Campus Activist Inspires Through Enthusiasm
Issue   |   Thu, 05/19/2016 - 19:36
Mercedes MacAlpine '16
MacAlpine, a Black Studies major, is well-known on campus for her humor, academic brilliance and passionate activism.

My first introduction to Mercedes MacAlpine came as my Community Engagement Orientation trip leader during first-year orientation. She was everything I expected an Amherst student to be, and everything I hoped to embody. Within an hour of meeting MacAlpine, her infectious effervescence and leadership had already inspired a group of 30 timid first-years.
Now I’ve had the privilege of knowing her for three years — watching her make everyone nearby laugh during lunch at Val, hearing her brilliant contributions to class discussions and watching people genuinely perk up when she greets them with a smile. I had the chance to sit down with MacAlpine to hear about how she got here, where she’s headed next and how she’s kept herself going.

Early Academic Passions
MacAlpine prides herself on hailing from New York, having lived in almost every borough in the city. She attended a small all-girls’ school in the city for thirteen years before attending Amherst.

She knew that the challenges of Amherst were well worth the immersive experience ahead of her.

“In a lot of ways I felt most prepared academically,” she said. “I love learning and I chose Amherst because of the classes I visited, I was super ready to stop doing that speed through that 15 books in a semester thing, I wanted to get deep into something and be challenged. I was ready to do cool work.”

MacAlpine’s opportunity for independence toward the end of her high school career helped her find her niche, and ultimately a home in the Black Studies department at Amherst. “I realized there were whole parts of my education I hadn’t explored, parts that were directly related to me,” she said. “I liked the way I felt after I took those classes, it felt more personal.”

After this early exploration, MacAlpine charged forward with similar work at Amherst, taking Black Studies 111 and then pursuing multiple classes within the major each semester. “It kicked my ass, but I loved it,” MacAlpine said of her time spent in the department.

As someone who devoted herself so wholeheartedly to her academics, MacAlpine was sure to acknowledge the many Amherst professors who influenced her. She fondly recalled working with Professor Ilan Stavans, crediting his help in shaping her persona as an activist, improving not only her academic writing but also giving her confidence in her writing outside of the classroom.

She also commented on her relationship with her adviser, Professor Rhonda Cobham-Sander. “She’s just amazing,” she said. “She gave me all the straight-forward advice I needed in my life, she’s very real.”

Professor Cobham-Sander noted the “one of a kind” nature of her advisee. “Mercedes dances to music of her own making: Instead of following the predictable route many interdisciplinary majors choose of combining history, literature and the social sciences, she has taken her interest in Black Studies into her experiments with art, fashion and fabric.”

A True (Cheer) Leader
When asked about her favorite Amherst memories, MacAlpine responded without hesitation, “men’s soccer winning a national championship, duh.” She is fiercely passionate about building community and supporting her peers. That’s why it’s no surprise that perhaps the most notable among her contributions to the college is her creation of “Purple Pride,” the College’s first-ever cheerleading team.

“The whole idea started as a way to get me out of my two-year slump,” MaAlpine said. “My mom told me to find something I was passionate about and do it. It was always on the periphery of my mind, so then I just went for it.”
In true scholarly fashion, MacAlpine carried out thorough research, even checking out books from Frost library to help her learn more about cheering.

She pitched the idea to the athletics department, but met questions about interest and what exactly the group would entail, and was forced to put in more research. After four months spent with the Smith cheerleading team, a period she affectionately refers to as her “cheer internship,” MacAlpine was even more prepared when she returned to the Amherst athletics department, and finally succeeded in founding Purple Pride.

“It was so much work, but it was all worth it,” she said. “I took all of that energy I had spent wallowing in sadness and put it into this thing that I was so passionate about, and suddenly I wasn’t sad anymore.”

MacAlpine acknowledged the help of her friends and their commitment to working with her early on and supporting her passion for cheering. She distinctly remembers the team’s first homecoming game and how surreal the moment felt. “It was freezing, I mean freezing,” she said with a laugh. “But I didn’t care because it was such an incredible experience and I’m so grateful.”

Much of MacAlpine’s love of cheering relates back to her passion for community and supporting others.

“I love seeing the effect we can have,” she noted. “Being on the sidelines and seeing people out there struggling and just saying ‘let’s go’ and then they push themselves that extra little bit. That’s the most rewarding feeling, and to me that is truly the epitome of community.”

In addition to Purple Pride, MacAlpine also spent all four years as a member of Dancing and Stepping at Amherst College, performing predominantly with the step group. She recalled being overwhelmed by the talent of her peers, and even trying to avoid auditions. However, “joining by accident” proved beneficial, since she spent eight semesters with the group and places her last DASAC show on the list of her favorite Amherst memories. Her friends in the group remain one of the most memorable aspects.

“I just love people so much,” she said. “The fun thing about being a black woman is you get to watch a lot, I like to watch people and see little things and get interested in people. When I see something I want to bring that amazingness out. You can see people doing incredible things whether it be at DASAC or on the court and you want everyone to see them being that great, I think that’s where cheering comes in. I just love bringing out fantastic things in people.”

Activism at Amherst
MacAlpine’s presence is well known around campus, and much of that is a testament to her activism. She’s served on the Diver report committee, Amherst Uprising Oversight Committee, Amherst College Student Athletes of Color Council, Multicultural Resource Center Director search committee and the Student-Athlete Advisory Council. While her contributions in these roles were invaluable, her ability to both redefine and fully embody activism has had the largest impact on the Amherst community.

“It’s all about forming relationships with people,” she said. “By advocating for myself or by advocating for my clubs, that’s how I made myself known. I want to be there for people, and put myself out there. I wanted to finish out strong and do as much as I could before I leave.”

MacAlpine reflected specifically on Amherst Uprising, a monumental moment in her Amherst career in which she proved to be instrumental.

“The cool thing about it was that everyone brought something different,” she said.

Prior to Uprising, MacAlpine recalls thinking she would take a step back from her activism, and focus on herself and her job search. “I was just so tired,” she said. However, when the moment presented itself, MacAlpine knew she needed to speak up.

“I was not planning on getting involved…” she said. “But I recognized that this was a moment where we could break the cycle. I was able to tell people how I felt, and that was definitely one of the scariest moments.”

However, MacAlpine’s efforts proved somewhat successful, as she reflected on the changes she’s seen post-Uprising.

“There is a way that we have changed,” she said. “There’s more compassion and more openness that exists now that didn’t before, I have never been more proud of this community … In that moment I stopped questioning whether Amherst was the right place for me, because I knew then that it was.”

Continuing to Grow
After graduation MacAlpine will begin an internship with a fashion magazine based in Baltimore, Maryland. After starting a fashion blog in her sophomore year at Amherst, she’ll have the opportunity to do similar work as a style editor intern. She also hopes to pursue her passions for cheerleading and dance, and will continue to train and audition for NBA dance teams.

In the long term, she hopes to make a lasting impact in the ever-formidable real world. “I see myself being able to be as useful as I was here,” she said. “I want it to be an organic way of being involved, though, whatever happens, I want it to come on its own.”

After such a formative experience, MacAlpine reflected on her transformative college career. She recognized the toll Amherst can take, but in true Mercedes fashion, still found the positives despite challenging situations.

“It’s important to talk and connect on a real level,” she said. “Some of the best conversations I’ve had here were when I was upfront and real. We all struggle here, but it’s up to you to make it something beautiful.”