I don’t do nature, I don’t do uncomfortable stuff, I don’t do dirt, I don’t... No.
Kathy: After the first few days of basic training, did you think, “Good God, what have I done?”
Attila: Of course. Every minute of every day for the first two, three weeks. After that, you get used to it. You know, humans are extremely resilient. If we’re millionaires, then the biggest problem we’re going to have is that extra sugar cube in our coffee and we’re going to flip out for that. If we’re poor, we’re going to flip out for the fact that we’ve got nothing to eat.
Kathy: Well said.
Attila: It’s all relative, so whatever difficulties one encounters, when they grow up having silver spoons in their mouths, that’s still just as valid as someone who, like me, would be stealing squash from a field because they need something to eat.
Kathy: Did that actually happen?
Attila: Yeah, in Hungary. My mom hated squash but she still made it because I needed something to eat.
Kathy: Yeah, it was available. So where was your basic training?
Attila: Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., close to St. Louis, with horse-sized mosquitoes. It was difficult, but not too bad, and then AIT [Advanced Individual Training] was at Fort Sam Houston, in San Antonio, Texas. Boot camp was three months, and then AIT was four months.
Kathy: What was it all like?
Attila: It was awesome; it was awful. That’s the whole military career, I think. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
Kathy: I know you trained to be a combat medic. What was that like, specifically?
Attila: The first two months is basically EMT training. Then you do two months of combat medicine training. Then every combat medic, if you deploy, you also go through two weeks of intense training, that is specifically for combat situations. That’s where we have live tissue labs and things of that sort. During AITs, the worst that can happen is that you go through a field training exercise where you’re in an uncomfortable position, people shouting at you, strobe lights and fog and all that stuff going on, while you’re trying to treat an actual patient.
Kathy: What happens after the four months are up?
Attila: Then I return to Philadelphia and I was doing the regular monthly trainings of a National Guard. Most people would think that it’s just once a month and for the weekend and once a year during the summer for two weeks. For the most part, that’s how it was for the first year and a half or so, but then we deployed to Egypt, at which point I was still a combat medic. We deployed as part of the MFO, Multinational Force and Observers.
Kathy: You were stationed in Sharm el-Sheikh. What was a typical day like?
Attila: Boring, very boring. I mean, by default, everybody there just observes. That’s the job: to observe and report, and that’s it.
Kathy: When you say “observing,” what does that mean?
Attila: Ensuring that there’s no military movement between the nations of Egypt and Israel or, when we were looking at the Red Sea, of any other nation that we’re not sure of. Most other people are not there as medics. They were deployed as scouts, so they would learn to identify different vessels and cars and vehicles and look for any suspicious activity, day and night, that would imply that there would be some sort of conflict or indicate an increase of tension between the two nations. As a medic, it was fairly boring,. In northern and southern sector, I would insist on visiting the other observation posts that were between the sectors, to see if [the soldiers there had] issues. I would drive an armed ambulance. I didn’t have to, but I was fairly instrumental in establishing a relationship between our partner hospital in Eilat [Israel’s southernmost city, near Jordan]. The hospital in Eilat was much more sophisticated than the one in Sharm-el- Sheikh, though the one in Sharm el-Sheikh looked like a pyramid so we loved going there. But, it wasn’t very sanitary and it was not very good, so whenever we had more difficult situations or patients with more serious issues to handle, then we often evacuated them out to Eilat.
Kathy: Later you went to Kuwait. What did you do there?
Attila: I was a mobilization chief. I was responsible for the coordination of who’s deploying, who’s not deploying, maintaining the humongous roster as to who could be deploying and why they would be and where they would be. Which base, what position, what rank, what issues they currently have, whether it’s legal, dental, medical, custody issues with their kids or child support or whatever else it may be.
Kathy: Roughly how many people are we talking about, that you would have been responsible for?
Attila: 550 or so, stateside, so prior to mobilization, but I also helped out with the brigade so that was about 2,400 or so. When we deployed, at first, it was 1,500 and then that went down to just our task force, which was us plus four units, plus the navy, so that was about 860 or so. Prior to mobilization, I was the Sexual Harassment Assault Response Program Coordinator, the Drug Enforcement Officer, the person who did separations, basically either kicking people out or processing people out for legal, medical reasons.
Kathy: You must have learned a lot.
Attila: I had to. There was lots of Google involved.
Kathy: And you’re doing all of this before you go to Kuwait?
Attila: Yes, I did. Kuwait was awesome at first. I worked a lot. First, I was at Camp Buehring, then Camp Arifjan. Strictly speaking, I was HR. I was in Kuwait for nine months. Then I was with ARCENT [United States Army Central] in South Carolina, and then I was processed out at Fort Jackson, in Florida. In all, I was in the military eight years, three months. Then I went a little crazy because I got out of the military and the deployment was rough by the end, very rough. There were a lot of unpleasant and not very good situations.
Kathy: I’m sorry to hear that.
Attila: So, I needed a break. I did seek therapy and I did go into inpatient hospital, and then ramped up on the medication and that somewhat helped. In the meantime, I established residency in California, so that I would be paying in-state tuition at a community college there. I went to De Anza Community College [in Cupertino], which has one of the highest transfer rates.
Kathy: How did you end up coming to Amherst?
Attila: As it turns out, I ended up being a pretty good student. I didn’t anticipate that and so I started aiming at schools outside of just UC Berkeley and UC San Diego as a backup.
Kathy: I’m going to imagine you had great grades.
Attila: I did okay.
Kathy: All right. You can tell me. How did you do?
Kathy: All right.
Attila: I started looking elsewhere and there’s this organization called Service to School, whose job is to help high achieving veterans get into institutions, which otherwise would be out of reach or out of mind. Or I would have never thought that I would be someone who would be applying to Yale or UC Berkeley either, but since UC Berkeley seemed to be a fairly safe bet that I would be able to get in, I thought maybe I should broaden my horizon and perhaps email other schools. They had Amherst on there as their partner school and I had never even heard of liberal arts colleges. I started reading about Amherst and I was very pleasantly surprised to note that there’s only professors here. There are no graduate students who are practically mandated to teach, not necessarily just do research. I don’t want to learn from someone who doesn’t want to teach me. However good you are in research, I will read your research paper, we can discuss and have a coffee, but if you don’t want to teach, then I don’t want to learn. For me, having that and Amherst being a small school, as opposed to being gigantic like UC Berkeley, and me being a number, that mattered more than anything else.
Kathy: Attila, did you visit Amherst before you got in?
Attila: Yes. Amherst College has a veteran travel grant. I did submit an application and just a few days later Lexi [Alexandra Hurd ’06, associate dean of admissions] wrote back to me and I was able to visit and see just what an amazing place this is.
Kathy: What classes are you taking?
Attila: I’m doing the First-Year Seminar for transfer students, called “Education: For Whom and What For?” with [R. John Cooper ’64 Presidential Teaching Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Writing Center] Jyl Gentzler and [Senior Writing Associate] Cathy Sanchez. I’m also doing Logic with [Rachel and Michael Deutch Professor of Philosophy] Alexander George, And I’m doing a seminar with [Professor of Philosophy] Nishi Shah and [Assistant Professor of Philosophy Ekaterina Vavova from Mount Holyoke. It’s a seminar called “Reasons for Belief and Action,” and then Introduction to Computer Science 1 with Professor Kaplan [professor of computer science].
Kathy: Are you finding that the faculty is responsive and helping you?
Attila: They’re stellar. I think it would be easy to fall into thinking that you’re an outsider, as a transfer student, and fail to reach the faculty, to relate to the faculty. Some people expect that this is how I am, and this is how I approach people and this is how I’m supposed to be. Not quite so. Luckily, I’m fairly malleable.
Kathy: You seem like an outgoing person. Have you made some acquaintances or friendships among the other transfer students?
Attila: Oh, yes. I mean, Amherst has provided a pretty robust experience for coming to Amherst. We have a transfer floor in Seligman, which is just transfer students, all the current ones and some of the previous transfer students, which automatically creates a level of cohesion that I wouldn’t have expected. The first-week orientation was grueling because it was from morning to night, every single day and as a transfer student, you do have a life outside of here, so that was a bit rough. At the same time, of course, that allows a level of bonding that I would not have anticipated for a college to be able to provide. I think particularly compared to other transfer students, I do think I have a wider net of friendships.
Kathy: That’s great. I have two more questions and then I think we can wind down. When you were in the military, were you out as gay?
Attila: Yes, from about the first six months.
Kathy: Were there issues? What was that like?
Attila: “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was still in effect, so they’re supposed to kick me out as soon as I reveal my sexual identity. During boot camp, I pretended that my two roommates at the time (I took two pictures of them) were my girlfriends. It worked for boot camp especially because I was European. I overheard people say, “Oh, he’s not gay, he’s just European.” Later, there were some difficulties. There was one group in particular, of about four or five guys that were actively trying to make my life a living hell …
Kathy: I’m sorry.
Attila: ... and yelling out “faggot” and all that fun stuff, when I was passing by. As it turns out, naturally, the alpha male of the group was gay. In my actual unit, once we deployed to Egypt, I did come out to everybody. During the mobilization, I did slowly start to come out and, no, it wasn’t a problem. I was very lucky to have a good commander, who valued proficiency and efficiency much more than who I happened to want to be in bed with. So even though “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” would compel him to kick me out, to my knowledge, that was never up for conversation for anyone. So, was it bad? At first, but after that I did understand that most of the time it’s because they see in me what they are—and that’s what they hate. After that, whenever I went on a training and someone acted in such a way, I knew precisely why and so I kind of handled it well, I guess. Plus, I grew up in Hungary. I’d been through enough by then. I don’t care what you think. If you want to be in my life because you like who I am, that’s awesome. If you don’t, that’s all right with me. I don’t need everyone. But it is a tough road to get there.
Kathy: I’m sure it is. Last question for you: What are you thinking about when you get out of Amherst?
Attila: Law school. After law school, not sure. I think I would be a fool to think that I can predict what’s six years from now is going to happen.
Kathy: Do you have a dream? Is there something you would like to be?
Attila: No, I really don’t. In fact, I’m kind of having some sort of an existential crisis as a student trying to determine what it is that I’m still trying to accomplish because I do not know what could possibly be on my bucket list that hasn’t been checked off or that I care enough about to be on my bucket list. Now, what I want to study at Amherst, that is, in fact, a very concentrated area, which I’m ecstatic to be able to even do. I thought I would just do philosophy and LJST, but I can do precisely what I want, which is combining neuroscience, computer science, law and ethics into one mix of whatever it’s going to end up being.
Kathy: That sounds amazing.
Attila: I think the path where I’m heading towards is to be a driving force of public policy behind some sort of monitoring of the ethical implications of AI, because though there could be some conversations about it, there have been no solid actions either from the government or from an NGO perspective, that were to regulate such action. I think we only have one chance of getting it right because the first time we do develop an AI that does, in fact, have general intelligence and it is released upon the world, whoever got it right, whoever got it first, in the world, may have tremendous advantage.
Kathy: You really can’t do ethics after the fact, right?
Attila: Correct. And unless you have the correct framework in it, you might as well use humanity. There’s obviously plenty of ethical implications and plenty of rabbit holes that we can go down as to what kind of implications there may be, but that’s precisely why I cannot say what I’m going to do six years from now. I don’t know how the landscape will end up being at that point. I don’t know what kind of jobs will exist at the time.
Kathy: It’s true, things are changing so fast.
Attila: And it will only increase, at the pace with which it’s changed. As to whether I’ll work for an NGO, the government or a private organization, whether I will sell out as a corporate lawyer: I have no idea. Whether I will just program the AI that will be determining who’s going on parole and who’s not, and trying to make sure that that AI is not racist, as it has been in the past, I’m not sure. But somewhere along those lines. I’m trying to bridge areas that have not traditionally been able to be bridged: law and computer science. Often people don’t have the expertise in both, and so one is talking over the head of the other.
Kathy: Perhaps you can be the connector.