Navigating Uncertainty with Serenity and Poise
Issue   |   Thu, 05/19/2016 - 19:47
Photo courtesy of Juan Gabriel Delgado Montes '16
"To be a good leader, for sure, you really need to be able to pull from everyone. It's not just the loudest voices," Delgado Montes said.

Juan Gabriel Delgado Montes and I were sitting side by side on a bench overlooking Memorial Hill, witnessing a too-perfect Amherst College scene. Everywhere around us, members of the class of 2016 were taking advantage of the tentatively sunny weather to have their senior portraits taken, all dressed up and grinning in front of the Holyoke Range. Speakers from the baseball stadium blared loud music in the background. An extremely enthusiastic tour guide led a group of families up the hill, gesturing excitedly toward the statue of Robert Frost on his right: “They say that’s where he sat and did all of his work. I don’t know how true that is, but it would be cool if it were true!”

Beholding all this busyness, Delgado Montes was, as always, serene.

“During the day, when you’re busy with class and work and everything, Memorial Hill is a grounding moment,” he said. “It’s quiet, you feel the wind, you get to see the seasons change.” Like just about every Amherst student, Delgado Montes has a variety of precious memories associated with Memorial Hill, from writing about the place for his American Studies class to coming here to hang out with his longtime girlfriend.

“It’s a romantic spot and I’m often a hopeless romantic,” he said.

I’m used to starting these interviews slowly, beginning with the easy questions and then gradually getting more personal. But the political science and economics major got very reflective very fast, with hardly any prompting from me.

“I’m often a very serious person, but there’s no need to be,” he said. “Sometimes it’s nice to sit on Memorial Hill and talk to someone and not worry too much about the academics and the stress … My hypothesis is that when we grow up we learn to take things a little less seriously, or to embrace uncertainty, and those things are related.”

Helping People on Their Own Terms
Delgado Montes has grown up in a manner quite different from most Amherst students. He was born in La Paz, Bolivia, but his parents’ jobs at charities and NGOs kept the family moving frequently. By the time he arrived at Amherst, he had already lived in Ecuador, Colombia, the U.S., England, Honduras, Peru and the Netherlands.

“We are close,” he said of his parents and older sister. “I think it’s because we’ve had to move so much. It’s always been the four of us, no matter what country we live in, so the only stability has been the four of us.”

Often, Delgado Montes’ parents would take their children to work with them. “It exposed me to a lot of the problems in the world from a very, very early age,” he said. His parents’ organizations worked on issues related to poverty and development, and Delgado Montes realized that he wanted to spend his life working on the same problems. At the same time, his parents helped him to recognize flaws in the field of development.

“It’s very paternalistic,” he said. “I am interested in working in development and helping people fulfill their potential on their own terms. But I am not sure exactly how yet.”

Delgado Montes’ mother studied communications and his father is an anthropologist. But Delgado Montes went a slightly more conventional route in studying economics and political science. Like countless other economics majors, he’ll spend the next year working in consulting in Boston, at Deloitte.

“It’s an interesting approach for me,” he admitted, after a slightly self-conscious pause. But he spent his childhood learning about the field of development as it relates to the public sector, and now he wants to learn about the private sector. “The private sector has the resources, even if it doesn’t have the incentives — it has the resources to put things toward a good social use,” he said.

I asked him if he worried about being seen as a stereotypical Amherst econ major, taking the safe route from Amherst to a cushy consulting job.

“Absolutely,” he said. “That why when I say I’m an economics major, I always say I’m an economics major and I’m interested in human development. I say human development rather than economic development.”

He has clearly thought a lot about this and has an uneasy relationship with the conventional wisdom in his fields of choice. “I’m not just interested in trying to fit into the existing framework,” he said. “I’m trying to understand how the status quo works — how economists think, how politicians really think. What’s the room to pivot the status quo toward something better?”

Delgado Montes has already started working on these problems in his time at Amherst. Last summer, he interned for a startup in Kampala, Uganda, which provided credit scores for people in the informal economy. This would eventually influence the work he did on his political science thesis, which focused on the informal economy in Peru. His thesis looks at the ways in which education affects discriminated minorities’ access to formal employment.

Delgado Montes’ adviser, Professor Javier Corrales, raved about his work, which co-won the prize for best political science thesis.

“His results are path-breaking and generative,” Corrales said.

Thrown into a Storm
Delgado Montes is perhaps best known on campus for his time as Association of Amherst Students vice president, which got off to a rocky start. He was elected in spring 2014, at the same time as a nasty, protracted fight over the presidential election. Delgado Montes was tasked with running senate meetings as two campaigns argued over whether one of the candidates had overspent on their election posters.

“That was just a really ugly time,” he said. “That was actually my first senate meeting as vice president.”

I reported on the election controversy for The Student, and during that month I watched Delgado Montes deftly navigate many torturously long senate meetings, managing the discord in a way that was firm yet unfailingly polite. Although only a sophomore at the time, he was clearly the adult in the room.

Because the Judiciary Council voided the presidential election results, Delgado Montes was unexpectedly thrown into the role of interim president for the summer. Yet although the election drama was “very unpleasant,” it didn’t seem to throw him off his course much. He worked with IT in developing Amherst’s first-ever mobile app, making sure the app would address students needs and that they would actually use it.

He also took on the more difficult task of expanding the AAS’ role to include greater student advocacy.

“For the AAS to be a good institution it need to go beyond funding,” he said. He acknowledged that the AAS is often viewed by students as being purely a funding body, and is unpopular because of it. And during his term as vice president, the AAS did indeed spend more time advocating for students — using his typically rigorous methods of quantitative analysis, Delgado Montes has crunched the numbers to prove it. Yet he’s the first one to acknowledge that the AAS still has a long way to go in advocating for students’ needs.

Delgado Montes led the senate at an especially divisive time, he seems to have had unusual success in connecting with students from across campus.

“I don’t think that I have a specific part of campus that I easily identity with,” he said.

I wondered aloud whether this was a necessary quality for being a good leader.

“To be a good leader, for sure, you really need to be able to pull from everyone,” he said. “It’s not just the loudest voices. It’s always easy to listen to the loudest voices, but it’s important to understand that they’re equal to the voices that aren’t as loud.”

Already an Adult
I interviewed Delgado Montes the day after senior ball, and he was feeling a little nostalgic. But leaving Amherst, he said, “feels natural.” A lot of seniors say this, but with Delgado Montes it seems especially true. More than any college student I know, he seems ready for adult life. He is preternaturally self-possessed, with a clear vision of the kinds of problems he wants to spend his life solving. And far more than most Amherst students, he is used to living independently — he took a gap year in the Netherlands before coming to Amherst and now lives in an off-campus apartment with his friends.

“I think Juan has added a certain grace and poise to our year,” his friend and housemate, Jayson Paul ’16, told me. “He has a certain maturity that people both respect and emulate.”

Perhaps this is why he’s so ready to graduate, despite the fact that Amherst has been a special kind of home for him.
“I’m not worried about the future,” he said. “I’m not too sad yet about what I’m leaving behind. I think I’m at the right point, so I’m actually very fortunate.”