An ode to Winter Study

Ethan Cooper

Slick with sweat and out of breath, I pumped my legs up the side of a gravelly hill. Reaching the top, I halted my jog and rotated, breathing in a stunning panoramic view of San Francisco and its glittering bay. The outcropping is one of the summits of a mountain system called Twin Peaks, and it was my latest checkpoint in a semi-guided, foot-driven exploration of the city. Sinking to the ground criss-cross applesauce, I couldn’t help but feel a mix of awe and thankfulness associated with the view and the privilege of having taken a travel course to this unfamiliar metropolis. 

Ten days earlier, I had arrived with 11 other students as a part of the “Essentials of Entrepreneurship” Winter Study class. In that week and a half, we met a dozen alums and pummeled them with questions on how to turn an idea into a start-up, raise venture capital, and build a team. Truthfully, you could’ve locked me in Bryant basement and presented those alums to me, and I would’ve still said I got a lot out of the month — as long as you sent pasta bowls and water in with them. Contrary to that dismal hypothetical though, I was 3,000 miles away from campus, looking out over San Francisco. 

I leaned back and closed my eyes. My skin absorbed heat from the winter sun, and with the warmth generated by my exertion, I sat comfortably, impervious to the January winds rustling through my shorts. It’s amazing how different my Winter Studies throughout the years have been. In previous contexts, the January winds have been much more bitter. 

During my first Winter Study, I took “Ultimate Wellness.” That month, I sifted through books on diet and philosophies of health like Ayurveda, taste-tested fire cider, meditated, food-journaled, and got my scalp massaged by Reiki practitioners — all within the confines of a Stetson Court classroom. I chose it because I knew that I needed to heal. By the end of fall semester, the magic of first days had given way to an ever present blanket of stress and my relationship with campus was frayed. “Ultimate Wellness” became my first line of attack in reversing the damage. 

Two years later, I toured the makerspaces of engineering labs at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, traipsed through whaling museums and explored the beaches of Falmouth, Mass. in a marine biology course. Although much less explicitly focused on wellness, the course was quite revitalizing. We only spent a little over a week traveling, and during that time, my instructor actually held meditation sessions in the evenings. I had the rest of January off while living on campus. I remember that time as a cozy month spent watching horror movies with teammates and friends, yet again bouncing back from a difficult fall semester. 

That brings me to this Winter Study. Staring out at the sparkling city on the day I scaled the Twin Peaks became just one of many joyful memories. A week into the trip, our instructor Tonio rented a van and took us to Muir Woods. It was a cold day deep in that beautiful glen from which the mammoth redwoods rose. But the chill wasn’t going to stop me. 

After the walk in the woods, we drove to Muir Beach. This was my chance to complete a link between my San Francisco self and my Winter Study self of the previous year. Arriving at the beach, I quickly changed into running shorts and walked over the bluff, stepping foot in gritty California sand. Motioning to my new friend Mico, who was going to take the plunge with me, I grudgingly stripped off my shirt. Mico did the same. Yelling to the wind, we surged toward the surf. Nice sand, then rough rocks. Rougher than I expected —  concealed under the tide. Didn’t care. Waist deep, moving clumsily through the frigid water, I pivoted my body and hurled myself under, back-first, feeling my body enveloped by cold fire. At that moment, time disappeared. I was the same person I had been a year earlier when my friend Ryan and I sprinted through 17 degree air into the Atlantic. Different ocean, same me. 

Something in me loves these cycles in time. Something in me has especially loved the annual occurrence of Winter Study. 55 years ago, Williams launched the Winter Study program, citing the “overworking” of students and the subsequent need for providing them with a time to recuperate and focus on a single area of study (for more information, read Lucy Walker’s historical piece published last year). I will always be grateful to the people that played a role in the establishment of Winter Study. Wellness, marine biology, and entrepreneurship have all been as different as they could be. And yet, each experience has served the same role for me. It has been a deeply restorative time where I’ve been able to double down on my mental health, enjoy time with my friends, re-energize myself in preparation for the spring semester, learn something new, and take a month-long deep breath. 

A friend recently remarked that Winter Study can be quite depressing. I know as well as any how the cold feels as it seeps into our bones and how maladaptive thought patterns fester when copious free time becomes ruminatory. But approaching Winter Study with the mindset that you can use it as a springboard for health is the first step in achieving improvements to your quality of life. Although what makes us happy varies a lot from person to person, Winter Study can provide the necessary ingredients for us all through its structural flexibility. So next time, kick back and lean forward, expand your horizons and narrow your focus, and embrace what the program has to offer.

Ethan Cooper ’23 is a physics major from Northampton, Mass.