Music Enthusiast Ends Amherst Career on Perfect Note
Issue   |   Fri, 05/24/2013 - 13:44

Matt Fernald spent his time at Amherst exploring different academic fields, falling in love and communicating in the language of music.

People who know Fernald usually describe him as generous, humorous and humble. A talented musician with a great tenor voice, Fernald participated in many senior thesis performances during his time at Amherst and was a member of the highly entertaining a cappella group, The Zumbyes. The New Hampshire native is the third in his family to come to Amherst, but that didn’t take away from the unique aspects of his experience.

Finding a Path
After graduating from high school, Fernald took a gap year in which he undertook several jobs to gain some work experience. He worked in the food service industry in New Hampshire, but decided to move to Maryland to try to land a congressional internship. Although that didn’t quite work out, Fernald landed a job coaching tennis in Ecuador. In addition to his coaching job, Fernald volunteered at daycare center that provided low-income children with breakfast, lunch and a place where they could play around and learn at the same time.

“I had a lot of fun in Ecuador. Besides traveling and practicing Spanish, my job at the tennis club and the one at the daycare center gave me the opportunity to see two different worlds: one with people with vast amount of resources and one for kids who didn’t really have much,” Fernald said. “It was a great experience.”

Upon returning to the U.S., Fernald worked at Disney World for six months. Looking back on it, Fernald said he loved working at Disney because like Amherst, it prides itself on being a diverse environment. After having worked a wide array of jobs, Fernald said his gap year was a wonderful decision.

“It made me happier in myself and who I am,” Fernald said. “I’m definitely a more confident person because of it. I think it really changed what my Amherst experience would have been like had I come here straight after high school.”

Coming to Amherst
After working in so many places and meeting so many people, Fernald felt great about his transition to Amherst. He lived in the second floor of North his first year and remembers that his Resident Counselor Ryan Milov ’10, would always spark philosophical discussions with his residents.

“He would sit us down in the common room and ask us, ‘What do you think it means for you to be here at Amherst College?’ I thought about that a lot and looking back on it, that’s not a question you can answer your first year,” Fernald said. “You won’t really know until it’s over. Ryan said that all he saw in front of us was space: space to fill over our four years at Amherst. I didn’t think we’d know what it meant for us to be here until we filled up that space.”

Fernald filled up that space indeed. He kicked off his Amherst career by getting involved in several activities. He participated in other students’ theses, wrote for The Amherst Student for a year, performed with the concert choir, served as a tour guide and even worked as a math grader.

But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. Although he had a great transition out of the gap year, Fernald felt it was difficult in a social way. He met a lot of interesting people during orientation, but didn’t get a chance to develop any potential friendships.
“I forget that when I get involved in school, I really get involved,” Fernald said. “Amherst is a pretty busy place and maybe I didn’t take enough time for friendships. But I actually kept saying hi to people, even past orientation. It’s worth holding on to even the smallest familiarity. We have to fight the urge to look the other way when we pass by someone.”

Those closest to Fernald attest to his friendliness and willingness to get to know other people.

“Matt has the incredible ability to interact with ease with everyone he meets, whether they’re strangers or good friends. That’s saying something at Amherst, where many of us are socially awkward,” said Neha Wadia ’13, who has been a close friend since first year.

Many of his friends agree that if they had to remember Fernald by one thing, it would be his contagious smile, often accompanied by a funny gesture he makes with his hands, as though he’s conducting some imaginary ensemble.

Thesis Time
Fernald made it his mission to try to take classes in many departments. In addition to being an artsy guy, Fernald was also interested in foreign languages. He took Chinese his first semester at Amherst and continued to develop this interest, even going on to participate in two Five College Chinese Speech Contests.

“Matt is a talented student who is always upbeat, energetic and has a great sense of humor,” said his Professor of Chinese, Xiaoping Teng. “What I remember most about Matt was that he was not only a student who cooperated with you, but also a student who cared about the whole class, and always actively thought of ways to improve the class.”

Even in his class, Fernald wanted to develop relationships with other students. He was disappointed that he didn’t really meet people in class, like he did in high school. This is why Action and Character with Professor Peter Lobdell was one of his favorite classes at Amherst.

“The class was fun and I improved my acting, but I really enjoyed this course because it was the only class I’ve taken where I actually met the other students in the course,” Fernald said.

Fernald also composed a thesis in the music department this year. Like a lot of students, he had a vague idea of what he wanted to do, but didn’t come up with anything solid until two weeks before a proposal was due. His thesis, titled “An Evening with Aesop” was an hour-long production that Fernald described as a “narrated series of musical pieces.” He conducted the piece at the beginning of the semester and received praise from several people, including Mallorie Chernin, Director of Choral Music, with whom he worked all of his four years at Amherst.

When it came to declaring a major, Fernald had no problem. He took three music courses during his sophomore year and he knew that is what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. So deep is his passion for music that he joked, “My major is music and just music. Nothing else.”

Zumbye History
Fernald’s father was a Zumbye during his senior year at Amherst. When Fernald was 15, his father bought him a CD and according to Fernald, it just so happens to be the best CD the Zumbyes have ever produced. Part of the reason he came to Amherst was because he wanted to be in the Zumbyes ever since he first heard their album.

“The group had its ups and downs, but overall, I had a fantastic experience. I loved everyone in the group,” Fernald said. “We got to travel a lot so one of the things I enjoyed was getting to know New England and the East Coast.”

Fernald recalls a trip to Williams College that the group went on earlier this year. Despite being abandoned by their hosts, Fernald and his fellow performers had a lot of fun running around the Williams campus and even tried to sing in the music building.

Someone Special
But when it comes to the most important aspect of his four years at Amherst, everything takes a back seat to his girlfriend, Shenglan Qiao ’13.

“Could I have asked for a better relationship? We met our first year because we lived on the same floor. We started dating during the second semester and are still together and going strong,” Fernald said. “She is easily my best and closest friend on campus, as well as a girl whom I love to death. We’ve shared a lot over the years, and I hope we share much more after college.”

Qiao described their first encounter as something special and meaningful. They were both sitting in the second-floor common room of North and this was the first “real” conversation they had. Before then, Qiao couldn’t even tell him and Jeremy Simon ’13 apart.

“We started talking because I asked Matt if he was ever amazed by how he ended up where he was,” Qiao said. “I had already lived in three countries, so that question was mostly for my own reflection.”

Little did Qiao know that Fernald had also traveled abroad and had a whole life prior to starting his Amherst career. She realized that although they were born and raised in drastically different places, it was a miracle that brought them together precisely at that exact time. A friendship was born with the conversation that day, and the two started dating soon afterward.

Looking Ahead
After graduating, Fernald will be going to China for a year-long job teaching English to middle and high school kids. Eventually, he hopes that he will somehow find his way back to Disney World.

In the long run, Fernald will be going to California to join his girlfriend, who will be completing a Ph.D. at Stanford Univ. Not one to forget about music, Fernald plans to be a teacher.

“I’m not really sure if I’ll teach high school or middle school. I’m actually open to teaching at any level, K-12. I would not teach college. 9-12 would probably be a lot of fun,” Fernald said. “I’d love to teach music, but teaching math or a language could also be fun.”

Whatever Fernald decides to do in the future, one thing is certain: he will touch people’s hearts with his generosity, sense of humor, spirits and vitality.