Interview with: Milisa Janda ’13 via email correspondence
24-28 April 2016
Conducted by: Darienne Madlala ‘16
Darienne: What was your favorite thing about Amherst when you were a student here?
Milisa: There are a couple of things that come to mind but I’d probably say the ability to do so much out of class. I loved that my school experience was not just about sitting in a lecture room a couple of times a day. There was so much that you could do in your spare time.
Darienne: What clubs/ groups were you a part of and why? (i.e. what did you get out of being in those organizations?)
Milisa: Center for Community Engagement – I went on the CEOT trip during freshman orientation and I remained quite involved with the CCE throughout my four years at Amherst. I became an ABC tutor through working with the CCE and this was one of the most rewarding things I did while at Amherst. Working with the ABC guys for four years was a great experience. I was also a CEOT leader.
Gospel Choir – I loved the fellowship and community it provided
Black Student Union – I joined BSU my first year. It felt comfortable. I don’t know how to explain it but I was just able to relate to the issues/experiences.
International Students Association – This was membership by default. But ISA was great. We had ISA freshman orientation a few days before the actual orientation and it was great. This is where I made all my best friends. Lifelong friendships were formed during this orientation. Being in a foreign environment was made easier by having people who were in the exact same situation as you. When actual orientation came, it wasn’t as overwhelming as it probably would have had we arrived the same day as the hundreds of American students.
ACSU – This was started by some pretty inspiring freshmen 🙂 my senior year. I love what ACSU represented and definitely wished I could’ve experience more. Looking at social media posts and seeing what has been achieved is amazing. I truly hope the next group of student can keep up the momentum.
HerCampus Amherst – I wrote a couple of profiles of international students for HerCampus my senior year. This was just one of those things that I really wanted to do before I graduated.
Social Council E-Board – I joined social council because I wanted a different experience and wanted to see how some things worked behind the scenes. This was quite an interesting experience. I can’t say it added much to my growth or anything like that. To be honest, it felt like this group was just one large group of friends. I don’t know how to explain it but I definitely didn’t fit in. I remember during one meeting we were discussing t-shirts and one of the co-chairs suggested that we put Lord Jeff on the shirt because “we don’t celebrate Lord Jeff enough as a mascot on campus.” I was quite surprised at how no-one challenged her especially considering the controversy of Lord Jeff. I don’t know why I stayed in soco to be honest because this is definitely one of those groups in campus that I did not feel comfortable in.
-The special topics class that I am in is called, The Black Experience at Amherst. What are the first things that come to mind when you read this title?
-I’m having trouble answering this question. I guess if I was asked to describe what content I think this class covers, I’d probably say it focuses on the struggle of being black on campus and fitting in as a black person?
-Did you have a lot of friends who identified as African?
-Yes!!! Many of my friends identified as African. This obviously had a lot to do with the fact that I was an international student. Interestingly enough, there were only 3 African girls in my year including myself and I didn’t realise this until senior year. It had always somehow felt like there were more of us.
-Were there any challenges at Amherst that you faced because you were an African? What were some of these (if any)? (challenges here can be big or small)
-I wouldn’t say the challenges I had at Amherst were particularly as a result of being African. Financial difficulty was a huge one for me but I’m not sure this can be tied specifically to being African.
-Were there any spaces on this campus that you felt uncomfortable in because of your identity?
-Besides, social council that I mentioned above, not really. Amherst isn’t the type of place to force you to be involved in things you don’t want to be involved in therefore I was able to use my spare time to do things that I actually wanted to do.
-My project focuses specifically on black Africans at Amherst. Was there any tension between these two identities (black and African) during your time at Amherst and in what ways (specific examples) did it manifest?
-The only tensions I remember are when ACSU was being formed during my senior year.
-At Amherst, did you ever feel like you had to reconcile your blackness and your African identity or are those two identities never at odds with each other?
-Being a black South African, my blackness is tied directly to my African identity. For instance, some of my African friends mentioned how being black only became a big deal when they moved to America. For me as a black South African, my blackness is something I have always been aware of.
-Where did you find support on this campus? (support here in terms of personal support not support with work per se)
-Friends, International Students Association, Black Student Union, ACSU, Gospel Choir, tutoring at ABC (I feel like I was able to experience life outside of Amherst through ABC) and other things like taking the African dance class.
-Did any of the classes that you took during your time here provide you the tools to challenge and navigate your identity?
-I became a feminist while at Amherst. Maybe this would’ve happened as part of my growth in life regardless of being at Amherst but taking WAGS and Black Studies classes definitely gave me the tools to learn more and think critically about society. I shudder when I think of some of the beliefs that I held before freshman year.
-I interviewed an alum who was also from South Africa and she said that South Africa’s history of race is similar to America’s and so because of that commonality she was better able to identify with African Americans and vice versa. Would you say this has been your experience too? Why or why not?
-This was definitely my experience. I mentioned it a bit above. South Africa and America’s racial histories are quite similar. So much of what we experience is tied to our blackness.
-Is what it means to be black in America different from what it means at home for you? Please explain why or why not.
-It’s not very different as both groups are oppressed because of the colour of their skin. If you think about who receives the worst education, poorest living conditions, who is used as cheap labour. The results are exactly the same. The only major difference obviously is that in South Africa black people are the majority at 80% of the population while in America black people are a minority.
-Thank you so much, Milisa!