The Road to Amherst

DATE: Wednesday, May 29, 2024

"I realize how much the professors here believe in your potential to do something good, in the future or even, like, now. I feel so happy that I chose to go here, even though it wasn't my original plan. The people are so kind and encouraging." – Xinyan Jiang '24

Xinyan Jiang, at HCC

By car, without traffic, the commute from Amherst to Holyoke Community College should take less than 30 minutes.

By bus, though, even under the best circumstances, it can take about five times as long. 

Xinyan Jiang should know. During her first two semesters as an HCC student, Jiang made the 2½-hour trek twice a day. To make it work, she had to catch three buses, one from her home in South Amherst to the center of town, one from Amherst to Northampton, and another to the HCC campus.  

But it wasn't all bad, she recalls now as she gets ready to graduate from HCC on Saturday, June 1. In the long run, she figures, the commute helped her more than it hurt. 

"It actually saved me some time," she said. "Every day, when I was on the bus or waiting, I would do my homework." 

Time well spent. 

On Saturday, as HCC celebrates its 77th Commencement, Jiang, 20, will deliver one of two student addresses to the class of 2024 and collect her associate degree in liberal arts with high honors. In September, she will make her way to Amherst College, one of the most prestigious liberal arts colleges in the country. 

While the commute to class promises to be a lot shorter, for Jiang, a Chinese immigrant who learned English as a second language, the road to Amherst College has been a long one indeed, a pursuit she never gave up on, despite the obstacles and uncertainty.   

"Xinyan is earnest, steadfast, and goal driven," said Irma Medina, interim chair of HCC's Integrated Learning Programs and one of Jiang's HCC advisers. "Even before she started here, she knew she wanted to go to Amherst College, and she put in the work to reach that goal." 

Born in Fuzhou, China, Jiang moved to the United States with her family when she was six years old. Like many immigrants, she said, they left their homeland to escape poverty, starting in Brooklyn, New York, and later moving to Philadelphia.

Jiang grew up speaking Chinese at home and learned English in her American schools, where, despite her eventual fluency, teachers often questioned her abilities. 

"Because I came from China," she said, "I think there were assumptions." 

Some of that rubbed off. Despite good grades, Jiang was filled with self-doubt. As high school graduation approached, she was too afraid to apply to her dream school - Amherst College. In fact, she didn't apply anywhere. 

Instead, she moved to Amherst, living with her aunt and uncle and working in their Chinese restaurant, Oriental Flavor, right on the town common, a block from Amherst College. For about a year, she worked long days, serving customers and clearing tables. 

"It was draining," she said. "I just wanted to do something greater than that. I thought education was the thing that would help me get to that greater purpose." 

Still lacking the confidence to apply to Amherst, she applied to the next closest college, the University of Massachusetts Amherst – and was rejected. 

"I don't think I did my application very well," she said. "Really, that was kind of embarrassing. I had big dreams, but at one point, I was like, you know what? Maybe I'm not meant to go to college." 

A friend thought otherwise and suggested Jiang try HCC. She took the placement test, expecting to start in developmental English. To her surprise, she qualified for English 101, college-level composition. That gave her a boost. She was further encouraged by her English 101 professor, Jackie Dailey. 

"She really hyped me up," said Jiang. "I did not know I had any writing ability. Sometimes you never know how much potential you have until someone else acknowledges it." 

Dailey hired Jiang to be a supplemental instructor for her English classes. Jiang took a second campus job as a peer mentor for SAMP, HCC's Student Ambassador Mentorship Program, where she handled a caseload of about 20 students, helping them navigate the complexities of college life. She also joined TRIO, a support program for first-generation and low-income students. 

Meanwhile, she found her way to the office of Irma Medina, then the director of Pathways, an HCC transfer program, who steered her toward honors and learning community courses, the most academically rigorous classes HCC offers and the ones that would best prepare Jiang for transfer to selective four-year colleges like Mount Holyoke and Amherst.   

"She basically told me everything," Jiang said. "Without her help, I don't think I would have gotten in. I've been pushed here like I've never been pushed my entire life, and if it wasn't for people pushing me, I would never have the confidence to apply to a good school like Amherst." 

Earlier this month, as the spring semester drew to a close, the professors that pushed Jiang so hard selected her as the recipient of this year's Marion W. Copeland Honors Program Award. 

"I realize how much the professors here believe in your potential to do something good, in the future or even, like, now," she said. "I feel so happy that I chose to go here, even though it wasn't my original plan. The people are so kind and encouraging." 

Jiang is undecided about her course of study at Amherst College but said her experiences at HCC working as a peer mentor have her thinking about a career in law or public policy. 

"I learned that I'm actually pretty passionate about advocating for other people," she said. Her SAMP experience was eye opening, she said. "When I think about my struggles, I realize I'm on the same page as a lot of other students, like those early days on the bus, taking that long ride to school. I know other students have similar experiences. As community college students, we have a lot in common."

PHOTOS: Xinyan Jiang '24, at HCC