My First Year Out (So Far) – Olivia Peña ’17

Today we have another edition of My First Year Out, featuring your classmate Olivia Peña. From graduate school at UVM to travels in Kenya and interning in Senator Patrick Leahy’s office, she’s been up to quite a bit since graduation. Take some time to read her great story below.

Describe your first year out:

After a busy, action-packed senior year, I wanted to take some time to decompress before starting graduate school. When not traveling, I decided to spend most of my summer in Burlington and working. Prior to graduating in the spring, I was hired from as a research assistant by the Climate Change, Agriculture, and Food Systems group at the Gund Institute on campus. I held a similar position during senior year as an intern for CCAFS, and was able to continue the research of food waste and climate change over the summer. It was a great opportunity to learn more about the environmental impacts of agriculture and food systems while also gaining a firsthand understanding of the research process for a project funded by USAID. The research position was also flexible enough to enjoy the Vermont summer. Spending the summer here was a great time to hike through the beautiful Green Mountains, explore swimming holes, go to local breweries, and watch Lake Monsters games without the constraints of homework or classes.

What was your biggest challenge, and how did you overcome it?

Through the accelerated Food Systems masters program, I was able to begin my graduate work during my senior year. Fall 2017 was my first semester fully in the graduate program, and it’s been a challenging yet rewarding journey thus far. Specifically, I think the level of analysis associated with the graduate work has been totally mind-bending. My professors have introduced new ways of thinking and knowing (this is called epistemologies) and various concepts from different subjects of which I was not previously familiar. However, through this challenge, I have learned the importance of reaching out and asking for additional help. Even though graduate school is a higher level of learning than in undergraduate, professors are still very willing to help you understand and talk through different concepts.

I had a unique opportunity during the fall to intern in Senator Patrick Leahy’s office. This comprehensive position entailed interacting with community members through phone calls and letters, assisting staff members, and conducting research on various topics and policies. I was also fortunate to be able to attend different outreach events with staffers ranging from agricultural hearings to naturalization ceremonies. It was hard work, but definitely confirmed that I would like to work in a policy or public administration position one day.

What are you doing now?

2018 was off to an interesting start as I spent the first two weeks in Kenya on a service-learning trip. Through the Nutrition and Community Development departments, we prepared three different projects for our community partners centering on public health, entrepreneurship, and food systems. It was a great opportunity to take my skills gained the classroom in food systems and community development and apply them to a real life situation. This trip was also a cultural exchange in a way, as we stayed in authentic Kenyan hotels near the communities with whom we worked and ate indigenous foods. Sukuma wiki means kale in Swahili, and I’m happy to say that it is a delicious staple in their diet. I would be in remiss if I did not say that a highlight of the trip was the safari in the Masai Mara Reserve. Seeing wild elephants up close was incredible, until they trumpeted at our safari van as if to say, “okay now, back off!”

I’m currently on my last semester of courses for my master’s degree. In conjunction, I am also working on my research for my final project. This is a highly self-directed process, meaning that there is a lot of planning and personal motivation required to create, shape, and carry out your project plan. My research is focused on understanding the current state of community and stakeholder involvement in Vermont during the Farm Bill policy development process, and the ways by which stakeholders go about communicating their needs to policymakers and representatives. I’m hoping that the outcome of my project will be a guidebook that can be used as a tool for all Vermonters interested in getting involved and communicating their needs from food and agricultural policy.

Any advice to classmates?

My advice for my fellow classmates and future UVM graduates is to not be afraid to reach out and ask others for help. Whether from your parents, friends, peers, previous professors, new bosses, or even various departments throughout UVM, they are always willing to offer guidance to help you continue to succeed. I have found that the support didn’t end at graduation when it comes to my undergraduate professors. Your friends and family know you best, and have been there every step of the way through the college journey and likely want to continue to support your journey. I am privileged that I have my family and friends (thanks Goonsquad!) by my side as I continue on this next phase.


Know someone like who is doing something really cool in their first year out?

We’re Calling You Next Week (To Catch Up)

Hi all,

After months of emails, it’s time to for us to chat…like for real! We personally wish we could speak with all of you individually, but we have employed the Chatty Cats to do it for us.

Don’t worry, this is not some secret ploy to ask you for money.  Yes, the Chatty Cats typically fundraise for UVM, but not this time — they are just calling to check-in, ask a few questions, and get your feedback.

We will try to call your cell phone number — if we have it — and our number will show up as 802-656-9999.

To make sure we reach you, you can update your phone number using this form.

Here’s why the call is important: It helps us understand how you are doing so far in your first year out, AND you will have the opportunity to tell us how you would like to stay involved with UVM. It’s your opportunity to give feedback – positive or negative – and make your voice heard.

Talk to you soon!

Checking in With Your Classmates

This week we’re doing our first round of check ins!

We reached out to Darla Quijada, Meghan Egan, and Kelton Bogasky to see what they have been up to since graduation. We also asked them a few fun “this or that” questions to see what Burlington experiences they prefer.

We are always looking to hear from more of you, so click the button at the bottom of this post to refer a friend (or yourself)!


What are you up to in your first year out of UVM?

I am currently working as Research Technician for the Center for Virology and Vaccines at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston MA (it is a mouthful to say let me tell you!). I am part of Dr. Kathryn Stephenson’s lab that focuses on interventions to prevent and treat HIV and emerging infectious diseases like Zika virus. Most of the research technicians are in the same situation as me where we all more education in the near future. I graduated studying Animal and Veterinary Sciences, but the work I do overlaps with the many prerequisite classes and lab experience. In my spare time, I take pottery classes and attend/teach Zumba classes!

What are you looking forward to in the next year? What do you think will be your biggest challenge? 

In this upcoming year, I hope to visit places where I can potentially see myself living and studying. This could be a great opportunity to figure out what kind of programs and schools I want to apply for. Location is very important to me for I want there to be diversity, affordable living expenses, and food culture! My biggest challenge will be to make sure I keep my mind open about each place and not stress about the little things!

What are you up to in your first year out of UVM?

Since graduation, I’ve spent a month taking a cooking course in Paris (I planned this in about a week and is probably the most spontaneous thing I’ve ever done). And since September I’ve been working at Guidepoint as a Healthcare Research Analyst in New York City.

What are you looking forward to in the next year? What do you think will be your biggest challenge? 

I’m looking forward to continue growing and learning in my current position and just take everything day by day. Being able to come home without having to worry about assignments and tests is a pretty great feeling!

My biggest challenge this year will likely be studying for the LSATs. Other than that, I’m just taking everything day by day and seeing what life throws my way.

What are you most proud of since you graduated?

I don’t think I’m particularly proud of anything in particular. I’m proud of how I’ve been handling the post-grad life—I’ve been able to do some exploring and start working in my favorite city. I’m proud of myself for being proactive and satisfied about the choices I’ve made thus far.

What are you up to in your first year out of UVM?

I began working for Pi Kappa Alpha International Fraternity and have had the opportunity to visit over 28 schools in Florida, Georgia, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Illinois, Tennessee, Texas, and Louisiana. This upcoming semester I am heading down to the University of Miami for two months to recolonize our chapter. I have had the opportunity to travel all across the United States and experience all different cultures

What are you looking forward to in the next year? What do you think will be your biggest challenge? 

I am looking forward to starting a new PIKE chapter at the University of Miami. I think that my biggest challenge will be deciding what I will do next. I am from Boston so I will have to decide if I want to move up with PIKE and continue living in Tennessee or move on to a new job.

What are you most proud of since you graduated?

I am proud of the PIKE guys at Vermont because they keep on doing incredible things. This past semester the chapter fund-raised enough money to send brothers to help rebuild homes in Haiti. I also love seeing their continued efforts to End Alz. It is always great seeing something that played a huge part in your college career continue to succeed. Also, this past summer Vermont PIKE was recognized with the Smythe Award by the International Fraternity which is the highest honor a PIKE chapter can receive.

My First Year Out – Joseph Thomas ’08

Hey everyone, we hope you are settling in nicely to the new year. Remember a few months back when we featured class of 2016 graduate Sarah Weiss? She shared a bit about what she was up to in her her first year out of school. You can read her story here.

This week, and in the months to come, we will continue to feature young alumni and their first year experiences. Feel inspired to share yours? Check out the end of this post to see how you can.

Joseph Thomas is a 2008 graduate and current UVM Foundation Fellow who has spent time in numerous locations around the country working in politics and has recently landed back in his hometown of New York City. Check out his story below.

Describe your first year out:

My first year out I lived in Washington D.C. I worked as a Staff Assistant on the Senate Judiciary Committee, with Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, who was then Chairman of the committee. it was right at the beginning of the Obama Administration, we worked on the first expansion of federal hate crimes legislation, and the first to include any type of protections for LGBT individuals on a federal level, and the confirmation of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, for me it was a great time to be in D.C.

What was your biggest challenge, and how did you overcome it?

Trying to balance having so much free time and no homework to do. I never had things like expendable income, free time and a new city to discover. Friends and coworkers helped me out, friends were coming down to DC and I was able to discover new parts of the city I had not been able to see.

What did you learn from this experience?

I learned from this experience that the first year out of college after so much time in school can be scary, and challenging, but manageable. College helps you discover a lot about who you are, but learning and growing doesn’t stop when college does. For me this was my first time really being on my own without the college safety net to help me and I learned a great deal about my own ability to be independent.   

What are you doing now?

I am a lawyer and I am getting ready to start working with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Office as a Liaison on Community Affairs.  Just before this new role I came off of working on the de Blasio Campaign working in my hometown of The Bronx, and before that working on the Clinton Campaign, doing Voter Protection Work in Wisconsin.  

Any advice?

Challenge yourself, your first year out. There is so much you can learn about yourself. Take the time to try out things you’ve never done. Within my first year I tried yoga (wasn’t a fan) Skydiving (I was a fan) went to plays, musicals, museums, and I traveled to different cities, all things I never gave myself time to do in college and wish that I had. It was a rewarding experience because of how much I discovered about my likes and dislikes and all the cool things any city, no matter where you are has amazing things to offer.

Want to share your first year out so far? Email us at

My First Year Out So Far – Travel Edition

You graduated in May and while that may feel like eons ago, it’s only been about seven months.

So we asked ourselves, what have some of you been up to in that time? We know a lot of you travel after graduation, whether to blow off some steam or gain new perspectives. Post grad life can be overwhelming, so why not travel if you can?

With that in mind, we are kicking off a new series: My First Year Out So Far – Travel Edition. Two of your classmates, Haley Sparks and Carly Sternberg, traveled to South East Asia for three months this summer and shared their experiences below.

As we wrap up 2017, we may need a little reminder that we are ultimately all in this together.

Reflection 1 – Haley

My name is Haley Sparks and I graduated from UVM in May of 2017 with a major in Secondary Education and a minor in Special Education. In a nutshell, my UVM experience was everything I hoped it would be and more. I loved everything about the school, the atmosphere, the people, and the city of Burlington. I live in Salt Lake City, Utah now and while I like it here, I still find myself thinking of Vermont everyday.

Carly and I met freshman year of college and quickly became best friends. After that, we always planned to take a big backpacking trip together after we graduated. We are both avid travelers and originally wanted to spend some time traveling around Europe, but eventually decided to take 3 months to travel around Asia to visit Thailand, Vietnam, Nepal, India, and Sri Lanka. Carly had spent some time previously in Thailand, but I never had.

Our itinerary was built as a combination of places we wanted to visit because of their beauty, their people, their food, and the experiences they offered that we knew we wouldn’t be able to find anywhere else. Although 3 months may seem like a long time to live out of a backpack, we both wanted to genuinely experience each country and get a feel for all the places we visited. Planning our trip from July-October and taking our time in each place seemed like the best way to do that.

I have zero regrets about taking this trip right after graduating college. While many of our friends were getting ready to enter the “workforce,” we were lucky enough to be buying plane tickets and planning itineraries.

After finishing 4 years of college, there seemed like no better reward than an eye-opening trip around the world. My last semester of college was a busy and stressful one, and this trip provided me the motivation I needed to finish on a strong note. Post graduation also seemed like the perfect time to take this trip because I’m genuinely unsure if there will ever be another time in my life where I will have the ability to take this much time just to travel and enjoy life and the world.

Having the ability to design and plan those 3 months of time however we wanted was something I had never experienced before and it was empowering and enlightening. With no restraints such as school or jobs or anywhere to be, we were totally flexible to do whatever we wanted.

This trip was a whirlwind and we packed in a little bit of everything. We were lucky enough to experience beaches, lakes, oceans, rivers, mountains, city life, and farm life. Each day was different than life at home, and I find myself reminiscing about it often. Traveling for 3 months out of a backpack taught me to appreciate necessities over luxuries and it taught me how to live with barely anything.

Besides that, it taught me that each country we visited was a totally different experience, and whenever we landed in a new place, we had to adjust to a totally new culture. Doing this kept me constantly on my toes and it kept me constantly wondering, navigating, and thinking. It taught me how to interact with anyone, no matter how strong the language barrier might be. It taught me that while the world might seem huge, there is always people that can make anywhere feel like home.

Reflection 2 – Carly

Staring at that piece of paper that I received after walking across the stage in front of Waterman last May, the single piece of paper documenting the major in global studies and minors in Spanish and Economics that I had completed, the world suddenly felt more overwhelmingly huge than it ever had before.

During my time at UVM, the world sometimes felt like it only extended across Lake Champlain and to the peak of Mount Mansfield. Campus had a way of absorbing me into its super charged atmosphere and making me feel larger than life, part of something that was big and moving forward. With that piece of paper in my hand, all of the sudden it felt like I was in a huge limbo.

There was nowhere that I needed to be, nothing that I had to be doing, and so I went to roam throughout Southeast Asia for three months with my best friend and I don’t think there could have been a better time to do it.

I spent 4 years learning about the world and how we might begin to understand its reality, yet I got a clearer vision of the world and myself over my three months in Southeast Asia than I ever had before. Everyday was brand new. My mind was being stretched to take in all of the sights and colors and smells that I had never experienced before.

One day I was stuck knee deep in a rice paddy in the middle of a monsoon, a few days after that I was deciding whether or not to continue on to the Annapurna base camp after my eyes had swollen shut to the size of meatballs, and a few weeks later I was being put in charge of 20 infants in the middle of a red light district in Kolkata.

The trip was a shock to the system.

Before graduation I was sitting in the library studying for my last set of finals and suddenly felt my heart start to race as I fully grasped the fact that life as it was right then, and as it had been for the past four years would never ever be the same again. The trip showed me that all though this post-grad period can be a bit of a directionless limbo, I’m not stuck and I should never have to feel stuck.

The earth we live on is a miraculous place with an infinite number of things happening every second, there are endless possibilities. I learned that even though I have never felt so old, I really am so so young. I learned to trust and have faith in my fellow humans of the earth, and that I am never truly alone. I figured out that this thing called life is forgiving, it doesn’t have to be all that serious, there’s so much room to mess up, to learn, and to grow.

So I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up, but I am now living in Salt Lake City, teaching skiing, surrounding myself with new, exciting and beautiful things, and just living life as a 23 year old in 2017, figuring it out as I go.

Want to feature your own travel story? Know a friend who might want to as well? Click the button below and refer a friend (or yourself). We’ll see you in the new year!


Ryan and Kathryn