Conversations With That Girl From Gad's
Issue   |   Fri, 05/18/2012 - 13:33
Shanika Audige

Meeting Shanika Audige isn’t exactly like meeting most people, and that’s because I can’t really tell you when I did meet her. I could say that I first met Audige during my orientation week when she performed at the “Voices of the Class” show, but for most people it wouldn’t really apply since I didn’t speak to her at all.

When it comes to Audige’s personality, “big” is the word. Because of this it’s hard to say you don’t know Audige even if you haven’t actually met her before. I then had two sociology classes with her fall semester of this past year. It was on this subject that we would converse when we first actually met in December of last year, and this would probably be when most people would say I met Audige. But, although I didn’t really know her personally at the time, I certainly couldn’t tell from the way we were speaking. I was a bit intimidated, considering how often I’d seen her on stage, but it felt like it was merely the most recent in a long line of conversations with her rather than the first time we’d spoken in proper. And when her friends think of her, this is generally how they describe her; she has a big personality, but she has an aura about her that draws people to her and makes her seem like she’s known you for years. She’s funny, open, caring, genuinely interested in anything you have to say and a natural conversationalist.

The Journey to Amherst

Audige grew up in working class, majority black neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey. After going to public school for elementary and most of middle school, she began looking into new options for schooling and was eventually accepted to Link Community School, a private school in Newark. There, she said, “my teachers opened my mind to all the possibilities of higher education.” After being accepted to the Wight Foundation, a program which helps to connect bright inner city students with high-ranking private schools, she was accepted to The Taft School in Watertown, Conn. She said it was there when she learned about Amherst, a place she was instantly attracted to.

“Amherst had the three things I wanted out of my college education: No loans and a commitment to socioeconomic diversity, my favorite color — purple — and a small size that would make for easy access to professors and intimate classroom discussions,” she said.

Audige was able to easily adjust to Amherst upon arrival, just as she had with boarding school. Always the over-achiever, she sought out new activities, partially because she felt that “the best way to survive being thrown into a privileged environment coming from an underprivileged environment was to keep busy.” Over time, she focused her activities on what she felt she enjoyed most and most prominent among these was Mr. Gad’s House of Improv, where she made herself known among most of the student body. Interestingly, although her charismatic nature would seem to make her a natural fit, Audige wasn’t always so sure about her ability to perform improvisational comedy.

A Legacy of Laughter

“In high school, there was an improv team and I was so intimidated by the members [that] I never tried out,” she said.

However, one day her and her friends decided to go to a Gad’s workshop. She enjoyed the experience, decided to try out, was accepted and has been an integral part of the troupe ever since. Her contributions to the group do not go unnoticed, especially by her fellow members.

Friend and fellow Gad’s member Dylan Herts ’13 said, “Shanika makes scene partners look good, and that’s the best sort of improviser.” He added, “I’m sure the audience appreciates the obvious contributions she makes to scenes, but it’s the more subtle ones — an offer there, a character choice here — that make her an even more valuable asset to Gad’s.”

Audige herself appreciates Gad’s as well, particularly because it has helped her as a conversationalist. She says that it has helped her to listen better, to ask more insightful questions and especially to boost her confidence while talking to people she’s never met before. She also appreciates Gad’s for the friends it has given her and for providing her with time when, in her words, “I could relax, let my locks down and have fun.” And, for most of her college career, she’s spent Monday nights at 10 p.m. sharing that experience with her fellow students.

Academia and the Black Identity

Audige’s academic pursuits took her away from the stage and into the world around her, but her inability to stay away from people remained. A Sociology and Black Studies double major, she originally entered the College not sure what she wanted to major in, but soon enough discovered her interest in studying the way humans interact with each other. After considering Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought due to her interest in entering law, she experimented with a wide variety of courses before realizing that they all overlapped with Black Studies. She chose this as her first major because it allowed her an opportunity to experience the variety of classes in Amherst’s curriculum while still connecting them to something she was interested in.

Having finished her requirements by the end of sophomore year, Audige sought after another subject to explore with a characteristically adventurous mindset. She looked to sociology and took the introduction class “Self and Society” with Professor Ronald Lembo, where she found herself instantly gripped. “The material, the professor and the types of discussions we were having about race, class and everything in between had me hooked. I knew I wanted to be a Soc major after that class,” she said. She also saw the way the two subjects worked well together.

“Sociology and Black Studies go hand in hand so it worked perfectly. Both taught me how to critically evaluate the world that means to be a better writer and thinker. They’ve also taught me a great deal about myself — what it means to be black, privileged, a woman, etc.,” Audige said.

She also looked to this connection when she wrote her thesis, entitled “(In)visible Blackness,” which examines “the effects of skin tone on the social integration and self-perception of dark-skinned women at Amherst” This topic was simultaneously very personal for Audige and very insightful, as a chief impetus for this was her life experience as a dark-skinned black woman and her experience with colorism, a form of racial discrimination which entails privileging lighter-skinned individuals over darker-skinned ones. Her research showing that many dark-skinned black women at Amherst feel unnoticed means a great deal to her, as does sociology and black studies in general. When asked how they relate to her, she simply responded “I AM Black Studies and Sociology.”

Friend Spencer Russell ’12 provided a more humorous version in poetry form: “Roses are red, Violets are blue, Shanika is black and will tell you about it.”

Throughout her time at the College, Audige has also amassed an impressive resume of working for the college through various roles. In addition to serving as a Student Health Educator and having researched this past summer for her Black Studies advisor Professor John Drabinski, she also works as a Diversity Intern, where she uses her experiences both at home and at Amherst to work with other students interested in Amherst and further her commitment to increasing socioeconomic diversity at the College.

She also worked as an RC both her sophomore year and her senior year, another natural fit for Audige due to the fact that she radiates energy and never shies away from a conversation. Her mentorship was something her residents express gratitude for.

A Friend and Counselor

Christina Croak ’13, who was a resident of Audige’s during her first year, describes her glowingly. “[Audige’s] guidance, wise words, warm hugs and unconditional love have all helped me get through some difficult times throughout these past three years,” she said. “She literally glows with beauty — it sounds strange, but there’s no other way to describe it — her presence literally lights up any room and is captivating,” she added.

But all of this only skims the various ways in which she has spent her college life learning about people, making them laugh and above all, helping them. When speaking with her friends, Audige’s caring, concerned and genuine attitude was crystal clear.
Cloak ’13 put it most directly, “I love Shanika dearly and know that I am not alone, as there are many people on campus who would call her both a sister and best friend.”

But the idea remains the same regardless, and many students at Amherst clearly feel indebted to Audige. Her compassion was shared by Ashley McCall ’12 who said: “Shanika is type of person who will put her problems and concerns on the back-burner so she can attend to a friend. When everyone else is tired and uninterested, Shanika steps up and gets folks smiling, laughing and remembering that the time we spend with one another is worthwhile.”

No matter who responded, the answer was always the same: Audige’s caring attitude and kindness will be missed by the many people she got to know during her four years at the College.

The Sky’s the Limit

While Audige is leaving Amherst behind, she will certainly remember her life experiences before and during Amherst, whether from her personal and social life or from her work experiences. Her summer work experiences have been particularly meaningful to her. After her first year, she interned with the Mississippi Teacher Corps, an organization which works to improve education in some of the poorest counties in the nation. After sophomore year, she worked for the Wight Foundation, which had played an integral role in her path to Amherst, to help connect inner-city students to elite high schools and colleges. Post-college, she will be continuing her work with improving education for under-privileged students by working for the North Star Academy in Newark, as she wishes to give other students some of the opportunities she had. After that, she has no set plans but remains optimistic for wherever life takes her.

“After those two years, the sky’s the limit. I don’t know where my mind will be, but I’d like to return to school and get a Ph.D,” Audige said.

Wherever she ends up, Audige is sure to leave a big impact on the world, just as she has done during her four years at Amherst to everyone who has known her and even to most of the people who haven’t.