Sometimes, I can be an overly spontaneous person. When I sent my application in last year to be part of the Williams-Mystic class of spring 2012, it was only after I dropped the envelope in the mail that I remembered that I was a first-year. I would be studying away as a sophomore. I shrugged it off, thinking that Mystic wasn’t studying abroad per se, so what difference did it make what class year I was?
A semester later, my sophomore fall, I realized that it did make a difference. Several of my friends began to make plans to study away their entire junior years, meaning we would not see each other again until we were seniors. When I began to get nervous about leaving, there were very few people in the same situation for me to turn to. Although during their junior years, entire friend groups begin to go separate ways, I was in a unique situation – I felt like a trailblazer. I remembered a little too late that I don’t like doing things first – or doing them alone. I began to regret my decision to go to Mystic my sophomore year.
It became incredibly clear when I first stepped foot on the Williams-Mystic campus that I had nothing to be afraid of, and my fears were momentarily assuaged. I was living in a house that reminded me a lot of my home. The kitchen was bright and clean, my single had an awesome stained glass window that overlooked a large model tugboat and a nice lazy brought peanut butter and jelly to our house so we would have food when we woke up on our first morning. Two of my housemates were from the College; we all liked the same food and we played Ingrid Michaelson when we cooked. When we showed up for orientation on the first day, everyone magically knew my name. That was probably because I was wearing a nametag, but it was still nice. By the second hour in Mystic, I was embarrassed that I had ever been scared.
After being lulled into this false sense of security, I was brought onto a ship with 24 people I really didn’t know that well and proceeded to puke over the leeward side of the ship for hours. Except I didn’t even know what the leeward side was (the lower side of the ship), or what a head was (turns out it’s a bathroom) or what it meant to scrub the soles (soles are floors and scrubbing, well, just means scrubbing). I failed at everything, from steering the ship to juggling oranges for a talent show (I forgot the ship was moving). I couldn’t wait to get onto land.
When we got back to Mystic, I thought everything would be under control – apparently not. We set our oven on fire while making a snack for policy class, a pipe on our washing machine exploded in my face and I got stranded at a state park because I had lost my car key. We’re required to take science, and I was reminded why I am a humanities person when I couldn’t differentiate the dinoflagellates from the diatoms and kept sticking the microscope in my eyes. Suddenly, I wanted to be back on the ship.
I’ve been here for a couple weeks now, and everything is far from under control. Every day I find myself in strange new predicaments that wouldn’t have been possible at the College. I’m learning what foods to cook when you invite professors over for dinner and why it’s important to remember when garbage day is. Looking back at our time at sea, I don’t think about how half the class was lined up like dead fish on the deck, occasionally rolling over to be sick. I think about what it felt like to be aloft, climbing up the rigging and looking down at the ocean. I even think about what it felt like to be woken for watch (your shift on duty) at 3 a.m. Even though the groggy stumbling from my bunk is not necessarily a fond memory, the knowledge that I can strike the jib after three hours of sleep is an empowering one. Late-night homework will never feel impossible again.
Often over the last couple of weeks, I’ve wondered how my experience would be different if I hadn’t made the rash decision to study away as a sophomore. I think the apprehension I felt upon arriving at Mystic has amplified my experience here. Sometimes, Williams feels small, and I think that is an almost universal observation. When studying away, it seems counterintuitive to take a break from the College by choosing an even smaller program. At Mystic, the 24 of us spend every day together. When we have parties, it feels like even our professors must know about them. They know about everything. But like WOOLF (or probably any orientation program), Mystic uses the fear and excitement of a new experience to foster an incredible community and to teach people things about themselves that they might not have figured out otherwise. It has only been three weeks, and I’ve figured out for the first time that I love science. I love sailing, and I can’t wait to be on another ship. I can cook a mean sweet potato ginger soup, and I can put out an oven fire. When my shipmates need me at 3 a.m., I can strike the jib or take the helm. When I return to Williams next fall, I will look back fondly on every fire, for as they say, smooth seas do not make skillful sailors.
Meg O’Connor ’14 is from Wethersfield, Conn. She is currently studying off campus with the Williams-Mystic program.