A Jazz Musician Singing Amherst’s Praises
Issue   |   Thu, 05/19/2016 - 19:37
Michael Harmon
Harmon’s thesis for his interdisciplinary major, colonial and post-colonial studies, is based on his experiences in South Africa.

First-years, sophomores and juniors who attended the resident counselor show during orientation week will remember hearing the talented Michael Harmon singing a heartfelt ballad called “Most Beautiful Girl on the Quad.” The song, an Amherst-themed version of the Flight of the Conchords song “The Most Beautiful Girl in the Room,” was my first impression of the charismatic Resident Counselor. There’s probably no better person to welcome new students to Amherst. A natural performer, Harmon is beloved on campus for his charm and infectious energy.

Falling in Love with Amherst
Harmon’s musical talents aren’t confined to the RC show. He plays in two jazz bands and a pop-cover band with his brother Josh Harmon ’18, whom he describes as “the best drummer I know.”

He has been honing these talents for a long time: His first memories at Amherst include jamming out in the basement of Stearns with his ninth-grade camp-mates. Harmon participated in a pre-college camp the summer after his first year of high school. Although Harmon claims he wasn’t thinking about his college plans at the time, he said, “It planted the seed in the back of my mind that Amherst was a special place.”

Before being officially accepted to Amherst, Harmon was a high-achieving student from New Jersey who had been waitlisted by his top three schools. His counselor told him not to expect to be taken off any of those waitlists. But before he resigned himself to being a Georgetown Hoya, Harmon and his parents took a road trip to Amherst.

“I slept in the back seat,” Harmon said. “They woke me up when we got to the admissions office, I unwrinkled my shirt and asked for an interview with a dean. I met with Dean Hawkins and told him that Amherst was still my top choice, handed him my résumé and I told him I hoped he’d consider me for Amherst because I would really love to come here. And that was just about it.”

Harmon ended up being taken off all the waitlist at all three of his top choices: Amherst, the University of Pennsylvania and Yale. However, Harmon ultimately followed his gut feeling that Amherst was the right choice for him.
“When I tell people on tours ‘Come to Amherst’ I really mean it — I don’t just say that because it’s my job to,” Harmon said. “I am very lucky and grateful for the experience I’ve had here.”

His love for the college is undeniable; Harmon has been a tour guide all four years and has consistently given a tour every Friday at noon. He talked about how every day he left his tour in a better mood than before.

“Talking about how great this place really reminds you of how great this place is,” Harmon told me. “I can’t believe my last tour is in two weeks. Two weeks ago I gave a tour and said, ‘You know in a month is my last one of these and I’m probably going to burst into tears when I say why Amherst. And sure enough, I got a little bit choked up.”

He went on to recount how great it feels at the end of the tour to answer the question that every visitor has for him as they walk down Memorial Hill back towards the admissions office.

Harmon is genuine with his answer: “I always say you only have four years to live as an undergraduate surrounded by undergraduates in a bucolic setting like this,” he said.” And to just drink in the liberal arts experience and broaden your academic horizons. I can’t think of any better place to spend these four years — it’ll be hard to leave.”

History and Hillel
Harmon has done more than grace the campus with his musical talents. He also played a key part in re-energizing Jewish life on campus, remarking how happy he was to see the amount of students in the Hillel club now compared to his first year at Amherst.

This year he also started a series of discussions in which faculty share their knowledge about the history of the college. Harmon said he always wondered about the history that was surrounding him as he walked around campus, and after Amherst Uprising last fall he felt it was important to show the community how activism has always been a part of Amherst culture. He spearheaded this initiative with the history department and found that many people were eager to learn more about their college’s history.

Since last fall he’s served on a committee devoted to revitalizing senior week. The lack of activities for seniors remaining on campus during the week before commencement bothered Harmon and his friends, so they collaborated with Student Affairs to create a four-day series of activities, including a trivia night with Book & Plow farmer Pete McLean and movie night on Tuttle Hill. He and his friends wanted everyone to have a chance to be together as a class one last time before reunion. “Why not enjoy the time now at this beautiful place that we’ve called home?” Harmon asked.

From Camp Counselor to Resident Counselor
As if all of his extracurricular activities weren’t enough, Harmon was also an RC in Stearns for two years before spending his final year in Wieland. He credits his childhood camp for teaching him the skills he’s used with his residents over the last three years. “The two places that have changed me the most as a person have been Camp Emerson and Amherst, probably in that order.”

Harmon spent a total of eight summers at this camp in the Berkshires, both as a camper and a counselor. “Being a camp counselor is the best job in the world — it’s something I might come back to later,” Harmon said. “It’s just too much fun. It’s a special dynamic of being an authority figure and knowledgeable upperclassmen or adult [that’s a], like, cool, fun, still-a-kid goofball. And I try to bring that dynamic to everything I do.”

Harmon said it was those years he spent at the Berkshires that inspired him to become an RC at Amherst. “Once I realized the position existed and I saw at the RC show that you could be goofy and play music to make people feel better and just be silly and fun and guide your peers, I thought, ‘I have to do this,’” Harmon said. “And I’m so glad I did. I mean the RC family is just the best fraternity Amherst College has ever had. Sorry, DKE.”

Crafting a New Major
Harmon’s thesis adviser and mentor, Ronald Rosbottom, summarized Harmon’s academic career: “Michael never needed an adviser. He had it all figured out as soon as he arrived on campus. He advised me!”

Harmon branched out of the typical selection of majors offered at the college by creating his own interdisciplinary major: colonial and post-colonial studies. The subject combines all his interests: history, political science, anthropology, environmental studies and creative writing. Although this sounds like a major that should already exist, the pre-med student claims he created it in order to write an interdisciplinary thesis based on his trip to South Africa.

Harmon wrote a variation on a travel log for his thesis, detailing the historical and political issues in the area relating to the things he saw and the people he met. “It’s all through the lens of the stories of my travel, seen through the eyes of a tourist,” Harmon said. The way he described his trip filled me with wanderlust. But the trip almost didn’t happen due to Harmon facing the MCAT, surgery and mononucleosis all at the beginning of that summer. Luckily his health recovered in time for his travels, and he came back to Amherst with an interesting answer to the question, “What did you do this summer?”
Harmon will spend next year at the University of Cambridge, completing a one-year master’s degree in the history and philosophy of science and medicine.

“I took a history course my junior spring with Professor Servos called Science and Society in Modern America and it was one of the best courses I’ve ever taken here,” Harmon said. “And it sparked my interest in this subject that I hadn’t really thought about, even though it fell right in between my two interests: humanities and the sciences, particularly history.” The class prompted him to apply for the program, in which Harmon hopes to pursue his intellectual interests while figuring out if he wants to go to med school. He said it’s important to have this time to explore before he finds himself “facing the inevitable.”
It’s unlikely that Harmon will forget his roots in the humanities while studying medicine. His plan is to study neurology and to explore what it means to be conscious. He also wants to study how the brain reacts to music and affects our emotions.
No matter how many prestigious prizes he will eventually win, to me and to many others, he will always be the funny goofball we call RC Michael. He will be greatly missed by many people on campus and has one of those contagious smiles that inexplicably fills you with joy.

An anecdote from his friend Shelton Cochran ’16 perfectly sums up Harmon’s overflowing enthusiasm.
“One time Michael was talking about how much he loves cricket and how cool the cricket team on campus is, and so I asked him how many games or practices he had gone to,” Cochran said. “He said, ‘None, but I have an Amherst cricket hat!’”