I met Gabriella Kallas ’16 in my first days at the College and immediately looked up to her. From dashing across the rugby field to running workshops on sexual consent for high schoolers to interviewing Iraqi Jews for her thesis, she inspires on a lot of levels. I interviewed her to hear more about all she has learned and accomplished at the College – and what she will do in the future!
Congratulations on your latest rugby victory! How has rugby been?
I joined my junior year because after having a really rough sophomore year and coming back knowing that a lot of my friends were going to be gone, I wanted to radically change the way that my college life went. I used to play field hockey, so a sport like frisbee didn’t have enough contact for me to be interested in it. Like, I can’t touch people? I’m out. I wanted to join rugby not only for the athletic aspect of it, but also because rugby is known as a place with people from all different types of backgrounds, and it’s just a place that welcomes people with a broad range of experiences. I thought, “That’s a perfect place for me.” After having a rough time, I wanted a new social group that would be welcoming and accepting of me … And that’s exactly what happened. Probably one of the best decisions I’ve made at Williams was joining the team. I’m even glad that I joined it halfway through because it feels like I’ve had kind of two very different college experiences. I love it. Yes, it is kind of a high risk sport, but the rewards are so high in terms of having a really supportive team and in terms of getting to know and trust people on new levels, because with sports that are that high risk and high injury, you need to trust everyone on your team. Your team needs to trust each other to be safe.
So you started SWAG [Sexual Wellness Advocacy Group.] Can you tell me where that came from?
It comes from a lot of things. I think everyone, probably every non-cisgender male in college and probably most cis men too, probably knows someone who has been sexually assaulted or has been sexually assaulted themselves. I think everyone has dealt with questions of consent at one time or another. And to me, that just kept hammering home so much during sophomore year. And it became something that I was really passionate about, so I thought, “How can I help? What is a way that I can solve this problem?” Educating people before college was something that really stuck out to me, because, while I think it’s good that colleges teach it, I think that by the time most people get to college they’ve had some sort of sexual experience on some level; they’ve already developed a lot of their attitudes towards sexuality and a lot of people have already been assaulted. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t teach it in college, but you really should teach it before college. And really it should start in elementary school. And that’s really where SWAG came from – from seeing the need to start well before college on issues of consent and healthy relationships. And that just came from seeing it everyday – seeing how people talk about each other and how they talk about their own relationships, how they excuse and romanticize things that are abusive, like stalking. There’s a clear need for it, so that’s why I decided to start the group.
Can you explain in quick summary what it is that you do?
SWAG teaches consent, healthy relationships and other wellness topics to elementary, middle and high school students in the Berkshire county region.
You’ve had to fight your way into some schools, haven’t you?
Yeah, it’s obviously harder to work in public schools than it is in private schools because there is bureaucracy. And not everyone necessarily thinks that kids should be learning about things that are related to sexuality at all. But we teach students that consent isn’t just about sex, which is true – consent is about an attitude towards treating other people. Like if I walk up to someone and hug them without their consent, that’s still kind of messed up. Just generally, if I do things without people’s consent, it’s not good. We try to teach people to just generally be empathetic and communicative, and I think that’s something that’s valuable for all people, always, regardless of when they’re going to start being in sexual relationships. And I think that maybe part of the reason why we weren’t “accepted” at first was because we didn’t express how we wanted to teach non-sexual consent. But we’re very articulate about that now because we started to move into working with elementary schools. But most people have been really excited.
Do you run workshops?
Yeah. I also worked over the summer as a sex-ed teacher running workshops. I can’t say that I have a favorite workshop, but I loved working with fifth through eighth grade girls. That was just amazing and such a great experience. And I think generally it’s just so great to see how people can grow just through a workshop or a workshop series. I remember we had one kid who at first was kind of making comments that were rape apologist type things. He was saying consent is clunky, or not sexy, or it doesn’t make sense to do or it doesn’t really happen – basically he was not into the idea of consent. But by the end of the workshop series, he was coming up to us asking what more he could do and who he could call in to talk to in order to make sure he was do-ing as much as possible. I feel like these workshops are full of those moments.
What are you doing next year?
I’m going to Greece for a Fulbright. I’m really excited. I have family [in Greece] – they live about 10 minutes from the school I’m working at. I’m going to be teaching English. Part of what I’ll be doing is giving presentations on American culture, history, society, things like that. A lot of the kids are probably going to end up going to college in either England or the United States, so I’m trying to prepare them for the United States. I’m an American studies major, and a lot of the work I’ve done is about complicating dominant narratives in American history. So I’m kind of hoping that I’ll be able to bring that to the students that I teach. It’s going to be difficult, but it’s going to be awesome, and I feel like I kind of have a leg up being raised Greek and American.
You did a thesis, right?
I did do a thesis. It’s due in a week and a half. I wrote my thesis on negotiations of identity among Iraqi Jews in New York City and Long Island. It was really fun. It’s weird to say my thesis was really fun. But when I tell people about my thesis I’m always like, “I got to talk to people and eat good food. I got to go to someone’s bar mitzvah and a really fun synagogue event, and I got to go to a film festival. I got to see a cool art gallery.” I guess it was just kind of fun because I was doing research on something that there wasn’t a lot of research on, so it was less about being in the library and reading a thousand sources and more about having to go out and talk to people and have people as my sources. Plus I got to eat really good food.
You’re leaving Williams soon. Is there anything you’re going to miss?
I’m really going to miss the academic community that I’ve fostered here. I’m going to miss how much the professors care about their students, and I’m going to miss the learning that happens outside of class with professors and with students who care about their work and social justice and engaging with those types of things intellectually. Last semester I had the best academic experience when I took the Israel-Palestine tutorial with Magnus [Bernhardsson, professor of history]. I had an amazing partner who is one of my best friends. I’m going to miss experiences like that where you just get to read 12 books and have intense hour and a half-long conversations. When is that ever going to happen in the working world?
What are you most excited for about graduating?
I’m definitely really excited to have new adventures. One of the reasons I picked Williams was because I wanted to be intense in my studies, be secluded for four years and read everything, and I’ve done that for four years. I’m ready to experience the world. I’m excited to see everything in action, to apply what I’ve learned to actual things, to work with people face-to-face and work things out with people face-to-face. I’m not going to be working so many hours a day that I’m going to be so tired, so I’m hoping to experience all of the things that Athens can offer. If I want to volunteer with refugees, I’m going to do that. If I want to work with a group that does the type of things I do with SWAG, I can do that. And I’m hoping to do all those types of things, to see what is going on in the university scene and the activism scene in Athens. And that’s what I’m excited about – taking everything I’ve learned and actually seeing how it works out outside of Williamstown. I hate to say “in the real world,” because Williamstown is the real world, it’s an actual place. But outside of, at least, this one context.