A few spontaneous choices, the support of several friends and one William and Larry t-shirt led Samantha Nichols Gonzalez ’18 to the College of William and Mary eager to pursue passions she had left behind during high school. Four years later, she’s ready to graduate after learning a few things about herself and developing a love for handbells.
Changes, whims and spiritual minors
Before a friend recommended it and she conducted a fateful Google search, Nichols Gonzalez had never even heard of the College.
“I have a habit of making a lot of decisions based on whims instead of a logical reasoning process,” Nichols Gonzalez said. “… I feel like William and Mary does an excellent job presenting itself online to nerdy high schoolers who are like ‘Wow I could fit in with my quirky self here.’ The essay question asked about what made you colorful, and all of those things were exactly what I wanted to hear.”
For Nichols Gonzalez, the College has been a place of great personal change. Learning to be friends with herself, she said, has been one of the biggest changes. Along with this came pursuing passions she had left behind and growing intellectually through her classes.
“I feel like in every way I could have changed, I changed,” Nichols Gonzalez said. “I would say that the first layer was this return to myself. I felt like for a few years in middle and high school I had disconnected from the essential childlike Samantha and became a conformist and wrote off things that I cared about that I thought were silly. The first step when I came here was returning back to this deeper version of myself. Then, a really big one was becoming my own friend, that was something I had never considered before, I had always been looking for friendship outside of myself.”
She found this intellectual growth through her American studies major and what she calls a “spiritual” minor in geology — although she loves the program, she’ll graduate one class short from fulfilling it. When she first got to the College, she tried English and history courses, but nothing fit perfectly.
“I think I was pretty much always on that trajectory, but I didn’t know I was, I didn’t know that field existed,” Nichols Gonzalez said. “I was planning on doing English or history, I took some classes, but it wasn’t what I was wildly passionate about. I took an American studies class then and I was like ‘This is exactly the thing that I like.’”
While American studies was an obvious choice for Nichols Gonzalez, geology came more as a surprise. When she couldn’t get into an astronomy class, she picked geology on a whim knowing she liked nature and had enjoyed an ecology unit in her ninth grade biology class. She said some of her favorite academic experiences have come from going on field trips for her geology courses.
“I would get emotional on every geology trip because I was struck by how there’s profound beauty in something you would normally think is boring,” NICHOLS GONZALEZ SAID.
“The first chapter of the book talked about how stars and planets formed and used a metaphor about a spinning ballerina … and I decided to minor in it,” Nichols Gonzalez said. “I think the geology field trips capture what I love so much about geology and that side of my academic inclinations, just being able to study all of these properties of rocks and the way you can understand the Earth through something as boring and gray and simple as a rock and then going out and seeing it there and you know what you’re looking at and that just blew my mind. I would get emotional on every geology trip because I was struck by how there’s profound beauty in something you would normally think is boring.”
While she’s followed her passions out in the field, she’s also sat in classrooms that have sparked her interest. Two classes, Art and Ecology and All I Want to Do Is Be Free, have changed the way she thinks about academics.
“This life explosion for me was this class I took called All I Want to Do Is Be Free, taught by [Travis Harris Ph.D. ’18,]” Nichols Gonzalez said. “I love taking classes with Ph.D. candidates or grad students because I feel like there is something brand new and exciting about them and they are fiery about what they believe in. He really, really cared about us and how we were learning. … The whole class was about rethinking the civil rights movement to not just be trapped in the 1960s in the South by these prominent Christian, black leaders, but something that transcends time and space and ideology and people to be this long struggle for black freedom. Every class after that … it’s just changed how I thought about all of my other classes.”
A path to healing
This process of change and growth also came with challenges for Nichols Gonzalez. She developed an eating disorder while at the College, and felt that no one around her was talking about eating disorders but instead made light of dieting and negative eating habits. She soon realized that hearing other people talk about their experiences with eating disorders was helpful to her during her recovery process.
Once she felt stable in her recovery process, she decided she wanted to help others. Then, she founded William and Mary HEAL.
“I feel like I cannot separate my William and Mary experience from that whole trajectory of my eating disorder and my recovery and starting HEAL and seeing it grow beyond that,” Nichols Gonzalez said.
“HEAL is definitely intrinsically tied with my college experience and my personal growth in so many ways,” Nichols Gonzalez said. “… I eventually came to a point in my recovery and I felt stable and then it was like ‘What did freshman and sophomore year Samantha need so badly that wasn’t there?’ The bar was kind of low, all I needed to do was open the door to conversations and I thought people would come through. It’s exactly what happened. … I feel like I cannot separate my William and Mary experience from that whole trajectory of my eating disorder and my recovery and starting HEAL and seeing it grow beyond that.”
A year ago, HEAL was just a project in the works — Nichols Gonzalez was working with Colleen Reichmann, a staff psychologist at the Counseling Center, to put together a student advocacy group. Now, a full year later, she and other members of the group participated in the National Eating Disorder Awareness Walk on campus together and made signs to cheer others on.
Along with her recovery from her eating disorder and emotional growth, Nichols Gonzalez decided to join a handbell choir at a local Presbyterian church. She said she was initially hesitant to miss another club’s meeting to go to practice, but eventually decided to join because it made her happy.
“Handbells ties in really well to my emotional and self-love kind of growth because it is something that doesn’t serve any purpose,” Nichols Gonzalez said. “… If it makes me happy I am just going to go ahead and do that. Now, every Thursday night I am in this light and happy mood for no other reason than just simply doing what I enjoy doing.”
Searching for happiness in the shade of the trees
A final piece of this healing came for Nichols Gonzalez this fall when she served as an Orientation Aide for nontraditional and transfer students. Coming into her senior year, she said she carried a lot of emotional baggage from her last three years at the College, which included the accomplishments and involvements she was most proud of, but also the hardship, grief and shame she experienced.
While at first this made her feel like she wasn’t able to dive into the fall semester in the way she had been able to in years past, the students she met through being an Orientation Aide taught her a new perspective.
“I had people over the age of 24 into their mid-60s, and they were coming at William and Mary as students, same as me, but with even more life baggage behind them and these things that affected them in big ways and they were coming in fresh-faced and excited and that helped me think about things holistically,” Nichols Gonzalez said. “I didn’t have to have resolved all these things I was stressed out and burdened by. …. That’s how I found peace.”
While Nichols Gonzalez said she hopes to soak in her favorite spots and visit with her favorite people in this last semester before graduation, she is also excited for what the future has in store. She’ll be working at the Summer Enrichment Program at the University of Virginia over the summer and then she will be moving to Costa Rica to connect with her mother’s side of the family.
She said she’s not exactly sure what the next 10 years will bring her, but she’s looking forward to potentially living in New York City and then moving somewhere quiet and opening her house up to tcommunity art classes to anyone from all ages and backgrounds of life.
“The vision that I have always had for my adult life is in the countryside,” Nichols Gonzalez said. “I have no idea what I would be doing for a job, but I would be doing a lot of taking people in who are either family or friends or people who just need a place. Maybe that’s way later in my life, but that’s what I’m thinking — being under the shade of huge trees.”