Published: May 3, 2021

In 2010, during her first year of college at the University of Rhode Island, professional rock climber Nina Williams hit a wall and decided it was time to let go––so she dropped out of school to focus full-time on her sport.  

A few years later, she found herself compelled to traverse a new path through the world of communication, so she transferred to her hometown campus of CU Boulder and began taking courses in CMCI. 

Now a senior, Williams is merging her two passions, creating a niche for herself that is both personal and profoundly relatable. She recently gave a TEDxCU talk on the fear of letting go––from the perspective of a climber trained in the art of falling––and over the summer she’ll launch a coaching program for climbers focused on mindset and inner dialogue. 

This month, Williams will graduate with both a major in Communication and a minor in Leadership Studies. She’ll do so with the distinction of being the Department of Communication’s William W. White Outstanding Senior––an award given to students in each department based on a combination of academic merit, professional achievement and service to the college.

We checked in with Williams to learn more about how she’s combining her two passions and the professors and classes that shaped her college experience. 

  What’s an area where you feel like you’ve really grown between your first semester of college and today?
I’ve grown more comfortable in voicing my opinions based on what I’ve read or learned about. I feel that my comprehension and critical thinking skills have improved, and so I have more confidence in drawing on prior knowledge. At the same time, I’ve also gotten more comfortable being wrong and re-thinking my position. Confidence goes both ways. 

​  What’s a piece of advice or a lesson someone shared with you during college that you still remember?
One of my COMM professors, Instructor Jeff Motter, once told me: “Know what you want to say, and say it.” He taught me the value of figuring out an essay’s content before writing out sentences with irrelevant fluff. I’ve had trouble writing essays because the task seemed daunting at the beginning but Jeff’s advice has helped me start from the core of what I want to say and build from there. 

​  No pressure to have this figured out yet, but do you have any post-graduation plans at the moment?
I’m excited to combine my new perspective of communication in tandem with my passions for coaching and climbing! This summer, I’m launching an eight-week coaching program for climbers that focuses on mindset and inner dialogue. I have a long-term vision of creating college-style classes for outdoor sports enthusiasts around mind/body connections and how they relate to our attitudes about life. I’m considering grad school in sports psychology but I need a little break first.

​ How has the major you studied shaped the way you look at the world?
Initially, I understood communication as interpersonal and relationally based. Now, I see communication as expressions of unique reality. There are certainly interpersonal and relational components, but learning how to communicate is not just about getting your own meaning across. It’s a process of learning about yourself through the other person’s perspective in an ongoing cycle of meaning-making. Communication creates culture and vice versa; therefore, we have the opportunity to create the world we want to exist in based on how we communicate with others.

  Was there a class or club outside of your major area that you found really memorable or fascinating? What was it?
Two classes stand out––one was GRMN 2301: Inside Nazi Germany, with Associate Professor Arne Höcker, and the other was EDUC 3013: School & Society, with doctoral student Page Regan. Höcker’s class was particularly relevant given our country’s political climate and proximity to fascism. Learning about the historical events leading up to World War II gave interesting context to current events. Regan’s class gave me further insight into educational institutions and how we might look differently at school systems. Both professors taught with passion and grace and respected us as students.

 What motivated you to persist throughout college?
I persisted through college (this time) because I felt connected to my major in terms of how it matched with my personal characteristics. I knew I was in the right area of study because I found joy in the process of learning, rather than stressing about the outcome. 

 Based on what you know now, what is your best piece of advice for other students?
If you don’t know what you’re doing, it's okay––most people don’t know what they’re doing either. We can understand what we’ve done in the past and apply those lessons in the present moment, but the process of figuring things out is all very confusing and based on trial and error. The best way to learn is to dive right in and make some mistakes.