Spotlight on: Sarah Williamson

Sarah Williamson
Sarah Williamson is a first-year lecturer at UVM this semester

Sarah Williamson is a first-year lecturer at UVM this semester in CDAE department of CALS. She lectures in design fundamentals and applications, as well as data visualization and storytelling through different mediums. 

Can you describe your education and career journey thus far? What were the major milestones?

I am a born and raised Vermonter, so I wanted to get out of the state as soon as I turned 18. I studied at Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida but before that I decided to travel abroad and lived in South Africa and volunteered at a children’s home outside of Cape Town. Looking back, I realize that “volunteer-tourism” at the children’s home has some critical ethical issues in terms of child development and attachment. But despite the ethical dilemma the trip opened my world and informed my future career focus, so it was valuable for me.

When I got back, I had this international experience fresh in my mind. I double majored in journalism and sociology.

I started working for a photographer shooting weddings. I worked through college, and it became my main source of income. I wanted to become a photojournalist since I loved traveling the world and telling stories, but the wedding photography took me in a different direction, and I ended up starting my own business shooting weddings. I realized I could work for myself and make money, while also having time for personal projects.

One of my major career milestones was opening a studio called Studio C. It was here that I met my mentor, Sarah Simmons, when I was 22. I ended up becoming involved with her nonprofit, Future Coalition, which works in India specifically with Muslim women and women who’ve been previously trafficked or who live in areas that do not have access to education. I created a workshop on healing and photography working with survivors of trafficking, which was amazing. I became kind of a seasonal entrepreneur, spending my time in Florida and then 3-4 months abroad.

I decided I wanted to go to graduate school because despite being on the ground working with disadvantaged international communities, I didn’t really have a grasp as to why it was that way. I studied International Affairs with a focus on gender violence and labor at the New School in New York. I looked at the crossover between human trafficking and garment labor. At the New School I worked with amazing people and resituated myself in who I am as a scholar, an entrepreneur and storyteller. I realized I wanted to teach and share, which led me to teaching at UVM. Today I’m still working on projects with a few non-profits which is a little overwhelming, but I’m so excited to share my knowledge and work with students. 

What is one piece of advice you would give to yourself as an undergrad? 

Explore outside of your major, especially in your experiences. In my undergraduate degree, I was deeply invested in print journalism and sociology and wrote a ton of papers. I loved every moment of it. But I never took a photography class or a business class and would have never imagined I would end up being a business owner. I realized that I could combine the storytelling of journalism and photography with the business side of things. It’s important to have a mindset of learning by doing and combining disciplines, especially in today’s world where unless you’re in a certain field like medicine or engineering, your jobs are probably going to change as you develop your career and interests. Its valuable to have a variety of skills, like finance, that can be applied to a lot of different roles and positions. With them, you’ll be able to work with a lot of different people and you’ll learn how to navigate the job world. Another thing I would say is to find a mentor, like I did with Sarah. I met her by chance when I was photographing a holiday event for a women’s group, and it ended up changing my entire life trajectory. I learned the skills that have helped me build my career.

What is your dream career? 

I think I’m working towards my dream career right now. It would be leading students in study abroad programs and focusing on how to do that in a respectful and responsible way. I think it could even be outside of academia, I want to think about the idea of a “student” and extend it to people in the community as well. I like leading, organizing, traveling, meeting with partners, so I want to make that a part of my service as a professor. 

What excites you about your field or your work? 

What excites me is that I’m able to talk to so many different people every day. Right now, I’m working one day a week for a global health nonprofit looking specifically at cervical cancer prevention in communities where women have no access to gynecology. The organizer was the first ever nurse practitioner in the state of Vermont to do any types of abortions as a nurse practitioner! I talk to her every day as her communications person for the organization, 

but I never would be in that space without being this multifaceted communication person who understands global health from my work in grad school. I get to apply my own lens of how to tell the stories and what the issues mean for vast audiences. And after that, I go and meet with this coffee company who’s working with their coffee producer communities. As they’re telling me about Q Grade coffee I’m thinking, “This is all connected to my job right now!” And the next day, I’m talking to someone in India, and the next day I’m in the classroom at UVM. All the roles are different but have similar goals, they’re all just working in different fields in different ways. 

What inspires you? 

What inspires me is talking to others with similar interests and just being able to learn. Right now, I get inspired from working and learning from students. I’m a younger professor so I feel I can connect with students easily, but there’s still enough of a generational gap where I learn about things I didn’t know or hadn’t thought of before. The students now grew up in a very different era than when I did. I’m inspired by how much mental health is talked about now too, because my generation was behind in all that in the 90s. I love that I’m able to be around students every day that talk about those things and how it connects to what they’re studying and the work they’re doing. Students seem to have just a stronger sense of empathy towards human experience. Even though people speak negatively about Gen Z, like how connected or disconnected they are, there is strong positive change because that generation has been able to see so much and empathize more about how other people are living and being. I am inspired to be a part of that and work with and learn from these passionate students as their professor.

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