Hope was the thing that perched at 280 Main Street. That’s where, in the south parlor of the Homestead at Amherst College’s Emily Dickinson Museum, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona chatted with the students from English 355/American Studies 364, a course devoted to this poet, for whom hope persisted even on “the strangest Sea” and in “the chillest land.”
Through the chill of mud and ice, the group had just marched forth this March 4 from touring the Dickinson family’s homes. In the poet’s bedroom, several students — and Cardona — read poem 314, which famously starts, “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers.”
The museum was Cardona’s third stop of a day honoring Women’s History Month. It had kicked off in Boston, where Cardona, who grew up in Meriden, Conn., the son of Puerto Rican immigrants, visited the K-8 dual-language Rafael Hernández School. Then he headed to MIT for a conference on the 50th anniversary of Title IX, the 1972 civil rights law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in schools.
“What a contrast!” said the 12th Secretary of Education, of his packed day. “I’m talking to a WNBA superstar. Then I’m here in the room of Emily Dickinson.” Both women, he said, were agents of transformation—and educational transformation was what he was seeking on his watch. Said Cardona, of his travels to meet various leaders in education: “I always say, ‘Please be innovative, please think outside the box. Let’s not go back to the systems we had in March 2020.’”
In the unfurnished parlor, now under renovation and stark, save for a gray swatch of paisley wallpaper, seven students and their professor (Karen Sánchez-Eppler, the L. Stanton Williams 1941 Professor of American Studies and English) introduced themselves—but, at Cardona’s request, with a twist. He explained: “I was told by a fifth-grade student that interviewed me, ‘Don’t ask students what they want to be. Ask them what they want to change.’”
Anna Smith ’22 said she was interested in changing the way museums talk about race and gender, thus “having more truthful and open and inclusive conversations.” Eugene Lee ’23 hoped “to really change access to equitable education,” and mentioned that before coming to Amherst he’d taught third grade in Boston public schools. “We’ve got that in common,” said Cardona, who began his career teaching fourth grade in Meriden.
Today, the secretary was especially intrigued by the educational innovations borne out through consortiums like the Five College Consortium (these Amherst students mentioned taking classes at the other member institutions) and how the system amplified resources for learning. He also praised the experiential learning he’d seen up close—namely touring the house of an author you’re studying, and examining her original manuscripts.
“You will document the history that’s in here that people don’t know yet,” said Cardona to the students assembled. “You’re part of a chapter of the book of Emily Dickinson. And that’s pretty special.”
As Cardona took questions outside from the media, the students were asked about their experience on this March afternoon. “It was really amazing to be able to reflect on taking this class, and connect it to the outside world,” said Fiona Anstey ’24. “Education is something that can feel kind of insular as I’m here at this college, kind of rolling along. But speaking with Secretary Cardona really made it more impactful for me, to think about what my education means in the grand scheme of things.”
Added Sánchez-Eppler: “I’m so proud of my students. I think that’s the main thing that just swells up in me. And I love the museum and I’m so proud of it. So having these things that I cherish being valued and recognized by Secretary Cardona’s visit is just enormously moving.”