Willow Wind: Outstanding Graduating Student

Willow Wind of Rumford, Maine is the Outstanding Graduating Student in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. The Honors College student is a communication major with minors in media studies and Spanish. Her academic honors include a McGillicuddy Humanities Center Fellowship and James S. Stevens Outstanding Junior Award, both in 2022, and a 2021 Center for Undergraduate Research Fellowship Award and first-place recognition the Communication and Journalism Showcase for her research project: “Communication Goals and Practices of Trans- and Gender Non-conforming (TGNC) Individuals and Their Impact on Mental Health.” Her Honors thesis is: “Conceptualizing and Enacting Gender Euphoria: Exploring Awareness and Action Across Gender Demographics.” Wind has conducted research in collaboration with professor Liliana Herakova, focused on trans and gender-nonconforming communication and mental health, and as a research assistant in the Media Psychology Lab of professor Amelia Couture Bue, working on a project exploring the desirability of STEM to college women. She also has been active in the Scholars Strategy Network, Progressive Pipeline, and Partners for Peace, and in a UMaine collaborative effort to improve classroom belonging. Wind plans to pursue nonprofit advocacy work and a master’s degree. 

What difference has UMaine made in your life and in helping you reach your goals?
UMaine has connected me to opportunities I never knew I needed. The variety of internships allowed me to explore different careers in my field, helping me discover my precise career goals. Overall, the supportive community I’ve found made me feel like I was doing the right thing, no matter what that was. I’ve often been insecure about missing out on clubs or other extracurriculars, but my mentors have always celebrated the ways I’ve chosen to get involved.

Have you had an experience at UMaine that has changed or shaped the way you see the world?
In a word, research! As an R1 institution, UMaine has ample resources to support undergraduate projects. I didn’t realize how much conducting my own study with a faculty mentor would shape the way I think or how I would grow as a person. Interviewing people is such an intimate, informative experience that I am unfathomably grateful to have experienced. Listening to the life-stories of other human beings forces you to reconsider the way you look at the world and yourself. The same can be said for connecting with peers and instructors.

Why UMaine?
I chose UMaine because it was financially accessible for a first-generation, self-supported student like me. The Maine Top Scholar Scholarship gave me the privilege to attend UMaine at this point in my life. UMaine continued to be an affordable option by connecting me with various supports, such as the Senior Alumni Non-Traditional Student Scholarship. It is important for me to acknowledge that my experience doesn’t represent the situations of other students, especially as the cost of tuition continues to rise. While finances contributed heavily to my decision to attend UMaine, my choice to stay here was made easy by the deep personal relationships I have been able to cultivate with faculty members and students across disciplines. These relationships have inspired me to ask bigger questions, believe in my abilities, and seek out new opportunities.

How would you define the opportunities for student success at UMaine? Is there any particular initiative, program or set of resources that helped you succeed?
Being connected with a faculty mentor and research funding through the Maine Top Scholar program was one of the most impactful opportunities I’ve had while at UMaine. Building a close relationship with a faculty mentor through this program was one of the most invaluable parts of my college experience. My mentor, professor Liliana Herakova, and MTS Director Nives Dal Bo- Wheeler connected me with numerous opportunities to explore my interests and share my work as early as my second semester. Beyond these concrete professional development and experiential learning opportunities, I sincerely treasured having someone to go to with questions, doubts and ideas. Lily gave me room to get to know myself while highlighting the tools I needed to succeed.

Have you worked closely with a professor or mentor who made your UMaine experience better?
For the past three years, I have been advised and mentored by professor Liliana Herakova. Her compassion and guidance have made me the researcher I am today and an overall better person. Lily is a phenomenal human being. I couldn’t dream of a better role model, and can’t imagine what my experience would have been like without her. I also want to thank professor Melissa Ladenheim for her continued support throughout my college career. While she was not my mentor in a technical sense, she has guided me and supported me through countless circumstances. She made sure I knew I was never alone, whether she was connecting me to resources, writing a letter of recommendation or just checking-in.

What advice do you have for incoming students to help them get off to the best start academically?
I would advise incoming students to find two things in their first year: their passion and a support system. Some students may not know what they want to do, coming to college because it is what is supposed to be next. It’s okay if it takes time to discover what you are passionate about, but think about this question early and often. Knowing why you are sitting through a long lecture or reading dense material helps make that effort rewarding and enjoyable. Homework will feel like a stepping stone instead of a hurdle. Try not to think of college as a bunch of boxes to check, but as a place where you can explore and become the person you want to be. This journey will be so much easier if you build your support system early on. Be open, honest and vulnerable about the struggles you are facing. There are so many resources and compassionate members of the UMaine community here to make sure you have the best experience possible. Talk with your instructors and peers; build relationships.

Contact: Margaret Nagle, nagle@maine.edu