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29th January 2024 Jasmine Ashworth (2022, English)

Exeter students receive warm welcome at Williams College, Massachusetts

Jasmine Ashworth (2022, English) was one of ten Exeter students who travelled to Williams College, Massachusetts in January to take part in the liberal arts college’s Winter Study Program. The Exeter to Williams trip is now in its seventh year and is fully funded by the two colleges, ensuring that the opportunity is open to all.

Exeter students with a snowman

Another pastel-coloured clapboard house wearing its front porch like a scarf to ward off the winter cold disappeared from the view of the car window. The highway ended not three metres before the house rose up from the ground, with no gate or meagre hedge to ward off the busy traffic, or neighbouring buildings to comfort it. It felt as if we were driving through an abandoned Hollywood film set. No paths ran by the roadsides (as fellow Exeter student Jacob and I would discover later) and the absence of human community strengthened the feeling that we were retreating further from real life. And then, past a length of murky forest – unforgivingly dark now evening had fallen – familiar red brick sprang up from mowed lawns and pristine footpaths. Neat networks of roads signalled our arrival in Williamstown, over 3,000 miles from Oxford.

Having heard so much about the cold and snow that would be our constant companions on this trip, I remember waking up disappointed to find mild air and bare roads. However, after a few days of Winter Study Program classes, during which the thermals I had brought remained unused in my drawer, we finally heard warning of the oncoming snowstorm that would hit Williamstown that night. The view from the Williams Inn, in which the ten of us were staying, was exhilarating. A fresh blanket, without even a footstep or a squirrel track, lay in wait. It was quickly decided that we should build a snowman. Will conjured up an old Exeter freshers’ t-shirt and we set to work. The snow however was fine and powdery, more akin to icing sugar than the icy building blocks of a good, tall snowman. Charlie, to his credit, spent a dedicated half-hour tediously rolling what would be the snowman’s head, whilst the rest of us packed snow together to form a mound of some sort. Once a Williams student’s breakfast banana had been procured for its nose, and the head carefully placed on the body, it was born. Our Exeter College memorial snowman. She was beautiful.

Given the relaxed nature of the Winter Study Program, there was plenty of time to see the concise catalogue of tourist attractions and local recommendations. The Clark Institute, both a museum and research centre largely dedicated to impressionism, features the likes of Degas, Renoir, Sargent, and countless others. It is a cultural gem sequestered between the purple mountains of Williams. We also got the chance to experience more modern and avant-garde art with our visit to the former factory turned contemporary art gallery, MASS MoCA, five miles east of Williamstown. Although I prefer the impressionism of the Clark, it was a fantastic opportunity to walk among the exhibits of indoor rollercoasters, disorientating light rooms and the looming wall drawings of Sol LeWitt, leaving one feeling both curious and somewhat unsettled. I guess that’s modern art. The hiking club, who together venture bravely out into the mountains at 6am on Fridays, extended an invitation to accompany them on their sunrise hikes. The Exeter turn-out was strong, just under half of us donning (finally) our thermals and flasks and making the climb up Pine Cobble trail. The sunrise made the scramble worth it, oozing sleepily over the mountain opposite us. We shared the moment with 20 or so Williams students, a couple of brave professors, and some hot chocolate. Despite the hour-long climb, we were still standing in the shadow of Mount Greylock, the highest mountain in Massachusetts, and could see the white lighthouse perched on its peak in the distance, illuminated by the morning sun.

In the classroom, the Winter Study courses were a welcome break from the intensity of an Oxford tutor’s study. We had the choice of four courses: Wonder and Play (which appeared to be making paint from dining hall scraps), “Be”ing Whole (yoga in winter clothing, according to one Exeter student who took the class), Relating Your Research, and Exercises in Nature Writing (though these change every year). I picked Exercises in Nature Writing, and found it a pleasant journey into a genre of literature unlikely to be included in my English degree. Our professor was a wonderful man who lived and breathed geology and found our homeland to be a fascinating addition to both his course and his own knowledge (yes, we do in fact have toasters in England). We had only light work to do, such as reading the odd paragraph of a book or writing pretentious homages to the Lincolnshire countryside, but what was set was enjoyable and felt a far cry from Oxford essay crises at 1am. Of course, these relaxed few hours on weekday mornings do not reflect Williams College come term time, but they felt a fantastic addition to university life, allowing students to sample a diverse range of subjects not necessarily relevant to their university courses.

When we were not studying or taking in the cultural side of Williamstown, we dedicated ourselves to discovering how similar Williams College is to our ingrained stereotypes of American universities, absorbed from film and TV throughout childhood. Several parties complete with the iconic red disposable cups, dining hall food in 50 shades of beige, a trip to Target in a Jeep, and two basketball games later and it seemed to be matching up pretty well – just perhaps on a much smaller scale. Jacob and I bravely made the two-and-a-half-mile walk from North Adams to the local Walmart, scrambling alongside the busy road. We quickly realised – after nearly falling down several ditches, being scraped by traffic or climbing over guardrails – that America truly is not walkable.

Our time in this peaceful, picturesque New England town with just one class, if that, a day sometimes felt surreal. We were dragged out of this daydream by five hours spent in Logan Airport, all sporting our newly acquired Williams College merch, before the overnight flight back to England, back to sub fusc, Collections, and a (temporary) marquee-shaped dining hall. I would have happily stayed in Williamstown for longer, if just to finish the Winter Study Program.

To all those thinking about applying next year, do! The Williams trip has been a fantastic opportunity I would never have received anywhere else. America has always held a fascination for me, and I am extremely grateful to have been able to visit without the hinderance of expensive flights and accommodation, which were kindly funded by Exeter and Williams Colleges. Hopefully this Hilary Term will deliver some snow to Oxford and remind us of the fabulous trip. Thank you, Williams!

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