"Primary Research Bootcamp": A Recent Alumna Reflects on Her Williams-Mystic Experience

by Paula Consolini, PhD, Director, Center for Learning in Action, Williams College

Shanti Hossain (F’16) explores the Port of Oakland aboard a tugboat as part of the California Field Seminar.

Shanti Hossain (Williams ’19) attended Williams-Mystic for the Fall 2016 semester, during her sophomore year. One year later, as a junior pursuing a double major in Computer Science and English, she reflects on her semester at Williams-Mystic and the impact it has had on her time at Williams.

What drew you to Williams-Mystic in the first place?

I wasn’t considering attending Williams-Mystic at all until my freshman spring, the semester before I actually attended. On the first day of the semester, there was an informational meeting with Tom Van Winkle, the Executive Director, and several alumni from the program, and I decided to pop in. I wasn’t seriously considering the program, because I didn’t think I was the ‘type’ of student to do Mystic. I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to major in anything like Biology or Environmental Science, and while I appreciated the ocean and its importance, I wasn’t obsessed with it or wanting to study it for the rest of my life. But when the alumni of the program started talking, I realized that a lot of them were just like me. A lot of them didn’t have any particular reason for wanting to dive into studying the ocean, but they loved the program anyway–because, like all Williams students, we just love to learn, and Williams-Mystic really celebrates learning in all its forms.

What surprised you about the program when you got there?

The admissions directors of Williams-Mystic often said that the hardest part about recruiting for Williams-Mystic is trying to describe the program in one sentence, and I think that’s absolutely true. If you think about it just as “the Maritime Studies program” or “the program where you live on a boat,” then you’re really failing to capture so much of what the program is. You could just as easily describe it as “Interdisciplinary Studies 101,” or “Learning to Live in a Community,” or “Primary-Research Bootcamp,” or “Proof that Domestic Study Away Can be Just as Eye-Opening as Study Abroad,” and all of those descriptions would capture some crucial part of the Williams-Mystic experience.

How has Williams-Mystic changed the way you think about your studies?

I’ve always been interested in interdisciplinary studies; I think most of us at Williams chose to go to a liberal arts college because we’re passionate about so many different things. Part of the Williams academic ethos is taking classes across the divisions, making connections across your classes. But it’s somewhat up to you to craft a program of study that pushes you out of your comfort zone and allows for those cross-discipline connections. Williams-Mystic basically says: what if we all stopped for a semester to focus on studying one thing, the ocean as a case study, and learning what it means to experience it from every possible perspective? The program is crafted so that you’re constantly making connections, constantly relating one subject to another. The professors plan their lessons so that it happens. Our campus is a museum, so we’re constantly surrounded by our subject material. I’ve learned how important interdisciplinary learning is to me, and now that I know what true commitment to it looks like, I’m pursuing that as much as I can for the rest of my time at Williams.

How did your classmates’ perspectives change your experience?

One of my favorite parts of the program the community-living aspect of Williams-Mystic, because it gave me the opportunity to learn so much from my classmates. Academically, we do so much throughout the semester that it’s absolutely impossible for you to excel at everything. And as a result, you’re constantly bringing out the best in one another. Maybe someone’s great in one class or another, but then someone else brings a constant supply of energy to your skills class, or is that one person who’s really, really good at entertaining everyone on long car trips, or teaching housemates to cook. Because residential life and extracurricular life and travel life are just as important as academic life, it moves the focus from competing academically to growing as people, together.

What about Williams-Mystic do you think will stick with you a decade from now?

My experiences on the field seminars–the trips across the country we took with our professors–will stay with me for a long time. It was just an incredible experience to sit as a group in one spot, maybe on the banks of the Mississippi River in Louisiana, or overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, and have that one spot inspire a lecture from our history professor about a historical event that happened there, then having our English professor read and analyze a poem inspired by it, and then have our policy professor talk about the different maritime laws that impacted who used this space, and how. It showed me just how many perspectives there are around every single place and event and opinion, and it showed me how valuable–and exciting–it is to learn about as many of those perspectives as you can.


This piece was written for and originally published in the Center for Learning in Action Chronicle, a publication of Williams College’s Center for Learning in Action