Environmentalist, Geologist, Mathematician, Friend
Issue   |   Fri, 05/24/2013 - 13:33

If there is anyone who truly embodies the interdisciplinary spirit of Amherst College, it might be Risalat Khan. Khan has engaged and excelled in a wide variety of Amherst’s academic selections, taking more than four classes nearly every semester and writing an Environmental Studies thesis that featured advanced mathematical modeling. In addition to his schoolwork, Khan participated and became a leader in many different extracurricular activities, including the Association of Amherst Students (AAS) and the International Student’s Association (ISA). The drive behind Khan’s diverse list of accomplishments is, according to academic advisor Tekla Harms, “his strong urge to be knowledgeable about a lot of aspects of human endeavor. Risalat is most passionate about saving the world.”

Making Himself at Home

Khan was born in Bangladesh and raised in Dhaka, the country’s capital city. He went to an English-medium school, where the majority of classes were taught in English. After completing high school Khan planned on attending college in Bangladesh, but his brother encouraged him to apply abroad. Amherst was the only school Khan was directly accepted into, although he was waitlisted at other institutions.

“If I had gotten into an Ivy or a bigger school I probably would’ve gone there, but as I look back I’m glad I didn’t get in there,” Khan said. “I think that the kind of education at Amherst was more suitable for me. I like the fact that we have a really small campus and a small environment where you interact with people, especially professors, a lot more effortlessly.”

Khan’s arrival at Amherst was the first time he had ever set foot in America. Despite this, he didn’t have a difficult time adjusting to life in the states.

“I settled into a rhythm very quickly,” Khan said. “I realized a lot of things about myself, like that I really enjoyed living in the present.”

Khan also was able to quickly adjust to the social climate of the College. He enjoyed the multicultural atmosphere of Amherst, where he was exposed to, and interested by, the many different backgrounds and experiences his fellow students had.

However, not every international student had the same easy transition to Amherst. Khan recognized this and joined the ISA, which became an “integral part” of his sophomore year. Khan coordinated the international student orientations, helping students with both practical support, such as setting up a bank account and cell phone, and also more emotional support.

“We provide reassurance mostly, people do figure it out,” Khan said. “Just telling them that it’s fine, you don’t have to be perfect, you don’t have to be completely comfortable. We grow in college because we are placed in an atmosphere we haven’t faced before.”

“I was one year below him, and he was really helpful for us,” Nancy Yun Tang ’14 said. “We didn’t have a cell phone or anything. He took us to the bank, welcomed us all. I really like his energy—he’s so active.”

Khan helped organize ISA events throughout the year, including a multicultural dinner, a huge feast with lots of international food. Seventeen different people cooked for the meal.

Khan was also heavily involved in the AAS, serving as a senator his junior and senior years.

“I first decided to run junior year because I felt that Senate wasn’t doing a great job being representative with the student body,” he said.

Khan was heavily involved with the Dining Services committee. This year, he spent more time involved with trying to produce an academic planner for the College website.

“It would be great if you could see your entire time at Amherst all at once. From a drop-down menu you could pick a major and see all the courses. This way you could figure out how to structure your major better,” he said.

Khan talked to the IT department to try to implement this idea and had it endorsed by several people. There are plans underway to start its development.

Khan spent the second semester of senior year involved in trying to get Amherst to change the school mascot, the Lord Jeff.

“When I came here as a freshman and heard the about the mascot and the story and the history behind it, I thought it was weird and unacceptable. We are celebrating this symbol of genocide and oppression at a progressive institution,” Khan said. “Senior year, when I thought about I wanted to do on campus, the mascot stood out as an issue to me.”

Khan was planning on holding a town hall-style meeting regarding the mascot first semester of the year, but when the dialogues regarding sexual respect came up he decided that it wasn’t the right time to discuss this issue.

“We ended up having the meeting in the spring. One hundred people or so showed up and there was a good discussion,” Khan said.

Khan also discussed this issue with faculty and staff. The Committee of Six unanimously passed a resolution to figure out how to replace the mascot.

“I’m trying to put in place as much of the groundwork as possible so it can be carried forth in a responsible manner,” Khan said. “I knew it was going to be a multiyear project, and I’m going to continue to be involved as an alum.”

Academic Ease

In addition to all of his extracurricular work (which also includes working for The Amherst Student, being involved with the South Asian Student Association and working as a photographer, among other things) Khan has made the most academically of his time at Amherst.

“Risalat and I had biannual arm-wrestling matches about whether he could take five, six, seven, eight courses,” Professor Harms said. “He is a very persuasive young lad and almost always had really good arguments for why this was important for his education.”

Khan is a double-major in Environmental Studies and Geology.

“My dad is an environmental activist so I knew about environmental issues growing up,” Khan said. “Because of that I knew I wanted to try out environmental studies. Geology attracted me initially because you get to go to cool places on field trips. I realized that they [geology and environmental studies] were a good fit together.”

For a while Khan was also considering a math major, but in the end he decided against it, wanting to learn new and different things with his liberal arts education.

However, Khan was able to incorporate his mathematical knowledge into his environmental studies thesis. His thesis was focused on modeling agricultural decision-making processes, specifically how farmers decided whether or not to adopt sustainable practices.

For all of Khan’s work, both extracurricular and academic, he was awarded the Thomas H. Wyman 1951, an award given to a member of the senior class “who best represents the highest standards in scholarship, athletics, and/or extracurricular activities, community service, integrity, character and humanism as determined by the Dean of Students and the Prize Committee,” according to the College website.

Friends and Future

Despite all of the many things Khan does around campus, he never seems anxious or strained, according to suitemate David Sze ’13.

Sze describes Khan as a smart, fun and entrepreneurial, although he may have a slight lazy streak in him.

“He tied a string to light switch so he could turn off his light while he was laying in bed,” Sze said.

Khan is “very nice and generous – he took senior portraits for a lot of his friends for free.” Khan is also humble.

“He’s never proud and boastful about achieving so much, never displays his achievements. He won the Walker Prize [for the best score on an exam of mathematical ingenuity] and I didn’t know about it until I looked at his Linkedin account,” Sze said.

“He’s a really cool guy, a really sweet person,” Tang said.

Khan is also adventurous, willing to do new and crazy things.

“He’s one person I’ve always wanted to travel with,” Sze said.

Khan certainly had many adventures during the time he spent traveling his junior year, when he studied abroad in New Zealand.

“It was a great program, Earth Systems, that integrated both geology and environmental studies,” Khan said. “I found out about the program late freshman year and made up my mind then that I was going to do it.”

During this trip Khan made it a goal to try to do as many new things as he could. Consequently, he ended up making lasting memories sky diving, bungee jumping, snorkeling in a coral reef, swimming with sharks, hitchhiking and glacial ice climbing.

“Every time you go into a new atmosphere you learn new things about yourself,” Khan said.

Khan will be entering a new atmosphere next year at a social entrepreneurship program in Boulder, Colo. called Watson University. Watson is a program where 18 fellows spend four months or so in a residential environment, taking short masters courses from leaders in various fields. The fellows brainstorm and generate ideas to solve various social problems.

“I’m excited to be around really cool people,” Khan said. “I’m also excited to be in Boulder, which is one of my favorite cities.”

After graduating from Watson University, Khan doesn’t yet know what he will pursue.

“[Risalat] hasn’t identified what exactly he is trying to put his energies to,” Professor Harms said. “But it is remarkable what he has done so far and if you project that trajectory out into the future I expect him to accomplish a lot.”

“He has been able to keep himself focused on a small number of sociopolitical issues that might capture his attention,” Professor Harms continued. “There’s a whole lot about Amherst that might have offended him, namely our privilege and our consumption. He’s been able to both embrace this place and hold a mirror up to it and ask it to be the best it can.”