An Empathetic Listener Leaves His Mark
Issue   |   Fri, 05/23/2014 - 12:04
Photo courtesy of Matt DeButts '14
DeButts said his time on senate has helped him to better appreciate the range of student experiences at Amherst.

It was a drizzly May morning in Beneski, and Matt DeButts was one of many seniors basking in post-thesis glory, enjoying the brief respite between the due date for his law, jurisprudence and social thought thesis and the onset of finals. But while most seniors might have regaled me with tales of the arduous research process, the intricacies of their argument or the late nights spent in Frost, DeButts did not. In fact, over the course of our hour-long interview, he never once brought up his thesis — which I only later learned is about abandoned spaces in Philadelphia and New Orleans.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s read his latest (and last) article in The Indicator, in which he implored potential thesis writers not to become one of the “self-important eggheads who for six long months entreat others to indulge their self-important navel-gazing.” Instead, DeButts offered a model of a thesis writer who remains deeply engaged with the outside world, maintaining obligations to friends and professors.

“We owe far more to our friends and our clubs and our other classes than the cult of the thesis would have us allow,” DeButts wrote.

I’d like to think that DeButts fits this model of the engaged, non-navel-gazing thesis writer. During our conversation, I was struck again and again by how profoundly he cares about the people around him. He has an uncommonly strong urge to connect with and understand his fellow human beings, even as he’s troubled by his own tendencies toward selfishness and competition. This, I suspect, is what many of us still at Amherst will remember most about Matt DeButts — even more so than his impressive accomplishments in the classroom, in the senate or on the Ultimate Frisbee field.

A Passionate Senator and RC

DeButts has been involved in a dizzying number of activities during his time at Amherst: among other things, he’s been a tour guide, a senator, an Ultimate Frisbee player, a Resident Counselor, an editor for The Indicator and a member of Amherst Dance. Feeling a little overwhelmed by these many sides of Matt DeButts, I started our interview by asking him which of these activities were most important to him.

“Resident Counselor and student government, probably,” he said. “You meet a lot of people that way.”

This is a fairly typical Matt DeButts response. Whenever I asked him why he liked any of the activities he did on campus, he’d invariably tell me that he’d met “a great group of people” there.

“I don’t like to think of myself as belonging in any single group, although I think everybody likes to think of themselves as floating among groups,” he said. “But I guess RCs would probably be where I found the most friends.”

One of his friends, Nick Schcolnik ’14, said the two became especially close when they started running together during RC training.

“It’s sort of hard to articulate why I care about Matt, other than that I feel good talking to him,” Schcolnik said.
“I think one of his best qualities is the ability to empathize,” he added.

Greg Cohan ’14, another friend and RC, agreed.

“I think when he talks to people he’s not particularly interested in articulating things about himself, but is much more interested in having whoever he’s talking to feel like they’re saying something that’s important to them,” Cohan said.

It’s a quality that’s perhaps particularly well suited to an RC, although DeButts acknowledged that being an RC was sometimes “really hard,” because he doesn’t think he’s as extroverted or charismatic as some of the other RCs.

This tendency toward introversion also proved to be somewhat of an obstacle for DeButts when he decided to run for the Association of Amherst Students senate during his first year at the college.

“Somebody suggested I give it a shot, and I ran and got eighth out of nine,” he said. “I wasn’t really that outgoing. And so I got in, and I was kind of insecure. I felt like I was not super deserving to be there.”

Nearly four years later, it would be hard for anyone to argue that DeButts doesn’t deserve to be on the AAS. In his time on senate, he’s been instrumental in bringing back the AAS Distinguished Teaching Award, pushing for more information in online course enrollment pages and trying to make Pub Nights a success. But he was quick to downplay the value of these accomplishments.

“I don’t look back on my record and think that I’ve done anything tremendous,” he said. “I’ve just better appreciated the wide range of experiences that students have had here as I’ve interacted with them.”

As a senior senate member this semester, DeButts is certainly no longer insecure.

In senate meetings, he’s poised and thoughtful, but also fearless about passionately expressing his opinion or destroying an opposing argument. One of my first encounters with DeButts came when I sat in on a senate meeting in February, and he was exhorting his fellow senators to join him in protesting the administration’s handling of former Dean of Students Jim Larimore’s sudden departure. The next day, I found him and several other students standing outside of Converse Hall, holding signs that read “Ask Us” and “Student Input.”

When I brought it up during our interview, he still seemed riled up about the incident.

“I was really pissed that we weren’t being given explanations,” he said.

The Larimore episode is undoubtedly a testament to how much DeButts cares about Amherst. Whether he’s protesting an administrative change, offering his support for a new policy or giving his own ideas for how the school can improve, he brings this same sort of zeal. And he’s had plenty of opportunity to make his voice heard — in addition to his work on senate, he’s served on various faculty committees, including the Committee on Educational Policy.

“I don’t know why I care so much,” he said. “I think maybe it’s something to do with Amherst’s heart being in the right place, and its execution being really poor at times. If they could actually realize the rhetoric that they put out, it could be a fantastic school. And right now it’s a good one.”

Discovering New Interests at Amherst

Art History Professor Nicola Courtright, one of the faculty members DeButts has grown closest to while at Amherst, said she first noticed DeButts thinking critically about the college when she met him as a prospective student.

“I got an impression of him as a critical, thoughtful person already when he was a high school senior,” Courtright said.

For DeButts the high school senior, Amherst seemed like a natural fit. He said that the college’s open curriculum and abundance of student opportunities reminded him in many ways of his high school days in Arlington, Va.

“I went to a middle school and high school called H-B Woodlawn that had about 85 students per grade,” he said. “We called the teachers by their first names. It was run through a town meeting where students and faculty had equal votes. There was no dress code, people would skateboard down the hallways, and when you graduated you got to paint something on the wall, which would stay there forever. It was super, super hands-off, and fantastic.”

DeButts grew up in Arlington with three younger brothers. The oldest, Ben, told me that the two spent many late nights together talking in the room that they shared.

“He’s a very good listener,” said Ben DeButts, who just finished his sophomore year at Tufts. “Not only will he listen to whatever you’re saying, but he’ll analyze it in his own particular way. I think no matter if I’m saying something that I would consider boring, Matt’s listening and he’s willing to talk to me about it.”

Ben DeButts said that the two brothers often talk about their academic interests. When Matt DeButts came to Amherst, he didn’t have a particular major in mind, but he said he eventually chose LJST because he liked its interdisciplinary nature and thought the faculty were “innovative thinkers.”

And although everyone I talked to for this profile was quick to praise his sharp intellect, DeButts’ activities at Amherst have by no means been purely cerebral. A talented athlete, he joined the Ultimate Frisbee team, and he told me that Ultimate gave him the kind of athletic experience that other sports could not.

“I have a really difficult time with competitive athletics, because I get really competitive and into it, and I don’t like always who I become on the field,” he said. “I find myself thinking things like, ‘I hate you.’ I don’t want to be that person.”

Ultimate was different, however.

“Half the time I’m playing, neither team remembers what the score is, because they’re just having fun, and they enjoy playing competitive Ultimate, and the object isn’t to win at all costs,” he said.

Looking to Grow

Throughout our conversation, DeButts consistently showed this same sort of thoughtfulness about his own shortcomings. In fact, he asked me whether I could highlight his flaws in this profile.

“There’s just a lot that I do badly,” he said. “I’ve read these previous profiles. They’re always very flattering. But it would be great if mine looked at the flaws too, or somehow didn’t make me seem like an unequivocally great person.”

So what does he think his flaws are?

“I’m competitive,” he said after a long pause. “I can be boastful. I sometimes come across as arrogant.”

I asked him why he might come across as boastful and arrogant.

“Accepting this profile feels very boastful. And the urge to tell people about good things that I’ve done when I know that it won’t make them feel better.”

Now on a mission to find Matt DeButts’ flaws, I asked his brother and friends what they thought about DeButts’ shortcomings. They were, understandably, fairly cagey on the subject, although Schcolnik did confirm that DeButts can be competitive. (“He gets vicious with Settlers of Catan!”)

This desire to look beyond himself and understand where he’s lacking must be especially strong in DeButts, because it seems to be partly what’s motivating him to spend the next year teaching in Beijing as part of the Princeton in Asia fellowship program. He was also offered a Fulbright Scholarship, but turned it down because he had already decided on Princeton in Asia.

“I wanted to go somewhere where I would be exposed to different values than the ones I grew up with,” he said. “Perhaps a little more collectivistic, with less of an emphasis on individual attainment and more on serving the whole. These are all stereotypes, because I don’t actually know the place that well, but my sense is that it’s going to be a very different experience, and I’m hoping that’ll give me greater perspective on the ones I’ve had here.”

He said he still doesn’t know what he wants to do when he returns from China.

“I have a year there, and an optional second year,” he said. “Then I’ll figure it out, go from there.”

I asked him if he has any idea what he wants his life to be like in 10 or 20 years.

“I think people are going to be very important, being around people who are curious and who care,” he said. “I don’t know what else beyond that, honestly.”