A Jack of All Trades and a Master of Many
Issue   |   Fri, 05/18/2012 - 13:13
Photo courtesy of Nathan Nash '12
Nash will be interning in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services next year. He remains unsure about his long-term plans.

Looking through Nathan Nash’s résumé, the first thought that pops into my head is: how much sleep does this guy get?

“Oh, you know, four to five hours,” answers Nash, an ever-indulgent grin plastered on his face. I stare, incredulous, and he acquiesces a little.

“Six or seven since I finished my thesis.” He pauses for a second, then chuckles. “They used to call me a vampire back when I was an RC in Porter House [my sophomore year] because I never slept.”

It soon becomes clear in our conversation that sleep may be the only thing that Nash doesn’t sink his teeth into on a regular basis. The list of activities in which Nash has been involved during his time at Amherst is staggering and awe-inspiring. It includes everything from playing trombone in the orchestra and the sackbut — a medieval predecessor to the trombone — in the Five College Early Music program, to tutoring for three different programs (though not simultaneously), to being an RC for three years, a senator for two, captain of the Mock Trial team and a Career Center Peer Career Advisor (PCA).

“I’ve just tried a whole bunch of different stuff that I’ve never done, and it’s worked out,” Nash happily explains. “I always want to try new things, even when I overload myself with too much.”

Time is No Obstacle

Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, to a geology professor and a nurse turned part-time massage therapist, Nash grew up dividing his time between his dad’s house in Cincinnati and his mom’s family farm in Wilmington, Ohio, after his parents separated. After his mom remarried when Nash was five, he and his family moved to Louisville, Kentucky, where they have lived ever since.

Nash attended duPont Manual Magnet High School, a magnet school in science and technology, in Louisville. Again, Nash found himself dividing his time between two places — this time between Manual and Louisville’s Youth and Performing Arts School (YPAS), where he attended classes for band and orchestra.

As it turns out, Nash was quite the band geek in high school. His instrument of choice was the trombone, which at first sounded, according to an old band teacher, like a dying buffalo, but which later garnered Nash first chair in YPAS’ nationally ranked symphonic band. His love of both music and keeping busy was already present, as Nash took part in jazz band, symphonic band and marching band, as well as wind ensemble, pit orchestra and regular orchestra.

College, however, marked a new beginning for Nash. Amherst wasn’t his first choice — he rolled a die to make his final decision — but Nash has more than made the best of it. Although he played the trombone in the orchestra for three out of four years here, dropping it this year because of his thesis, Nash has explored a variety of other interests as well, including mock trial, student government (Association of Amherst Students), ESL tutoring and being an RC and PCA.

His RC position, in particular, has been one of his greatest sources of joy, in large part due to the warm and welcoming community he encountered in Porter in his first year as an RC.

“I was pretty nervous since some of the kids were older than me, and I was going to have to deal with TAs who were older than me and who were coming to the U.S. for the first time, usually,” Nash says. “But Porter became my favorite dorm, because it was so close-knit. Most of the residents were sophomores, so they still had that freshman-year feeling of saying hi to each other, and a lot of them were in my Russian classes, too.”

Mixing Humanities and Science

Russian Professor Boris Wolfson writes that, “What makes Nathan stand out from among his many brilliant peers is his genuinely impressive intellectual versatility.”

Indeed, amidst his flurry of activities and interests, Nash also found the time to double major in political science and biology. Having been interested in political science since high school, Nash took a class with Professor Hadley Arkes his first year and eventually decided to major, initially hoping to work in international relations. His science major was a bit unexpected. Although many of his science high school classmates headed straight for the humanities in college, Nash decided to pursue biology, especially after sparking an interest in genetics in his first-year seminar Genes Genomes, and Society.

Nash describes this past year, the first year that he’s taken courses solely in the biology and political science departments, as enjoyable and interesting.

“I really like the diversity of going from a quantitative field to a more qualitative, humanities field,” he says.

He hopes to perhaps incorporate these two loves into a career path that will interweave both the sciences and humanities.

This, agrees Biology Professor Dominic Poccia, would be the best use of Nash’s manifold talents.

“As a political science and biology major, he realizes that the modern world is a full of questions about which biology increasingly has relevant things to say,” Poccia says. Poccia envisions Nash to be as informed about science as he is of law and social issues as a future politician.

The Allure of Russia

Yet Nash’s passions lie not only in political science and biology, but also in Russian language and literature. Strange Russian Professor Stanley Rabinowitz credits himself with roping Nash into the field: “I gave the usual spiel of our department. At that point Nathan was also considering philosophy, and I said, Nathan, you can always do philosophy, but if you’re interested in Russian, you should start now or else you’ll have to wait a year. Well, the rest is history: he went to the first class, and he’s never left.”

Nash spent his summer last year studying at the Bashkir State Pedagogical Univ. in Ufa, Russia, through the State Department’s prestigious Critical Languages Scholarship Program. The summer started with a couple of glitches — Nash was assigned to two wrong host families and stumbled into a taxi where the driver knew not a lick of English — but Nash describes his experience as empowering and eye-opening.

“I think I really grew a lot,” he says. “It made me more outgoing. They made certificates of completion for us at the end of the program, and I even got Mr. Ucharovanie, which means ‘Mr. Charming,’ That was really cool.”

A talk with his Political Science professor (and later thesis advisor) William Taubman led Nash to explore Russian politics over his summer in Russia, in particular, Putin and his authoritarian regime. Nash’s summa thesis, entitled “Enforcement and Artificiality: Examining the Roles of Civility and Democracy in Vladimir Putin’s Hegemonic Authoritarian Regime” examines Russia’s political system under Putin and in particular, the roles stability and democracy play within it.

Taubman praises Nash’s thesis as already having made a genuine contribution to the field of Russian Studies.

“Professor Taubman emailed me today and said maybe we can publish it in a journal,” Nash says, a bit guardedly. “We’ll see; that’s a long way off.”

Although one of Nash’s childhood dreams was to publish a book, Nash admits he has no idea how he would turn his thesis into a book, even though that was one of the questions at his thesis defense.

The Guy Who Would Give You His Sheets

Outside the classroom (and library), Nash’s genial personality makes him shine as both a role model and a friend.

“As a little kid, people would call me ‘Smiles,’ because I always had a big smile on my face, and I guess that’s become part of my personality,” Nash says.

Conny Morrison ’12 writes that “Nathan is ridiculous funny, smart and caring. He is a committed friend who will lend a hand to help whether he realistically has time to or not.”

Alex Gomes Pereira ’12, Nash’s suitemate this year and also Nash’s first-year roommate, recalls a touching moment he and Nash shared during their first week of first year.

“I had just arrived from Brazil, and I had somehow forgotten to pack my bed sheets,” Gomes Pereira says. “Nathan offered me his sheets, even though we barely knew each other. Whenever I think of what kind of friend Nathan is, I always think of him as the guy who would give you his sheets.”

“What’s really cool about Nathan is that he not only has these great academic achievements, he’s also just a happy, great, selfless guy who really relates to people around him,” Gomes Pereira adds. “I’m sure that whatever he does in the future, he’ll do something great and share it with everyone who has helped him along the way.”

Life After Amherst

As he looks toward the future, Nash remains unsure about his long-term plans.

Although Nash’s winning proposal for the Truman Scholarship, a $30,000 award for a graduate school of his choice, detailed his interest in the environmental devastation of coal mining in Kentucky, he is hesitant about committing to it, at least in the near future.

Nash will spend the next year interning through a Truman-Albright Fellowship in the Office of Rural Health Policy in the United States Department of Health and Human Services in Rockville, MD.

“I’m excited about it,” Nash says. “I came to college afraid of not being able to make friends and not being accepted, but I think Amherst has given me the tools to make it anywhere.”

Teaching and grad school are also possible prospects, though Nash intends to wait several years before pursuing education.

“As a little kid, I always wanted to be a teacher,” Nash says. “But I’ve always imagined doing something for a while and then becoming a teacher later.”

The Legacy

As our interview wound down, I asked Nash what sort of a legacy he hopes to leave at Amherst.

This appears to be a challenging question; for the first time in our two-hour long conversation, Nash stalls and stammers.
“I don’t know,” he says finally. “I guess it would be that you can be yourself and still be accepted.”

He pauses, contemplating.

“I guess I’d want people to remember me as someone you could talk to. Someone who knew a lot of people and wasn’t afraid to try new things. And hopefully as someone who was a nice guy.”