Class of 2020: Remember Your Resiliency and Strength
College of Arts & Sciences
Shai Nickerson’s Carolina story is one of extremes: She once spent two weeks living in a mountain cave in Nepal as part of a Buddhist meditation retreat, taking a vow of silence, shutting down all technology and subsisting on only white rice.
But in some ways, her journey from her hometown of Wilkesboro, N.C., to Carolina felt just as extreme. The first-generation student describes growing up in a “nontraditional background.”
“My family was very poor and we had struggles with unemployment and drug abuse; it was a dark place,” Nickerson said. “I never thought I’d go to college, much less a place as great as UNC-Chapel Hill. To be here and to be a senior is astonishing, for me and my family.”
Not only did she have a successful academic career at Carolina, she traveled all over the world, discovering a passion for global education. She studied abroad three times — in Nepal, Greece and Israel — and made a presentation at the IES Abroad (IES stands for Institute for International Education of Students) conference in Chicago alongside Heather Ward, associate dean for study abroad in the College of Arts & Sciences.
It all started for the senior global studies and religious studies major when she received her first passport through the Center for Global Initiatives’ Passport 2 Go! Program during her first year at UNC.
“I’m part of the LGBTQ+ community, and I’m the first in my family to go to college and to travel outside the United States,” Nickerson shared with attendees at the conference. “I have seen firsthand the ways in which UNC Global has successfully implemented programs and resources to help diversify education abroad.”
Initially her main concern about studying abroad was financial; she worked two, sometimes, three, jobs to help pay for college. The spring semester of her sophomore year she was awarded the U.S. State Department’s Benjamin A. Gillman International Scholarship to study abroad in Greece for six months. That experience changed her life.
“While I was there I had an epiphany: I decided I wanted a career in international education where I could help students like me have these really incredible experiences,” said Nickerson, who is also pursuing a minor in medieval and early modern studies.
Once she returned to Carolina, she landed a job as a work-study student in the Office of Study Abroad, where she would work for two years. She also studied abroad twice more. She did a summer religious immersion program in Nepal, taking classes in Buddhist philosophy and meditation with monks (where she had her cave experience). And she traveled with UNC Hillel to Israel (she had taken classes in Hebrew her first year).
“We really got an immersive look at the whole country, from spending time at an agricultural kibbutz to a visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem to the city of Tel Aviv to learning about geo-politics on the border with Palestine,” she said.
Study abroad was very important in terms of her career trajectory, but it was an academic class that had the most impact on her personal life, Nickerson said.
In her religious studies capstone course with associate professor Brandon Bayne, students studied narratives of confession and conversion. For her final class research project, she shared her mother’s story.
At 4 years old, Nickerson lost touch with her mother, who had problems with drug addiction and crime, after Nickerson moved in with her father’s family. Once Nickerson graduated from high school, she and her mother slowly started to rebuild their relationship.
“I focused on my mother’s conversion from drug abuse to Christianity and how she used a faith-based rehab program to completely change her life around and become a different person,” she said. “I learned so much about my childhood I never knew. Now I have a really good relationship with my mother.”
Nickerson will continue her dream of helping students have the opportunity to study abroad when she goes on to graduate school to pursue a master’s in international education from the University of Exeter in England.
She is sad that the semester had to end the way it did, without time to have one more drink from the Old Well or to say a proper goodbye to professors and office colleagues. (The meditation came in handy, though, during the social-distancing and quarantining).
She gives a shout-out to Carolina seniors who have all been on this crazy ride together — over four years having to deal with hurricanes, protests and counter-protests and now a global pandemic.
“All of that really speaks to our resiliency and strength. Step back and remember. Be proud of yourself.”