Now’s the time of the spring semester when Amherst students take to the phones to ask for Amherst Fund donations from the College’s alumni. Along the way, these students often get something even more personal than a College supported by its graduates.

Five students sitting on stools holding a phone with the receiver to their ear
Phonathon Students (l to r): Miskiyat Jimba ’20, Hannah Gariepy ’23, Will Lu ’22, Cynthia Henry ’22 and Genesis Pena ’20

Cold-calling alumni has provided many student workers with their most meaningful introduction into the community of graduates they will soon join. It’s a chance to learn and connect—and, in some cases, to get advice that changes their academic paths. 

“For me, when you enter spaces like Amherst, you have to know how to move through these spaces, and it's not always clear,” says Miskiyat Jimba ’20. She says she’s gained valuable cultural capital from practicing her phone conversation skills with alumni—the kind of people “you end up working with when you leave here.” 

Cynthia Henry ’22 was prepared to declare as an economics major, but then she started making calls for the Phonathon. “I was speaking to alums who said, ‘Math was the greatest thing I’ve ever done,’ and these were alums who were working in museums or working in social justice,” she says. “Math was the best place for them, and the math department is great.” Henry ended up declaring a double major in mathematics and French.

“I really like talking to alums,” says Henry. The Phonathan taught her that alumni are like “regular Amherst students,” except that they’re out in the world.

Like regular Amherst students... and generous. Over two months this past fall (a Phonathon is held each semester), the donations exceeded the $400,000 goal by over $30,000, says Melissa Myers, assistant director of the Amherst Fund. The student callers—who number about 50 per semester—secured donations from more than 1,000 alumni. 

Now it’s Phonathon time again. Over five weeks from now through spring break, a group of about 15 students at a time will meet five nights a week in Alumni House to make calls.

In front of the Phonathon team each night are laptops loaded with software created by Amherst’s own Advancement programmers, giving each student a record of the alum they’re calling, including their major at Amherst. A select group of students is assigned the “leadership” level of alumni who have pledged $1,821 or more (a reference to the year of the College’s founding in 1821), and are being asked to give at that level again.

“Just bring out the best version of your professional self, with confidence,” supervisor Will Lu ’22 urges the 1821 team one recent evening. Up come the receivers on the old-school pushbutton phones.

Working in two-hour shifts, each student worker typically makes 30 to 50 calls per hour, Myers says.

While there’s some fanfare surrounding each successful donation call, when students are asked to name their biggest win, most can’t recall. The interactions they have with alumni are what stick with them, not the dollars brought in, they say.

“There’s a surprising amount of people who met their spouses their freshman year at college, and they love talking about it,” says Genesis Pena ’20. “Those are really cute stories.” She also hears from “people who really love their jobs now and love to talk about it, and how Amherst prepared them.”

Many alumni share words of wisdom. Any common themes? 

“Everyone,” says Jimba, “tells you to go abroad.” 

Hannah Gariepy ’23 says that, as a student on financial aid, making calls for the Phonathon holds particular meaning: she enjoys making personal connections with alumni whose support makes financial aid possible. The best conversations, she says, communicate that “we’re all still the same in ways.”