Hands-on Learning, Interdisciplinary Connections, and Lifelong Impacts: Two Spring ’17 Students Reflect on Their Williams-Mystic Experience

“I always thought that becoming a researcher was the only way I could make an impact. Williams-Mystic showed me that you can find meaningful ways to engage your interests wherever you go.”

By Meredith Carroll, Assistant Director of Admissions and Director of Social Media

When Paul Butera, a sophomore studying geology at the University of Puget Sound, arrived at Williams-Mystic in January 2017, he “didn’t really have a plan” for life after college. His classmate Emma McCauley, by contrast, was certain she would continue on to graduate school after completing her marine biology degree at Stony Brook University the following fall. At different stages in their education, Paul and Emma nevertheless share a love for the ocean. Paul spent the summer of 2016 working at a salmon fishery in Alaska; Emma has years of experience volunteering with Oceana and the New York Aquarium. By S’17’s thirteenth week at Williams-Mystic, when they sat down for an interview with Science Teaching Assistant Hannah Whalen and Assistant Director of Admissions Meredith Carroll, Paul and Emma agreed that their experiences here had altered their views on the ocean, on conservation and on how to carry their passion for both forward into their lives after Williams-Mystic.

What experiences did you have before you got here that made you invested in protecting the ocean?

Paul: In Alaska, you can see that the oceans are warming: that it’s 14 degrees warmer where you’re fishing, and you’re getting fewer fish. Seeing that in the real world and then coming here and reading about it has been fascinating.

Emma: I’ve always tried to advocate for the ocean. But the event that made it concrete for me was Hurricane Sandy. I lived close to places that got utterly destroyed. Knowing that climate change caused this storm and that things like this will likely happen more frequently in the future reminded me how important environmental work and study are in the real world.

How has Williams-Mystic changed the way you think about your major? Has it changed your worldview?

Emma: Williams-Mystic has shifted my perspective away from just looking at the ocean as a scientific system to be studied. It’s made me realize that to be an effective steward of the ocean, you can’t push aside the people who need it to survive.

Paul: I’ve realized that the interdisciplinary parts of the ocean are what make it special. An example from the Pacific Northwest Field Seminar: I go to school right there. Yet I had to go to the East Coast and come back in order to appreciate all that happens there. I also really liked the Louisiana Field Seminar. I’d never been to the South, and it was a completely new experience for me. I found it similar to Alaska because oil and fisheries drive both place’s economies. Yet there were drastically different views of how those things should be managed. It’s a different society based off the same things, which was really interesting for me.

Emma: I definitely think my worldview has changed. I’m lucky to have come from an environmentally conscious place, and my love of the ocean has made my views [on environmental issues] very black and white. My college education has reinforced that. But this program [teaches you] that these problems aren’t black and white. It makes you think about the social justice issues involved. Being a steward of the ocean doesn’t mean you can’t also be a voice for people who need it.  The most challenging thing about Williams-Mystic has been understanding that your beliefs may not always be right and challenging yourself to look at all the information out there before you come to a conclusion.

How have your classmates’ perspectives and backgrounds changed your experience here?

Emma: We learn from each other. One of the greatest things about Williams-Mystic is that I’m a marine biology major, but that doesn’t mean I’m better suited for even the science class than anyone else. All the different perspectives make it the interdisciplinary program it is.

Paul: I’m going to steal something Nickie Mitch (Bowdoin ‘18) said during the Pacific Northwest trip when we went to Powell’s Books. I was expecting everyone to go to similar sections of the store but we all spread out. Everyone has a different passion, but we’re all tied together by our fascination with the ocean.

What will you take back to your home campus?

Paul: I think what I’ll take away is the interdisciplinary part of [Williams-Mystic]. If someone brings something up, I’m able to identify how it ties into the ocean, or this issue, or that policy. I may not be an expert, but I look forward to being a resource and an advocate for studying the ocean.

Emma:  I’ll also be more willing to step outside my comfort zone. Before I started this program, I was worried about getting seasick. I didn’t foresee myself performing chanteys for museum visitors. I didn’t think I would feel comfortable doing either of those things. But I’m doing them now and it’s not a big deal anymore.

What about Williams-Mystic do you think will stick with you 10 years from now?

Paul: Definitely the field seminars. Moving around, having a full-body experience and learning about it at the same time is incredible, and really ingrains whatever you’re learning about.

Emma: I’ve learned that there are more doors open than you may realize. I always thought I would go right to grad school and become a researcher, because it was the only way I thought I could make an impact. Williams-Mystic showed me that’s not true. It made me see that you can find meaningful ways to engage whatever interests you have wherever you go.

12 of Williams-Mystic’s Most Unique Experiences

Post by Katrina Orthmann, Williams-Mystic Class of Fall 2017 (University of Minnesota ’19)

Photography by Jesse Edwards and Haley Kardek (Williams-Mystic F’17)


Students wave while furling a sail aboard a tall ship.


  1. Climbing aloft on a tall ship.

Our 10-day Offshore Field Seminar was incredible – like something out of a pirate movie, but with less violence. One of the coolest experiences was climbing aloft to the top of the mast. The adrenaline of being a hundred feet in the air and the simultaneous serenity of looking out across the crinkled surface of the open water is a feeling like no other.

Students dance the cajun two-step in a Louisiana dance hall.
Fall 2017 shows off their dance skills at the Jolly Inn.
  1. Spending a night waltzing at a Cajun dance hall.

We spent one evening in Houma, Louisiana at the Jolly Inn, a traditional Cajun dance hall. Our history professor, Glenn, is a fantastic dancer and taught us the Cajun two-step and a basic waltz step. I’ve never considered myself a very good dancer—at age three I took a dance class that consisted of me lying on the floor while the other tutu-clad girls danced around me—but that night was one of my favorite experiences.


Students and an instructor work in a shipsmith's forge.


  1. Learning to shipsmith.

Some of my classmates took shipsmithing as their maritime skill for the semester, which is insanely cool—or rather incredibly hot, since you’re working in a forge. My friend Alissa told me that wielding the hammer is difficult, but that it’s satisfying to graduate to a bigger hammer. The instructor, Bill, reportedly knows when you’re ready. “It’s time,” he’ll say, and your arm will ache, but you’ll come away with metal hooks, bottle openers, and bicep muscles galore.

  1. Kayaking down the Mystic River to look for fiddler crabs for your science project.

So many awesome science projects were done this semester, one of which was a survey of fiddler crabs in the area. They haven’t been found in the area until recently, so the study was very interesting. Plus, who doesn’t want an excuse to kayak down the river on a beautiful day? Just make sure to bring your foul weather gear… the mud in the Mystic River is no joke!

  1. Learning to sail a small boat by yourself.

I came into the program intending to learn how to sail, so I chose the basic watercraft skills class as my maritime skill. The weather this semester was perfect for sailing; being out on the water on a crisp fall afternoon, with a light breeze blowing and the sun warming your face, is amazing. I even finished the semester with an award: the first (and only) person in the class to capsize! I’d like to re-emphasize that the mud in the Mystic River is no joke.

  1. Seeing the program director dressed up as Moby Dick, the infamous white whale, on the morning your paper is due.

I vividly remember standing in the kitchen around 8:30 in the morning, making coffee, enjoying the peaceful silence and getting ready to turn in my Moby-Dick paper, and suddenly there was a loud pounding on the door. A blur of white moved past the window as I flung the door open, and I saw this giant… whale-type… thing… sprinting across the yard. It was Tom Van Winkle himself (our Executive Director) dressed as the white whale!

  1. Helping reconstruct the Mayflower II in the shipyard.

My roommate, Monica, worked in the shipyard for her student job, and she got to help reconstruct the Mayflower II, a replica of the 17th-century ship Mayflower. What a cool thing, to have helped restore a tall ship!

  1. Singing sea chanteys aboard the Charles W. Morgan, the world’s last remaining wooden whaling ship.

Another maritime skill some of my classmates took was Chantey-Singing. My friend Kyra and I were both in sailing, but we stopped by chanteys to sing a few times, sometimes aboard the Charles W. Morgan. We learned some great chanteys, which led to the creation of a chantey playlist on Spotify and more than a few chantey karaoke sessions.

  1. Listening to a lecture backed by the sound of waves in California.

One of the best things about the field seminars was that we got to have lectures in places we learned about. While in California, we learned about John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row at the actual Cannery Row and about shipping in the San Francisco Bay while we sat overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge. We discussed the ecology of the intertidal at Point Lobos as we watched the waves crash into rocky cliffs below ; we talked about the marine policy at Pescadero Beach while the sun set in the background.

  1. Learning traditional sailor skills in Squad.

Another maritime skill class some of my classmates did was Demonstration Squad, which actually involved multiple skills. They did everything from rowing a whaleboat to climbing aloft on tall ships to skinning a cod (which they then made into a stew for dinner that night). They also performed a rescue drill called Breeches Buoy, so called because of the pair of breeches used as a “buoy” to rescue people from shipwrecks. It was so fun to watch, and looked even more fun to perform!

  1. Sifting through primary documents for your history research paper.

The Collections Research Center at the Seaport contains millions of primary documents from sailors and ships throughout maritime history, many of which can’t be found anywhere else. In the process of doing research for our history projects, we’ve come across some firsthand accounts of life at sea and of historical events. It’s so cool to have all this and more at our fingertips.

  1. Spending the semester surrounded by a small group of amazing classmates and professors, immersed in this incredible program.

Williams-Mystic is truly one-of-a-kind. I stumbled across the program by coincidence and was on the fence about applying—I didn’t know if it was realistic or if it would be worth it. But if you’re reading this and trying to decide whether or not to apply, my advice to you is that it is so, so worth it. The people I’ve met here have become some of my best friends and all of the faculty and staff are so kind, caring, and passionate about what they do. I’ve learned so much about the maritime world and about myself. I’ve gotten so much out of this experience and I would encourage everyone to participate in a program this special.


Prank Wars and Pasta Dinners: A Q&A With Fall ’17

By Katrina Orthmann (University of Minnesota ’19), the student blogger for Fall 2017.  

What was the most rewarding or impactful experience you had on a field seminar?


One of the coolest experiences I had was aboard the [US Brig] Niagara and began with the Chief Mate asking if I wanted to climb aloft and help furl the fore-topgallant; I confused the topgallant with the topsail and responded with an enthusiastic “sure!” For those of you who don’t know, the topgallant is way higher than the topsail. I climbed up to the fighting top, looked to the topsail – where I thought I was going – and no one was there. So I looked a little higher… and there were Bosun Matt and my shipmate John. I climbed higher and higher until I reached the topgallant, laid out, and started furling. I was scared out of my mind but Matt distracted me from my anxiety by pointing out landmarks in Erie and the setting sun. I swore I could see Earth curving around us. Afterwards I climbed the long way down, shaking with adrenaline but longing to go back up. It was such a beautiful and powerful experience, seeing the boat below me, and all my shipmates seeming so tiny – chatting and laughing and happy. 


Every field seminar has generated moments of extraordinary emotion and intellectual stimulus. However, I found the most impactful location to be the Redwood Forest in California. After learning about so many problems and controversies on the field seminars, it was refreshing to visit a place so tranquil and soothing.



The most rewarding experience I’ve had as a part of Williams-Mystic was sailing aboard the Niagara. That field seminar brought to life so much I’ve learned about sailing and sailors, from the bond with your ship to the hard work and dedication of a crew. The night of the “All-Hands” call, when we were frantically hauling in sails in the middle of a squall, everything ended up fine because we took care of the ship and she took care of us. That’s not a lesson you can easily learn from a book.


Being on the field seminars helped open my eyes to the challenges and perspectives of people across the country. For example, in Louisiana, we met people who refused to let the loss of land keep them from leaving their homes.  It’s easy to question their decisions to stay given all the challenges they face, but when you meet them and hear their stories, you begin to understand their perspectives and the importance of fighting for their homes. The field seminars directly exposed us to issues we can sometimes be ignorant to; they have made me want to be more proactive, to educate others, and to join the fight to make this world a little bit better.

What has been the best house dinner you’ve had?



The best dinners are the ones we have with other houses. My favorite was the time we had wings, but I also enjoyed the salmon dinner we had the other night. Our group chat is always active with people asking for ingredients and inviting others over to eat. It is probably my favorite part of Mystic!


Johnston House has some pretty good dinners. My favorite so far has been when my housemate Kim made Dominican beans and I made honey mustard chicken.  We’ve also had some yummy enchiladas, pastas, risottos, and Asian-themed dinners.


On Family and Friends Day, Mallory hosted a pasta dinner with our families and people from other houses. Mallory’s dinners tend to be very social, and we have a tradition of going around the table and telling five-minute life stories. That night we went around the table and everyone told two-minute stories. It was really fun hearing the parents tell stories about our classmates when they were younger, and it was really nice to get to know everyone a little better in general.

Where is your favorite place to study?


I like to study at any of the numerous coffee shops in Mystic. While I love Bartleby’s, one of the baristas is so friendly and chatty that I sometimes can’t get much work done. My personal favorite is Sift Bake Shop; their pastries are so delicious it’s unreal. If one of Sift’s croissants or macarons can’t motivate me to write a paper, nothing can.


I like to study in Carlton [Marine Science Center]; there’s usually a bunch of us in there at any given time, which is kind of fun. Also there’s a coffee maker and a mini-fridge – what else could you ask for? The Savoy Bookshop in Westerly is another really cool place, but sometimes I spend more time looking at books than doing my homework.

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How do you spend your free time in Mystic?


Most of my free time is spent walking through the town. To call Mystic scenic doesn’t begin to do it justice. Mystic epitomizes the peaceful New England town and the idyllic setting makes going for a walk well worth it.


I was worried about being in such a small town since I go to school in New York City, but there’s so much to do here. In my free time I like to explore the town and find new restaurants, coffee shops, and bookstores. I’ve also tried to take advantage of the parks and river here while the weather is still warm.


I love to wander around the Mystic Seaport Museum in my spare time. The exhibits are not only fascinating and alive but the people who tend them are equally engaging and interesting. Making friends among the staff is fun. They’ve taught me a lot I would never have thought to ask in class. Plus, the more you learn the more you’ll want to stay, and who knows? You might become one of them someday. I also work at the shipyard any chance I get, helping to restore the Mayflower II as my student job. The shipwrights are extraordinary people and it feels great to be a part of the project.

What have been the best house-to-house pranks played so far?


This semester has seen a bit of a prank war develop between Mallory and Carr. It all started when we bragged in the group chat about the fried Oreos we made, so Carr house came and stole them. This spurred a full-on war between houses in which a tire swing and toaster were stolen, furniture was rearranged, and even our house’s portrait of P.R. Mallory was stolen. Not to worry though; Mallory House has big plans to avenge Mr. Mallory.


I think the best house prank we played was hiding Mr. Mallory’s portrait in our living room. He liked it there. The length and ingenuity of the prank served to reinforce our superiority in the forever-debated case of Carr House v. Mallory House. However, stealing Johnston’s sign (twice! They still haven’t noticed the second time…) and displaying it in Carlton was hilarious, as was the time we replaced Mallory’s toaster oven with the “Roller Toaster” matchbox car (get it? For Carr House?)


Is there anything you want to tell prospective students about Williams-Mystic?


This program is hard but it is so, so worth it. I’ve never had so much fun or experienced so much while traveling, and I’ve made such good friends. The workload is no joke, but the professors are always willing to help, as is everyone else. 



This semester I have made the most extraordinary friends – people with whom I can sail 1812 warships and play Avalon for hours in the New Orleans airport. 


This program will be one of the hardest things you ever do academically, but the things you’ll learn, the people you’ll meet, and the places you’ll visit will make the hard work worth it. Not to mention, you should take advantage of any opportunity given to you, from surfing to learning the Argentine Tango and anything in between.


Coming here will be the best decision of your life! You will learn so much and meet some really incredible people. Don’t you want to be a part of something this unique and special? You will become a part of this community for life.


By Katrina Orthmann, a Fall 2017 student studying Biology, Society, and the Environment at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities and the Fall 2017 student blogger. 


niagara at anchor.png
The Niagara at anchor. (Haley Kardek Photography)


3 September 2017: A new adventure begins, courtesy of Williams-Mystic. Let’s look at the numbers: 17 students, eight hours of travel, one tall ship, and approximately one million lines to learn.

Upon arriving at the harbor in Erie, Pennsylvania, we embarked on what felt like both the longest and shortest ten days of my life. Somewhat reluctantly, I surrendered my cell phone to the waterproof bag and looked to the massive ship before me.

She was beautiful. Her two masts reached proudly into the sky, the yards adorned by perfectly harbor-furled sails. Every line was artfully coiled, every pin rail precisely planned. She flew a peculiar imitation of the American flag with only fifteen stars. I later learned that it was the 1812 flag; it flew during the Battle of Lake Erie, in which the Niagara was instrumental.

Stepping onto a tall ship really did feel like stepping back in time. The cannons, the wood, the lack of electronics – it felt like a different world, and it all lent itself to an experience I’m not sure I’ll ever get again. We were disconnected from the outside world but exponentially more connected to each other and to the tall ship lifestyle.

On the Niagara, no one was a passenger. We were all crew. Within an hour of boarding, we were divided into three watches, or teams that rotate through different shifts. I was a proud member of Alpha Watch (the others were Bravo and Charlie). For ten days, we hauled on lines together, cleaned the heads together, shivered together. Sleeping with your face six inches from another, not taking a real shower for ten days, staying awake to work when your body cries for sleep: these challenges bring people together quickly. After only ten days with the other Williams-Mystic students as my shipmates, I felt like I’d known them for months.


fore topsail halyard, haul away
“Fore topsail halyard, haul away!” (Haley Kardek Photography)


One of the “high”-lights (aside from the ridiculous number of puns we made) was climbing and working aloft. The first time a professional crew member asked me to let go of my handhold to help furl the sail, my legs immediately went leaden. They wanted me to do what? As our pro-crew mentors leaned headfirst over the yard, their feet perched precariously on the footrope and their bodies more on the wrong side of the yard than the right one, I glanced down at those safely on deck. I watched the glimmer of the sun on Lake Erie’s crinkled surface. I double-checked that my harness was clipped into the back rope, silently reaffirmed my love for my mother, and leaned over the yard. As we swam up the sail, I felt my arms were too short to do much good. Nonetheless, I had triumphed.


On the third night of our voyage, we got a taste of the dangerous side of tall ship sailing.

The evening began brilliantly. Alpha got off watch at 1800 and ate dinner. The food at sea exceeded my expectations – it was “not toast” (a running joke among the pro crew). We hung out on deck, soaking up the leisure culture. We learned butt wrestling and other ship games from the pro-crew. We talked about life as we watched the sun sink below the horizon, reflecting gold and fuchsia and indigo onto the waves. When it was finally dark and the stars glittered serenely in lieu of sunlight, we slipped below deck to put up our hammocks and get some sleep before dawn watch.

As we slept, somewhere above us clouds roiled on the horizon. Charlie Watch manned the deck as thunder rumbled in the distance and rain began to fall. The wind picked up, the water churned, and just after midnight, a loud crash woke me.

Swaying in my hammock beneath the dim red lights, I listened to Lake Erie rage around the Niagara. She tossed from side to side, jerking as waves smashed into her. I shut my eyes tightly, hoping to fall back asleep. Just as I began to drift off, I heard another massive crash above deck. Footsteps pounded on the wood only inches above my face and a voice cried, “All hands on deck!”

I rolled out of my hammock with a jolt and landed in a crouch, all adrenaline. “All hands on deck! All hands on deck!” everyone screamed as bodies fell from hammocks. My arms shook as I fumbled for my rain pants and yanked them clumsily over my shorts, my head still clouded from sleep. Elbows and knees flew as we all jostled each other, trying to put on our foulies as quickly as possible.

I cinched my Chacos, grabbed my rain shell, and stumbled towards the stairs. Feet sounded on the deck like war drums. I stopped beneath the companionway, staring up at the chaos. I watched the crew dashing back and forth, hauling on lines, silhouetted by flashes of lighting. Already shivering, I climbed on deck to face the madness.

We worked through the storm. Orders were shouted at us, which we shouted back (or tried to). Most of us didn’t know the names of the lines yet, so we frantically chased the pro-crew around, hauling what they hauled, easing what they eased. Rain splattered against my glasses and seeped down my neck, and I was shivering so hard that my teeth chattered, but we kept going. And finally, blessedly, the rain lightened. The wind slowed. And the lake grew quiet.

Hours later we awoke for dawn watch: 0400 to 0800. The sky was again clear. While I was on lookout I picked out constellations: Orion, Cassiopeia, the big and little dippers. And as the moon sank in the west, the sky glowed just slightly orange in the east. From the bridge, my shipmates and I watched the first rays of light break over the horizon. “This is not toast,” the Chief Mate said, and we all agreed. It was not toast.

Even with seasickness, midnight “all hands” calls, unpredictable weather, and a distinct lack of sleep, sailing aboard the Niagara was an incredible opportunity that I will never forget. It’s hard to believe we disembarked over a month ago, and I’m surprised how much I miss being “at sea.” I miss climbing aloft and feeling the wind tangle my hair. I miss singing songs with my watch and playing games with the crew. I miss brig checks, shouting “fore peak hatch open,” and sneaking down to the galley to eat snacks and drink coffee. I even miss waking up at 0330 to work during a torrential downpour. But I know that the things we learned and experienced while offshore (ship, shipmate, self!) will stick with me for the rest of my life, and for that I’m so grateful.

That said, there are more great things to come for the 17 of us here at Williams-Mystic, since in just a few days we’ll be on Field Seminar #2, exploring Northern California. As this semester’s blogger-extraordinaire, I’ll do my best to capture it all, but in the words of William Falconer, “What terms of art can nature’s powers display!”


Making the Leap aboard the Corwith Cramer


By Bridget Hall (Williams-Mystic Spring 2017; University of Rhode Island 2018)

February 4, 2017

Francis Bay, US Virgin Islands

Coming on deck felt like walking into a dream. I’ve spent my whole life up until this semester having barely left New England—I don’t count Disney World as traveling—so I’ve been unabashedly geeking out at every new sight on the trip so far. This scene, however, was by far the most magical thing I’ve ever seen. We’re just off the islands of St. John and St. Thomas, and looking out off the ship to see the islands rising out of the sea, shrouded in mist and glowing in the softest sunlight almost immediately evoked in me a feeling of majesty, wonder, mystery, and excitement. We’re still so far away that no boats, houses, or really any signs of human habitation are visible on the islands; they’re just a lovely, far-away green. Seeing these islands for the first time from a sailing vessel is especially wonderful. I feel just like the early explorers, sailing toward lands mysterious and new. Of course, just as I was starting to soak in the view, we gybed away to do a superstation in deeper water, and I was sent below on galley duty to wash the dishes from breakfast.

After a morning of science and dishes, we had class. I’m never the most attentive student during these afternoon lectures, but today I barely registered the science minute and weather report as we passed the outer headlands of the Virgin Islands. The passing landscape is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The islands rise sharply out of the sea with mostly rocky shorelines and go straight up to pointed peaks that are covered in vegetation. They’re speckled across the sea, some with houses and some empty except for the plants and the birds. As lecture ended I fell behind, hoping to avoid returning to galley duty.

Luckily or intentionally, Sarah put me on the helm for the final leg into Francis Bay, St. John. It was the most exhilarating moment I’ve had on watch so far. The sun was slowly setting, so the whole scene—the ship, the sea, the islands, my classmates up on the bowsprit and the rigging—was tinged in gold. Arriving in Francis Bay, my first thought was that the scene was too stereotypically beautiful to be true. It’s the most perfect tropical bay, with steep green hills on both sides, green-blue water, and white beaches. The view was only spoiled by a few massive yachts in the bay. (One, the Odessa, gained infamy that night when it lit the whole bay with its blue running lights).

Once we anchored, we got the call that we’d finally be allowed to swim! After a mad rush to get ready, most people headed to the bowsprit to jump off. I’m terrified of heights, and have failed at every attempt I’ve ever made to jump off rope swings, branches, and diving boards. This time, however, I forced myself to follow the crowd. I was and still am extremely happy that I made the literal and metaphorical leap off the ship. I can only describe the feeling of launching myself off the bowsprit of a tall ship in a stunning bay in the Caribbean, as the sun set on one horizon and the moon rose on another, as pure euphoria. Today has easily been one of the best days of my life.

Reflections on Southern Louisiana

Southern Louisiana is eroding. New Orleans will one day be underwater. Yet for residents, the bayou is not just a geographical location; it is fundamentally tied to communities and ways of life that cannot be transported.

By Muriel Leung 

LUMCON, Cocodrie

Sunset on the salt marshes surrounding LUMCON. Photo by Muriel Leung.

Stilt houses grew taller and taller, more stilt than house, as we sped down Highway 56 through the delicate web of the Mississippi River Delta toward the water. In Cocodrie, flooding is part of the way of life.

A tower-topped complex rose from the bayou like a fortress: LUMCON, the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, our home base for two nights. There, we were treated to a crawfish boil: crawfish, sausage, baked potatoes, corn, and mushrooms, which we ate to the point of nausea. We danced the two-step and waltz to Craig’s fiddle—small tastes of Louisiana.

After sunset, we went to the river to fish. Like mythical creatures, the alligators lurked in our imaginations but out of sight. Walking back, a Porsche sleeping in the driveway reminded us that we were visitors who could, at the end of the day, drive away from the bayou’s problems.       

Grand Isle

Mayor David Camardelle and Town Supervisor Chris Hernandez
Grand Isle Beach
The shores of Grand Isle, where flooding and storms have already eroded sand bags and other protective measures installed last fall. Photo by Muriel Leung.

The 2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in the Gulf spilled 4 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The oil poisoned marine life and suffocated Grand Isle’s shore with tar. In 2005, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated the island less than a month apart.

Families come to the Mayor Camardelle asking, “Where will we go now?” and he tells them, “You’ve got yourself and you’ve got your family,” but cannot answer. The mayor cried as he talked to us and our Chris Hernandez threw an arm around his shoulder.

On the shore’s sands, they drew designs for rock jetties to protect the islands. Environmental activists from distant places—perhaps people like us—protest these jetties, which would upset local bird populations. The mayor asked us, “Is it worth it to save a small population of birds if a whole community is lost?”


Chief Shirell Parfait-Dardar of the Grand Caillou/Dulac Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians
Chief Shirell Parfait Dardar describes how floods and storms are imperiling her community’s lands–and how an arduous tribal recognition process has complicated their efforts to prepare for a changing climate. Photo by Meredith Carroll.

She spoke of their twenty years fighting for federal tribal recognition, and another expected twenty years more: gathering detailed documentation of their tribal history and tradition, like cataloguing the grains of sand on a beach. Before the internet took off and sometimes even now, they have to travel as far as Texas to gather information. There is no guarantee of success.

“We keep fighting because we have no choice.”

Chief Shirell was young for a chief, thirty-something, with long black hair down to her waist and paralegal training. Her ancestors had chosen her, she said, to bridge the divide between generations. She’d already identified her heir when he was twelve. He was studying engineering. “We want them to go off and get educated. But ultimately he has to come back home.”

She took us to her people’s graveyard. Graves, uprooted by hurricanes and storms, stood completely above ground like they were waiting for us to recover them. The graveyard was packed too tightly for dignity. The chief leaned against her father’s grave and touched his picture.

They planned to create more cemetery space to honor their dead, but if the ocean submerged the site, then they would mark it with a floating memorial. That way, families would be able to ride out in boats to visit. “We’re not giving up. But we have a backup plan in case things don’t work out.”

As we left, we drove through a gated community called Southern Comfort that sat on land once belonging to the tribe. Bulkheads, which the tribe’s people lacked, protected the shiny, untouched mansions and pleasure boats that could easily be packed up and jetted away from this eroding, fragile, and vibrant place that will almost certainly one day be underwater.     

Thoughts from Mystic

Southern Louisiana is eroding. New Orleans will one day be underwater.  Bulkheads and levees will not stop the rising sea level or the hurricanes that come more and more insistently. Everyone: the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians, the Cocodrie Cajuns, the summer-vacationers—everyone except perhaps Port Fourchon pitting oil money against nature—will one day have to leave.

Yet imagine Chief Shirell or Mayor Camardelle telling their people the fight is lost, and that they must pack up and move. For them, the bayou is not just a geographical location; it is fundamentally tied to communities and ways of life that cannot be transported.

We must do something for the diverse people of Southern Louisiana so closely tied to the land. We cannot lie that the bayou will be there forever or that one more rock jetty will be the answer. But we must protect what remains for as long as we can in as sustainable a way we can, while educating the region’s next generation and allowing them to make their own decisions about their futures.

Muriel Leung, a physics major attending University of Pennsylvania, attended Williams-Mystic in Spring 2017. In addition to conducting climate research, Muriel enjoys creative writing; she edits and contributes to IMPACT, a student magazine at Penn that focuses on social justice-inspired topics. 

“Just Killing Time Between Meals”: Month 1 at Williams-Mystic

0d6262a2cb6b4b54989ef2c3e1c0a727A note from the editor: This semester, we’re welcoming Natalie (Williams ’18) as our student blogger! Natalie originally comes from King of Prussia, PA, and is now a junior at Williams College majoring in sociology with a concentration in environmental studies. She wanted to be a marine biologist when she was 7 years old, so studying at Mystic is a dream come true. Below, her first entry.

It’s hard to believe we’ve been at Williams-Mystic for a month now. It somehow feels both like it’s flown by and like we’ve been here for much longer.

New England greeted our return from the Caribbean the only way it knows how—with a blizzard. After falling into bed at 3 am, exhausted from our time on the Cramer and a long day of travel, we woke up to a blanket of snow. As the chronically early riser in my house, I was the only one awake when Chris (Florida Atlantic University ‘19), enjoying his first snowfall, attacked our house and neighboring Carr with snowballs. We spent most of the day in recovery mode: we laid around, watched TV, took naps, and talked about how we probably should start our homework.

Later that night, once everyone was awake and (somewhat) well-rested, we gathered up cookie sheets, plastic bags, and trash can lids, and headed to the top of the hill by our houses to sled. Thankfully, some neighbors took pity on us and offered us real sleds. The night’s biggest discovery: foulie pants work as sleds. Our fun came to an abrupt end when a snow plow turned onto the street and came straight for us. We escaped and went back home to—you guessed it—lie around and drink hot chocolate.


Fast forward a few days, and it’s back to work. We had our first classes after the trip and found that it was much easier to understand The Tempest and especially William Falconer’s The Shipwreck after having actually sailed a ship. On Monday afternoon, it was a surprise when everyone showed up to the job selection meeting. Apparently we are all strapped for cash. We selected jobs ranging from shipyard assistant to ecology research and everything in between. I’ll be the “Williams-Mystic Operation Assistant,” which is a fancy term f or working in Labaree and writing occasional blog posts. Our next meeting introduced us to the skills available at the Seaport, and everyone frantically tried to narrow down their options. We agreed that the meeting made it harder to choose, not easier. In the end, everyone received either their first or second choice. I’m working on my sea chantey repertoire with Rachel (University of Vermont ‘20) and Emma (Stony Brook University ‘17). So far, we have mastered a few songs and two chords on the banjo. Baby steps.

fullsizerenderYou may be wondering about our living situation. In contrast with the boat, we live in houses with our own rooms, rather than small bunks off of the main salon. It was a relief to come home and sleep without being disturbed by someone’s dinner. So far, all is going well in Johnston House. Ellie (Yale ‘18) and I, two of the three vegetarians in our class, have persuaded Jason (McDaniel College ‘18) and Mackenzie to eat almost entirely meat-free dinners. Although our culinary skills wouldn’t impress the finest chefs, we’ve made some excellent dishes. Our favorite so far was a vegetable enchilada casserole, which is just as delicious as it sounds. Salsa, tortillas, beans, roasted vegetables—you get the picture. In fact, most of our dinners involve roasted vegetables. We’re getting pretty good at it. While we’d like to say our meals are the best, we happen to know we’re contending with a lot of excellent cooks. All of the houses have taken to sending pictures of their meals to a group chat.

Early on, one of our professors joked that Williams-Mystic is “just killing time between meals.” That’s only something of an exaggeration. On Valentine’s Day, we pooled our skills to meet at Carr House for a potluck dinner. Johnston pulled out all the stops and made pink pasta. My secret? Add a little food coloring to the cooked pasta. Disclaimer: it doesn’t work all that well. But the effort earned us praise. Carr made a delicious Caprese salad and boring non-pink pasta, while Mallory House brought fried rice and Albion House supplied dessert in the form of raspberry-filled cookies.

In addition to eating, we’re also doing our best to remember that this is in fact school. With science and policy research proposals due next week, we’ve all been frantically searching for topics while trying to stay on top of readings and write papers for history and literature. Maybe I should have started Moby Dick over winter break… Anyway, before we know it we’ll be off to the Pacific Northwest!