University of Vermont


CALS Graduation Speaker Rachel Johnson Divulges Her Popular Top Ten Tips for Success

Speaker in regalia at podium. Yellow banner on the right.
Professor Rachel Johnson delivered commencement speech to UVM’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences on May 19.

In her commencement address on May 19, Professor Rachel Johnson sent the 362 members of the UVM College of Agriculture and Life Sciences undergraduate Class of 2013 on their way with the words, “You are why the CALS faculty and staff do our jobs. We know that your future achievements will make the pride we feel today grow even more, because we have taught you well. Keep in touch with us, do good work, and make a difference.”

But first, she told the stories of three members of the graduating class who, while they have their Vermonter roots and degrees in nutrition and food sciences in this College in common, their many differences show how richly different CALS students’ backgrounds can be and how divergent their future paths may be.

Then, Johnson delivered her concise, pragmatic, tips for future success, which left the audience of more than 1,000 family, friends, faculty, staff and graduates smiling.

Johnson, the Robert L. Bickford, Jr. Green and Gold Professor of Nutrition and Professor of Medicine, was chosen commencement speaker for CALS Class of 2013 because of her popularity with her students, her prestigious national stature in the field of nutrition and dietetics – especially in the topics of obesity, added sugar intake and cardiovascular disease – and her straightforward advice. She’s been a student herself, a faculty member, an administrator and the parent of a UVM student.

Johnson said that when she was an undergrad she was inspired by her professors, several of whom “were brilliant, articulate, independent, tough but caring women.” But today, “I think I’ve come full circle — now it’s my students who inspire me.” To demonstrate why, she shared brief stories about three graduates: Leah Conchieri, Aeden Albrecht and Kayla Gatos. Here are Rachel Johnson’s words:

Leah Conchieri

I’ve known Leah Conchieri since she was six months old. Her family and mine were next-door neighbors until Leah was seven. Leah’s mother Joanne, who is also a CALS Nutrition and Food Sciences graduate, home schooled Leah until the 11th grade when Leah and her younger brother, Bryce, enrolled at Essex High School. Leah has been laser-focused on her academic work and is a stellar student. However, she’ll quickly tell you that her UVM experience wasn’t all studying; she’s had a great time the past four years. A hallmark of many UVM graduates is their commitment to service. Leah volunteered with the Alpha Phi Omega service fraternity and worked with children at the King Street Center helping them develop the skills needed for a healthy and productive future. She worked as a UVM resident hall assistant in her junior year and told me that having three younger brothers helped her “lay down the law with my dorm residents when I needed to.” Leah has been employed at Essex Physical Therapy since she was 16.

She is now pursuing her dream of becoming a physical therapist and is enrolled in UVM’s Doctorate in Physical Therapy program. Leah’s mother Joanne, father Brian and her three brothers Bryce, Tyler and Kevin are here today to celebrate her achievements. Leah’s keen intellect, solid work ethic, love for her family and commitment to achieving her goals inspire me.

Aedan Albrecht

Aedan Albrecht is far from a typical college student. To please his parents, in 2004, he enrolled right out of high school in County College of Morris in New Jersey. But, he quickly knew he wasn’t ready for college. At Thanksgiving dinner that year he broke the news to his family that he had enlisted in the United States Marine Corps.

By February the next year Aedan was at Marine boot camp in Parris Island, South Carolina. After boot camp, Aedan was then stationed with the 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines in Kaneohe Bay, Hawai’i. His unit was sent on combat deployment to Haditha, Iraq in 2006 where he engaged in combat patrols two to three times a day for eight months. Aeden returned to his home station in Hawai’i until his unit’s next rotation in 2008 when they returned to Iraq. During this deployment, he led a platoon of 28 Marines in combat patrols in the Zaidon region of Iraq. They worked to establish the change over for the Iraqi people to take control. Aedan had more responsibility as a 22-year-old Marine than many of us have in a lifetime. Aedan was honorably discharged from the Marine Corps in 2009.

His sisters are in the area so he was familiar with Burlington and decided to apply to UVM. He was accepted and accessed the post 911 GI bill to help pay for his education.  Aedan was also awarded a UVM yellow ribbon scholarship. This, along with the income he earned bartending, paid for his education.

Aedan is going to take some well deserved time off this summer and travel to visit a few of his Marine Corps buddies. He then plans to pursue a career in law enforcement. Aedan’s perseverance, courage, and commitment to serving our country with honor and distinction inspire me.

Kayla Gatos

Kayla Gatos took a gap year after high school and traveled to the Himalayan region India where she taught English and computer skills and helped build solar water heating systems.

Next Kayla went off to a small college in the Northwest but transferred to UVM after her first semester. She wanted a larger university with more research opportunities. Kayla also told me that she has an amazing family that is very important to her so she wanted to be closer to them.

Kayla embraced UVM; she lived in the Slade Environmental Cooperative where the residents practice a low consumption life style. They buy and cook their own food and aim to buy responsibly and locally. Kayla was an Outing Club Leader as well as their Head House Manager. She managed gear and leader support for the numerous trips the Outing Club sends out each weekend. Kayla said the Outing Club was the most important community she has been a part of at UVM.

In Kayla’s sophomore year she entered the UVM Honor’s College. She completed her honor’s research project under the mentorship of Dr. Linda Berlin. She explored Vermonters’ perceptions of raw milk consumption. Kayla was excited about learning the research process and beginning the exploration of why people make certain the health decisions. Kayla told me she learned so much from Dr. Berlin; how she thinks, how she talks, how she writes.

Kayla told me that she likes plans and certainty in her life but that right now it’s time for adventure. She plans to use some of the money she saved working at Fletcher Allen Health Care as a Nutrition Care Representative and head West. Kayla told me she was talking to Dean Vogelmann about this recently and he said, "You can either have a lot of money and not a lot of time or a lot of time and not a lot of money." Kayla thinks there a lot of truth to this. She feels confident she will return to academia to pursue graduate work in the near future. But, she wants some footloose perspective in this unique period of her life with time to reflect on the past four years and consider what she wants to pursue next.

Kayla’s mother Marianne, a UVM College of Arts and Sciences Sociology graduate, her father Cobey, her brother Harrison and lots of close family friends are with her today.  It’s been a busy day for the Gatos family; Harrison graduated earlier today from our College of Arts and Sciences with a degree in biochemistry. Kayla’s intellectual curiosity, confidence, and love of adventure inspire me. I have no doubt Kayla will make our world a better place.


Johnson concluded, “I hope you can see why my students inspire me. You are the future. And based on what I see every day at UVM, our future is in good and capable hands.”

Mother Johnson

But Rachel Johnson is not only a CALS faculty member, she is also the mother of a CALS graduate. “I am enormously grateful for the opportunity I’ve had as a UVM parent. I witnessed the inspirational teaching and caring advising my son received,” she said. “I also saw my son’s life improved in many ways by the daily work of our dedicated UVM staff.” Five years later, Ben Johnson is an Air Force Officer who is in flight school in Columbus, Mississippi training to be a pilot. He will graduate from flight school on June 28.

And as a mentor and a mother, Rachel Johnson delivered her words of wisdom:

Top 10 Tips for Successful Graduates

10. Be grateful for how privileged you are. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, only 30 percent of Americans over the age of 25 have earned a college degree. So become engaged. The well being of our nation and world depends on you.

9. Show up. You’ve heard that 90 percent of success in life is just showing up. So show up. Then do your best.

8. Knowledge is power. So know your stuff, always. Don’t “wing it.” There are no shortcuts to success.

7. Whatever you want to do in life, do it! There is nothing worse than being my age and wishing you’d pursued a dream and didn’t. If you want to join the Peace Corps, own your own small business or make a great scientific discovery, at least try to do it! If your parents want you to go to medical school, and you have another idea – well, tell them to go to medical school.

6. Once you decide what matters to you, work hard. I’ve had a Theodore Roosevelt quote that inspires me on the tack board above my desk for years. He said, “Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.”

5. Don’t sell out your integrity. We all know people who do. They cheat on an exam, lie on their company expense reports or cheat on their tax forms. They think nothing of it. But what they actually gain usually turns out to be small. No matter what the gain, it’s just not worth it.

4. Give back. To whom much is given, much is expected. So when you get to the top, remember to send the elevator back down, and help others get to the top. Give your time or give financially to institutions and causes you care about. During the four years that your graduating class attended UVM, the University raised $22,229,411 for student scholarships from generous alumni and friends of UVM who give back.

3. As political humorist Stephen Colbert says, Being pre-approved for a credit card does not mean you have to apply for it.”

2. Be happy. Happiness is a choice. As one of my favorite authors and humorists, Bill Bryson wrote, “It’s not that hard to be happy. You are bright, young and good looking and you have your whole life ahead of you. In fact, you’ll always have your whole life ahead of you.” Being happy sure beats the alternative.

1. This is a really important point so be sure you are listening.

No matter where you are, what you’re doing or who you are with, call your mother every Sunday.


Brief Bio of Rachel Johnson

Rachel Johnson is the Robert L. Bickford, Jr. Green and Gold Professor of Nutrition and Professor of Medicine. She holds Ph.D. and Bachelor of Science degrees in nutrition from Pennsylvania State University and a Master of Public Health degree from the University of Hawaii. She is a registered dietitian. She is a Fellow of the American Heart Association. Johnson served as dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) from 2001-2008 and as associate provost for faculty affairs from 2009-2011.

She has held several national appointments including the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Surgeon General to advise on President Obama’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition Science Board and is Chair of the American Heart Association Nutrition Committee.