Upon starting their College experiences, many first-years are forced to answer a daunting question of which extracurriculars they want to participate in. For Grace Fan ’19, this question was easier than it is for most. The Humans of Williams Facebook page, started by Susmita Paul ’16, is simple in its goal: with a picture and a caption, each post tells the story of a different student, professor or staff member at the College. For Fan, this seemed like a natural fit, given that she ran a similar page for her high school, “The Faces of Falmouth High School.”
“I had kind of been eying the page for a while before I came to Williams, and I was like ‘this is something I want to do … I messaged the page and was like, ‘Hey, if you need help, let me know, I’d be more than happy to help you out,’” Fan said. “So I guess someone had forwarded an article about my page, and so she had heard about me, which was kind of strange coming to Williams as a naive frosh. Susie was like, ‘Actually, you can have the page.’” As a first-year, Fan was already the new head of Humans of Williams.
Angela Yu ’20 and Jojo Fernandez ’20 round out the rest of the Humans of Williams team this year. “For me, similar to [Fan], I had kind of been eyeing the page as well, and it just so happens that [Fan] was my storyteller for first-days,” Yu said. “She had mentioned that she was the organizer of Humans of Williams … So I went up to her and asked her if at all I could help with the page.” Fan got back to her, and Yu has been a part of the team since January.
“I had also seen the page, and I had thought that it was really interesting, and I follow similar pages like Humans of New York,” Fernandez said. “[Fan] was my WOOLF [Williams Outdoor Orientation for Living as First-years] leader, so I learned more about the page through her during the trip.”
According to Fan, the nature of the College community has helped the page thrive. “Something about the Williams culture that stands out to me when I interview people is how willing people are to open up … They’re always so willing to talk to you and tell their stories and be vulnerable. I think that is a really amazing thing when you’re trying to do a project like this.”
Asked if they had any plans to pursue photo journalism in the future, the group’s answers were very mixed. “Personally, this is a learning experience for me. Even though I have the interest in everyone’s individual stories, photography isn’t something that I’m particularly really talented in,” Fernandez said.
For Yu, Humans of Williams is more of a mission for personal fulfillment. “I like that I’m able to find purpose through photography and learn about people’s stories, but I mostly do it for personal enjoyment, not as a profession,” she said.
For Fan, however, photography has been an ongoing passion that has fed her love of storytelling. “I actually started taking photos before any of this came to be. I was really able to discover my love for stories and people’s experiences and sharing those things through photography in a way,” she said. “For all of high school I wanted to be a photojournalist, and photography is still something I hold dear and try to do as much as I can on campus, but it actually just so happens that stories are now my focus.”
The group shared with me some stories that stood out in particular. Yu mentioned her most recent post about her custodian, Curtis Cowell. “He shared with me his story of getting crazy, intense brain damage after a car accident, and he told me all about his recovery … But the love of his family and the medical treatment that he got helped him a lot through those very painful times,” Yu said. “Later on, he came back to me and told me that lots of his friends didn’t know this story, and that they were really inspired by what he had [been] through.”
One post that stood out to Fan in particular was Paul’s self-portrait about her own story while running the page. “I think the way that the page has influenced me the most is through her legacy,” Fan said. “She raised up the voices of marginalized students on campus by talking about their experiences on campus as immigrants, or people of color or people struggling with mental health issues and really made these identities known.”