Be Like Will DiGena: Do Something Totally Irrational
By Abram Erickson
There’s always a crackle of excitement in Will DiGena’s eyes, situated today beneath the bill of a red, white and blue baseball cap, ready to emerge in a moment’s notice.
Although he’s relaxed now, leaning back in his chair, nursing a hot apple cider on this cold November day, in an instant he lunges up onto his elbows, leaning forward over the table and quickly closing the distance between us, his voice rising well above the murmur of those studying in the area.
But just a second later, the volume is gone, replaced by a soft, wistful tone, his gray sweater slowly blending into the gray of his seat-back as he sinks deeper into his chair.
This is what it is to spend an hour with Will: a constant rise and fall of energy, which creates a palpable anticipation. He also has an affinity for telling great stories, whether they be of what he did earlier today, of adventures with boarding school classmates, or of anything in between. Not only are his stories always funny and entertaining, they’re also always to illustrate a point, illuminate an important truth, or leave a lesson.
Each person’s life is also a story, but Will’s story is very different than most people’s. His is a story of consistent break from the mundane, and challenge to the status quo. A story of adventure, of growth, and of stepping out of his comfort zone. Plus, it’s a story that’s only just beginning.
‘They Totally Brainwashed me’
Born into a missionary family in Lyon, France, Will attended middle school there but spent his high school years at the well-known Black Forest Academy, an international boarding school in Kandern, Germany.
While at first glance this may sound like a clichéd story of a child shipped off to boarding school by his parents, Will asserts that couldn’t be further from the truth. “I was the one who wanted to go because I had heard good things about it,” he says with a chuckle. “Also, boarding school to me sounded like the best thing ever.”
Even early on in his life, Will showed an adventurous spirit and an intense hunger to learn and try new things.
He describes a childhood full of fond memories of visiting America during summers, moving between churches while his parents gave mission updates to those that supported them. During these home assignments, which normally came once every three years, Will states that they also visited family, as both of his parents grew up in the United States. The best part of the visits, however, had to be the food. “Root beer! Root beer!” he recalls yelling as a child when thinking of the States. “There was no root beer in France, and before a certain time, bagels and cream cheese weren’t really a thing. So, root beer and bagels and cream cheese were the way to go.”
Surprisingly, Will’s unique French upbringing isn’t the most interesting part of his story; though his time there as a missionary’s kid certainly makes for a fascinating first chapter. The most compelling time of his life (so far) didn’t actually come until after his freshman year at Wheaton College, the school he chose to attend after a little pressure from his mom—an alumnus—and multiple other relatives. “They totally brainwashed me,” he exclaims, with a laugh, when describing his parent’s involvement in his college decision.
This experience came after traveling over 4,000 miles from Léon to Wheaton, Illinois, when Will tacked on another 3,000-mile trip to Alaska directly after school let out in May. With his parents on furlough in Pennsylvania, he made a decision that to many may seem rather crazy, yet after one knows Will, seems fairly characteristic for him:
He wanted to work as a fisherman, for Trident Seafoods in Naknek, Alaska.
The Summer of a Lifetime
Introduced to the idea by his mom, who had connections with someone already working for Trident, Will’s experience wasn’t quite like what is portrayed on TV shows like Deadliest Catch, though it was certainly no less grueling (and Will was quick to inform me that Deadliest Catch was exactly what he was originally hoping for). Instead, he worked in one of Trident’s processing plants located on the dock in Naknek, which, according to their website, processes 14 million Sockeye salmon every 6 weeks.
Will’s duties began in the fish house, where he started working eight hours each day on an assembly line, pulling eggs from the fish as they moved their way down the conveyor belt. It was an incredibly taxing job, where he was on his feet all day, exposed to the elements, wearing heavy gear and working near extremely loud machinery. “Thank the Lord I was transferred,” Will admitted. “I don’t think I would have made it if I was in there the entire time.” His reassignment was to an indoor warehouse where he worked stacking the already-canned fish.
That warehouse was where Will spent almost every hour of the next 30 days he spent in Alaska. With each day of work fluctuating based on how good the catch of the day was, Will estimated an average workday at approximately 15 hours, starting at about 6 a.m. and ending anywhere between 7 p.m. and midnight. “The least amount of hours I worked when it got busy was 12, and then the most it went up to was 18 hours,” he says.
Despite the grueling conditions and extreme hours, Will appreciates the learning experience his summer provided. He tells a story about fellow workers, many of whom are working this difficult job to provide for their families, and how they actually complained about getting a day off when a machine broke down. “It showed me a different kind of world, basically. It taught me to value my education a little more. It also made me respect all of these people that were there working so hard.”
Another reason Will decided to do this job was to prove to himself he could take on such a difficult task. While working 15 plus hours every day in those conditions may not seem to have any advantages, Will is thankful for how he grew over the summer, and how he felt when it was over.
On the flight home from Alaska, though his month of work had caught up to him and he was feeling pretty sick, Will remembers sitting down and thinking, “I’m done. I did it.” This was what proved to him it was all worth it. “Just that sense of accomplishment. It was a good feeling,” he says.
The obvious question we could ask about Will’s summer is “Why?”
But just as each of the stories Will tells has a point, all of his adventures have a reason: to experience new things, expand his horizons, and encourage growth within himself. This summer in Alaska, though it was the hardest of his life, allowed him to do all three.
Now that he’s back in school, Will is already thinking about what his next adventure is going to be. When discussing future plans, he talked about the possibility of applying for an internship at the FBI or CIA, not to mention working on adding Spanish and Mandarin Chinese to the list of languages he speaks; which, for now, includes French and English.
Will probably won’t return to Alaska next summer, because that would mean doing something he’s already done, and Will’s not interested in that. For him, it’s all about getting out of the comfort zone to gain new experience and encourage growth, and in that way, he’s a great example for all of us. Each person can make this happen through a variety of ways: travel, education, or, if you’re up for it like Will is, even backbreaking, grueling, old-fashioned hard work can teach some great lessons too.
The sun was getting low on the horizon through the window, and Will’s apple cider was drained to the last drop. With our interview coming to a close, he summed everything up when talking about what he plans to do next. In two short sentences, he simultaneously revealed his credo and challenged mine.
“I don’t want to work Starbucks or Walmart,” he said. “I just want to do something different.”
I know he will.
And now I might too.