A Caring Listener Finds Joy in Connections
Issue   |   Thu, 05/19/2016 - 19:38
Rachael Abernethy '16
“She’s a force to be reckoned with, and I have no doubt that she will continue to change the lives of others,” said Megan Kim ’16 on the impact Abernethy will make beyond Amherst.

“You have a girl crush,” my teammates responded, after I finally stopped raving about the hour I spent interviewing Rachael Abernethy at breakfast.
I opened my mouth to protest, but further consideration resulted in unabashed agreement. I was starstruck. Abernethy was everything I, as an incoming first-year, imagined an Amherst student would be. We met for a crowded 9 a.m. Val breakfast, but even amongst the gossip, debate, and chatter, Abernethy made me feel as though I was the only person in the room.
So yes, maybe I do have a “girl crush,” as my teammates jokingly told me. But then, according to fellow senior and friend Sasha Burshteyn, everyone does: “it’s no exaggeration to say that everyone who meets her falls at least a little in love with her.”

Stepping Out of her Comfort Zone
A San Diego, California native, Abernethy had always loved the idea of traveling across the country for college. At first, she resisted the idea of Amherst, trying to branch out from familial ties to the college, but she couldn’t stay away for long. Smiling at the memory, Abernethy reminisced about the first time she stepped on campus, realizing that she “could see [myself] reading under the trees and talking to people as they passed by.” She was sold almost immediately.
Before she knew it, Abernethy was waltzing through her first year. She recalled one of her favorite memories as a surprise dance class with her first-year seminar classmates led by Professor Christian Rogowski of the German department in the basement of Newport. From the very beginning, Abernethy said she worked to shape her Amherst experience to be “way out of [her] comfort zone,” and with high risk came high reward.
Like so many incoming first-years, Abernethy was set the conventional professions, “I came into Amherst thinking I was going to be a lawyer, [and] I remember there was a solid week where I thought I’d be a doctor,” she told me.
Being the passionate person that she is, however, Abernethy soon realized that these were not the concepts, subjects or classes that truly grabbed at her attention and hunger for personal connections through narrative.

Finding Black Studies
Abernethy spoke extensively about her initial reluctance to commit to the black studies major. “I thought people would look down upon me for studying something that I should know everything about,” she said.
Her passion for the subject and for representing marginalized voices soon overtook this concern, however, and she realized that the major incorporated so many unique aspects of the liberal arts education. She credits many of her realizations to her time studying abroad in Cuba during the spring of her junior year. Abernethy spoke excitedly about her experiences in Cuba — discussing the ways in whih race is defined differently in Cuba than it is in the U.S.
In Cuba, she discovered “race” often has more to do with education and social status than the color of your skin and that these categories we form are more often than not, completely arbitrary.
The experience, Abernethy said, helped her realize “that it’s really about listening to someone’s story.”

A Love for Stories
Narratives and storytelling stood out as a theme throughout Abernethy’s discussion of her passions and her time at Amherst. She has been a resident counselor two out of her four years at Amherst in addition to one summer on campus, and cites it as one of her most meaningful activities.
“It’s a privilege and really humbling to have students come to you for great moments in life or sad moments in life,” Abernethy said. “They feel like they can trust you and that maybe you know something that can help them.”
She loves to hear the stories of her residents and loves working with first-years, a byproduct of her genuine compassion for others. This compassion is manifested in her other involvements around campus, which include the Professions in Education group, a cohort of students that meet to discuss educational policy, and the Women of Color Forum, an event for students and alumni that Abernethy took over organizing her sophomore year.

Inspired to Teach
Abernethy will take this passion beyond Amherst as an English teacher at the Northfield Mount Hermon School in Gill, Massachusetts through the University of Pennsylvania fellowship program. She will spend two years at the elite boarding school, living in the dorms serving as a residence counselor, English teacher and soccer coach, while simultaneously working towards her Bachelors of Science and Education.
Abernethy said she is excited to work with high school students “because [she is] interested in encouraging students to complicate their previous assumptions and understand in an effort to give space and attention to multiple perspectives and opinions.”
Her motivation and passion for teaching stems from many of her qualities, but above all she cites the desire to be “the teacher, [she] needed most in high school, which she describes as, “someone to challenge, comfort, listen, respect, and humble students; someone they can look up to and who would offer support in becoming the best, most authentic version of [themselves].”
Abernethy also attributes some of the inspiration of her love for teaching to the professors she has encountered while at Amherst. When I asked her if there were any professors that stood out for her from her four years here, she laughed and her eyes brightened. Looking at me sheepishly she said, “okay are you ready, this is a big list.”
She went on to describe men and women from all walks of life, all departments, and all types of classes. Professor Rogowski was again the first that came to mind, as her first-year seminar professor he was the first person to encourage her to think abstractly.
Abernethy spoke next about Professor Aneeka Henderson and how she helped inspire the idea of creative resilience when it came to the writing of Abernethy’s thesis; an exploration of the narratives of three black women, titled “We Are Here But Where Does the Eye Belong: The Struggle for Self Definition and Liberation in Three Black Women’s Life Stories.” She also spoke passionately about professors Dubrinski, Brooks and O’Connell. This portion of the interview lasted longer than any other question I asked; yet another testament to Abernethy’s passion for learning and the people around her.

A Balancing Act
There is no doubt that Abernethy has been a force in every aspect of her life at Amherst for the last four years. Coming into the interview, however, I knew Rachael as a soccer player. So imagine my surprise when it took us 16 minutes before the word “athletics” was mentioned.
Abernethy spoke fondly about the sport, but as I’ve come to expect from such a bighearted individual, her love of it truly stems from the people around her on the field. The team’s fourth leading goal scorer described her team as a family, and said proudly that the “supportive, positive and family oriented” culture that this year’s seniors have brought back to the program, is the greatest legacy that they leave behind.
“You can be a student, you can be an athlete, you can be a friend to other people,” Abernethy told me in response to my questioning the balancing act of being a student-athlete. She described the pull of being a young student and making friends only inside your team or the athletics world. The “social privilege” that comes with being a student athlete is one that she has been learning to both respect and to juggle since the moment she arrived on campus.
Now, she said, she is comfortable with her relationships within and outside of the team, and that having and maintaining both is the key to having a fulfilling experience at Amherst and beyond.
Looking back at her time at Amherst, Abernethy shook her head, “I don’t have any regrets, to be completely honest,” she said with a smile. “Any mistakes I’ve made, any successes I’ve had have really shaped the woman I have become.”
This is a woman who has undoubtedly made an impact on the Amherst community, who has redefined the idea of a student-athlete, and who has, in the words of one of her closest friends and teammates, Megan Kim ’16, “[touched] the hearts of her residents, her teammates, her coaches, her peers and faculty. She’s a force to be reckoned with, and I have no doubt that she will continue to change the lives of others,” Kim said. I can’t help but agree.