A Deep Dive into Williams-Mystic

By Tali Natter

At Williams-Mystic, classes take place at sea and along the coasts, all across North America. Photo courtesy of Hayden Gillooly.

Deep in the middle of the Caribbean sea after midnight, Alex Quizon ‘21 and his watch’s professional mate were on night watch navigating a ship. Sailing from San Juan to St. Croix, the sky was completely dark. The mate turned off the lights that illuminate the ship’s compass in the dark and, under the night stars, taught him to steer the ship the “old school” way, using the constellations that were visible due to the lack of light pollution. “I’m never gonna get a moment like this again,” Quizon thought to himself.

At Williams-Mystic, moments like these are common. The cohort of students travels to each of America’s three coasts to investigate the literature, history, policy, and science through interdisciplinary, hands-on learning. 

“The basis of learning [at Mystic] is that you’re outside like you’re in a tide pool poking and touching things and feeling the world around you in a really wonderful way while getting the expertise, knowledge, and enthusiasm of your professors,” said Hayden Gillooly ‘21.

Gillooly came to Williams-Mystic looking for a change of pace. A resident of North Adams, MA, she had never traveled before. “I think somewhere along the lines as I grew up, I lost the fun of learning, like the enthusiasm, the excitement, the wonder that childhood has, and I really wanted to have that back again.” 

Another student attending the program hoping for a new experience was Devon Parfait ‘22, who went to Williams-Mystic after attending community college, before transferring to Williams full time. “I felt ready to just jump on board and see where life takes me. I was just chasing a better life and education for myself.”

Like Gillooly, Parfait highlighted the experimental learning. “It was the first time that I truly felt like I was living in the moment,” he said. “I was learning things by being there physically; pulling on the ropes of the sail, sailing the ship, being in the ocean, going to the tide pools, and playing with the animals on the rocks. That experiential learning really helped my education to solidify, not just by being in a classroom or teaching yourself in your room, but actually going out in the world and exploring.”

At first, Parfait thought the entire semester was at sea, a common misconception, but the program is actually based at Mystic Seaport Museum in Mystic, Connecticut. “It was just kind of a big community,” he said. “We had a barbecue pit, we had a lawn, we played frisbee; we just had a good time. The seaport is open to you 24/7, so nothing feels limited; they have bikes for you to ride, you can go in the water with paddle boats or kayaks. While it was snowing, we made cookies and drank milk and watched shows together.”

Students sailing in Mystic Seaport. Photo courtesy of Hayden Gillooly.

The three alums of the program all emphasized the tight-knit community of the students as well as the merits of the interdisciplinary approach to learning. “In a normal course load, your different classes and fields always seem really separate,” Gillooly said. “At Mystic, all the professors know what you’re learning about in your other classes, and they all know how to make connections and references. Like, ‘I know you’re reading Moby Dick in English class, now here is why that makes sense from a scientific perspective or here’s why this isn’t actually scientifically accurate.’” This approach to academics influenced their interests. “After the program, my interests changed and are no longer solely academic-based or science-based,” said Quizon. “Now I want to get involved in science education, science communication, and hopefully science policy far down the road. I definitely want to branch out and apply science in ways that are tangible and make tangible solutions in our world.”

Gillooly had a similar experience, coming to Williams-Mystic as a political science major but now a Geoscience major pursuing a thesis with a professor from Mystic. Students come to Williams-Mystic from a range of academic backgrounds such as Biology and Environmental Science, but also English, American Studies, Law, Anthropology, Psychology, and more. 

Quizon came to Williams-Mystic as a chemistry major, and after the program, added the Maritime Studies concentration. “I had a lab partner in my science class and his major was something to do with shipping and commerce and trade, and he hadn’t taken a single science course in college up to that point,” he said. “I had more of a science background so I was able to show him the ropes, and then he was able to help me out with the history components for the program. So it was just really cool to meet people from these different disciplines and see the different facets of maritime studies and environmental studies coming together.”

Gillooly agreed. “Academically, you can really kind of choose your own adventure in the program. The professors really take you as you are, and help you grow from where you are. So even if not everyone is on an even playing field, like, this person is going to have an advantage with science because they are a bio major, your professor is going to help you and make sure you are engaging with science in a way that’s meaningful to you. The history majors maybe dive really deep into primary resources at the History Collections unit of Mystic Seaport Museum, whereas that was very new to me, and I felt kind of like leaning on my peers who had more history experience.”

Parfait also leaned on his peers and professors. “Coming from community college was really tough for me to keep up sometimes,” he said. “For the policy class, I reached out to the professor Katy Robinson Hall and I asked for help, then every week she would give me guiding questions to help me out with decoding the policy reading. I asked other professors and students how they stay organized which helped me to become a productive, academic person, and it just felt really supportive.”

The field seminar in the Redwoods Forest of California. Photo courtesy of Hayden Gillooly.

The combination of academic disciplines and the ability to choose what to pursue is exemplified in the field seminars and research projects, where each student designs their own projects based on their interests. An independent project that stuck out to Quizon was his policy proposal addressing the plastic pollution crisis locally in Connecticut and Long Island sounds, where his professor encouraged him to seek out and speak to the people who are directly connected to those issues. “I talked to a fisherman whose livelihood is being affected by the plastic pollution crisis; I talked to several scientists and policymakers who do research and who passed laws regarding those things. Talking to the people involved introduced an aspect that I didn’t really understand before, about connecting science, people, and policy,” he said. Even though I’m interested more in the science aspect and may not continue that in the future, it definitely helped me.” On the science side, he also noted that the data and sampling is all real and done out in the field, rather than simulated lab data he found in classes before Mystic.

The Louisiana Field Seminar was the most meaningful for Gillooly and Parfait. For Gillooly, it introduced the personal aspect to a topic that seemed academic. “Going to Louisiana and meeting people who sea level rises is directly affecting just was so humbling. Because I always naively thought ‘okay, if the sea is rising, why don’t you just leave,’” she shared. 

“But then meeting with someone who’s a lifelong alligator hunter whose whole livelihood is based on swamps in Louisiana; meeting with tribes, and they have burial grounds there and have this huge emotional, spiritual, ancestral connection to the land. Realizing how complicated these pressing issues are made me realize that there’s really no one direct solution. It was after that field seminar that really made me realize I wanted to switch my major because I wanted to keep studying these issues interdisciplinarily and have the power of people.”

Parfait had the exact opposite experience, as this trip introduced the academic aspect to an issue that was already personal for him as the future chief of the Grand Caillou/Dulac Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe located along the Louisiana Gulf Coast. “I come from southern Louisiana and there’s an accumulate estimate of a football field worth of land loss every hour,” he said. “It’s a really important issue that I think about all the time.” 

Parfait took the research skills he gained from Williams-Mystic and began a research project at Willams on the land loss in Louisiana and its disproportionate effects on tribal groups. “I’ve been speaking at conferences, I use it to advocate and educate because not a lot of people know that the tribal communities really exist or how much land loss is happening,” he said. “That all came from my time at Williams-Mystic; we traveled down to my tribe and talked about the coastal land loss, and seeing my state, my family, and my home, in this academic lens was really life-changing for me. Mystic really put me on that path and taught me all of the skills I needed.”

In reflecting on their semester goals of seeking new experiences, Parfait and Gillooly both feel quite successful. “I felt like I went through a whole year or two years worth of experiences in a semester,” said Parfait. “I came back home and my family was like, ‘who are you?’ They could tell how much I had changed.”

“I feel like I love learning again,” said Gillooly. “That hasn’t worn off since Mystic which has been now two years ago.”