Interviews by Amanda F. Korman ’10
Commencement is just one stop on a journey that has brought students from all over the globe to Williams, only to scatter them again. Each of this year’s 513 graduating seniors (along with 12 graduate art history students and 30 development economics fellows) has an amazing story to tell. We chose to focus on 10—among them an adventure-seeker shattering stereotypes in Alaska’s salmon-fishing industry; an Afghan refugee rebuilding his war-scarred homeland; a future doctor with an artist’s eye; and a budding journalist incorporating China’s history and culture into his news coverage there. On the following pages, these students share their hopes, dreams, passions and plans.
Image credit: Student portraits by Roman Iwasiwka. Commencement photo by Paul Guillotte.
Lindsay Olsen, Homer, Alaska—Education and Adventure
Raised in an Alaskan town where the middle school curriculum included cold-water survival skills, Lindsay Olsen thought of education and adventure in the same breath.
From the time she was 5, her father, Eric ’74, a commercial fisherman, promised he’d drive her by motorcycle to college so that she’d know her way home. Thirteen years later, the Olsens arrived for First Days in leather chaps, the approximately 6,000 miles they’d traveled written onto the tires of Eric’s BMW bike. Olsen devoured the course catalog, sampling classes across the academic disciplines. Among the history major’s favorites: physiology, printmaking, Scandinavian literature, the 14th amendment and geology of the Galapagos.
Still, the wilds of home’s cold ocean called. Though she’d never before played a sport, the 6’1” Olsen became a standout on the women’s crew team. A junior advisor, she also spent the summer before senior year with two friends, running the only all-female commercial fishing vessel in a fleet of 500 off Alaska’s Bristol Bay. One day they thought their ship might sink; another, they hauled in 10,000 pounds of sockeye, cutting through the sexism on the docks by notching the biggest catch of the day.
The winner of both a Watson and a Fulbright fellowship (she had to turn down the latter), Olsen in August sets off on a yearlong exploration of fishing communities in both hemispheres. Before she goes, she’s spending one more summer with her own crew on the Alaskan sea, her calloused rower’s hands proving with every heave of the trawl what a “girl boat,” as her ship’s been dubbed, is made of.
Matiullah Amin, Kabul, Afghanistan—Building Home & Homeland
Within months of learning he’d been accepted to Williams, Mati Amin and his family received more news. His father, Roohul, had been appointed governor of Farah province in Afghanistan by President Hamid Karzai. Given the demands and risks of the position, Roohul told his college-bound son—the eldest of eight—that responsibility for the family now fell to him.
So by the time Amin was a sophomore, five of his siblings were living with him in his off-campus apartment in Williamstown. A year later the youngest two arrived with their mother. Amin helped the older sisters and brother apply to private high schools and colleges. Between classes, the political science and economics major shuttled his 5- and 6-year-old brothers to and from elementary school.
Born in a refugee camp in Pakistan after his parents fled the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, Amin knows that his purpose for studying in America (and facilitating the same for his siblings) is to return home prepared to induce change in the war-scarred land. Through his nonprofit Afghan Youth Initiative, Amin has helped young Afghanis secure trash receptacles for public parks and teach illiterate women the linens trade.
In articles for Foreign Affairs, The Hill and The Diplomat, Amin writes about nonprofit community development and peace talks with the Taliban. He’ll continue to focus on community development with a job this summer overseeing projects for the D.C.-based social enterprise firm Ashoka.
For all this, Amin has become, perhaps above all, the family man his father charged him to be. The main difficulty of his unusual undergraduate life, he says, was the tug of war between his school work, requiring him to hunker down at Schow Library, and his younger brothers, playing at home, where he truly wished to be.
Erin McGonagle, Englewood, Colo.—The Art of Medicine
For Erin McGonagle, even bladder surgery on mice requires an artist’s eye. Researching bed-wetting in children who experienced trauma, the chemistry and studio art major spent the summer after her junior year in a Philadelphia lab, cutting catheters to fit individual rodent bladders. Even such an apparently clinical task, she discovered, required exquisite observation of detail.
Sure of her desire to be a pediatrician since she was a little girl, McGonagle personalized her path to medical school with a Luce Scholars fellowship that will place her at Angkor Hospital for Children in Siem Reap, Cambodia. For 10 months she’ll use the Khmer language skills she’s acquiring this summer to observe surgeries and work in the hospital’s community-outreach art gallery.
As a high school volunteer at a children’s hospital in Denver, McGonagle cheered young patients with painting and mask making. And a drawing class her sophomore year at Williams helped her to realize that the serious pursuit of art was itself a way to connect with people. So, for her senior studio art project, McGonagle introduced herself to strangers around the Berkshires and offered to sketch them. In charcoal, she developed emotional connections with people she hardly knew—a prelude to the kinds of leaps of empathy and attention that will be central to her chosen life in medicine.
Liyang Zhang, Los Angeles, Calif./Shenyang, China—Freedom to Learn
In the lonely transition from Shenyang, China, to one of Los Angeles’ largest high schools, Liyang Zhang nearly forgot himself. As a teenager, he spent his last year in the People’s Republic and his first six months in the U.S. by himself while his parents, formerly workers at a clothing factory, tried to lift the family out of financial desperation.
Unable even to understand the word “agenda” on the blackboard when he first arrived in California, Zhang thought he would attend community college. Then his AP chemistry teacher pointed out Zhang’s aptitude in math and science. A future high-school valedictorian, Zhang had won national math and physics competitions in junior high. Although the exam-oriented academic culture in China hadn’t encouraged such curiosity, he’d developed a hobby of solving complex math problems in his free time.
At Williams, Zhang found more teachers who appreciated, as he puts it, the beauty of knowledge. When philosophy professor Keith McPartland took him out for coffee after his first class as a freshman, Zhang felt the first inkling that he would be at home in Williamstown. By senior year, the math and physics major shared an affection for the irreverent show South Park with his thesis advisor, Romanian-born math professor Mihai Stoiciu, because the two immigrants saw the animated comedy as an encapsulation of the political freedoms available in America.
As a junior, Zhang took six courses each semester, mostly math, brushing off suggestions that he “get a life” by asserting that, happily, the subject was his life. After becoming a U.S. citizen this past fall, he and a team of Williams classmates earned an honorable mention at the prestigious William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition, and over the winter Zhang received an offer—only days after the application deadline, in a surprise, 2:30 a.m. phone call—to pursue a Ph.D. in math at Yale. At the end-of-year math department dinner, Zhang’s professors awarded him, simply, “best senior.”
Newton Davis, Saginaw, Mich.—Finding Balance
Newton Davis was the go-to guy for getting things done at Williams. Elected to College Council his freshman fall, he recruited diverse college applicants for the Admission Office and was a leader of the male-minority group, the Griffins Society. He helped to shape Claiming Williams Day and to redesign the ’82 Grill, and as treasurer of All Campus Entertainment and Spencer Neighborhood, he managed $110,000 in budgets.
But by the spring of his sophomore year, with five classes, two upcoming summer research projects on race and ethnic minorities, and questions forming about his sexuality, his balancing act was beginning to wobble. Fellow students encouraged Davis, the only child of a single mother from Saginaw, Mich., to run for College Council president and serve as a junior advisor. But he was so burned out that he decided instead to spend junior year abroad. In Spain and Brazil, the history and Arabic studies major sorted through his priorities and realized that he needed to focus more fully on fewer things. He also started to feel comfortable saying he is gay.
Back on campus, Davis took up the single activity that had previously never made his to-do list: lingering over a cup of coffee with an acquaintance or a friend, trading stories and questions. He discovered that what had been missing in his prior, hectic life was this kind of challenging but supportive connection.
The recipient of an ultra-competitive Harry S. Truman Scholarship his junior year, Davis began to explore how he could pair his innate ability to lead with his desire for more meaningful encounters with others. Sifting through post-graduate possibilities, he was drawn to work that mixed a business mind-set and a nonprofit ethic. As he begins a consulting job with Accenture in Philadelphia this fall to prepare for a career in international social enterprise, Davis imagines for himself a life where, between the boardroom and places in need, he builds a bridge—and finds balance.
J. Adam Century, Troy, N.Y.—Making News
Adam Century was in an internet café in China the summer after his junior year when he saw the announcement: State-issued IDs would now be required to access the Web. Reading the jargon-filled notice, Century thought to himself, “There’s a story here.”
A researcher and reporter interning at The New York Times’ Beijing bureau, Century set the ball rolling on a story about the government’s latest attempt to curtail bloggers’ freedoms by collapsing the anonymity of café IP addresses. Within a week the news had made its way into the Chinese press, and the state announced it would roll back the policy.
Century grew up in Montreal and then Troy, N.Y. Though he wanted to be a journalist, he wasn’t sure what he’d be qualified to write about until, at the age of 16, he spent a year studying in Nanjing, China. Narrating the trip to friends, Century sought to entertain his audience with stories of unusual experiences— such as the day at compulsory military training when he had to march the goose step for nine hours straight. At the same time he wanted to challenge American assumptions about China’s culture, explaining, for example, that teens in Nanjing dated and played basketball just like their U.S. counterparts.
At Williams, the history and Asian studies major worked to round out his experiences in China with a better understanding of its past. His professor, scholar of medieval Chinese literature Christopher Nugent, helped Century to pull 2,500-year-old verse into his senior thesis about the impact of microblogs on the public sphere.
Century is heading back to China to report again for the Times, first using his Jeffrey O. Jones ’66 Fellowship in Journalism and then on a research Fulbright. The former Williams Record staffer sees his education as his distinguishing professional badge: keeping millennia of history in mind as he brings to light new information for the country’s citizens and readers abroad.
Hillary Higgs, Springfield, Mass.—A Point of Light
Hillary Higgs didn’t think of herself as a leader, even as friends in her inner-city high school in Springfield, Mass., credited her tutoring with helping them to graduate. Even as she excelled in three varsity sports. And even when, at 16, she publicly confronted the Springfield School Committee about a proposed calculus requirement she felt would cripple her peers’ chances of making it to college—a move that landed her the first student seat on the city education panel.
It wasn’t until a friend became the unintended target of a gang-related shooting, and the award to honor his memory as a successful student-athlete was placed in Higgs’ hands, that she began to understand that her community was looking to her as a point of light. At first, coming to Williams challenged Higgs’ self-perception. She struggled to reconcile her urban Western Massachusetts identity with the bucolic, well-to-do town only 75 miles away, even as she logged milestones like setting the college record in the 400-meter dash (56.11 seconds). But by senior year, with a National Education Association internship and a summer spent as a teaching assistant for Williams’ Summer Humanities program under her belt, the American studies major realized that she had the gumption—and desire—to become a high school teacher in urban areas like the one she grew up in. An experience helping a student connect with The Great Gatsby by comparing the decadence of West Egg with the glitz of the hip-hop world fortified her personal theory on teaching: Make it relevant, and students will learn.
With the goal of one day starting her own education nonprofit, Higgs began her master’s in urban teaching at Boston College in June. One of only 25 national recipients of a $30,000 Woodrow Wilson-Rockefeller Brothers Fund Fellowship for Aspiring Teachers of Color, she was humbled to learn that Boston College would also be waiving the entirety of her tuition, matching its commitment with hers.
Michaela Morton, Winston-Salem, N.C.—Found in Translation
Storytelling has always been Michaela Morton’s first love, whether she’s following her passion for writers like Samuel Johnson as an English major or learning a new language well enough to translate entire plays as a French major. Or she’s treading the boards of the ’62 Center, playing the role of the acerbic singer of “The Ladies Who Lunch” in Stephen Sondheim’s ’50 Company or the highfalutin Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.
The Winston-Salem, N.C., native spent her junior year in Paris, where she resided with a family, attended church and studied at the entirely French-speaking theater conservatory Cours Cochet. There Morton found fortification in adopting the local style of spending time: long meals that finished with coffee and a stroll, and a whole day of rest and reflection every Sunday.
She brought that lifestyle back to Williams, where she joined the board of Storytime, a weekly congregation of students who carve an hour out of their hectic Sunday nights to listen to a peer narrate sometimes humorous, sometimes wrenching personal stories over homemade cookies. The gatherings, to Morton, consecrated time as the French might.
A poet whose work twice earned honorable mentions in the college’s Bullock Poetry Prize competition, Morton also started writing for the stage—including a whimsical kids’ musical, Big Shoes, which was chosen to be performed in rural elementary schools by the North Carolina-based Open Dream Ensemble. Aspiring to build a life out of acting, writing and translation, Morton will spend August through November traveling with her production as a member of its cast, proving with her own work that a storyteller can speak with the body as well as the pen.
Will Su, Montgomery Village, Md.—Connecting with Art
Will Su had already bought a Middlebury sweatshirt when he was snapped off Williams’ wait list in late July of 2008. But the Montgomery Village, Md., resident accepted the 11th- hour offer, sensing that Williams was the kind of place embodied by the teacher he most admired at his all-boys school. John Botti ’96 was regarded for both his universally inviting teaching and for knowing every student in his classroom well enough to ask about the big game or the sick parent without missing a beat.
At Williams Su cast his net widely as a tutor at the local schools, actor in theater productions, student chair of the Honor and Discipline Committee and club water polo player. But it was in his art history classes that Su, the son of Chinese immigrants, felt the hum of material both critically satisfying and broadly appealing. Devoted to art objects made of paint, clay and metal, the subject, to Su, invoked visual, visceral pleasures that could be understood by anyone.
As a college museum tour guide, he saw that with the right prompts he could induce a third grader just as easily as a college senior to do a formal analysis of Harold Edgerton’s high-speed photograph of the path of a bullet through a bar of soap. His senior year, Su crafted a thesis on conceptual artist Jenny Holzer’s work, arguing that her heat-sensitive bean bags and concentric garden of strange plants push audiences to get involved—to plop down on a seat or water the soil. When he landed a Teach for America post in Charlotte, N.C., Su withdrew his applications to Ph.D. programs in art history. Before heading into the high-volume impact of museum work, he says he wants to go one-on-one in the classroom, where he first learned that a personal connection is a door to something more.
Niralee Shah, North Adams, Mass.—Frustration, then Elation
At the start of every problem set, Niralee Shah would ask herself anew why she was majoring in math. By the end of each one, she would find herself falling in love again with the subject. The yank between frustration and elation, originating in a multivariable calculus class her freshman fall, convinced Shah to leave behind her political science aspirations for the department that would eventually award her “best senior colloquium.”
Born and raised in North Adams, Mass., 10 minutes from campus, Shah spent her time at Williams pursuing that mental crucible where discomfort meets discovery. After 14 years of ballet training, she took a spot on the college’s innovative contemporary dance ensemble, CoDA. With conceptual artist Sol LeWitt as a muse, she began to choreograph for poetry, forcing herself to stop thinking of movement as a set of rules and instead letting her body express itself freely, as art.
As she heads to Manja, Jordan, to teach math at King’s Academy in the fall, Shah is drafting her own strategies for the quandaries ahead both inside and outside of the classroom. Situated literally in the middle of the desert, the New England- style prep school, founded by Deerfield’s Eric Widmer ’61, has a tricky time procuring sneakers that would enable girls to play sports. So Shah is considering teaching the Brazilian martial arts- inspired dance style Capoeira—no shoes required.
See a slideshow
of Niralee’s day.