Discovering life beyond campus

By Cassina Brown

Four years ago, when I packed up my belongings and left my quaint hometown of Ashby, Mass. for a dorm in the Southwest residential area of the UMass campus, I was expecting the college experience that my parents, friends and older siblings claimed Amherst was famous for. I had heard stories of parties that took over four floors of the tower where I would be living. I was told that it was a wild, enticing town full of excitement, debauchery and opportunities to find my own niche; the University is famed to be a city within itself. There was a place for city folk, a place for hipsters, a place for bookworms and a place for everyone in between.


That first year, stuck in a corner room on the 20th floor of Washington Tower, my world was the campus. I would walk to Sylvan or Orchard Hill to meet friends and we would go to the dining hall for dinner. We would spend our nights hanging out in dorm rooms, or sitting out on “The Hill.” Every once in a while we would wander off campus to go to the grocery store or to get a pack of smokes and a coffee in town. As a student in the area, with my focus set on school and a new and exciting life in this wild world of academia, I didn’t think much about the Pioneer Valley. I lived in the middle of Amherst and UMass was my home.

Slowly, I started peeking around corners, taking a side street here or there and going for drives into the countryside around the bustling campus of over 25,000 students. I discovered Belchertown, Hadley, Northampton and Sunderland. Greenfield, South Deerfield and Charlemont came next. Suddenly, my new life was more than the city-like campus; it was the lush, vibrant beauty of the land around me.

For my sophomore year, I moved off campus. My world continued to expand and Amherst, the town, became my new home; I decided not to move back to my parent’s house for the summer. When students left at the end of the spring semester, I settled into a far less crowded town and wandered into the woods. I found lakes, ponds, reservoirs and rivers whose beauty astounded me. I had lived in this town, in the dorms for almost a year without knowing the glory that surrounded me, and I realized that most of my peers knew nothing more than the short path between the uptown bars and their dorms or apartments.

The more I looked, the more I found –adventures to perfect sandy beaches tucked away at a bend in the Connecticut River or lengthy hikes that ended with a view of the entire valley. And on my way to and from these adventures, I discovered the culture and attitudes that have earned this area the nickname “The Happy Valley.”

I began a job at a popular coffee shop and dove into the local restaurant scene. The fresh produce from local farms, the beers from nearby breweries;I was sold. The art and the music that were being released from the doors and windows in Northampton and Greenfield and neighboring towns drew me in and convinced me that this place was my home.

As graduation drew closer, I felt nothing but sadness. A sadness not over the end of my undergraduate career, but over the prospect of leaving  the place that had so warmly welcomed me. I felt angst over the idea of moving back home or to a new city, as that seemed to be the typical and expected move of a college graduate upon finishing school. I was not done with this place. To me, I had been more than a student here for a long time. I had become a resident, supported my local food and music scene and become engaged in the culture and events around me. I decided to stay.

Even as a student who is engaged in the local community, there is an aspect of this area that is lost when so much time is spent traveling to class and struggling to finish homework or prepare for an exam by the deadline. After graduation, I moved into a beautiful farmhouse in Hadley, a short walk to the Connecticut River. Now, with time on my hands, I go to work in the morning, and when I’m out, I have time to explore, time to take it all in. Without the pressures of school, I can devote myself to my home, to the land around me and to the force that flows through this valley in its rivers and streams.

I have worked in a number of restaurants here and have made friends and acquaintances. When I come to town, I expect to see familiar faces. I feel at home.

The warm welcome that this area has provided me with is something that is available to every student here. Five colleges are located in close proximity and the thousands of students studying here all have the same opportunity to get to know the land and feel the warmth of this place beyond the edges of each campus. Those who choose to stay within the confines of their academic environments are at a loss. Far too many spend four years in this area without discovering its secrets. However, others’ lack of interest in the land around them keeps those perfect little beaches quiet on hot days. Honestly, I’ll take a private beach on the river over a crowded one any day.

Cassina Brown is a Collegian columnist and 2010 alumna. She can be reached at [email protected]