Staff Spotlight: Hayley Nicholas

Hayley Nicholas is the director of the Women’s and Gender Center. They graduated from Bowdoin College in 2017 with a degree in sociology and education studies. Before working as the director at the WGC, Hayley worked at the Office of Admission supervising the diversity outreach interns.

Staff Spotlight: Hayley Nicholas
Photo courtesy of Emma Spencer '23E.

Q: Why did you choose to work at the WGC, and why at Amherst?

A: I initially started in admission, where I supervised the Diversity Outreach Interns. I was interacting with folks from all over and working closely with Amherst students, but I wanted to have a more direct impact on student life, especially [with] folks who hold marginalized gender identities.

As someone who identifies as queer and non-binary, and a person of color, I wanted students to see their identities reflected in a position of power in the Women’s and Gender Center. That motivated me to apply for the position and move to Student Affairs. I started working here almost four years ago. It is wild to think that I’ve been here this long. Oh goodness!

I was really attracted to the Amherst mission and its commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Amherst is very much a leader in that work, but what I also appreciate about Amherst is that it recognizes it’s not a perfect institution. The Amherst College community is a microcosm of the larger world because it’s incredibly diverse. I feel there are not many institutions that actually put in that kind of work. A lot of that kind of activism is very much student-driven. So I was also really attracted to the passion of Amherst students who are deeply and intensely passionate about social justice, and I find that incredibly inspiring.

Q: How are the subjects you studied and activities you pursued in college influencing your current work?

A: I went to Bowdoin College, and I graduated in 2017 — so my fifth-year reunion just came up! I studied sociology and minored in education studies there. I also dabbled in history classes and took several sexuality and gender studies courses. I remember one class, “Sex and State Power,” in particular, that really reshaped my understanding of capitalism. That was an earth-shattering class for me; it impacted my political ideology and how I approached my current work. In addition to what I studied at Bowdoin, I was deeply involved in the Alliance for Sexual Assault Prevention. I was also involved in the Women’s Center and the Multicultural Resource Center.

But I would say the activity I was most dedicated to was my campus jobs. I was an admission tour guide and became a senior interviewer in my senior year, so I helped interview students who were interested in Bowdoin. And then, the summer before my senior year, I also worked in the admission office as an intern … I was constantly talking about the college admission process; for many people, it’s incredibly daunting and confusing. I was working very hard to demystify the college admission process. I learned how to make things more accessible to people who may not have regular access to this kind of college admission language — in particular, first-gen students who may be completely on their own in navigating the college admission process.

This key skill influences my work even now because I want to ensure that all students know that you don’t have to be a feminist academic to engage in conversations around gender equity and sexual exploitation. You have to be willing to learn, make mistakes, and grow from those mistakes. At [the] WGC, we work to make feminism accessible for people and ensure that folks have room to have nuanced conversations. So I think that the skill that I developed [working] in admissions very much translated to my current work in addition to all of the academic theory I learned.

Q: What are some of your favorite and challenging parts of your job?

A: I really love being able to interact with students on a day-to-day basis. I derive a lot of energy from the folks here. The summertime is always nice to have a little break from the chaos of the semester. But then, as soon as students came back, I was saying to one of my colleagues that the energy on campus is palpable, because students are just so jazzed about being here and being in community with one another. I really appreciate how students are willing to cooperate and come together to work on something bigger than themselves. And I get to see that every day in the center. That’s special to be part of. I feel honored to be part of that. It feels like a tremendous privilege.

One challenge I can think of is there’s always more that I want to do but not enough time — that’s why I hired more staff this year. But that’s also a beautiful part of the job because WGC is not the only entity on campus doing gender justice work; other people on this campus are doing unbelievable work that we can lean on. Look at the work that Health Education is doing  — in particular, the Peer Advocates [for Sexual Respect] — or what Laurie Frankl is doing in the Civil Rights and Title IX office. Then there is the SWAGS [Sexuality, Womens and Gender Studies]  department, which teaches really important topics and amplifies student research. While it’s a challenge and sometimes frustrating that we can’t do it all, I’m reassured knowing that other folks on campus are committed to this work too.

Q: What is the WGC focusing on now?

A: We’re working on a lot of different things! My student staff is really incredible and inventive. Upcoming, we have Reproductive Justice Month in October… What’s incredible about Reproductive Justice Week [now a month] is that it was born out of student voices and activism. Students came to the WGC and talked about how this is a need on campus and that they want to engage in more conversations centering on reproductive justice. In the spring, in light of the Supreme Court leak and then the overturn of Roe v. Wade, my students, staff, and I came together, and we thought, how about we make it a month instead, because we have so much more content that we want to cover.

We have a whole slate of programs that we are planning, in collaboration with different campus partners, like Health Education, the Center for International Student Engagement, the Queer Resource Center, and the Health Center, and so we’re working with a lot of different people, both on and off campus, which is pretty exciting. More broadly, though, the feminist education series is a series of programs that we do every single year that focuses on a particular topic in feminism. Last year, our focus was transformative healing, and so a lot of our programs focused on well-being, healing, and growth. One time, they focused on labor justice. This year, our focus is healthcare. Not only are we doing Reproductive Justice Month, but we’re planning to do more programs beyond October that uplift reproductive justice, advocacy, and [the] work of folks that are both on the ground supporting abortion funds or are in the healthcare system, providing abortion care. We also want to have more programming related to trans-affirming healthcare. That’s why we’re uplifting healthcare as a theme in general. We also want to have a clear focus on disability justice — those are the three big themes that we’re focusing on this year, and the feminist education series is grounding that work.

Q: How can students at Amherst get involved in the WGC?

A: Students are always more than welcome just to shoot me an email [[email protected]]. We also have the WGC email, which is [email protected]. We get inquiries from students who are curious about resources or want to plan events with us all the time, and we are always really eager to collaborate with student groups. We’ve collaborated with Reproductive Justice Alliance, Liyang Amherst, ASA [Asian Students Association], and I am really hoping to do some work with QTPOC [Queer Trans People of Color at Amherst] in particular, as that’s a new student group. If people have ideas, we want to hear them.

Beyond that, we host many events both physically in the WGC and around campus. I highly encourage students to check out our Instagram @amherstwgc so that they can stay up to date on our events. We also have a biweekly newsletter that we send out from where students can learn about events.

We’re open from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday through Friday, and [the center is] either staffed by the student staff or me. If folks have questions about specific resources, like they want to get a menstrual cup, are curious about Plan B options, or wish to access our care corner supplies, they’re more than welcome to stop by. We also have Netflix, so students will often come into the center to watch TV or even just take a nap. And our student staff loves to host crafternoons, which is when we’ll craft together. It’s also a great study space. There are many ways folks can engage based on whether they want to pursue more educational or community-building options.

Q: I read on the website that one of your hobbies is throwing clay on the wheel. That sounds so cool! What are some of your other hobbies?

A: I’m happy to talk a little bit more about pottery because that is something that I love doing. I’ve taken a bit of a break this summer because our studio doesn’t have air conditioning, so it’s a little toasty. But I’m excited to dive back into throwing this fall. I started honing my pottery skills about a year and a half ago, and it’s completely changed my life. I’ve done a couple of sales here and there [of] my work. By the way, you can follow me on Instagram @clayofcolor! It’s clay of color because I’m obviously a person of color, but I also use a lot of color in my art. I love rainbows! I love hiking in the Mount Holyoke Range State Park. It’s only 10 to 15 minutes from campus and is a beautiful state park. It’s especially nice because while some of the trails are more intensive, the others are more manageable for people who might not hike as much or might be beginners.

In my free time, I also spend a lot of time with my dog, Bea. I bring her to the WGC very often, so if students want to see a dog or get bathed in kisses, she does that. I’m also a pretty big runner. I’ve done a couple of half marathons and hope to do another one soon. And I love cooking and baking. It’s soup season now, and I am making many soups, especially matzah ball soup. I’m Jewish, so I have worked very hard to make the perfect matzah ball soup recipe, and I think I have mastered it. Every person I’ve cooked the matzah ball soup for has been overjoyed with it. I would say those are my biggest hobbies.

Hayley Nicholas poses with their dog. Photo courtesy of Hayley Nicholas.

Q: If you were a superhero, what powers would you like to have?

A: Okay, so I have a joke answer. I would love to be the Elastigirl from The Incredibles. Just because I’m so short, it would be really nice to reach the tops of shelves. On a more serious note, it would be great to be able to tap into what people need, with people’s consent, of course. I wouldn’t want to be invasive by reading people’s thoughts. But I would want to have a strong sense of people’s needs — both big and small. That way, I could help address them or fill any gaps. I think that’s the Women’s Center practitioner in me.

Q: If you were to describe yourself as an animal, which one would it be?

A: So when you think of a beaver, how big do you think it is? Pretty small, right? But they’re actually huge! I saw a beaver last year while walking on the bike path. Oh my god, they sometimes weigh up to like 60 pounds! I say beaver for a few reasons. One, sometimes people think I’m unassuming. A lot of people will make assumptions or judgments about me because of my height or my age. But I’m really large in presence. See what I did there? I also like to think I’m pretty resourceful. And throughout this interview, I’ve talked quite a bit about teamwork — how important it is to me to lean on other people and learn from others, because you can’t do this kind of work by yourself. It just wouldn’t be effective. And beavers work with their other beaver pals to make the dams, so you need to be able to collaborate. I think I’m pretty creative. And beavers are pretty creative.

Q: What song represents the soundtrack of your life at the moment?

A: It’s hard for me to think of one song in particular. But there’s this one soundtrack that comes to mind. Have you heard of the artist Raveena? She is a queer Asian American artist. She has such a beautiful voice. I was listening to her newest album, “Asha’s Awakening,” this morning. I highly recommend it! It represents the end of summer. It’s a really mystical album. It’s ethereal and so beautiful. Right now, I’m in a place in my life where I feel a lot of joy, and I’ve been deriving a lot of it from both my personal life and my job. So I feel like that album encapsulates my current mood.

Q: Do you have any TV show/movie/book recommendations

A: Right now, I’m really enjoying reading “Delivered from Distraction.” It’s about getting the most out of life with attention deficit disorder. It’s written by two men who have ADHD. And this book was written in 2005, so there’s obviously more up-to-date research [today] — in fact, they recently came out with another book about ADHD. I am myself in the process of getting tested for ADHD. As I mentioned before, disability justice is really important to the WGC team, incorporating more of that work into our programs and ensuring that it is at the forefront of our work. [“Delivered from Distraction”] frames ADHD in a way that is not presented as a disorder or something that inhibits someone’s life. It is an incredible read!

Over the summertime, my student staff and I read this other book “Care Work” by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha about disability justice. This book provides a different framing for disability justice. Whether you’re doing racial justice advocacy or sexual violence prevention, disability justice must be at the core.

I also read the memoir “Beautiful Country” this past summer by Qian Julie Wang. She’s a family friend! It was really beautiful. It is about growing up as a low-income, undocumented Asian immigrant in New York City. The last book I would highlight right now is a queer teen romance novel, “Juliet Takes a Breath,” by Gabby Rivera. In fact, the Multicultural Resource Center is bringing her to campus. In the book, the protagonist goes on her first internship during the summertime and it is about her finding love and herself — I read this book in a day!

I’m currently watching the TV show “She-Ra” on Netflix. It is a cartoon with many queer and trans characters, which is wonderful. Another TV show I love is “Schitt’s Creek,” and I just learned that it is leaving Netflix in early October, which is very upsetting. Schitt’s Creek has a couple of gay characters. It takes place in a world without homophobia, which was so radical and refreshing to see. Those are my most immediate recommendations!

Q: Is there anything else you want to tell the Amherst community?

A: Everyone is welcome into WGC’s space, regardless of their gender identities that they hold or their background or how much understanding they have around feminism and gender justice. The whole purpose of the WGC is to be a space of learning and growth. I really want to encourage anyone and everyone who is interested in learning more and challenging themselves to come to the WGC and to attend our events. The reason why you’re at Amherst is to learn and grow and change and to think outside of the box. Just as it’s a space of learning, it’s also a space of healing and rest, so it’s really important that students who experience gender marginalization, whether they identify as a woman, cis or trans, non-binary or a femme — however they exist in their gender — that they also have a space where they can just be themselves.

Q: Where do you see yourself in five years? In 10 years?

A: I can better speak to the five years from now part, as it feels more tangible than 10 years. I think five years from now, I’m hoping that I’ll have a master’s degree already, or I’ll be at least wrapping up a master’s program. The more deeply involved the WGC has been in reproductive justice work, the more I’ve been itching to do a master’s program in reproductive rights in some capacity. And I’m not sure if I want to pursue law, so I’m thinking of a lot of different angles. But I want to be more involved in abortion fund organizations, or other reproductive justice organizations.

Perhaps 10 years from now, I want to lead my own [organization] that specifically focuses on queer and trans people of color, ensuring they have access to the reproductive care they want and other aspects of healthcare that aren’t usually accessible to them. It’s ambiguous and vague, but those are just some of my big dreams!