Devoted Volunteer Shapes Her Own Narrative
Issue   |   Thu, 05/19/2016 - 19:42
Raizel DeWitt '16
DeWitt’s interest in healthcare, English and anthropology spurred her to create her own major.

When considering the time and care that California native Raizel DeWitt has invested in Amherst, it is clear that the community is lucky to have her. A keenly empathetic intellectual, DeWitt has distinguished herself not only on campus in a multitude of student groups — from the mindful to the musical — but also in the wider world. A dedicated volunteer at a camp for children living with illness, DeWitt has not only provided hours of care and love at camp, but has since turned her experience with children into an interdisciplinary thesis in hopes of gaining a better understanding of the nature of medical narrative. Talented, generous and fiercely dedicated, too much good cannot be said of DeWitt.

An Easy Transition from California to Amherst
After spending her childhood and high school years in the community of Berkeley, California, DeWitt’s decision to come to Amherst was motivated by her desire to find another community that would allow for the same level of academic discourse. “I really love the east coast, and Amherst has provided me with such a great community that I don’t really feel the distance,” she said. “High school was kind of a lot like Amherst to be honest, a small, private, liberal arts type of high school and that led me to want something like that for college as well. This fits me.”
While many students are lucky enough to transition smoothly, few can boast about having such an enviable connection with their first-year year roommate. Hitting it off from the start, DeWitt and Emily Bai have been roommates ever since. It is a testament to their bond that four years later, Bai said, “Living together allowed us the opportunity to reflect with each other on the classes we were taking, as well as each stage of our Amherst experience. Whenever we talked about our future, we would have our respective freak-out moments. But when it came to my turn, she would focus solely on me and ask me probing questions to help me think through what I was looking for in my future. She has taught me so much by modeling her generosity and kindness, but also her views and ideas always push me to think more and think differently about any topic.”
This ability to listen and offer genuine kindness has served her well beyond her dorm room. DeWitt arrived at Amherst the same semester that Angie Epifano’s account of her sexual assault caused an uproar on campus. DeWitt joined the Peer Advocates of Sexual Respect to “find a way to keep building the campus in a direction that would allow women to thrive and really foster a community of respect, and Peer Advocates was a group that was doing that.”

Hitting the High Notes, at Home and Abroad
Armed with her curiosity and seemingly boundless warmth, DeWitt found another small community on campus to call home: the women’s chorus. DeWitt, a soprano, cited the family-like atmosphere as a big factor in easing her transition to Amherst, both socially and musically. In particular, DeWitt fondly refers to “Mal,” or Mallorie Chernin, the choral director, as “kind of a mom, and that made a big difference for all of us.”
This experience of looking for community in a singing group was repeated during her junior year when she went abroad to Madrid. Living in a foreign country with only one semester of Spanish class under her belt, DeWitt found the search for human connection being far harder than she ever anticipated. The breakthrough came the day that she found and joined a local women’s singing group.
According to DeWitt, “It was really hard for me to walk into that room and be like ‘Hi, I’m a random American person who can’t speak to you, but I really like to sing so can I join you?’” We sang American show tunes, which was hilarious because there were all of these Spanish women trying to sing American show tunes, and I fit in because I got to coach them on how to pronounce all of the words.”

Creating Her Own Narrative
Unsurprisingly, her ability to thrive outside of her comfort zone has allowed her to craft an academic experience all her own. Though she came in expecting to major in neuroscience, she found herself most inspired by Professor Sanborn’s class, Poe, Faulkner and the Gothic.
“It changed my life,” DeWitt said. “I fell in love with Faulkner. I was like, this is mind-blowing. My high school had very good English, but that introduced me to college English and just really blew my mind. I really loved how he was able to draw out the depth in those writers, and I had never read a bunch of pieces from the same writer before. I really appreciated watching that kind of development.”
However, even as she fell in love with her English classes and let go of the neuroscience major, her interest in health remained strong. She recalls Five College Anthropology Professor Felicity Aulino’s class, Case Studies and Global Health: a Biosocial Perspective, in particular.
“That was an interesting class for me because I had never thought about how once you have the diagnosis, how do you actually get to the medication?” she said. “What does it mean to introduce a vaccine to a new culture? There were all of these different puzzles that I hadn’t thought about before. I feel like at Amherst that sometimes you get so liberal artsy that you don’t want to look at the gritty details of what it means on the ground, but that class did a good job of balancing theory and practical application.”
Instead of choosing between narrative development and healthcare, DeWitt crafted a major focusing on the intersection of these two interests. Thus, her interdisciplinary major, Narrative, Culture and Illness, was born. Marrying English and anthropology, her major explores “how people interact with stories, and how the stories that we tell ourselves about our personal lives and about our cultural lives influence the way that we exist in the world.”

From Camp to Page
DeWitt’s thesis, a study into the narrative development of children with chronic illnesses, is a perfect marriage between her passion for storytelling and the realities of modern healthcare. However, her inspiration for her thesis has been years in the making: DeWitt spends her summers and weekends volunteering at The Painted Frog, a camp for children with chronic and life threatening illnesses.
“I wanted to be able to write about [summer camp] in a thesis and understand what was happening there and why it was such a profound experience for me and for the campers,” DeWitt said. “So, I decided to write this thesis to say how camp changes a kid’s life story, so I got really into this idea of how we enact our narratives, live out our narratives, and whether the spaces where we exist limit or enable us to be our truest selves.”
Though the task of writing about children with major health concerns was emotionally taxing at times, her close friend and fellow senior, Julia Rothacker, gushed that DeWitt was perfectly suited for the job.
“Raizel takes intellectual risks and explores ideas comprehensively,” Rothacker said. “In a world that tends to view things in black and white, Raizel sees all the shades of gray that make issues she cares about complex and nuanced. Her thesis provides a holistic commentary on health and healing. She understands both the scientific and spiritual aspects of health and recovery.”
For her own part, DeWitt approaches the demands of her field by slowing down and participating in meditation with the Mindfulness Club.
“Working with healthcare is hard, grueling work, and you’re working with a lot of really painful experiences,” DeWitt said. “I think the intellectual processing part of things is really helpful, but our bodies hold so much stress and hold so much pressure that things like yoga and meditation and hiking help us get through those on a somatic level.”

Who Will She Help Next?
Hoping to move to DC with friends, DeWitt would like to expand upon her healthcare knowledge to pursue a career in medical social work or direct care, perhaps as a nurse practitioner.
Whatever she may choose to do, evidence from her time at Amherst suggests that she will not follow the prescribed, or even the easy path towards her future. Her path will be completely her own.