Path to a Diploma is Seldom Straight

In 2016, just two weeks into his? first year at the University of Vermont, Brian Gomez ’20 got a call from the Student Government Association: his peers had elected him to Student Government Association Senate. He recalls that as the first step toward his goal at college: “Say yes to everything.” Elsewhere on campus, Amanda Locke ’20 and James Whitley ’20 were just finding their footing on their new campus for the next four years, while second-year student Kia’Rae Hanron ’20 was grappling with the loss of a parent and managing her mental health. Down in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Mickenzie Zadworny ’20 was settling into her first and only year at the dance conservatory she’d been accepted to, and in the historic halls of University Row, electrical engineering student Abdoulaye Ira ’20 was carefully balancing textbooks and timesheets as both a student and full-time custodial maintenance specialist.

On May 17, 2020, these six graduates crossed the finish line to receive their share of more than three thousand degrees conferred to UVM’s Class of 2020. This may not have been the spring send-off they anticipated—an online conferral of degrees to be followed by an in-person commencement ceremony at a date TBD—but for these six grads, this moment is a bittersweet bump in their roads, well-traveled with courage, grit, and the support of many. During these unparalleled times, their journeys remind us that while no two paths to a diploma are ever quite the same, no one makes it there alone.

Brian GomezFor Gomez, a leap of faith taken by his parents years ago set the wheels in motion for his success when they immigrated to White Plains, New York, from the Dominican Republic. “They came here for me, to improve my life. My degrees are a result of their tenacity and love,” says the business administration and political science double major and incoming brand analyst at Ben & Jerry’s.

A first-generation college student, he arrived on campus with ambitions to get as involved as possible. His long list of leadership roles, jobs, and accolades include being a Grossman Scholar, a Presidential Scholar, a peer mentor and teaching assistant in the business school, an advisor on multiple university committees, a tour guide, and an AdvoCat for UVM Admissions just to name a few. And that SGA Senate position? It turned into a four-year commitment. “I absolutely loved it. The Student Government Association office is right across the hall from Student Life—two hubs of activity—where I got to hear firsthand the types of things, events, and achievements that all of our clubs and organizations were up to,” he says.

But between maintaining his busy schedule, Dean’s List GPA, and financial and familial responsibilities, Gomez struggled to keep his head above water come junior year. “I needed to be vulnerable and say ‘I’m at my capacity. I need help. What are the resources, what can we do together?’” he recalls. He turned to his academic advisors Samantha Williams and Jennifer Fath—“fixed figures” in his UVM experience—and Counseling and Psychiatry Services for help getting back on track and into the right headspace to keep going.

“My degrees have more than one fingerprint on them,” he says of his BS in Business Administration and BA in Political Science. “They’re covered with finger prints from my parents, advisors, key professors, and support systems at the university.”

Young woman in EMT uniform in front of a UVM ambulanceBut not every student who walks the halls at UVM arrives as sure of what they want as Gomez. Looking back on her first semester, Amanda Locke says she sort of stumbled into nursing.

“I have always been really interested in helping people. That was always what I wanted to do, even when I was a kid. But I couldn’t identify how I wanted to do that for a really long time. I struggled to find what was defining me in my college career,” she admits. It wasn’t until she found UVM Rescue, an on-campus emergency medical services (EMS) ambulance staffed and run by students, that she finally figured it out. Serious business, but she recalls the day she spent shadowing UVM Rescue was the hardest she had ever laughed at school before. “I felt like I was with a group of people I really connected with and who were interested in a lot of the same things.”

Now, Locke has graduated with the privilege of guiding UVM Rescue through its response to Covid-19 as the director of operations her senior year. (Yes, even during pandemics the student org’s services remain operational twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.) She was among the few crew members who volunteered to stay in Burlington during Stay Safe, Stay Home to respond to calls. “I couldn’t see it any other way. I spent most of my collegiate career, three years, dedicated to this organization, and it’s what gave me my start in medicine and healthcare. It’s everything I can do to give back to this organization and this community and the people who built me into who I am now,” she says, having graduated early alongside nearly one-hundred other professional nursing students and with a nursing position secured at UVM Medical Center this fall.

James Whitley in a lab coat looking at a petrie dishLocke’s passion for healthcare services and personal connection to the field is echoed by James Whitley, a biological sciences major and chemistry and statistics double minor. During his sophomore year, his brother was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes and Whitley spent a significant time in and out of UVMMC. “That’s where I saw pediatricians work with my brother. Without the doctors at the Medical Center, he would not be able to live the life normal life he does,” says the aspiring pediatrician.

He spent the next two years volunteering with and fundraising for “the kiddos” at the UVM Children’s Hospital and is currently in the process of sitting for his Medical College Admission Test to attend medical school. But first, the Vermont native is headed to Taiwan, where he will work with children as a Fulbright English teaching assistant. Whitley is among nine graduates and alumni this spring who earned Fulbrights—the most ever in UVM’s history—to teach English and research abroad. He’s scheduled to leave in January and is looking forward to focusing on his teaching and communications skills, which he views as essential for doctors.

“Teaching is a very important part of medicine—whether its teaching your patients about their diagnoses or lifestyle changes, or teaching other doctors—there are all these two-way interactions occurring where being able to facilitate information is important,” he says.

Smiling Kia Hanron in cap and gown in front of Waterman Building.Having struggled in the classroom as a student before becoming an art instructor herself, Kia’Rae Hanron shares Whitley’s values for individualized and effective communication. For years, her struggles with depression and anxiety were compounded by undiagnosed ADHD, making it nearly impossible for her to string sentences together on some days. All of that came to a head after her father passed away following her first year at UVM.

Hanron knew that in order to stay the course at the university, she needed an ally and advocate on campus. And she found that in an unexpected place: Student Accessibility Services (SAS). “That has been an absolute game changer for me. I was hesitant at first because I had a lot of stigma attached to mental illness and disability, I didn’t understand that depression and anxiety were disabilities, I still had a lot to learn at that point,” she says. SAS helped Hanron take a medical leave of absence and progress through the remainder of her degree at a pace appropriate for her learning style, all while retaining her scholarship award.

More focused than ever on her studies, Hanron says one of the most important things she learned in the classroom is the power of kindness and “the effect that it can have, even in its most minute forms.” For example, like the supportive note she received from a classmate in response to a writing assignment she shared about her father. She kept the note from the student, who related to her grief. “I have looked at that nearly every single day for the last four or five years since I got that note. That sums up to me the power of kindness.” For Hanron it’s been a long journey—and one that she says she couldn’t have completed without her mother, Karen—but on the day she submitted her final college assignment from her apartment in Burlington, she quietly closed her laptop, tossed her head back, and shouted to no one but herself: “I’m done!” She graduated with her bachelor’s in art education and with a full-time position at Clemmons Family Farm—a nonprofit that fosters a deeper understanding and appreciation for African and African-American history, arts, and culture—as an art instructor.

Mickenzie Zadworney dancing in a dance studioAnd approaching complex issues—like race, for example—through art is critical to our understanding of those issues more fully, says dance and English graduate Mickenzie Zadworny. “In our political climate right now and this Covid time we’re living in, art is a way to connect us and ground us and remind us of the humanity that might be lacking.”

“For me, I best understand things about myself and about the world through movement and through art,” she says. But when she enrolled in a dance conservatory after high school, she soon learned that her talent in the studio was best paired with rigorous academics in the classroom, which the Pittsburgh conservatory lacked. Zadworny transferred to UVM her sophomore year, before the possibility opened up for her to both dance and study English. The degree program in dance was unveiled her junior year, and she quickly switched her minor into a double major. She graduated this spring as one of the first to earn the degree, and with an apprenticeship at a Burlington dance company waiting for her.

Her flexibility and openness served her well this spring when the thesis performance she had choreographed at the Fleming Museum was cancelled due to the pandemic. She made the most of the restraints of quarantine and documented her and a colleague’s responses to daily dance prompts. From their separate cities, they improvised together in confined spaces, outside, and in new places, and then reflected on the experience. “That helped me understand this time a bit better, and that’s why art is so important to me, to help me synthesize things in a new way and realize truths of our world that I hadn’t yet realized,” she says.

Abdoulaye IraAnd while Zadworny danced her way to new insights from her kitchen in Burlington, just north in Colchester, electrical engineering student Abdoulaye Ira tinkered away designing a drone that could collect, analyze, and share water samples from Lake Champlain with a lab nearby. It was the last assignment that stood between the Burkina Faso native and his dream of a degree, years in the making.

He won the visa lottery in 2010 to come to Vermont from West Africa, where he had excelled academically. When he arrived in the United States, however, he was surprised to find his diplomas weren’t recognized as sufficient for jobs in his new life. Having to start over, his visa sponsor suggested he look into tuition remission benefits of UVM employees, which could help offset the unanticipated costs. A few months later, Ira was hired full-time by Custodial Services.

He started with a few certificate-level English courses before enrolling in the electrical engineering program. Not only could he use his degree to explore solar energy options that might be more reliable and affordable than West Africa’s current electric services, but the field is based in numbers—not mastery of the English language—which he says didn’t hurt.

Ira picked up and took off with his academic performance. “I didn’t know I was going to be coming or working or cleaning, so when I knew I needed to go back to school to better my life, that was the goal. I wasn’t messing around,” he says.

His bachelor’s in electrical engineering now in hand, along with a few accolades including the College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences’ Atwater-Kent Award and Senior Student of Color Award, both earned this year, he plans to move on to his next goal: his master’s degree.

“My philosophy is if I’m going to do something, I’m going to be the best at it,” Ira says. “Hard cannot stop me. It’s either possible or it’s not.”


Kaitie Catania

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