Feeding That Sense of Purpose: Zach Arfa (F’19)

By Hayden Gillooly (S’19)

Hayden Gillooly is an alum of Williams College, Class of 2021. She now works as the Assistant Director of Admissions for Overland Summers.

In Zach Arfa’s (F19) senior year at Oberlin College, he received an email from Williams-Mystic asking if he wanted to study the ocean. The program sounded so neat, that Zach wondered whether it was real. He researched the program, applied, and was enrolled within a week. As a Dance and Psychology double major, Zach brought a unique perspective to his Williams-Mystic semester, intersecting the arts with science.

My conversation with Zach covered everything from his experience catching salmon with his bare hands during his Williams-Mystic Alaska field seminar, to understanding climate-related trauma through a psychological lens. I could have listened to Zach talk for hours—his face lit up while leapfrogging between topics. I felt like a student in class with a favorite professor, furiously writing down notes—trying to capture it all— and completely captivated by the energy that Zach emits.

For the last few years, Zach worked at the Hilltown Youth Recovery Theater, doing movement and circus arts with teenagers who are overcoming trauma and addiction. Now, Zach is currently working for Americorps through a disaster relief program. He was deployed in Louisiana, and then in Texas, and recently moved again to Kentucky to help rebuild and do mold remediation. I was immediately curious to hear about what it’s like to enter communities whose infrastructure has been ravaged by natural disasters. “They said that if you’ve seen one disaster, you’ve seen one disaster,” Zach said, matter of factly. Each situation is unique. There is little separation between one’s work in this field, and their “off” hours, since so much of the experience requires workers to live in the disaster zone, too. Zach and his coworkers were living in an RV, eating frozen meals, and working 12-14 hours six days a week. 

Zach explained how stress is, at its core, a physical process. “It lives in our bodies”—with tension and electrical signals. We often think of stress as a “cognitive and emotional thing,” however, “it’s kind of nebulous (in our colloquial understanding), even though we all feel it.” It sometimes feels all-encompassing, when in reality, there are pinpointable components of stress within us. Perhaps it’s in our tensed shoulders, or locked jaw. Studying dance in conjunction with psychology has allowed Zach to “reconceptualize it [stress] as this physical sensation.” 

For Zach, movement—in both big and small ways—allows him to reconnect with his body even in the times of most intense stress. This is especially important when Zach is “engaged with situations where the stakes couldn’t be any higher,” such as working on the frontlines of disaster relief. Zach shared a strategy that one of his dance professors uses during times when she is busy and overwhelmed with deadlines. It’s not necessarily about big, grandiose movements—it’s about “feeling the weight of the library doors while entering and tracing the little pen movement that creates vibrations, or the weight of the lawn mower.” Zach believes that “attention to these moments of our day that we take for granted can be that respite.” Since chatting with Zach about this technique, I’ve integrated into my own life—being intentional about noticing the feeling of the snow crunching beneath my boots, and my fingers tapping on my keyboard. Our bodies are a miracle, really—our heart beating and lungs filling with air, without us asking them to. Savoring these small touch-points feels like an expression of gratitude. 

As two Williams-Mystic alumni, our conversation naturally shifted to focus on environmentalism. Approaching climate studies from a psychological lens, Zach wonders “how do you face an existential crisis in the face and not get paralyzed?” He discussed recently listening to the podcast Drilled, which dives into the cover-up strategies of the oil industry, and explores just how much these companies knew and know. Zach explained how the companies’ strategies are to put the blame onto consumers—to make us feel as if all of the environmental degradation is a result of the inaction of individuals. This feeling is engrained “deep in us, and fits in with a culture of individualism—it’s the American myth that we think we’re strong individuals.” When, in reality, it is the systems set up by those large companies that are responsible for the climate crisis. In other words, it’s not the fact that you drive your car to work every day, but the fact that the only way to get to work on time is to travel on roads with a certain speed limit and vehicle type requirement that only cars fulfill, and no other option is easily available. The strategy of  the anti climate change action organizations is to “dilute the issue to make it seem like individuals in isolation can do anything.” We need to be thinking about systems; not just how we get better cars, but how we get better roads. As we grapple with the emotions related to climate change Zach said that “we don’t need to feel the guilt and shame as strongly as we do.” 

Strong approaches to addressing systemic issues must be rooted in building connections. “It’s too much to put on ourselves. We need to hold this [trauma and stress] together,” Zach explained. And processing these nuanced and complicated topics together isn’t about “getting rid of the hopelessness and fear,” because all of our emotions are valid. It’s about holding these feelings together through all of the trials and tribulations of our changing world. 

After the Williams-Mystic Louisiana field seminar, Zach felt overwhelmed by the magnitude of struggles that Lousianans are facing as a result of climate change. In Zach’s time processing his role in these large-scale issues, a quote attributed to 16th century theologian, Martin Luther, stuck with him. Martin Luther was asked, “What would you do if you knew the world was ending tomorrow?” Luther replied, “I would plant a tree.”  

Whether it be helping to pick up the pieces after a natural disaster, or working with young people to spark their joy and enthusiasm about movement and dance—the work that Zach is doing certainly plants seeds of change. Zach explained how the work “doesn’t have to be huge and dramatic. It just has to be engaging, and feeding that sense of purpose to do good work.” Knowing that special people like Zach are ‘planting trees’ for our future makes me feel hopeful about the world that we live in.

Image taken from zacharfa.com

A Semester For the Books: Mackenzie Myers S’17

Evan McAlice, Assistant Director of Admissions and Communications

An extraordinary tenet of the Williams-Mystic Program is its open invitation to students from many different schools, disciplines, and academic backgrounds. Our ability to be a transformative liberal arts experience relies on our students, who collectively form a broad spectrum of perspectives that inspire incredible academic discussion. One of these extraordinary students is the subject of a recently published book, Am I Too Late: A mother’s reflection on her son’s gap year and how it prepared him for an uncertain world, and a chapter is dedicated to his semester at Williams-Mystic.

Am I Too Late? details the academic journey of Mackenzie Myers (S’17) and the impact of his gap year between high school and college. The book, authored by Mackenzie’s mother, Cindy Funk, and her collaborator Jim Bellar, explores the pressure placed upon students in a competitive academic environment and illustrates how Mackenzie rediscovers his love of learning. Chapter 11 of the book, titled “Mystic Winds,” details Mackenzie’s Williams-Mystic semester, an experience that bookended his gap year journey.

Prior to attending Williams-Mystic, Mackenzie spent his gap year hiking the Appalachian trail, teaching English in Eswatini, and sailing 226 miles on the Salish Sea in British Columbia. According to Funk, Mackenzie’s experience in Eswatini engaged him with issues of climate change and its impact on indigenous communities – an interest that was strengthened through his semester in Mystic.

“When he arrived [in Eswatini], they were under a drought,” said Funk. “Looking at that environmental impact, he became very interested in those types of issues. Williams-Mystic did a seminar in Louisiana meeting with indigenous populations, so there were all these things that happened before he got to Williams-Mystic that really drew him in.”

Mackenzie heard about Williams-Mystic through a family friend, but was unsure if he would be able to attend, given his lack of college experience. After some back and forth communication with Executive Director Tom Van Winkle, Mackenzie was admitted to the program. Soon enough, Mackenzie boarded a plane from Portland to Boston, and his adventure began.

Funk cites Mackenzie’s housing experience as one of the first highlights she noticed about the program. Mackenzie lived in Johnston House with three other students, all of whom had drastically different lives and academic experiences. According to Funk, Mackenzie’s ability to budget and be resourceful made him a valuable community member, but it did not stop there. The Johnston housemates had developed systems to divvy up chores that promoted open communication and collaboration.

“I was really struck by how the four of them had come together,” said Funk. “They had a calendar that outlined everyone’s chores, like who was going to buy groceries, and it was really smart. They planned their meals together too, and that is something that was such great training for them.”

Mackenzie on the SSV Corwith Cramer for the Offshore Field Seminar

In just the second week of the semester, Mackenzie and the rest of his class flew to San Juan to board the SSV Corwith Cramer for their offshore field seminar. During his time offshore, Mackenzie swam and snorkeled in the Caribbean Sea, collected and presented data to his fellow classmates, and was even chosen by his peers to lead his watch.

Another academic highlight for Mackenize was his performance in Moot Court. In a week that often poses a significant challenge for many students, Mackenzie presented his argument effectively and received glowing remarks from the faculty and the presiding judge. This was a source of pride for Mackenzie, who had been proving himself to his peers, as well as displaying growth into a more active leader.

“I think he took full advantage of Williams-Mystic,” said Funk. “And being in such a small cohort experience, it was neat to see that he had actually been recognized for his work.”

Mackenzie holding an alligator during the Gulf Coast Field Seminar in Louisiana

Since leaving Williams-Mystic, Mackenzie went on to graduate Magna Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Oregon with a degree in Environmental Studies. Funk also shared that she didn’t even learn about her son graduating Phi Beta Kappa until a week after the graduation ceremony – a testament to Mackenzie’s growth and humility.

As Mackenzie searches for where life will take him next, Funk looks back fondly at her son’s time at Williams-Mystic, and marvels at his growth and independence.

“As I identified in the book, it’s his journey now,” said Funk, “but I do know that he’s still interested in learning, and that’s very exciting.”
In many ways, Mackenzie is the classic Williams-Mystic success story – proof that there is no one way to succeed in our program. He perfectly demonstrates the strengths of a small program that supports students of all backgrounds. Mackenzie not only made the most out of his time with the program, but used his experience as a springboard to further his education and regain his love of learning. We can not be more proud of everything he has accomplished, and we look forward to seeing him continue to shine. Am I Too Late: A mother’s reflection on her son’s gap year and how it prepared him for an uncertain world by Cindy Funk and Jim Bellar is available to read on Amazon, Apple Books, Google Play, Indie Bound, and more. You can support Cindy Funk and her work by visiting her website.

41st Reunion in Review

“Life changes, but Williams-Mystic is something that will always bring us together.”

This post was written by S’18 alumna Audra DeLaney. Audra enjoys visiting the ocean, going on adventures, and telling the unique stories of the people and places around her. 

Every college program deserves a homecoming of sorts: an opportunity for people to reflect on their experiences and learn from fellow alumni. Williams-Mystic’s homecoming is the annual alumni reunion that takes place right where it all started: Mystic, Connecticut.

The 41st Williams-Mystic Reunion took place September 21-23 under the direction of Lyndsey Pryke-Fairchild (F’03), Katy Robinson Hall (S’84), and countless other alumni and faculty and staff members.

For maritime historian Alicia Maggard, this was her first time experiencing a Williams-Mystic reunion.

Alicia fully enjoyed her time speaking to alumni of various ages. Each conversation taught her something different about what it means to be a Williams-Mystic alumnus.

“I was struck by the robustness of the community. I believe that speaks to the impact the program has on the lives of each and every student,” Alicia said. “Knowing that brings about great responsibility, but also such great joy.”

As a faculty member, Alicia worked behind the scenes to help make sure the events on each day went smoothly. While doing so, she was able to connect alumni with current F’18 students.

“Connecting current students with alumni was exciting because those students could learn how Williams-Mystic could affect different aspects of their lives, both personally and professionally.”

Alicia thoroughly enjoyed meeting alumni who have dedicated their lives to the maritime industry as well as those who are working in different career fields.

For example, Alicia mentioned an S’88 alum who spoke to how many of his classmates chose to work in the maritime industry or remain passionate about maritime topics — and also how Williams-Mystic teaches students how to approach issues in a way that can be useful whatever career you pursue.

Matt Novosad, an F’17 alumnus, commented on the live auction portion of the reunion.

“There was a pretty good bidding war between two groups on a stay in Johnston House,” an item only available to recent alumni, Matt said. “Seeing Katy [Robinson Hall (S’84)] take on the role of being an auctioneer was so memorable and hilarious.”

Alicia also enjoyed the live auction.

“It was so zany, so exciting!” Alicia said. “I enjoyed seeing fellow faculty members, [Executive Director] Tom, and alumni getting super into the bidding.”

Another highlight for both Alicia and Matt: Josiah Gardner (alias Glenn Gordinier, Williams-Mystic’s just-retired maritime historian) made an appearance.

“Going to the reunion this year was a great chance for me to catch up with my classmates, one of whom flew in from Minnesota,” Matt said. “Life changes, but Williams-Mystic is something that will always bring us together.

THANK YOU to all those who helped with the Reunion this year. Your dedication to Williams-Mystic is evident. See you next year!