A President’s Quest for an Inclusive Community
Issue   |   Fri, 05/24/2013 - 13:37

It’s been a hard year for Amherst. That seems to be the general consensus among students, faculty and staff as we bring the 2012-2013 academic year to a close. In fact, it seems to be the only thing we can all agree on: that the events of the past year have shaken our community in ways that few could have anticipated. Early in the year we were torn apart by a debate about the new location for the Multicultural Resource Center. In October we were brought back together in anger and remorse, when a brave former student published her harrowing account of sexual assault and our own college’s negligence in helping her. For a time it felt as if we were united, but it did not take long for us to get back to squabbling with one another on the Internet. At any rate, we were talking more.

Tania de Sousa Dias, as our student body president, was responsible for relaying student sentiment to the administration and advocating on our behalf.

Going into my interview with Dias, I wanted to identify a theme for the year. I settled on “change.” It incorporated the changes already being made — to the MRC, to our sexual respect policies, to the College’s high-level staff — and also touched on the changes we hope to see moving forward. I asked her what changes she hoped the College would continue to make.

“I don’t think the theme has been change,” she told me. Turning my question on its head, she continued: “The theme has been, more than ever, community.”

Student President
Strengthening Amherst’s community was the goal that motivated Dias to run for the presidency in the first place.

“I thought I could bring different parts of campus together because I’m friends with very different groups of students,” she said. “I thought that I could bridge that.”

Her candidacy was a surprise, and her campaign was started well after those of the other two candidates. Nonetheless, in the initial election she came through with nearly 50 percent of the vote. The actual result of the election was protracted by a scandal, but Dias eventually emerged victorious.

“I was exhausted,” she told me. “I don’t think I popped a bottle of champagne or anything.”

Dias spent the summer planning for her presidency, talking to administrators and past presidents, and making a checklist of priorities and goals. But as she discovered early on, the priorities of the student body would come to her.
“I had all these perceptions of what it means to be president,” she said, “but you can’t actually study how to be president.”

For each issue that came to her, Dias adopted a strategy of trying to get as many interested students as possible involved.

“It felt to me,” Dean of Students Charri Boykin-East said, “that she was always trying to collaborate with all the constituents, in particular really checking in with students, and my impression was that she really had a good idea of what students were thinking, feeling and believing.”

In her meetings with Dean Boykin-East, she pressed for open lines of communication between the administration and the student body.

“She kept giving examples of how we needed to have open meetings, open conversations, more transparency, more students involved in the conversations,” Dean Boykin-East said.

The need for clear communication was paramount, and Dias pressed on this. During the deliberations to move the MRC, she pushed for the relevant administrators to hold an all-student meeting and met with many frustrated students herself. When students felt that enforcement of the alcohol policy had been tightened, Dias impressed the need to talk and act upon the administration.

“I kept saying there’s not been a crackdown,” Dean Boykin-East said. “And she was really clear about saying that the perception is there, and that’s just as bad.”

Dias is proud of her tenure as president, but acknowledges some of her mistakes. On the MRC issue, for example, she felt her approach wasn’t ideal.

“I hadn’t learned, back then, how to handle the AAS [Senate] very well,” she said.

She came to understand that she would need to work more cooperatively with the members of the Senate, who also were elected to represent the student body. Nonetheless, Dias advised future presidents to remember at all times the students whose voices aren’t represented by our student government.

“At the end of the day, it’s not about our student government. It’s about our students,” she said. “And I think that’s more important than ever.”

A Change of Course
Dias arrived at Amherst as a pre-med student. She intended to graduate with the pre-med requisites and go on to become a doctor. She remained on-track to do so her junior year.

“I did all the requisites except for one,” she said. “But I realized that what I really was passionate about was Black Studies.”

This sort of sudden shift in academic interest somewhat typifies Amherst. Often, it only takes one extraordinary class to shift one’s interest and instill a new passion in them. For Dias, that class was Critical Debates in Black Studies, taught by Professor J. Celso Castro Alves. Only a sophomore at the time, Dias was somewhat awed by the seniors in the class but fascinated by the debates that took place.

“I was so quiet, I hardly had anything to say, and I was so in awe that people could speak so articulately,” she said.

“He’s really become my mentor,” Dias said of Professor Castro Alves.

The professor, too, saw something special in Dias.

“She became the head of a major collective body on this campus with a full commitment to representing the interests of students,” Castro Alves said.

This commitment required some sacrifice of her thesis work, but only minimally impacted its quality. Dias chose to write her Black Studies thesis on a topic personally relevant to her: the experiences of white Portuguese born in colonial Angola, which remained a Portuguese colony until 1974. Dias herself is Portuguese, and her father was a member of this Angola-born generation.

“They spent their childhoods in Angola and had never met or interacted with Portugal in any tangible way,” she said.

After Angola achieved independence in 1975, these Angola-born Portuguese returned to Portugal, a homeland they had never truly known. Dias’s thesis project explored the meaning of this return and its implications for the meaning of one’s national identity.

“Through interviews and the close reading of memoirs, Tania revisited the life trajectories of displaced men and women in order to write an original senior thesis,” Professor Castro Alves said.

Writing a thesis is never easy, especially when your thesis tackles complex concepts like race, identity and nationality. Dias found it difficult and intellectually stimulating to challenge her own racial assumptions and perceptions. Yet the hardest challenge Dias faced was understanding her own argument and fine-tuning each chapter of her thesis to support it.

“It’s like a huge puzzle — that’s how I see it,” she said. “Each chapter is like a puzzle, and they all end up fitting together into one cohesive thesis.”

Genuine and Kind
Balancing the demanding job of student body president with all the challenges of writing a senior thesis was tough for Dias. Even tougher was maintaining some semblance of a social life during her senior year. Ultimately, the lines between political and personal life were blurred for Dias. After all, meeting and talking with students has been her favorite part of the job. She recalled that often people she’d never met would sit down and talk with her in Valentine; she relished these moments, because they helped her get in touch with previously-unheard pockets of Amherst.

No doubt, these sorts of interactions were facilitated by Dias’s easygoing nature.

“She’s a very genuine person, and she’s also very open,” Maya Sisneros ’13, a friend of Dias’s, said, “so it’s easy to meet her and connect with her.”

“Genuine” was a word that cropped up again and again in discussions of Dias; another was “approachable.”

“She just seems like a very anchored woman, a good person to get to know, who’s excited to meet the people on this campus,” Sisneros said.

Dias’s presidential style was influenced by her personality; she was a master of people’s diplomacy, not politics. She was eager to talk with students individually and listen to their concerns. This capacity to listen extended to her interactions with administrators as well.

“My very first impression of her was that she was kind, and that she listened, and that she didn’t pre-judge,” Dean Boykin-East said.

She was also unafraid to challenge administrators when their interests weren’t aligned with those of the students. Dean Boykin-East continued later in our conversation: “I don’t think that she was ever conflicted about representing the students. Ever.”

A Year for Community
Dias’s most-cherished moments from her time here were the moments in which the existence of an Amherst community was most salient. The aftermath of 2011’s “Snowpocalypse” and the 2012 Day of Dialogue stand out to her as high points in her Amherst career.

For Dias, community has been the defining theme of the past year and of her presidency.

“I think community has become the objective, the big goal that we all want,” she said. “I think that, more than ever, we’ve tapped into the voices that aren’t heard, the voices that are there but just aren’t heard or aren’t given a chance to speak."

Dias will soon leave Amherst, and she’s not sure where she’s going next. No matter where she ends up, I’m sure that the theme of community will follow her. She plans to do something involving migration and one’s sense of belonging to a new place. One might say we all migrated to Amherst from very different places, and we all feel differently about how we fit into this hodgepodge of a community. I have no doubt that her experiences at Amherst will influence her future direction. I also have no doubt that she’s left a legacy at Amherst that won’t soon be forgotten: the past year has been one in which many changes were made that will foster an inclusive community in the future. I know that Dias’s work will bring the same sorts of changes in whichever community she moves to next.

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