Courtesy of Will Salaverry

As students enrolled this semester log onto Zoom to take their online classes, Will Salaverry ’23 starts his days by hiking up into the hills of California, attaching a portable camping hammock to two trees and watching the sun rise. 

Salaverry — who is living at home in the Bay Area of California during his gap year — is not using his time away from the classroom to go on a road trip or simply bide time until next fall. Rather, he is “taking every day as they come” and using this year to explore his passions. Earlier this semester, Salaverry worked on Biden’s campaign in Iowa, and going forward he will be starting a job at an immigrant rights law firm in the Bay Area. But in between these two commitments, Salaverry has been filling his time with an eclectic slate of jobs, activities and extracurriculars that reveal his intense commitment to spreading positivity in the world. 

“I have lots going on, but it’s all good,” Salaverry said.

On Monday afternoons, Salaverry teaches reading and writing to fourth grade students over Zoom for a nonprofit that aims to supplement what students are learning in the classroom. Throughout the week, he designs the lesson plan, teaches the lesson, assigns homework and provides feedback on assignments to his students. The stated goal of his class is to help his students develop the beginning writing and synthesis skills needed to write good literary essays. 

Salaverry explained that being on the other side of the Zoom has given him a newfound and “tremendous respect for educators” who have to work so creatively to think about how to get information across to students on a virtual medium. However, he also noted that although there are some ways to recreate it virtually, the social aspect of online education is lacking. 

“You can teach content, you can teach the books, but there is a social piece of education that I personally think is the most important that is really lost when learning virtually,” Salaverry said. “One of the things I do with my students is start with a check in each week. I usually pose a question to get us involved with each other to make it a learning community, not just a class we have to go to every Monday.”

In addition to teaching, Salaverry is also taking classes not affiliated with Yale: a Braille class and an orientation and mobility class. Salaverry has a rare retinal condition that leaves him with “pretty much no sight” in his right eye and diminished sight in his left, leaving him legally blind.

Although Salaverry said that he has been able to get by on the vision he has, he is taking the classes as a means of building his skills in reading Braille and understanding orientation. He explained that the outlook for the condition he has is that eventually, “unless they can turn [him] into robocop,” he will likely lose his vision. Up until this point, Salaverry has been putting learning these skills off, but COVID has shown him that “having a backup plan can’t hurt.”

In addition to learning useful skills in these classes, Salaverry has gained something more profound. 

“The classes are fun, and they allow me to step into an identity that isn’t just medical but is also cultural,” Salaverry explained. “I wanted to connect more with how blind and visually impaired people experience the world.”

When Salaverry returns to campus, one of the things he is most looking forward to is advocating for the creation of a cultural center for students with disabilities through DEFY — Disability Empowerment for Yale — an undergraduate organization that advocates for Yalies with disabilities. 

Even though Salaverry is not enrolled in classes, he is still very much connected to the extracurriculars he was involved with on campus, such as DEFY and the Jewish Leadership Fellowship through the Slifka Center, by attending the groups’ virtual meetings. One of the other organizations that takes up most of his time is his a cappella group, the Yale Spizzwinks. 

Salaverry currently serves as the business manager for the Spizzwinks, helping the group navigate the virtual world as they work on their new album, spearhead community engagement programs in New Haven and participate in the Yale a cappella community through events like virtual jams

Ben Kramer ’23, the music director for the Spizzwinks, described Salaverry as kind, friendly, warm and like the “father figure of the group.” He also noted Salaverry’s investment in how all of the members of the group are doing emotionally. Similarly to how Salaverry begins his meetings with his students with check-in questions, Salaverry also introduced this concept to the Spizzwinks’ weekly meetings. 

“As I am sure he has told you himself, he is proudly a Californian from the Bay Area,” Kramer said. “He is very proud of that. His California, positive, feel-good energy is definitely a big part of his personality as he interacts with the group. When things need to be taken care of he is on top of it, but always with such grace. He is a really great partner to be leading this group with.”

Philip Salaverry, Will’s dad, shared how it is “a plus, all the way around” to have Will home for the year, since this is likely the last time that Will be home for an extended period in his life. Philip described how helpful his son has been while at home, helping him complete small construction projects, run errands and prepare the AirBnb Philip manages. 

But more than the physical contributions Salaverry is making to his household, his dad commented on the joy, admiration and respect he derives from getting to observe Will go about his everyday life. Philip echoed Kramer’s sentiments and described his son as always having been a positive force — but knowing that and witnessing that are two different things.

“Once kids leave home, you don’t get to see them in action so consistently. So this has been a huge gift for me — to get to witness Will being Will every day,” Philip said. “Getting to live with him, getting to be with him and observe his life, just shows me what a great person he is. That’s a big joy in and of itself.”

Speaking with Will, it quickly becomes evident that his positive outlook on life permeates everything he does. He described feeling “lucky, in a way” that his medical condition has taught him how to feel more comfortable living life in a state of flux.

While he noted that safety and security are important, he also stressed that if there is anything this year has taught him, it is that things change and being able to adapt to that change is a skill. 

“The challenge and also the great opportunity is to put as much good out into the world no matter what situation you find yourself in,” Salaverry thoughtfully mused. “Just try to put love out there. You can’t count on the world being a certain way. You can only count on you and the good you try to do.”

Julia Bialek | julia.bialek@yale.edu