Pushing myself beyond what I thought was possible
“Everyone here inspires me to push beyond what I thought possible, question assumptions, envision a better world. My peers are formidable and inspiring.”
Applying to Mount Holyoke, Sommer Byers knew she had found her school when a group of students walked by while she was waiting for her Admission interview.
“Do you have an interview?” they asked her. “You’re going to do great. Don’t worry at all.”
Feeling the warmth from the community when she wasn’t even a student yet made the choice to apply Early Decision a no-brainer.
“Being in a community like Mount Holyoke, which is very diverse, inclusive and open-minded, has really helped me think about how I want to approach post-college life,” Byers says.
“Everyone here inspires me to push myself beyond what I thought was possible, and to question different assumptions that I make. They push me to envision a better world, a better community. The most significant shift for me is that I believe there’s nothing we can’t change if we don’t do it together. That shift is because of the influence of so many of my peers, who are such formidable and inspiring people.”
Byers found her intellectual path in her first semester, with the first-year seminar she had selected, Self-Portraiture. Taught by Suparna Roychoudhury, associate professor of English, the class included trips to the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum.
“Art history was never something that I thought I could be an expert at or thrive in,” Byers says. “But then as a sophomore I decided to take the Power of Images, an introductory art history course taught by Bettina Bergmann [now professor emeritus]. I did not anticipate loving that class as much as I did. It exposed foundational texts in our history that I never even knew existed, and to a different way of viewing art and the world and the different images that we look at every day.”
Bergman recommended the Student Guide Program at the Art Museum to Byers, who applied and was accepted.
In the program, Byers worked closely with Art Museum staff, learning about its collections and giving tours to audiences from campus, schools and the community. As they learn about the art, each student develops their public speaking skills. Eventually, they choose their own theme and develop a tour around it using five different objects.
“You present your own tour at the end of the semester,” says Byers. “That was huge in shaping my confidence and foundation at Mount Holyoke.”
The Art Museum educators, Ellen Alvord ’89, associate director for engagement and Weatherbie Curator of Academic Programs, and Kendra Weisbin, associate curator of education, became mentors to Byers.
“They make it so accessible and fun,” she says. “They recommended that I become a museum educator at the Art Museum over one summer, and that was something I never would have dreamed that I was going to do. I spent that summer falling in love with working with education and art and finding ways that you can talk about it in an interdisciplinary kind of way. I never thought that I would end up doing that and it made me realize that I could have a potential career path as a museum educator.”
How she feels about her teaching licensure cohort could be extended to her feelings on Mount Holyoke in general: “I feel like I have a team of people behind me that is rooting for me,” she says. “They understand. If I’ve had a bad day, they can say, ’Here’s what you can change in the future. Here are the tools you can use to make it better.’ And if I have a great day, I have a team of people, saying, ’Rock on! You’ve got it!’ So that’s really nice to have.”
In the long run, Byers hopes to end up in museum education. For now, she will be working as a middle school humanities teacher in Springfield in the fall.
“Choosing Mount Holyoke was a huge decision in my own personal growth,” she says. “I’m so grateful that I have this opportunity. I just feel so bizarre to be at this point. Every day I kind of look back and think to myself, I can’t believe that I’m here. I feel like I’m finally in the life that I’ve been creating for myself the past four years. It’s a really nice feeling to be able to say that.”
Student government: one of many paths to leadership
One of Mount Holyoke’s primary objectives is to help students lead, which includes learning about leadership in general and also identifying their individual leadership talents and inclinations. Whether backstage or center stage, Mount Holyoke students lead.
“I’ve always been into leadership,” says Sommer Byers. “I remember seeing a note from the admission office on my acceptance letter saying ’We’re so excited to see you grow as a leader on campus’ and I was so excited. I had no clue how important committees would become to me through my time at Mount Holyoke.”
One of her leadership paths was through the Student Government Association, which Byers joined as a first-year student. “I was really, really excited to work with people but I didn’t want to take on too much responsibility because I didn’t want to mess anything up. But over time I’ve realized that leaders are really just figuring stuff out at the same rate as everyone else.”
Byers started by applying to Committee Yourself, which is the way the SGA recruits students. She ended up joining the committee known as Appointing Board, which oversees Committee Yourself. Byers describes it as similar to the recruitment arm of human resources.
“I love to meet new people and see how they work together in teams,” she says. “That was a passion I didn’t know I had for leadership. So it was exciting to be able to work with a bunch of like-minded individuals who wanted to do the same kind of work.”
She loved being on Appointing Board so much that she decided to run to be in charge of all the SGA committees. She won the position, which gave her a broad view of all the SGA committee work.
The experience was “transformational,” says Byers, whose leadership experiences on campus also include serving for two years as community advisor for the Office of Residential Life before being named the residential fellow of Mandelle Hall this year.
“All of my leadership has been about the relationships I craft with people,” she says. “The fun we’ve had together and the different contributions we all bring to the table. I really appreciate that I’ve been able to have that experience with so many great like-minded people who want to do that work with me and are always willing to grow and change alongside me. We all work together and that’s what I really value — the community that we create.”
Being able to move from team member to team leader was huge for her, Byers says. And so was watching that process in the students around her.
“It’s really cool to see how people grow and change over time and how we all have grown into our leadership. Leadership is the confidence and excitement and passion you bring to the table that people value about you and want to see from you. As long as you have that, there’s no way that you can fail.”
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