Finding the confidence to speak up and to help build community at Mount Holyoke

“Now that I have the confidence to speak up, I have to speak up for people who can’t speak for themselves.”

When Gillian Petrarca first arrived at Mount Holyoke, she struggled to speak up in class. “I was just anxious to voice my opinion,” she remembered. It took a professor pulling her aside and insisting she wanted to hear Petrarca’s opinions to motivate her to speak up.

Three years later, Petrarca not only speaks up in class but also uses her voice in union organizing efforts. After graduation she hopes to continue in labor organizing. “Now that I have the confidence to speak up, I have to speak up for people who can’t speak for themselves,” she said.

An ardent feminist in high school, Petrarca knew she wanted to attend a women’s college that was gender diverse. Mount Holyoke’s strong sense of community, its many traditions and its proximity to her hometown made it her first choice. When she was accepted through the early decision program, she turned her attention to her next decision — what to study. “I thought I wanted to study journalism,” she said. But before she declared a major, she decided to try a range of classes her first year on campus.

When the pandemic sent students home in March of 2020, Petrarca was taking English and economics. She said that her hometown of Waterbury, Connecticut, used to be the world’s brass capital. However, over the last few decades, many factories packed up and headed overseas, leaving the town economically depressed. When her economics course covered economic development, “I thought, ‘I bet I could apply this to my hometown.’” Petrarca decided to major in economics and English, hoping the combination would give her the skills she needed to apply for grants and speak persuasively while working to improve the economic outlook for Waterbury and its citizens.

And, as an unexpected benefit, her time attending classes remotely made her realize how much she loved creating community — even if it was online. “During the pandemic, I worked as a virtual community advisor, and I loved it. I was supposed to do one community event a month, but I ended up doing one every week,” she said. She and her co-community advisor found that with a bit of creativity, they could create events that other students raved about, from a murder mystery night to dance parties to tea Tuesdays, when students could just sit in community and complain about being stuck at home.

Petrarca plans to look for an organizing job closer to her hometown. “I feel really connected to my hometown. My mom has six sisters, and I have so many aunts and cousins there. I want to go back and continue my work in organizing for them,” she said.

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Christian Feuerstein
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