Learning: 2500 Miles from Home

Spring Break Service in Grand Canyon

We’ve probably all experienced how leaving home can help us to see it more clearly.

That’s what happened when my travel schedule enabled me to join part of a spring break service trip, one of several around the country organized by the college. This one was to the bottom of the Grand Canyon with eight students and Outing Club Director Scott Lewis, his wife Bernice, and their daughter Mariah; and math professor Mihai Stoiciu. It was awesome—in both the dictionary and the Valley Girl sense of the word.

The canyon itself, almost 300 miles long and a mile deep, brings a lump to your throat, whether you’re gazing down into it, looking up out of it or hiking its steep sides. Like other sublime natural wonders, it both humbles and inspires at the same time. If you’ve never been to the canyon, I urge you to go there. It instills, in addition to awe, deep pride in our national parks. Most enlightening for me, though, was getting to see our students operating out in the world. The college’s purpose is to prepare students to lead fuller and more effective lives out there in the world. But we rarely get to see the fruits of that labor, which reflect how well we’re structured here on campus to prepare students for life after Williams.

You can guess how smart and alert these students were. But even I was surprised at how quickly they gelled into a strong, supportive group. They welcomed the physical challenge of carting equipment into the canyon and were eager to get down to the service work. They showed great respect for the fragile local environment, for the people they met, and for the park ranger with whom we worked most closely and whose life experience differed greatly from theirs. They quickly figured out that while their education gave them skills to bring to the task at hand, our guide had the expertise needed to achieve our common goal. All of this took place under the guidance of the indefatigable Scott Lewis. Boy, was the group focused—and, boy, did we have fun.

Though we were 2,500 miles away, I was struck by analogies to students’ experiences here in Williamstown. There is the familiar physical vigor and love of the outdoors. But, more basically, I was reminded of the typical Williams seminar class: a small group of very bright students, under the guidance of a practiced and enthusiastic faculty member, focused together on understanding better some subject of inquiry—perhaps “The Path to Enlightenment: Zen and Zen Art in China and Japan,” “Frontiers in Early American History” or “Neurobiology of Emotion,” to name three recent seminars. Nothing is more elating to an educator than a seminar in which students integrate their individual backgrounds, skills and passions into a cohesive force.

This, of course, is wonderful preparation for our students’ future engagement in their communities and professions, which rely on the collaborative work of individuals able to analyze, think, express and empathize.

That’s why I’m convinced that the experiences offered at Williams and colleges like it provide the most effective possible preparation for students who want to go out and make their mark on the world.

—by President Adam Falk

Read Noah Wentzel’s ’13 inspiring journal about our Grand Canyon adventure at

Image credit: Scott Lewis