To The Person Who Welcomed Us Home

How one person changed two lives.


Okay, so yes, we stole the idea for a foreword from the Artist Series, created by the talented Bailey Jarriel and Natalie Browning.  However, it is the most effective way for Sarah and I to portray the importance of this article.  The two of us were talking the other day and couldn’t believe how fast the year had gone.  A year ago, not only had we just met each other, but we had also just met Daniel Willson: founder of The Pioneer, professional goofball, HackCville dad, mentor, and friend.  We were bouncing around ideas on how to thank Daniel for such a great year and decided to write this piece.  Sarah’s story will be in normal lettering, while mine is italicized, in the article below.  So, without further ado, please enjoy. -CC

Sarah: My first year of college started like most people’s: finding yourself lost in a sea of 20,000 or so people and vaguely unsure as to how you fit into the bigger picture of this new life at college. But, somehow, I managed to make my way across Grounds to #9 Elliewood Avenue off of the Corner. Traversing Grounds was an expedition in itself, but walking through the doors of the foreign green house on the Corner was an even more daunting task. I remember having e-mailed Daniel Willson of HackCville, the subject of a Cav Daily student spotlight I was photographing, and wondering why on Earth 9pm was the only time that worked for him to sit down for 10 minutes to take a handful of photos.

CC: I remember walking down Elliewood Avenue with my parents during a UVa college visit when I was a junior in high school.  The green house that is #9 Elliewood stood in all her mystery between what was once a restaurant named Sushi Love on the left and the printing company which still remains today on the right.  “Maybe you’ll end up there with other coders,” my dad told me as we walked past.  Before I even knew what HackCville was (spoiler: it’s not just for coders), it was already a seed in my mind.  Little did I know, I would be interviewed by Riley Panko to join HackCville’s in-house publication, The Pioneer (then HackCville Media), just two years later and quickly become one of the team’s Associate Producers.

Walking through the doors of HackCville and meeting Daniel Willson was easily the most important moment of my college career to date. It wasn’t getting an A on an exam or meeting a professor or going to a career fair or club meeting. It was HackCville and it was Daniel. Before this moment, I had no idea where I fit in. I didn’t feel special. I didn’t think what I was doing among 15,000 other extremely smart undergrads mattered at all. That all changed.

(Left to Right) Catherine “CC” Cura, Sarah Dodge, Blake Goodwin, Daniel Willson

It didn’t take long for me to finally meet Daniel Willson (2 L’s as I would be reminded of numerous times).  It started with receiving a note of congratulations shortly after being accepted to join The Pioneer team and HackCville’s 2015 Spring Hustle Class (I still have the note tucked away for safe-keeping).  Eventually, I met him in person while simply roaming around the house one humid Spring afternoon before heading to a class I can no longer recall.  That initial encounter, similar to Sarah’s, would set the tone of the remainder of my first year as well as the entirety of my second year to one of friendship and support, mentorship and learning, and of course, led to a year with many a shenanigan.

What I remember from that first encounter with Daniel is mostly a blur. I was intimidated by the people in this little green house who were obviously so accomplished. Yet, at the same time, I was extremely intrigued by the space. Flowers and monsters danced on the walls and a quote reading “making things is what matters” sat painted in the palm of a larger-than-life hand. It struck me as the kind of place where creativity happens – it still does. I left HackCville that night excited about the possibility of doing something I loved (photography) and doing it in a way that mattered (creating visual stories about people and their passions).

Everything about this house screamed “me.”  Paintings on the walls, as well as string lights, a stormtrooper helmet, a paper sword, and a poster saying “Nothing is F**ked” covered the walls of what I would quickly deem to be a clubhouse.  At the entrance to the house’s main room, The Launch Pad, there was a massive hammock with all the colors of the rainbow, and I mean come on, who doesn’t love that?  The thing that was the most amazing about this space was that I didn’t have to put up a facade of any type of person other than the one I already was.  I could be goofy, crack lame dad jokes (which Daniel would quickly adopt as his own #DadLife), and dress in the least preppy UVa clothes possible and never have to worry about anyone not accepting me.  I was surrounded by people who encouraged others to do something, even if it seemed crazy and unattainable.  For me, it was Daniel encouraging me to be a freelance videographer.

When I officially joined The Pioneer the following fall, one of the things I was most excited for was to work with such incredible people – Daniel one of them. I vaguely knew Daniel from Tom Tom Founders Festival, where he seemed to be the calm in the midst of the storm that was coordinating speakers, events, and media coverage for the week long event.  He was extremely kind to me and was a constant source of advice and encouragement. So, while I knew Daniel would be an incredible mentor, I didn’t know how close of a bond I would form with the him and the other staff at The Pioneer. 

I started working at The Pioneer in February 2015.  Over the course of the remainder of my first year, I had the incredible honor of working closely with Daniel and was easily able to consider him my mentor as I learned the ropes.  It was amazing to me to meet someone who was so confident in everything he did.  I remember being at a meeting with him and a handful of other Pioneer staff in order to prepare for the 2015 Tom Tom Founders Summit.  It was like I was looking at a Forbes 30 under 30 who totally had his shit together and knew everything about everyone involved in the festival.  It’s this aura of knowledge that Daniel gives off that makes me feel like I can ask him anything.  Even today, I never hesitate in asking him even the stupidest of questions (and trust me, there have been more than either of us would like to admit to).

Daniel is one of the only people in the world who has told me I was talented and actually made me believe it. From mentoring me on my first story for The Pioneer to going out of his way to have a conversation with me – Daniel proved to me I can be a leader, take initiative, and be and do anything if I really want to. He always makes sure that I know, and that everyone around him knows, what we are doing matters. I largely owe my confidence in my craft to Daniel for how hard he believed in me. He gave me opportunities to prove to myself I can succeed. He also helped shape HackCville and its space and the community surrounding #9. Without him, I don’t think walking into HackCville would give me the same sense of collaboration, creative energy, or drive that it does today, and I definitely don’t think it would attract the incredible thinkers and innovators that it has over the past few years. HackCville wouldn’t be what it is without Daniel’s touch. The Pioneer wouldn’t exist without Daniel’s drive to create. I wouldn’t be me without Daniel’s friendship.


“There’s always going to be someone who’s better at something than you.  So, why should that ever stop you from trying to achieve your goal?” This is just one of the many incredible things Daniel has taught me over the past year.  He told me this particular quote recently while we were discussing my plans for the summer.  I love producing videos, however I was too scared to try freelancing because I felt so drastically under qualified.  However, Daniel made like a dad and reassured me that I was in fact good at a number of things and should never undermine my abilities.  The way Daniel gave advice is the way all people should.  He did it earnestly and never sugar coated anything, especially if there was a way to improve a current situation.  I can easily say that over the past year, Daniel Willson has made me a better and more confident person.

At our last Pioneer meeting of the semester – and Daniel’s last Pioneer meeting ever – I couldn’t help but be amazed at what has been created here. Daniel’s idea has grown into something larger than any of us. It is a place where vastly diverse people can come together and somehow make a cohesive unit. It’s a place that stands for creativity, integrity, and community. It’s a place where you can swing in hammocks, hang out with your best friends, draw on the walls, and write stories about the stuff that matters. It’s home.

I would be lying if I said I didn’t almost cry at our last Pioneer meeting of the semester.  Here I was, watching the people who have been with me since my first day get ready to leave to go into the real world.  One of the newbies who we recruited this semester was sitting next to me at the time and seemed a little awestruck at my emotion.  I looked at her and simply said “Daniel’s been my mentor since day one. He taught me almost everything I know.”  And I can say that with full confidence.  I also have no doubt that he will continue to teach me things even after he graduates and becomes a “real person.”

Daniel’s last words of wisdom as he gave his farewell at the meeting struck me – if you aren’t happy with how something is, take it upon yourself to change it. When he wasn’t happy with how his college experience was going, Daniel helped create HackCville and founded The Pioneer. He took initiative and poured his soul into a project that he hoped would save him and it has grown into one of those rare but magical places that changes people simply by walking through the front doors. Daniel is one of those rare, but magical, people who makes your life brighter simply by being in it. I owe who I am today to Daniel, HackCville, and The Pioneer (and everyone who keeps them up and running) for taking in a first year who felt incredibly lost and turning me into a person with the confidence and ability to do what I love without fear of failure. That doesn’t mean I think I won’t fail, that just means I have gained the ability to see past those possible failures and to hustle on.

So here’s to brie and baguettes, Crozet Southern Thing pizzas, Tom Tom, that couch in the Penthaus, wine, classic 90’s and early 2000’s songs, Grit coffee, Slack channels, marketing strategies, dad jokes, New York City, friendship, sage advice (no really), and #9.

And, of course, here’s to you.
-Sarah & CC


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About The Pioneer + HackCville

The Pioneer is the publication of HackCville. All of our producers are either current students or graduates of HackCville’s media education programs.

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