A Language Enthusiast Finds the Right Words
Issue   |   Fri, 05/22/2015 - 11:17
Photo courtesy of Eugene Lee ‘16
As a testament to Altieri’s comedic performance and public speaking skills, the class of 2015 voted him to be one of the student speakers at the Senior Assembly earlier this May.

When I first saw Ricky Altieri’s Facebook status on the morning of April 22, announcing that he would be making a toast that in the back room of Valentine Dining Hall that evening, I thought he was kidding. By complete coincidence, I happened to be sitting upstairs when all conversation stopped and everyone turned their attention to Altieri as he took off a puffy coat to reveal a suit and tie. With his trademark wit, he made a moving toast about how much the staff at Valentine have made this campus feel like a home to him.

Depending on whom you ask, Altieri is the former Marsh Coffee House emcee, the guy who got into Mr. Gad’s House of Improv on his fourth try or that person who speaks way too many languages. It’s hard to live on this campus without having had some kind of impression of or connection with him.

Altieri clearly has an impressive resume: He was just awarded a Watson Fellowship and completed an honors thesis in philosophy. Yet beyond all of these accomplishments, it is almost impossible to think of anyone who has the uncanny ability to connect as widely and as deeply as Altieri does.

The All-Boys School

After finishing eighth grade at his local Scarsdale public school, Altieri went to what his parents euphemistically called “a fun new place,” the Jesuit Catholic all-boys school Regis, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

It was a transition in many ways. For one thing, he said the all-male climate was jarring for him. It was also an intense place where students “literally competed over who can have the most depressing work/life balance,” he joked. At the same time though, he was inspired by the academically rigorous environment.

“I’m not sure if I had that love of learning going into high school,” he said. “But as I left, I loved to read, loved to write and loved to think hard even about tiny things that probably don’t matter.”

Altieri’s love of learning and attention to small details is clear after just anhour of talking to him. In fact, he’s quite the grammar nerd.

“I love the grammar of ideas,” he said. “The way ideas can fit together in different patterns and construction, but with a sense of structure to it, to convey a theme and get a point across.”

The Gap Year

It was also at Regis that Altieri first became enamored with foreign languages. After failing a placement test to get into French II, he decided to try something entirely new: Chinese. He became fascinated with the different ideas he could express with a new language, which he describes as a “from zero” way of learning about the world.

While in China for a high school program, Altieri experienced first hand how people can connect over the absurdity of language.

“In Chinese, the phrases ‘immediately’ and ‘on a horse’ sound very similar,” he said. “Something wasn’t sitting well in my stomach. I didn’t want to be rude so I said to my host family ‘I have to run to the bathroom, but I will return on a horse.’ My host brother, who has a wicked sense of humor, said, ‘No, there’s no need to return on a horse.’ I, however, insisted. Then I went to a decidedly horseless bathroom and we shared a laugh when I got back.”

After accepting a place at Amherst for the fall of 2010, Altieri got a message from his childhood friend, Greg Kristoff, asking to talk about a gap year. Altieri figured he’d humor Kristoff, but over the course of about six hours he was convinced.

“It was one of those watershed moments,” he said.

For the first semester of his gap year, he enrolled in a language program at a university in Beijing. After studying Chinese during the day, he engaged in a “conversation exchange” with local friends in which they would spend an hour speaking each language. He and Kristoff also taught English, enjoying both sides of the language learning experience.

In January, they went on a trip to a rural area near Tibet. Altieri and Kristoff spent the rest of their year in the city of Dalian, taking classes at the local school.

Ultimately, Altieri said that the year, though often lonely and difficult, shaped him into a more independent person.
“I was 18 years old and negotiating heating bills in a foreign language,” he said. “I learned how to take care of myself even if when I got here, I wasn’t as prepared to engage with people as I would have liked to be.”

Finding His Place

Will Savino ’14, who works in the Admissions Office, joked to me that Altieri should win “Most Improved Person” at Amherst. After his gap year, Altieri was surprised to find just how much he had to adjust at college.

During his first year, he pledged the underground Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity. Excited to be a part of a group with so many upperclassmen, he soon found he admired these men despite their fraternal affiliation rather than because of it.

That summer, he told me he had the time “to take a step back and think about the person I was and the person I wanted to be at Amherst.” He decided he wanted to invest time in other communities and left the fraternity.

“Altieri had few problems forming new meaningful connections and communities at the college. People seemed to be drawn to him after first meeting him. He seems like an all right guy,” said his friend Long You ’17.

After performing for Voices of the Class and telling jokes as Marsh Coffee Haus emcee his sophomore year, Altieri realized how much humor meant to him. He decided to give Mr. Gad’s House of Improv a serious try for a second time, after an unsuccessful audition in his first year. He didn’t get in.

He tried for a third time that spring after receiving a huge amount of feedback from Savino, a member of the group. Gad’s decided not to take anyone that semester.

Altieri was devastated but resolved to try out a fourth time his junior fall.This time, he was finally accepted.

“To put myself out there and be vulnerable has just become a mindset,” he said.

Words, Words, Words

Altieri’s passion for language also continued into his college career. His first year, he decided to give Spanish a shot and found he had a knack for the language. In fact, because Spanish was so similar to the Italian he had heard in his childhood, he skipped several levels.

“It was fascinating to me to learn that Altieri spoke so many languages,” You said. “Chinese, French, Spanish. Also English, really well.”

Though few people know it, Altieri is a prolific poet who often performed his work at Marsh Coffee Haus.

His love for the minutiae within complex ideas gave him a natural inclination towards philosophy, leading him to declare the major his sophomore year.

Even in the classroom, Altieri’s ability to connect with others shines through.

“He has the amazing personality to take everyone he is talking to seriously,” said Philosophy Professor Nishiten Shah. “To get the best of what everyone is saying out of them.”

In fact, one of Shah’s students told him that his favorite part of class was whenever “Ricky opens his mouth.”

His love of words also led him to become editor-in-chief of The Indicator. During his tenure at the magazine, he wrote some truly touching and hilarious articles, including one on his experience getting his back waxed.

And, although few of his peers knew this during his time at Amherst, Altieri played a tremendous role making the campus laugh as the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the Amherst Muck Rake. Among his anonymous articles were “12 Things Thesis Writers Are Tired of Hearing,” and “Professor Poe Fined $125 for Dominating Text of Stop Sign” (though he regrets that he’s never actually talked to Poe).

Yet, so much of Altieri’s impact at Amherst has been more subtle, in his daily interactions and one-on-one conversations with friends. Savino described him as a “deeply introspective and sympathetic friend.” Though it’s easy to list his discrete accomplishments, his simple ability to make others feel welcome will be sorely missed throughout the Amherst community.

All The World's A Stage

Altieri will spend next year traveling the world on the Watson Fellowship, studying his passions for comedy and foreign culture. He plans on going to Chinese, Spanish and English speaking countries and immersing himself in each country’s comedic culture.

“The culture of comedy is tied to regions, countries and languages,” he said. “Yet, all our art forms get deeper from the aesthetic intermingling with other cultures.”

Altieri’s Watson project aims to help merge comedic traditions and create more cross-cultural understanding.

“If people are laughing with each other, they generally aren’t killing each other,” Altieri said, quoting Alan Alda.

Ultimately, Altieri doesn’t know what lies in store for him moving forward. He said he may want to study philosophy more, because he enjoys “thinking hard about the little things.” He also may want to get a law degree and use his language skills and cultural understanding to tackle international issues.

Altieri’s options for the future certainly seem unlimited.

“I can see Ricky doing many things. I can see him as a colleague, a politician, running a business. He’s so amazingly talented,” Shah said.