Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Leaving Amherst, a small place with big ideas

Courtesy of UMass Media Relations
I have been around for the past three semesters. I know now that Amherst is not necessarily America, but there is Amherst in America.

I am from Daegu, a big Korean city with 2.5 million people and the birthplace of Samsung. Having also spent about five wonderful years in Seattle during my doctoral study, I had to get used to living in such a small place as Amherst. Even McGuirk Alumni Stadium looked so cute compared with the University of Washington’s Husky Stadium.

Yet my son and I, as season ticket holders, felt very comfortable with the neighborhood stadium as well as our not-extremely-good Minutemen football team. (I am a Minuteman, are you? They almost beat mighty Michigan this year. Time to move up to Football Bowl Subdivision?)

I taught two courses this semester on East Asia. My students sometimes surprise me; they seem quite familiar with international politics and global sustainability issues, but not with the town itself.

Amherst is small with only 37,000 residents, and even without an elected mayor, despite it holding the biggest town in Hampshire County status. Yet, every time I observe a Amherst Town Meeting or other town events, I realize the sheer size of a community has nothing to do with how many reasonable and deep ideas you can come up with. I noticed, among others, the Town Meeting consisting of 240 elected members reject an outwardly lucrative zoning change proposed by the Planning Board. Sometime this spring the five-member Select Board suggested Proposition 2 1/2 tax override, which was approved later by the voters. Amherst also had a strong voice officially heard against the controversial Arizona immigration law. This is an incredible place; New England’s traditional democratic governance has been well maintained and will likely work well in the 21st century.

A great thing in town is the free bus service. (Many thanks, PVTA.) The student drivers never seem to be in a hurry, rarely driving without a friendly smile. University of Massachusetts public transit, in partnership with the Five Colleges, is a critical factor that made UMass Amherst one of the greenest campuses in the U.S. More recent achievements should include the new roundabout created at the intersection of North Pleasant Street and Eastman Lane. It was a great idea, but I have yet to figure out why it took about a year to get the job done. Anybody have an idea?

I saw many cases in which challenged neighbors and colleagues were taken care of: among others, Amherst Survival Center, where my son has worked as a student volunteer for the past year and Amherst Warming Center designed for homeless people during the harsh winter. For a hearing-impaired student in my class, a university helper attended all classes with him, dictating everything that happened in class to him.

In this small setting, my family and I have been exposed to a number of big ideas and profound thoughts. When there was a big controversy on campus in fall 2009 regarding the invitation of Raymond Levasseur, a key figure in “the Great Western Massachusetts sedition trial,” I was a little puzzled. What happened to liberal town Amherst, progressive Massachusetts and the First Amendment? He was invited for a talk for a colloquium on “Social Change” at UMass. The former criminal’s visit, now living in Maine, was vehemently opposed by some, especially in the police community.

In the end, with more details, I understood, as published in The Daily Hampshire Gazette, that the policemen and their families were absolutely “right” to protest in a candlelight vigil, but, at the same time, he has a “right” to talk here. This unsuccessful attempt made me ponder quite a while how two incompatible ideas can be reconciled in American soil and beyond. Last month, even those who call torture “enhanced interrogation” were invited at Cape Cod Lounge for a balanced discussion with students and faculty members.

I think the UMass community, especially students, should feel proud of their school and its tradition. I am not saying this just because the school recently ranked 56th in the Times of London’s 2010 World University Rankings. Last year eight UMass Amherst students were awarded Fulbright scholarships, which was a school record and especially remarkable in terms of the high yield rate of 44 percent (only next to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s 50 percent).

I honestly believe that the faculty body of this institution is sound and committed. Prominent science programs like Animal, Computer, Food, Polymer, for example, are well-known even in Korea. (Unofficial sources tell me that UMass is home to two Nobel Prize Laureates.) Of course, there are some concerns existing within the campus, probably in tandem with bureaucratic management of this huge organization. It took about a month for me to get the key to my new office last year. This September, I was disturbed by not-so-effective payroll and tax procedures; I had to visit Whitmore four times on top of many more paperwork and emails. Worse, nobody seemed to know what went wrong.

The Five College Consortium, “with 2,200 faculty members teaching 5,300 courses to 28,000 students,” appears to be such a great idea. I had some visitors from Korea who came here just to learn how the system works. Despite a number of advantages, however, there seem to be some glitches to fix. I did not get a full access to Smith College wireless network even with kind help from the librarians. A book, not available at UMass, that I ordered from Mount Holyoke has never arrived after months; it took about three weeks for several students of my class from Amherst, Smith and Mount Holyoke to get complete access to SPARK.

As the flagship campus of Massachusetts’ state university system, UMass Amherst also allows one to look both intensively and extensively into what is going on around and beyond the Commonwealth. Massachusetts was given a worldwide attention this year when it elected itself a Republican Senator in January. For the previous months, I had been astonished that approximately 46 million Americans, nearly the total population of South Korea, lack health insurance and all reform efforts have sadly failed for decades. Obviously, the U.S. tops most countries in terms of quality hospitals/physicians – and the total medical expenses per capita, and yet did not have a ‘must’ in most advanced nations in the world: universal healthcare. The most recent reform attempt might have been unsuccessful again in no small part because of the Massachusetts Senate election. Ironically enough, this state has become a national model by achieving the first near-universal healthcare reform in 2006. After all, President Sarkozy of France was not alone when he said in March this year, “Welcome to the club of states who don’t turn their back on the sick and the poor people…” Hence my humble “compliment” as well: Welcome to the 20th century and to Planet Earth.

America is still considered a country of immigrants. Yet, they don’t seem to know what is really going on in the world partly because they seldom travel abroad. Mono-lingual and American is often a synonym. Grave concerns arise about how to treat people from outside, not just in Arizona, but around the nation. You can’t just say you’re “exceptional” when others don’t think you are. This country would benefit and be respected much more by showing the power of being the example than the example of its power. UMass, in a much smaller scale, has its own issues to tackle. Despite university-wide efforts for globalization, it doesn’t seem quite convincing yet. As recently published in Daily Collegian, the case of Malaysian students’ health insurance implies a lot. Many schools have been so active to recruit people, ideas and resources from everywhere, before first streamlining the administrative process.           

I have a number of fond memories to take back home with me. Not just Old Chapel, UMass Dining, Sugarloaf Mountain, Vermont in the fall, Boston with its Freedom Trail, and snow… I can’t thank enough to my dear colleagues in Department of Political Science, without whose help I would have not had a full range of academic interaction and experience. An old saying in East Asia goes, “You don’t say thanks loudly for kindness or friendship; you just keep it deep in your heart.” That’s what my family and I will do for many, many years to come.           

Shi-Chul Lee is a Fulbright Visiting Professor in the Political Science Department. He is also an associate professor in the school of public administration at the Kyungpook National University in Korea. He can be reached at [email protected].

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