By Meredith Carroll
Before Williams-Mystic, Spring 2019 students Emily Tran, Alex Quizon, and Hayden Gillooly saw the ocean as something separate from their daily lives. Alex and Hayden, both sophomores at Williams College, grew up inland: Alex in central New Jersey, Hayden in North Adams, Massachusetts. Emily, an Oregon native and a sophomore in the process of transferring from Vassar College to Vanderbilt University, had never considered studying the ocean before.
As Emily put it, “I’ve always thought oceans were very cool and really beautiful and just, very mysterious.”
After nearly 17 weeks of immersing themselves in the ocean — literally as well as figuratively, outside the classroom as often as within — all three students still regard the ocean as a source of mystery. Only now, they’ve also come to understand the ocean as profoundly connected to today’s most pressing environmental challenges. Williams-Mystic, all three students say, has empowered them to pursue solutions to those challenges in their remaining time at college — and beyond.
Q: You’re all sophomores. Did you declare your major this semester, and how did Williams-Mystic influence that decision?
Hayden: I’m studying Spanish at Williams. On the Louisiana Field Seminar, my friend Angus asked, ‘Is what I am studying good for others?’ That really stuck with me. I’m learning about people’s stories and how their lives are affected so deeply by a changing world. At the end of the day, if I’m helping people in some way, I would consider it a life well-lived. So I decided to add the geosciences major in addition to Spanish. I think those coupled together, particularly because a lot of Spanish-speaking countries are on coasts, will be really interesting. I’m so excited to go back to Williams now and study those two subjects.
Emily: At Vassar, I was leaning toward a double major in environmental studies and biology. I’m transferring schools to Vanderbilt, which doesn’t have an environmental studies program, only environmental science or environmental sociology majors. Being at Williams-Mystic, being able to interact with people who have been directly impacted by climate change, helped me realize that I care more about environmental sociology.
Alex: I think what’s important to underscore is that this program really is for everyone. It’s for everyone because the ocean necessarily creates the connection between all these fields that society tells us are different. If you don’t have a major in mind coming into Williams-Mystic, you’re certainly going to have a more clear understanding of what your major is by the end of it.
Q: What will you bring back from Williams-Mystic to your home campuses?
Emily: Even though this is a maritime studies program, a lot of what I took from this program is actually the structure – the small classes and interactions with professors, making our own research projects. That’s not something I did at Vassar, and I gained a lot from the nature of this program. I learned how to see my professors as real people. I learned how to do research.
Hayden: I realized that there is as much value in non-academics during a school semester as there can be in academics. I’ve learned so much this semester in between classes, in those van conversations and over coffee with friends. Those moments, too, are times that change us and allow us to view the world differently. It’s important for your life and your soul to go watch a sunset and to take a walk and recognize the beauty of the place that’s around you.
Alex: I agree with you completely. Work and life — we shouldn’t make them separate, even though it seems like we have to allocate them that way. That frame of mind is also what I want to bring back. What’s so unique about this program specifically is that it tells you why the academics apply to real life, why the academics ought to be brought into life.
Hayden: This semester, more than ever, schoolwork has become something I really want to do. It makes me think about life, and how I want to live a life. I want a life in which what I am doing is something I’m excited to do.
Q: What’s your relationship with the oceans and coasts like now that you’ve been through the semester?
Alex: It’s so funny. Before coming to Mystic, the sea was this thing that we don’t know. By the end of this program, the sea is something we still don’t fully know. It’s still the unknown. In the end, you’re still learning.
Hayden: Before this program, I viewed the ocean as just this place I loved to visit, and that made me feel so happy and so full. And now I view it as a subject. It’s more than just a place: It’s the unknown, and it’s a subject I want to continue studying for an indefinite amount of time.
Emily: Before, I definitely did just see the ocean as a place and a mystery. Like Alex said, it’s still a mystery. But I’ve been able to study it in ways I would not have imagined before. It makes me think about all the possibilities out there that I have not yet seen.