Plenty of research shows that small gestures from faculty and staff can make a large difference in a student’s sense of belonging in college and after. To pinpoint the benefit, Amherst’s Center for Teaching and Learning put out a call to recent graduates this summer asking for specific examples of this.
Nineteen alumni responded, writing about interactions that changed their learning experience and helped shape who they are today. With those in hand, the center’s director, Riley Caldwell-O’Keefe, wanted to know more. So she invited five of the respondents—Ryan Arnold ’15, Amir Hall ’17, Mikayla Gordon Wexler ’19, Rachel Chaffin ’20 and Sade Green ’20—to join a panel at the annual Provost’s Retreat on Teaching and Learning, a day-long session for faculty. This year’s retreat focused on how to foster meaningful relationships.
Rachel Chaffin ’20
Majors: Psychology and French
The first time I sat in Professor Matthew Schulkind’s office, I cried. I had just failed his first quiz in psych statistics and had no confidence in my ability to improve in the class. He listened, but calmly asserted that I wasn’t going to fail, because I had him on my team. I started attending his office hours, so often that he started calling them “Chaffin hours.” After the next test, he emailed me to tell me I had pulled a 92—and to tell me he was proud of my work. His confidence in me as a student fundamentally changed my work ethic. His humor and candidness made me realize failure doesn’t define me. Four years later, we continue to have impromptu “Chaffin hours” (albeit over email), and that initial bond of trust and respect has developed into one of the most cherished gifts of friendship Amherst gave me.
Sade Green ’20
Program coordinator, the Advocacy Institute
I am African American (the descendant of Africans who were enslaved in the United States) on my mother’s side and Nigerian (the daughter of a Yoruba immigrant) on my father’s side. During office hours one day, I expressed to my Yoruba professor, Olufemi Vaughan, that sometimes it is difficult to navigate my biethnic identity. He told me that I am a bridge between my two ethnicities. He inspired me to look at my biethnic identity from a place of abundance rather than scarcity, to see that I am made up of two wholes instead of two halves, to see that I am a bridge not just between my two ethnicities, but also between myself. I am a bridge between myself. Ever since that day, I’ve become more free. Because freedom is rejecting binaries and unapologetically embracing all of who you are. It’s finally calling yourself “home.”
Mikayla Gordon Wexler ’19
Medical student, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai
My junior year, the Amherst community lost Christopher Collins ’20. For me, losing Chris made it difficult to remain on campus—to move through spaces that we had shared. During this time, I had the privilege to be in Geoffrey Sanborn’s “Reading the Novel” course. Professor Sanborn, understanding our collective grief, used our class readings to create space for healing. He discussed how, in the book The Known World, by Edward P. Jones, there exists so much suffering. Yet the characters survive by investing in each other through mutual care, listening to one another and making meaning in community. Professor Sanborn compared this literature to what we could do for one another during this time: We could come together to discuss, process and heal in a safe, reflective space. He allowed our classroom to be a sanctuary, and for that I will always be thankful.
Amir Hall ’17
Interdisciplinary artist and writer
In my first semester at Amherst, Professor Rhonda Cobham-Sander called me into her office and asked if I had plagiarized my final paper. She had found it odd that its quality so far surpassed the quality of my other assignments. Her calling me in allowed me to admit for the first time just how much the challenges of existing on campus as a low-income, queer, Black, international student impeded my ability to put effort into the earlier assignments. I told her I decided to put effort into the final because I felt bad and wanted to actually try at least once before the class ended, and that was why this paper seemed so much better than the others. She said, “You know what you have to do now, right? You have to take another class with me, because you haven’t given me the opportunity to teach you.”
If she had not been graceful with me, I would probably have felt too embarrassed to take another class with her, or any English class.
In the next class I took with Professor Cobham-Sander, I found my passion for writing. Eight years later, I have just graduated with an M.F.A. in fiction writing. When I teach undergrads, I actively engage grace as a way to pull students closer to learning, when so many external factors threaten to push them away.
Ryan Arnold ’15
Student, Master of Arts in Teaching program, Montclair (N.J.) State University
I took Professor Jeff Ferguson’s seminar on Invisible Man in Fall 2014. We met near the end of the semester to discuss my proposed final paper topic. At some point, Jeff laughed when I retrieved several notebooks from my bag—I always carried notebooks dedicated to different purposes (journal, thesis, class, etc.), and could never remember what I’d written where. “You sure love those notebooks,” he said. “I bet they’re full of great ideas.” Unsure to what degree he was teasing me (Jeff was a prodigious ironist), I quickly joked and moved on. But as the meeting concluded, Jeff said with unquestionable sincerity: “Keep filling those pages with great thoughts.” Few other experiences—at Amherst or after—have had a greater or more lasting impact on my ability to take myself seriously as a thinker and a writer, and my sense of legitimacy as a student, than those parting words.