Humans of Harker: Lending an ear

Nicole Arena wants others to feel heard

In senior Nicole Arena’s happiest memory, she’s splashing her friends in the Garden of Eden swimming hole along the San Lorenzo River down in Santa Cruz. She describes the trek down to the water as an adventure out of a movie, requiring that she gingerly walk along railroad tracks on a concealed, almost secret path. The payoff? Entering the blue-green pond surrounded by wide, sun-warmed rocks to find that the water was freezing cold, but to Nicole, the company of her friends made the trip worthwhile.

“Being out in nature is freeing, and being able to enjoy [my friends’] presence was the time I’m most happy,” Nicole said. “What matters to me is being able to enjoy the people that I love and their presence.”

Building her relationships with others is one of Nicole’s priorities and strengths. She began her first job at Dunkin’ in March 2021, and her experience working there has taught her how to handle problems with teamwork and the interpersonal skills she’s honed.

“[A big appeal of the job is] being able to be more independent,” Nicole said. “I’ve had to work with other people and problem solving. If there’s something going wrong with one of the registers or something, I turn to a technician to fix it.”

When upper school history and social studies teacher Mark Janda taught Nicole in freshman world history, he was struck by how the duality of her personality allowed her to approach both lighthearted situations and more grave issues.

“I first noticed that [Nicole] has a very quick, clever, sharp sense of humor,” Janda said. “[In freshman world history,] we’re constantly dealing with the state of the world and the state of society, and she is also always engaged in exploring those things in a way that some people might find very surprising. She’s a deep thinker.”

Nicole has maintained a cheerful outlook on life, though she has had her share of challenges. In freshman year, personal struggles required her to miss large portions of school, including finals week. Committed to not falling behind academically, she persevered.

“I was determined to get through,” Nicole said. “I always had that little spark that’s burning, so getting through that little hump was nice. Looking back, it doesn’t seem like something huge, but taking all those tests — that was hard.”

Through overcoming such challenges, Nicole honed her strategies for destressing. She occasionally journals, and she also turns to a longtime hobby: art.

“[Art has] been a roller coaster throughout my years of high school,” Nicole said. “Sometimes I have a block where I’m like, ‘I don’t have motivation to do it right now,’ and other times, I have so many ideas. So I’m trying to get more into it again, because it’s something I really do enjoy.”

Nicole also developed an interest in psychology as she delved deeper into mindfulness. When she took upper school psychology teacher Dr. Julie Turchin’s psychology class in her first semester of junior year, she would spend extra time on reading assignments, even reading beyond the assigned pages in her textbook out of curiosity. Now, she is taking Advanced Placement (AP) Psychology, where she can showcase her affinity for absorbing information and making others feel comfortable.

“[Nicole is] the supportive person that makes those around her feel as though their participation is valuable,” Janda said. “That’s her biggest asset, that if you’re in her circle, you’re free to be whoever you are.”

Close friend Emma Crook (12), who met Nicole in kindergarten, attests to Nicole’s receptive and soothing demeanor.

“She’s really great at being a good listener,” Emma said. “Sometimes she won’t even give you advice if you don’t want it. Her personality is made to do that. She wants to be a therapist, and she’s really found what she’s good at.”

Nicole’s innate empathy have made her determined to live by the golden rule of treating others with the respect she’d like in return. Above all, she wants to share the power of a friendly ear.

“Why is [kindness] worth it?” Nicole said. “You never know what someone’s going through, and you don’t want to make something worse for somebody who might already be struggling. No one wants to be going through that bad mental state, so if people care about [mental health], that makes it easier on us when we’re struggling and might need a friend.”