One in Two Thousand: Petra Tiiso McGinty

Tiiso has been one of my best friends since my first-year Williams Outdoor Orientation for Living as First-years (WOOLF) trip. In the years since, I have known Tiiso to be one of the kindest and most magnetic souls on campus. I was happy to interview her in our cozy off-campus apartment, before and after a surprise fire alarm.

Where are you from?

I was born in Botswana, which is in southern Africa just north of South Africa. It’s a landlocked country about the size of Texas, for reference, which feels big but I think that speaks to how huge Africa really is because Botswana is fairly small for Africa. My mom is also from there. Her family is originally from South Africa and I lived there until I was about 5, and then we moved to upstate New York – this really small town called Oswego; it’s a terrible place – really cold, actually freezing all the time. We lived there for a really short time and then from there I moved to Syracuse, N. Y., and that’s where my family still lives, and that’s kind of where I would consider myself from now, because that’s pretty much where I grew up.

What is Syracuse like?

I’ve come to appreciate it a lot more, I think. I used to not like it because it’s a very small city; it doesn’t really have a lot going on. And where I lived felt very small too but as I’ve grown up I have become really proud of it. I think the culture there is unique and there are a lot of really cool things about it and I think it’s also becoming cooler – or at least it seems that way to me. [Laughs.] Part of that might be because I’ve moved away and when I come back things are actually different – as opposed to living there and feeling like nothing ever changed. But yeah, it’s not bad, I like it – I don’t think I would live there myself, like post-graduating – well, we’ll see. [Laughs.] But I can appreciate it as a cool place and I’m happy to have grown up there.

And you’re a huge Syracuse sports fan, right?

Yes, so historically, Syracuse has had a really strong football program, but they’ve been really bad in the past decade or so, but it’s still really fun. The culture of the city is still definitely very much centered on Syracuse athletics and the basketball is typically really good – ranges from pretty good to really good every year – so that’s a lot of fun. I love going to the events – I love being in the Carrier Dome, which is like our stadium arena thing. I think it’s cool because I don’t know if I would care or appreciate sports otherwise, if I wasn’t from a place where I was always rooting for a team – but I think that I do have an appreciation for sports and an understanding of sports that I wouldn’t otherwise have. Which can be cool, when I’m watching other teams and I usually know what’s going on.

What was your high school like?

I really liked my high school. I went to a public school – Nottingham High School. It was pretty big, about the same size as Williams, maybe a little bigger. And very diverse – that’s one of the things I really like about Syracuse. There’s a really big immigrant and refugee population, so a lot of the students that I went to school with were new Americans or the kids of new Americans, so there were a ton of different languages being spoken and people wearing the traditional clothing of where they were from, and it always just felt like there were different people and different things going on. It felt very vibrant and lively in that way. It was definitely very chaotic – academically, classes were kind of ridiculous, rules were not really a thing that people followed with any seriousness. So it was a lot of fun I think but in terms of learning, it was hard, and that’s actually one of the big reasons that I picked Williams. Because I had come from this really big, hectic high school where you had to literally fight to get a word in in class to have any level of participation, and all I had heard about Williams was about these small class sizes where you really get to know your professors and you’re gonna become best friends with your professors and I was like, “wow, my teachers can’t even hear me when I talk so that sounds great.” [Laughs.] And it’s really funny because that’s actually one of the things that frustrates me about Williams now – the size, but it’s funny that it was one of the major deciding factors of why I came here.

What is your major?

I am currently a political science major, and my track within political science is political theory, which I think is way too hard for me, but is really fun and really interesting. The professors in the department are so good, obviously most of the professors at Williams are amazing. I really like theory – I like the discussions we have in those classes. And I don’t think I would’ve done poli sci if I couldn’t have done the theory track.

What has been your favorite class at Williams?

Ooh, my favorite class is “Sex and Politics.” It was with Josh Vandiver, who was a visiting professor and just a really interesting and funny person. I took it with one of my best friends, Mary [Imevbore ’18], and we just talked about sex and power all the time. It was called “Sex and Politics,” but it really should have been just called “Sex.” It was really fun, and I feel like I learned a lot too, even though I did go into it liking it mostly for the entertainment value. But I came away from it having learned a lot. 

I know that you’re super outdoorsy; what kind of backpacking trips did you go on growing up?

My parents have always been into camping and backpacking, so even in Botswana we would do “bush trips” where we would camp in the Okavango Delta, which is northern Botswana, and then when we moved to the U.S. we were always close to the Adirondacks, so we would do camping and backpacking trips on various trails in the Adirondacks. So I’ve done a lot of Appalachian Trail trips – we backpacked the Grand Canyon when I was 11, the South Rim side, and that was really fun. We’ve done other things out west – we did a Bryce Canyon backpacking trip. They were always really different in terrain and environment – I think actually every trail is really different, with backpacking, and it’s always just very relaxing and a really nice way to pass time. I’m kind of sad it’s something I don’t do more, but part of it is that it really is something I associate with my family, and kind of growing up, so I think it’s hard for me to have the motivation to do it without my dad. He kind of plans and prepares everyone for the trip.

You’re really into Drake. What is your favorite song or lyric of his?

My favorite Drake song is “Connect” which is on Nothing Was the Same. I feel like it’s kind of a wild-card answer, just because I don’t think people really think when they think Drake, “Connect” is the first thing that pops into their head – but I think the song is really well done. It’s very layered, it’s all a baseball metaphor if you listen to it, but is also just about this relationship between two people when communication is off and there’s misunderstandings and stuff. Favorite Drake lyric is way harder – I would have to think about that a little bit. … I think one of my favorites is, “This ain’t the son you raised, who used to take the Acura at 5 a.m. to shoot Degrassi” – I just think it’s really funny, because he’s so dramatic about his upbringing, all his hardships, but it’s like you were on Degrassi, that’s why you are a rapper because of your connections from that weird show you were on – that’s probably not my favorite but I do think it’s funny.

Do you have any advice for first-years here?

When I first got here, I felt this really intense need to assimilate and match what I saw in other people and what I was finding in the people that I met, because I felt so different than the people that I met. … I feel like I’ve been happier since I carved out my own space at Williams instead of trying to fit in to what I thought the typical Williams student was, and I’m still working on that. I think it’s still hard for me to feel like I want to prioritize being myself and not feeling like I’m an outsider, but there is a place here for everyone that’s here, and you might have to forge that for yourself if you’re different or outside the mold, but it is important to do that.