Taking on Amherst with Unwavering Courage
Issue   |   Fri, 05/18/2018 - 10:52
Photo courtetsy of Asha Walker '18
Walker was an integral part of the Amherst volleyball team during her four years, excelling in the position of defensive specialist. She leaves Amherst having totaled 819 digs and 132 kills.

I met Asha Walker before I even knew I wanted to go to Amherst. I was sitting in Valentine Dining Hall during my visit as a high school senior, and she came and sat down at the table full of softball players.

She immediately struck up a conversation with one of her friends on the team, and it took about five minutes for her to look at me and say, “Hey, you’re new.”

We talked briefly before she had to run to class, and I didn’t see her again until I started at Amherst nearly a year later. The next August however, during my first weeks in the Pioneer Valley, Walker was one of the first people to welcome and congratulate me.

The warmth and genuine care that emanate from Walker define who she is as a person and is something her friends, teammates, coaches and really anyone who knows her has commented on.

The law, jurisprudence and social thought major from Los Angeles was recruited to play volleyball at Amherst by coach Sue Everden. Her father, having grown up in Connecticut and attended Conn. College, encouraged her to explore the East Coast, especially small liberal arts schools.

Initially wary of the thought of leaving California, it took cajoling by her parents and Everden, especially, before Walker would even consider Amherst.

However, upon visiting the campus for the first time during her senior year of high school, she immediately realized that “this was the place.”

After seeing Amherst and meeting the team and her coach, Walker knew that no other school was going to stand up.

Firedog Family

Playing the role of defensive specialist for the volleyball team, Walker made a big impact during her first year.

Recording 181 digs and 76 kills in 92 sets, she helped the Firedogs, as the women’s volleyball team is affectionately called, reach the semifinals of the NESCAC tournament, ultimately losing to archrival Williams.

Walker highlights her sophomore season as her best at Amherst. The 2015 campaign was the first time in half a decade that the team had reached the NCAA tournament, and Walker played in all but one of the Firedogs’ 100 sets.

An integral part of the defensive game for the Firedogs, Asha recorded 233 digs that year and averaged 2.35 per set, the third-highest mark on the team.

“Asha brought a sense of commitment, humor, respect and grit to the program, Everden said. “She brought a swag that was contagious and made the players around her strive to be better.”

The outlook is bright for the young Firedogs that Walker will leave behind.

She has high hopes for the program in the next several years, as they are a talented, underclassman-heavy group that made a strong NESCAC run this year, only falling in the semifinals to Tufts, which ultimately emerged as champions.

Walker describes the volleyball team off the court as a family, and credits much of the atmosphere to Everden.

“She has created an environment where we feel comfortable spending time together outside of volleyball,” Walker says.

Her team provided a support system on and off the court during a busy fall season and has prompted friendships that last much longer than that.

“Asha will always be a Firedog,” says Coach Sue Everdeen. “She will always have a place in Amherst Firedog history.”

Her Shining Star

Walker especially praises her team for being one of her biggest support systems when she most needed them.

“I definitely didn’t end up having the normal Amherst experience,” she says with a laugh, as she talks about coming back to campus for her junior year after giving birth to her son, Aiden, over the summer.

Arriving back at Amherst for her junior year, only her team and a few other friends knew about the child, and Walker describes the support they provided while she told the Amherst community.

“It was very uncomfortable at first,” she said. “But I knew that there were enough people who had my back, who had Aiden’s back, that it would be okay.”

The community at Amherst, as a whole, ended up being exceptionally welcoming and inclusive, falling in love with Aiden from the start.

“I think Aiden has more friends on this campus than me,” Walker jokes.

Though she initially felt uneasy sharing this very personal news with such a small community, Walker described the way her mindset began to develop. “Once you have a little human that you have to take care of, you realize not everything is about you,” explained.

For Asha, going on winter break or spring break doesn’t mean just going home and relaxing. Instead, it means taking care of Aiden and spending as much quality time with him as possible. But there is no hesitation or second thought when she says she wouldn’t have things any other way. “He is the shining star in everybody’s eyes,” she says with a smile.

Creating Community

The campus has felt Walker’s impact deeply, nowhere more strongly than CACSAC — the Council of Amherst College Student Athletes of Color. The organization began several years ago, but Walker, as one of the first women to serve on the executive board, seized the organization and made it her own.

In the four years that Walker has been a part of CACSAC, the group has more than doubled in size and has become an inclusive space for student athletes of color to come together and find support and community on campus.

The council meets every several weeks for activities organized by the members of the executive board: meeting to hear speakers ranging from faculty to coaches, organizing trips to see Black Panther or simply coming together to share a meal.

Coach Billy McBride, a close friend and mentor of Walker’s, described her involvement in CACSAC with an emphasis on the same warmth and inclusivity that I’ve felt from Walker for the nearly four years I’ve known her.
The community that Walker found within CACSAC was something that she hadn’t felt so intimately anywhere else on campus, and she wanted to share it with others.

She encouraged friends to start coming to meetings, designing and advocating for fun, community-building activities like a group trip to see “Black Panther.”

A key motivation for Walker in these actions was her experience of pressures that come with being a student-athlete of color on the Amherst campus. Throughout her time with CACSAC and working with the athletics department, her focus has always been on providing space and support.

“It’s not easy,” she said, so she — along with the executive board and other members of CACSAC — opened the group up to anyone who was in need of and looking for such support. “She wasn’t defining color,” says Coach McBride, “and it’s a colorful thing to have that going on.”

Courage and Grace

“She is one of the most courageous individuals I have ever coached,” says Everden. For many people who know her, myself included, Asha Walker is the epitome of courage and grace.

It takes courage to mother a child in college. It takes courage to go to class every day and continue working towards your degree while that baby boy is 3,000 miles away. It takes courage to step back on a volleyball court only two months after childbirth. It takes courage to speak up in a community setting that you have helped to build, and then open up that same community to those who need it.

Walker has exhibited all this courage and more during her time at Amherst, and the people who know her — and even those who don’t — have benefitted.

Coach McBride says that Walker exudes a joy that manifests itself in her laughter, her smile and her impact on others. “Her most defining characteristic,” he says, is the way “she opens her arms to others that may not feel the same joy that she is feeling.”