“Homecoming” is such a warm and lovely word, but it’s kind of a misnomer in these drastic times. Alumni aren’t coming to their College home right now, for safety’s sake. But this year’s celebration—which combined two annual events, Homecoming and Family Weekend—was still warm and lovely, if of course different. Everyone pivoted: The Amherst community connected nonetheless and embraced the virtues of going virtual.

An abundance of events took place from Monday, Oct. 26 through Sunday, Nov. 1. There were panels, presentations and performances—and plenty of chances to see one another on gallery view. We bring the experience home to you now.

Students of DASAC (Dancing and Stepping at Amherst College) danced to the song “Lil Bebe.”


Event: “Harlem Renaissance brings you Family Feud: BSU Edition” 

There should be an emoji for finger-snapping; that was the consensus.

Sure, folks on this Zoom event pressed the symbols for applause and thumbs-up, but a richer response was needed for these live-onscreen and pre-recorded performances. Host Joelle Crichlow ’22, president/chair of the Black Student Union, said she regretted Zoom lacks snap emojis. “But we are all snapping for you, E.J., that was incredible,” Crichlow told Ernest “E.J.” Collins ’23 after he read a moving, original poem.

On Tuesday night, the traditional “Harlem Renaissance” event kicked off virtually with a rousing video from Dancing and Stepping at Amherst College (DASAC). They danced to the song “Lil Bebe” in a campus parking lot, everyone dressed in black and wearing facial coverings. Danielle Reed ’21 choreographed and also danced, along with Melody Dodoo ’21, Michael Gibson ’21, Ahliaa Moore ’21 and Jesmyda Viyano ’22. 

Original, often searing, poems were read by Aniah Washington ’22 and Abadai Zoboi ’24. Kiiren Jackson ’24 delivered an impressive rap.

It wasn’t all performances, though. Breakout session teams also played an Amherst-themed game of TV’s Family Feud. One student jokingly typed out his new name, Steve Harvey, after the show’s host. The top response to “excuses for being late to class?” Our survey said “Overslept.” Number one answer to what food you never see at Val? “Caviar.” 

Later, a video rolled of Maya Roberts ’23 (on vocals) and Jonathan Paul ’22 (on sax), each wearing a necklace in the shape of their homeland of Trinidad and Tobago, and doing a gorgeous rendition of “Cool People” by Chloe x Halle: “WOW MIND BLOWN!” and “talent!” scrolled the comments in Zoom’s chat section.

And when Mameastou Fall ’21 sang James Blake’s “Godspeed,” it was met with a blizzard of lively if muted snaps, and this written reaction: “Soul. Snatched.”  

— Katharine Whittemore

Matt McGann, Betsy Canon Smith, and President Biddy Martin President Biddy Martin was joined by Dean of Admission and Financial Aid Matt McGann (upper left) and Chief Advancement Officer Betsy Cannon Smith (upper right).

“Fun, Fellowship and Support Where It’s Needed”

Event: “A Conversation with President Biddy Martin”

Well-being was the most well-covered theme in President Biddy Martin’s traditional Homecoming and Family Weekend remarks.

Speaking on Friday afternoon—not from her usual spot at the dais in Johnson Chapel but from the dining room of her 1834-built residence—she began with an overview of the College’s rigorous COVID-19 testing and other safety measures for those on campus. 

Noting that “the beauty of the campus has been a balm” for her own well-being, Martin described Amherst’s efforts to boost mental health programming and also provide ways to create “simple outdoor fun” for the students. She felt optimistic, that “that combination of fun, fellowship and emotional and psychological support where it’s needed will help our students through the rest of the semester and the coming months.” 

She was joined virtually by senior staff including James Brassord, chief of campus operations; Catherine Epstein, provost and dean of the faculty; and Kevin Weinman, chief financial and administrative officer, who all gave updates from their respective divisions.

They reported on the well-being of campus itself (some geothermal wells, a major component of the College’s Climate Action Plan, have been drilled), the endowment (“containment measures” put in place by the finance team are keeping costs down) and teaching (faculty members are generally adjusting pedagogically to the new normal in “engaging” and “innovative” ways).  

Matthew McGann, dean of admission and financial aid, spelled out the challenges in remote recruiting and how his office was mitigating financial hardship that students might be facing. But he too stressed the importance of well-being: “To put student wellness and needs first ... to support students regardless of their background and resources, to make sure every student can access this amazing educational opportunity—that’s the Amherst way.”

— Caroline Hanna

Hire a Mammoth - Zoom session with members of the career center
The Loeb Center for Career Exploration and Planning team are adapting and enlarging career development support for Amherst students.

“A liberal arts education allows you to pivot.”

Event: “Careers in the Time of COVID”

What does a career center do when a pandemic makes in-person internships impossible and a recession upends a healthy job market almost overnight?

“You meet the moment,” said Emily Griffen, director of Amherst’s Loeb Center for Career Exploration & Planning. “You adapt and strengthen the strategic elements of your programming.”

In a Wednesday afternoon presentation, Griffen and the Loeb staff explained their evolving strategy during the pandemic. In the spring, the Loeb shortened the length of internships and modified them to work remotely. External partners, such as Parker Dewey and Big Interview, were brought on to offer 10-hour to four-week “micro-internships.” Students could also access a virtual mock interview platform that allowed them to record and analyze interviews online.

Yet as the pandemic trudged on, it became clear that broader initiatives were needed. Thus the Loeb’s Hire a Mammoth campaign, an appeal to alumni to provide student internships and networking opportunities. Katrina Moreno Lewis ’10, founder and CEO of Kura Skin, began with just one internship posting, but was so impressed with the quality of the applicants, she ramped up to nine: “The highlight of my year has been pitching in to create interesting roles for these students.”

Diversity Career Day, a new collaboration with Williams College, was another virtual hit, as 60 employers from 19 industries met with 100-plus Amherst students in group and one-on-one sessions.

“A liberal arts education is the most practical education that you can have in your back pocket in a time like this,” Griffen stressed. “It allows you to pivot, it allows you to take a skillset that you’ve built in one area and apply it to another. Our students are brilliant at that.”

— Mike Reid

3 books by history faculty described in text below

“I’m writing this for a 20-year-old to find compelling.”

Event: Meet the Authors: A Conversation About Recent Books Published by History Faculty

“An awkward tango” between the sciences and the humanities: that’s how Professor Edward Melillo described his new book, The Butterfly Effect: Insects and the Making of the Modern World. He teaches both history and environmental studies, so he’s used to this dance: “The humanities have a lot to say that scientists need to pay attention to, and vice versa.”

His remarks were part of a Wednesday night Zoom chat among three Amherst history professors also out with books this year. Associate Professor and Department Chair Ellen Boucher asked them about the content they left on the cutting-room floor, the titles they chose and the ties between their research and their teaching.  

Years ago, an undergrad at Oberlin College sparked Melillo’s imagination by turning in a project about shellac, a resin made from insect secretions. The professor went on to write about shellac and two other historically important insect products, silk and cochineal, in his book.

For Vanessa Walker, the Morgan Assistant Professor in Diplomatic History, Principles in Power: Latin America and the Politics of U.S. Human Rights Diplomacy began as her undergraduate honors thesis at Whitman College in the 1990s. “I have a document I refer to as ‘the parking lot,’” she said—it holds all the information she didn’t have room for in the book, and it’s as long as the book itself. It may become fodder for an article about Cuba. 

“I’m writing this for a 20-year-old to find compelling and accessible, first and foremost,” said Associate Professor Jen Manion of her Female Husbands: A Trans History. The author hopes the book will assure queer and trans students that they are not alone. Manion spoke about seemingly tiny but crucial linguistic choices in her writing—the use of transing as a verb and they as a singular pronoun for each female husband. Though the book focuses on the U.S. and the U.K., Manion hopes to teach a course on global trans histories in the future.

— Katherine Duke ’05

student speaks during a zoom session
Research technician Anna Makar-Limanov ’20 talked about COVID-19 lab safety protocols—face coverings, cleaning, dedensification and more. For students, labs are available this semester only to those completing senior honors theses. 

“It’s almost like parent-teacher night”

Event: “Chemistry: Building an Open and Inclusive Community in the Time of COVID-19.”  

The work of Amherst chemistry professors is not only about elements and compounds. It’s also about the chemistry they create among students.  

On Sunday afternoon, chemistry faculty shined a light on the latter. “We work really hard to build community,” said Associate Professor Sheila Jaswal. 

COVID has sparked many methods of doing so. For example, the weekly “cheminar,” a Friday afternoon get-together for faculty and students, has gone virtual—and the silver lining of that is that alumni can now take part. At one session, U.S. Sen. Chris Coons ’85 (D-Del.), a former chemistry major, was a guest.

Professors Alberto Lopez and David Hansen ask two questions in every session of organic chemistry: What worked well for you, and what are you confused about?  “We post videos in response to that second question during every lecture,” Lopez said. 

Mark Marshall, the Class of 1959 Professor of Chemistry, records brief lectures for his introductory course. Then, on Zoom, “we come together, all 87 students plus three instructors and a TA, to say hello,” before moving into breakout rooms for partner work, and then returning to report out and ask questions.

Midway through the Homecoming and Family Week session, parents had the chance to try out the breakout rooms, to meet their children’s professors.  “It’s almost like parent-teacher night,” said Patricia O’Hara, the Amanda and Lisa Cross Professor of Chemistry. It was also something else: yet another way to build and expand the community, to create more chemistry in a (for now) remote world.

— Emily Gold Boutilier

participants in a zoom session smiling

The intergenerational "LGBTQIA+ Resilience and Resistance" panel was hosted by Amherst staffers Carol Allman-Morton, Sebastian Merrill and Jxhn Martin (top row). It brought together Matt Randolph '16 and Tierra Allen '09 (middle row), as well as Hilary North-Ellasante '97, Professor Kannan "Jagu" Jagannathan and Ron Wold '70 (bottom row).

“Building community is resistance”

Event: LGBTQIA+ Resilience and Resistance at and After Amherst

One gay student arrived at Amherst pre-Stonewall, not yet fully embracing his identity and not knowing anyone with whom he might share it. Another came out on campus and found “immediate support and love.”

Nearly half a century separated the experiences of Ron Wold ’70 and Matt Randolph ’16. And their stories were some of many told at this Thursday evening “kitchen-table conversation,” hosted by Jxhn Martin, director of the Queer Resource Center, and Sebastian Merrill, assistant director of Alumni and Parent Programs.

Randolph said he was able to “be a bridge between communities” as someone involved in both the QRC and the Black Student Union. “Surviving is resistance, and building community is resistance,” he said. “That’s how we survived as Black queer and trans people at Amherst, is that we had each other’s back.”

The discussion was wide-ranging in terms of issues and ways to spur social change—“diversity of tactics,” in the words of Tierra Allen ’09, for whom theater and music have been vital forms of activism and resilience. Allen spoke not only about campus activities that dealt with gender, sexuality and consent, but also about the racism and classism she found at the College. 

Wold cited his classmates’ protests against the Vietnam War and Black students’ efforts toward greater visibility and equity. Providing what he called “a tiny snapshot” of faculty perspective, physics professor Kannan “Jagu” Jagannathan recalled driving with students and other faculty to protest marches in the ’80s and ’90s. 

“I felt this mission to just try to build more inclusive schools,” added Hilary North-Ellasante ’97, a K–12 educator. They said their approach to education has been shaped by the experience of straddling several different identity binaries in college, and by the progress that Amherst has made since then.

— Katherine Duke ’05