University of Vermont

Office of Community-University Partnerships & Service Learning

Global Service, Global Studies

Alia Degen
Alia Degen traveled to Honduras this fall to give Toms shoes to children in need. Back at UVM, she's found the complement to her passion for service-based travel -- a major in global studies. (Photo courtesy of Toms)

A year ago on a high school trip to Costa Rica, first-year student Alia Degen helped rebuild pathways in the rainforest and pave roads in the capital city, San Jose. While on the trip, she remembers noticing another sign of service in the country: a child wearing canvas moccasins from California-based Toms Shoes. Seeing evidence of the brand's mission in action -- a company that for every shoe purchased donates another pair to a child in need -- was partly what prompted Degen to enter Toms' Ticket to Give contest earlier this year. "I knew their model was accurate," she says.

Chosen among thousands of entries, Degen was one of 50 selected to go on a giving trip and personally deliver shoes to impoverished children this fall. Winners traveled both to the company headquarters in Santa Monica this spring to learn more about Toms and then to Guatamala, Peru, Paraguay or Honduras, where Degen visited in early October.

To win the online competition, Degen rallied friends, family and acquaintances for votes. Her tactics were local (appealing to fellow residents in Groton, Mass.) and international (enlisting the help of cousins in Mexico and Israel and friends from service trips like the one to Costa Rica). She hit up her virtual networks on Facebook, Twitter and the like, and employed some bolder face-to-face strategies, as well -- most notably, her sister took a laptop to the streets of New York City and asked passers-by to vote for Alia.

The hard-won campaign earned Degen an experience she describes with one word: "amazing." Over the course of five days in Honduras, she and the team delivered 2,000 shoes to kids who very much needed them. While the signature canvas slip-ons may be a fashion statement in the U.S., in the developing world, they're a tool to ward off health risks like parasites, bacteria and infection that can easily develop without a barrier between a child's foot and the ground. Through partnering with schools in the country, Toms is also providing an incentive for children to pursue an education.

A Spanish student since kindergarten, Degen says one of the best parts of the trip was chatting with the kids as she helped measure their feet for new shoes, asking about their families, their siblings, what they like to do for fun -- forming connections with the people impacted by the program.

World service

Aside from her work in Costa Rica and Honduras, Degen, before even graduating high school, had also taken service trips to Nicaragua and New Orleans. "I love traveling," she says, "but I like to give back while I'm traveling."

It's no surprise her service-mindedness has followed her to UVM, where she volunteers with FeelGood, whose proceeds from grilled cheese sales in the Davis Center are donated to help end world hunger. She's also working as a program assistant in the Community-University Partnerships and Service-Learning (CUPS) office on campus, whose mission is to align service opportunities with academic pursuits.

"Lots of students don't understand what service learning is," says Susan Munkres, CUPS director. "But Alia knew before coming to UVM that she wanted to work in service learning and contacted me before the semester even began." In that capacity, Degen will have an opportunity to work on outreach and training related to service learning, among other responsibilities as the work study job progresses.

Just like the CUPS mission, Degen, too, has aligned her academics with her service work. A global and regional studies major, Degen is also a member of Integrated Social Sciences, a teacher-adviser program in the College of Arts and Sciences that explores from an interdisciplinary perspective the social problems that shape the modern world.

Aside from what she perceived as a commitment to social and environmental justice at UVM --  "I felt like people cared about the world here," Degen says, -- it was a meeting with Luis Vivanco, director of Global and Regional Studies, that convinced her UVM was the right choice for her during her college search. While other schools' programs concentrated on international relations, she says, UVM's focus on globalization and its causes was a closer fit for her interests.

Vivanco, who is teaching Degen in his "Culture and Environments" course, is also pleased she chose UVM. "I think she's a stellar representative of the kind of Global Studies student that we have here who is really committed to making change in the world," he says, "and who wants to spark dialogue across borders -- cultural and linguistic -- to see what we can do to make the world a better place."