Walnut Hill School for the Arts

Alumni Spotlight: Nicole Hayashi '13

This month, we caught up with Nicole Hayashi, a 2013 alum of the Dance Department who has explored several different career paths in the nine years since she graduated from Walnut Hill. Nicole currently works for AARMY, a fitness studio, and filled us in on how this new career has transformed her life. You can learn more about AARMY on its website and on Instagram

Catch us up on your life and career post–Walnut Hill. What was your next step after graduating in 2013, and how did that lead you to where you are now?

As a ballet major at Walnut Hill, I became really interested in kinesiology, and through my various roles discovered a passion for taking care of people and helping them be their best selves. I wanted a purpose-driven career that put those qualities at the forefront. At NYU, I thought about going into premed or business but ultimately decided to follow my mom’s footsteps and entered nursing. I graduated, became a Registered Nurse, and started working in one of New York’s top-ranked and most acute neonatal intensive care units. The NICU was tough mentally, physically, and emotionally. We were treating some of the most complex cases and supporting caretakers through their highest of highs and most devastating lows. Despite the challenges, it was extremely rewarding to go into work every day knowing that you were giving your absolute all for these babies to have the best chance at life they could get. In the NICU, even the smallest wins are major wins, and those wins add up to big wins, and it really puts your life into perspective. The babies, their families, and my co-workers were incredible, and I will forever have the utmost respect for nurses; but I personally did not see myself wanting to grow further in this role (and if you know me, I am someone always looking to elevate and push myself). I knew I needed a change. . . . 

Tell us about the work you've been doing recently with AARMY. How did you get involved with the company, and what role are you serving there?

In my transition to NYU, I put a pause on dance and struggled to find a way to feel fulfilled when working out. I was eager to move to music, but the ballerina in me also wanted a class that emphasized form and technique. Former Walnut Hill alum Daniel Salas (’12) told me I should try SoulCycle and I loved it. I started going a few times a week, finding any way to fit it into my busy nursing schedule, even if it meant taking 6ams before my 8am classes or going at 9:30am after a 12-hour night shift. After graduation, I got a part-time job at one of the NYC studios as an “escape” while I studied for my boards and continued working there as I started my nursing career. There I met Akin Akman, one of the world’s top group fitness coaches and now Co-Founder of AARMY. Not to sound dramatic, but after taking one of his classes, I immediately knew that I discovered something that was going to make a significant impact in my life; his method emphasizes form, rhythm, and technique, and the combination of the music and mental conditioning makes you feel all the feels while also motivating you to push further than you thought possible—his philosophies of constant progress and a higher standard resonated with my dancer roots and I felt at home. When he recruited me to come work the front desk part-time for his startup, AARMY, it was a no-brainer, even though I was still working hospital night shifts at the time. A few months after the company’s launching, I took a leap and left the NICU to completely change career trajectories to full-time Studio Manager. 

AARMY is a cycling and bootcamp studio in NYC (on Broadway & Bleecker) that delivers the new standard in movement and inspiration. Founded by Akin, Angela Davis, and Trey Laird on the principle that there is an athlete inside each of us, AARMY uses movement as a vehicle to unlock your greatness. Our sessions are challenging, but also empowering and motivating for all fitness levels. We have the most incredible community with some of the most loyal customers (referring to them as “obsessed” would be an understatement). People come to train physically, but we also have people who come before job interviews, for example, to help get their mind right (I took one of Akin’s cycle sessions the night before my NCLEX board exam). The AARMY philosophy unites people to train together, share journeys, and build their strongest, most resilient, most optimistic selves.  

The impact AARMY has had on people around the world throughout quarantine has been tremendous. When our doors closed for what we thought would be two weeks in March 2020, we quickly pivoted to Instagram live the next day to continue showing up for our community. Our online content was a rock for many—it helped athletes maintain a routine, it provided a sense of normalcy, and the power of our coaches’ messaging carried people through their darkest days of the pandemic. 

Fast-forwarding to today, we are a fitness/lifestyle startup recovering from Covid, but we have a wider audience than ever thanks to our global community; an on-demand app that we film for in NY HQ; gear collaborations with Fear of God, lululemon, and Net-a-Porter; and our highest studio utilization numbers since we launched. I first and foremost manage our NY HQ, and now also help with brand activations/pop-ups and e-commerce. I might not literally be saving lives like I used to, but I know that my daily contributions at work serve a greater purpose that means so much to so many—and that is pretty awesome. 

Do you find that your arts education has been helpful, either in nursing or in your current career? If so, how?

I went to Walnut Hill for all four years of high school, and I can’t imagine my life without it. My arts education showed me that I can be creative and still execute at a high standard, which has been helpful in my current role in a startup culture. I am so grateful to have been around artists who are so genuinely passionate about what they do and confident in who they are—it’s part of why there is such a special authentic energy on the Hill that enables and empowers young artists to discover themselves and bring out the best in one another. I think about this a lot as I lead my HQ team and try to create a space that brings out the best in them and allows them to thrive, which they can then carry over to other jobs and aspects of their lives, and in inspiring other team members can inspire our greater community. My ballet training instilled a powerful sense of discipline and practice that has carried over to nursing school and all my careers. We spent hours every day training, honing skills, rehearsing over and over again to make the choreography autopilot. This kind of dedication is something that is now second nature to me, and it helps me elevate my game regularly, whether it’s with balancing multiple deadlines, achieving a new goal, or staying the course through challenging times like a global pandemic. 

Do you have any advice or words of wisdom for our current seniors or recent graduates who are just entering their post–Walnut Hill life?

Everything happens for a reason and it is happening for you; it just depends on how you choose to look at it. Don’t forget where you came from and who you are, because it’s the ones who understand the power of practice and passion, like us, who have the edge. This is just the beginning—keep your eyes and heart open because you never know where life can lead you.

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