Introducing: Williams-Mystic, S’14!

Hello, everyone! Now that we have all had time to settle down here in Mystic (though not for long!), I will be taking the blog out of Stephanie’s capable hands for the rest of the semester. My name is Alexandra, Alex for short. Originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, I am now a junior at Williams College, where I double major in Biology and English and am a proud member of the women’s soccer team. I’ve been fascinated by the ocean since I was in elementary school and over time, I have developed an unusual passion for sharks and their behavior. I have wanted to come to Williams-Mystic since I found out about the program as a sophomore in high school, and I’m thrilled to finally be here!

So far my experience with Mystic has been incredible. Already an aficionado for small coastal towns, I fell in love with the location immediately. Downtown, which is full of seafood restaurants, unique stores and well-worn coffee shops, is only a short distance away from the Seaport (our playground for the next few months), along a walkway with miniature New England-style houses on one side and the dock-laden estuary on the other. The locals greet the baristas in the coffee shops, the weather-toughened residents walk their dogs on the snowy beaches, and it seems as if everyone we meet knows about the program and wants to hear all about it.

Even as I sit here with my mason jar of cinnamon-apple herbal tea (tea is a must-have in our group), I can see the pink clouds that obscuring the sunset over the glimmering water of the Mystic River. Just across the street, the Mystic Seaport is an entire village frozen in time, where history very much comes alive through re-enactments of maritime colonial life by dedicated and very friendly staff members.

Of course, now that I have been here for a few weeks I have gained a little more insight into the Mystic lifestyle. However, the first week was a blur of first impressions and slowly unveiled idiosyncrasies as we all tried to settle in. Our group arrived, clueless and shy, at the end of January, when we were placed in our houses. We were given a day to move in before orientation, and as it turns out, communal living allows people to bond very quickly.

Our first week was a little more discombobulating than usual, however, as we were hit with a series of snowstorms that effectively shut down the seaport and altered our orientation plans almost every day. In between meeting with our professors, group dinners and discussions, and light homework assignments, we had plenty of time to get to know each other through trips to the Mystic YMCA (we have a very active group!), cooking house dinners, and chatting excitedly about the impending offshore voyage. The adventurous among us braved the cold to trek to town, where we sought out places such as the local Mystic library and the ice cream shop on the drawbridge.

From the first night, when Tenzin ran from house to house to gather the group together for the first time, it was clear that the Williams-Mystic S14 class, though small, would form our very own tightly-knit community. Already excited to be in an environment where every single activity was focused on my favorite subject (the water), I was pleasantly surprised by the number of different ocean-related passions that I encountered. I had wrongly assumed that most people would be pursuing paths similar to mine – studying either humanities to search for inspiration in the sea as many great literary minds before, or science to try to uncover the mysteries of our great planet. I wasn’t entirely mistaken—there are a fair number of environmental studies and biology majors among us—but I also met Veronica, who studies American Studies and Art at Colby College, and Nellie, a history major from West Chester University.

I was fascinated further by the diversity of backgrounds that somehow led each person here to Mystic. A majority of my first conversations included the question “So why choose Mystic?” in some form or another. I had heard that Williams-Mystic was interdisciplinary, but I never fully grasped what a benefit the accumulation of these many perspectives would provide. Already this semester, I have heard Sydney from SUNY Maritime discussing admiralty laws in Marine Policy with an understanding I have yet to reach. In Maritime History, Sarah of Wellesley dissects pieces of maritime American art with ease. In our Literature of the Sea tutorial, Kwasi, a fellow Williams student, has challenged my thoughts on race and culture in Moby-Dick. Of course, most of these instances occurred after our life-changing trip on board the Corwith Cramer.

Though Steph already had the daunting task of trying to put our experience down in Puerto Rico into words, I will say that the offshore trip, only six days after our arrival at Mystic, irrevocably changed my perspective on both the ocean and my life on land. It was difficult in ways I didn’t expect (apparently I do get seasick!), but so much more rewarding that I had anticipated. I learned constellations from Kevin, my watch leader…stood out on the bowsprit in the middle of the night, furling the jib sail in a squall…sat on deck and read Moby-Dick as we sailed by pods of dolphins… discovered a lionfish and a stingray as we snorkeled in Vieques…spent the midnight watch in lab, working on titrations…

The stories and lessons are endless, and each person experienced the trip in a different way. The one common aspect was the bond we felt by the end. We had seen everyone at their worst—in the middle of the night, disheveled, some (like me) a little nauseous—but also spent our free time sitting on the quarterdeck or in the main salon, eating delicious food and telling stories. By the time we had left, we knew that nobody else could quite understand exactly what we had been through.

Our closeness certainly extended through our return to Mystic, where, after a few days rest, the faculty wasted no time acclimating us to our academic obligations. Over the past two weeks, we have fallen into a routine: Monday and Wednesday we have Literature of the Sea (with Rich King) and Maritime History (with Glenn Gordinier), followed by a maritime skill in the afternoons. I will be learning how to sail with Manuela of the College of New Rochelle, Zak of Princeton University, and Mollie of the University of West Chester. On Tuesdays we have Oceanography with Lisa Gilbert in the mornings, then a brief break before lab. I’m fairly certain we have had the coldest labs in the history of the Program—snow mixed with sand at Napatree Point last week, while our examination of the tide pools at the Weekapaug Rocky intertidal zone left us completely exposed to the flying flurries.

However, we are hoping that perhaps the weather will be a bit warmer during our next trip, which is only in a few days! We are headed to the Pacific Northwest, traveling down the coast from Seattle, Washington to Coos Bay, Oregon to experience an entirely new coastline. While it won’t be the Puerto Rico sun, we are all incredibly excited to see what our second trip brings us. We have had a crazy week of research project proposals and guest speakers, and I think we are all ready for this next adventure. Personally, this will be my first trip to this part of the country, and I can’t wait to experience for myself the fusion of native culture, nature, and modernism that I have read about as I prepare to leave. The next time you hear from me will be upon my return – I’m sure I will have many stories (and photos) to share!

Fair Winds,

Alex

Author: williamsmystic

A one semester interdisciplinary ocean and coastal studies program integrating marine science, maritime history, environmental policy, and literature of the sea.

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