The Lessons of a Long, Long Drive
In which a one-time SGA president hits the road in search of his own kind
- By Jon Reidel
by Jay M. Taylor '10
This whole thing is probably Pat Brown’s fault.
After graduating from UVM three years ago, I immediately began the kind of first job out of college that makes one’s parents sufficiently happy. I was working at UVM for Sodexo, the university’s foodservice partner: full-time, good benefits, and it even kept me in the Burlington and UVM worlds.
There was only one problem. Well, two really. First, I probably should have taken some time to travel between graduation and finding that “real job.” Not doing so made me more than a little stir crazy. The second issue was that at some point near the end of my two-plus years with Sodexo, I came to the realization that—long-term—it just wasn’t for me.
So I gave notice that I was stepping down but had no plan for the immediate future beyond “going driving for a few months.” Wise? Certainly not. Scary? Terrifying. Necessary? Definitely. I’d laugh, maybe a bit uncomfortably, as I talked of “going driving” when people would invariably ask that dreaded “what’s next?” question.
Then I ran into Pat Brown. If you know Pat, as generations of UVM grads do, you know that he has a rare wisdom born from his years growing up a surfer in Florida, followed by decades of gently guiding young people via UVM’s Department of Student Life. I’d worked with Pat quite closely during my term as UVM’s student government president. He knew me, knew my type, and didn’t miss a beat when I told him of my ridiculous “plan.”
“You know, I have a list of every student government president since the organization started,” Pat told me. “You could probably make a road trip out of tracking some of them down.”
Given how lost I felt in terms of my career and geographic desires, I immediately took him up on the offer. It made sense. It was an opportunity to meet a wide cross-section of UVM alumni with whom I shared this common student government experience and a chance to see where their lives had taken them. It was also a chance for me to ask a bunch of people how they’d tackled that fun life phase that begins shortly after graduation. An agreement with Vermont Quarterly’s editor that there might be an article in this even allowed me to rationalize it as work.
I bought a road atlas.
My route would grow from a combination of where I had SGA presidents to interview, where I had family or friends to stay with, and places I felt I needed to check out. After all, the ulterior motive for this trip was to find something I’d like to do for work and/or a fun place in which to do it.
By the time all was said and done, the map was a mess of oversized Post-It arrows that outlined where I intended to stop. The plan was to go down the East Coast to the Florida Keys, around the panhandle and through Texas to Denver, over to LA by way of Vegas, up the West Coast through San Francisco and Seattle, then back to Denver. After Denver? I didn’t know. First I’d fly to Virginia to have my wisdom teeth removed, then fly back to Denver so I could figure it out.
When I charted it out in Google Maps, I projected that I would drive a little more than eight thousand miles. I felt pretty confident that my little Honda Insight hybrid was up to the task.
Projections and lines on a map are one thing; the road is another.
You see a lot during that much time in the driver’s seat. I saw the setting sun in Texas play brand new tricks on my eyes. I saw parts of the country that were probably uninhabitable before the advent of air conditioning. I saw scenic vistas I’ve read poems about in English classes. I can think of at least four specific instances in which my conscious decision to avoid a driver who seemed like bad news probably saved my life. And, as I descended out of Arizona’s northwestern corner, I saw the expanse of brilliant light that is Las Vegas. Sadly, that was the best part of my trip through Las Vegas.
While parked in my hotel’s parking garage, thieves smashed one of my car’s passenger windows and removed bags of stuff indiscriminately. Despite walking away from the casino with $200, Vegas would end up being more expensive than the entire rest of the trip. They even took my canvas UVM bag filled with snacks and some of my finest UVM t-shirts. In so many ways, that hurt.
THE BIG THREE
I took so much more from this trip—meeting these people and hearing their stories—than I could ever express within a few thousand words. But I’m going to try. Here are the three most important things I learned from my talks with UVM student government leaders past.
1. The history of the student government at UVM is very much connected to the history of civil rights in America.
While I doubt the three founders of the student government—Joseph “Joe” Corbett ’43, Julia Fletcher Peet ’44 and Lyn Eimer Vreeland ’44—realized it at the time, it is almost poetic that they created a student advocacy organization while our nation and its allies were defending democracy around the world. And in a male-dominated world, it is not insignificant that two of the three founders of the student government were women. “In that time, many of the men were off fighting. So the women filled many roles traditionally held by men,” Lyn explained.
As Lyn described it to me, the idea for the student government “was in Joe’s head, he was the big instigator. He wanted people to have a voice in things.” And even then, well before UVM became a bastion for inclusivity, the SGA was focused on being inclusive of all UVM students, regardless of background.
I had a chance to meet William “Bill” Pickens III ’58, the first SGA president of color, as well as Elliot Brown ’59, the first Jewish SGA president. Both knew that there were racist and anti-Semitic undertones in the country but both also generally regarded UVM and Burlington as significantly more accepting than elsewhere. And both also reflect on their roles in this history fondly and are proud that their alma mater seems to have been significantly ahead of the rest of the country.
Bill Tickner ’02 arrived at UVM knowing he was gay but having decided that his life would be easier if he lived it as a straight man. During the 1999-2000 debate in Vermont over civil unions, the SGA lobbied and protested in support of full-marriage equality rather than civil union. Bill was one of the most vocal supporters, as was Andrea Minkow ’00, SGA president at the time. The whole experience made Bill realize that he could, in fact, find community and be happy living as an openly gay man. His story of coming out to his family, his friends, the SGA officers, and his fraternity really touched me. It’s the closest I’ve come to feeling what that experience must be like for the many who have lived it.
Bill took a leave of absence to travel the country and present to other university student governments about how they, too, could advocate for gay rights. When he returned to UVM, he became the first openly gay SGA president. Sarah Poirier ’06 and her running mate became the first female president/vice-president team. Kesha Ram ’08 and her running mate became the first president/vice-president team of color.
Reflecting on all of this makes me proud to have appointed and worked with the first openly transgender SGA officer, Vice President Elliot Kennedy ’09.
2. Career progressions aren’t always linear. In fact, they rarely are.
For the Class of 2013, here’s your lesson: With the possible exception of Elliot Brown—whose deep love and appreciation for political science led him into teaching, legislative affairs, and later to the Department of Justice—no one I interviewed followed a linear career progression. And since I regard each of them as successful in his/her own right, it’s a lesson I encourage you to take to heart. The fact is, the job you take out of college doesn’t have to be the last job you ever take.
Exhibit A) Alex Wilcox ’94 grew up in Vermont’s Champlain Islands with a love of airplanes. He was even fired from a restaurant job during college because he kept leaving early to attend flying lessons. After graduation, he moved to the Midwest where he was the manager for a rock band called “The Naildrivers” that had a following in Indiana and Kansas. After a year or so traveling these two states in a motor home, the band moved to Florida and subsequently broke up. There, Alex worked at fast-food chain Johnny Rockets until he got a job at Miami airport. Before long, he had climbed the ranks and left to become the third employee of JetBlue. (We have Alex to thank for leather seats and live TV in coach as well as UVM’s partnership with JetBlue that helps fund recruiting efforts in inner-city high schools.) Eventually, Alex left JetBlue to start an airline in India and, after successfully getting the company off the ground, he moved back to the United States and started a private jet company he calls “the populist private jet company”—JetSuite—where he is the CEO.
Exhibit B) Rob Rosen graduated UVM “full of confidence and with zero plan.” He took a job in NYC the summer after graduation, saved his money, then traveled Europe with a friend. When he returned to the United States he moved to Colorado to ski and enjoy the mountains. “I’m glad I had that experience,” he says. “But I knew it was time to get serious.” Before starting law school he worked for Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign. After landing an enviable job at a prestigious law firm in Boston and realizing it wasn’t for him, he said “Yes” when his former boss at the Clinton campaign invited him to take a job at the White House. There he worked as part of the core staff, often joining the First Family on vacations. He also worked as the political director for Sen. Ted Kennedy. Today he works for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation where he has climbed the ranks to be the foundation’s director of the executive office and philanthropic partnerships.
In their winding success stories, Alex and Rob certainly aren’t alone among the group of UVM alumni kind enough to share their stories with me. Taken together, they make a strong case for the belief that if you’re smart and follow your heart, good things can happen.
3. If your goal is to be happy, the “fun” thing to do is probably the right thing to do.
I can’t tell you how many of these individuals told me to have fun and follow my heart. “Easy for you to say,” I would think as they—gainfully employed—bestowed this wisdom upon me. There is this pressure to figure out exactly what it is you’re supposed to do and go do it as hard as you possibly can.
That’s why my interview with Geoff Liggett ’78 interrupted my sleep more than any of the other conversations. I interviewed Geoff for a little over an hour near the beginning of this long journey. At the end of that time he said, “OK, turn off that recorder.” Thinking he was about to tell me wild stories about UVM in the late seventies, I eagerly hit the pause button. Then he said, “Now let’s talk about you.”
Geoff started his career as a college career counselor. He said, “One of the things I like to do with students is have them make a list of things they like to do. Then we circle the things that go together and see if there’s a job in there. So, what do you like?”
I started with “investments” and followed up with “marketing” and then he stopped me.
“No, I mean, what do you like?!”
I laughed awkwardly, thought for a second, panicked, realized I had no idea, then admitted defeat. As I sat alone in my car for the four hours it takes to drive from Choate Rosemary Hall—where Geoff is the director of development—back to Burlington, the idea that I didn’t really know what I enjoy doing slowly sunk in.
At first it felt pathetic. Then I came to terms with the fact that many people probably couldn’t genuinely answer that question. How could I know what kind of job to go after if I didn’t know what I liked? I decided to make that question a primary personal focus for the rest of the trip.
RIDING INTO THE SUNSET
When all was said and done, I drove 11,322.2 miles @ 42.2 miles-per-gallon from Vermont to Florida, California to Seattle, and back to Burlington, February 5 to April 14. I interviewed seventeen people: fifteen former SGA presidents, one Pat Brown, and one Lyn Vreeland. I visited or ran into dozens of UVMers, a few childhood friends, and even connected with several distant family members.
It hit me as I was pulling out of the parking garage of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s office in Seattle that my interview with Rob Rosen ’90 marked the beginning of the end of my journey. All that was left was a lot of writing and a lot more driving.
As I drove away from Seattle and through America’s wide-open spaces, I played out in my head how the article would come together. I knew a couple of themes I wanted to cover, but was really at a loss for how the whole thing would work out. A magazine story can be every bit the journey of a cross-country trip and, with some gentle “nudging” from the editor, this piece has morphed from a collection of SGA president profiles to something more like a personal essay.
I was initially very resistant to the idea of making this article more about me than about the people I interviewed. They’re the ones who were interesting enough to interview, I was just the one trying to figure out what the heck I’m doing with my life. But Vermont Quarterly thinks you’ll find that interesting, too.
And—assuming you’re still reading—maybe that’s true.
As for what’s next: Seattle to Denver, Denver to Burlington, I took the simple advice of Geoff Liggett and thought hard about what I liked. My list was short but workable: Food, mountains, animals, and being outside. I had Rob Rosen’s advice fresh in my brain (“This is the time to gain experience and take risk because it gets harder and harder.”)
Then I thought back to the last time I had said: “That’s what I want to do when I’m older!” So I looked up a dude ranch in Wyoming where my family took me as a kid, one of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen. I applied and was hired to be a wrangler there for the summer. I seriously doubt I’ll be waking up at four in the morning to wrangle horses and/or tourists five years from now. By then, I see myself in San Francisco, Seattle, New York, Austin, or Denver, and I think the rest will work itself out. But at the moment, wrangling is what I want to do, and Wyoming is where I want to be.
I saddled up on May 15.
STUDENT GOVERNMENT LEADERS: THEN AND NOW
Lyn Vreeland ’44
One of the original three members of SGA, served as first SGA secretary. Has remained involved with UVM since. Her late husband was also a UVMer, Jim Vreeland ’43. Lives in Shelburne, Vermont.
While at UVM during World War II, Lyn was one of several student volunteers who would watch for enemy invasion through Canada from the Old Mill belfry every night. These students were given a pass from the strict UVM curfew to perform their patriotic duty. The concern was essentially that Hitler would invade Canada and mount an offensive from there. “The walls were lined with silhouettes of the enemy planes. I really laugh when I think about it now, but it was deadly serious while we were doing it. And it was cold up there in that tower at night…”
Bill Pickens ’58
First black SGA president and first black Boulder Society president, received UVM honorary degree in 2009. Retired from successful career in management consulting. Splits time between his hometown of Sag Harbor, New York, and Florida.
Bill, who grew up with civil rights leaders as family friends, was understandably bothered by Kake Walk. Otherwise very happy in Burlington and Vermont, Bill was unsure of how to address his concerns with the event. He invited baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson, whose celebrity transcended race, to come visit UVM and witness Winter Carnival and Kake Walk. Bill thought that people loved Jackie Robinson so much, they just might listen if he told them Kake Walk was racist. But we’ll never know for sure. Jackie Robinson’s flight was cancelled due to a blizzard in the New York area. Who knows how it might have happened, but this chapter of UVM’s history could’ve been very different.
Elliott Brown, Class of 1959
First Jewish SGA president. Fell in love with political science after experience at UVM. After time teaching, became director of legislation for Congressman Benjamin Gilman and staff director for House Narcotics Committee. Left to run a bureau for Department of Justice and to teach at FBI Academy. Retired, lives in Naples, Florida, with his wife, Carolyn Tieger, and a Welsh terrier named Kirbie.
Elliott, who recently endowed a professorship in UVM’s Political Science Department and has a political science award in his name, wouldn’t be tied down to one favorite UVM moment despite my asking more than once. “For me, it was the entire set of four years. UVM was the right place for me—the size of the school, the faculty size, the opportunities that UVM provided; the Department of Political Science, being selected for Boulder Society, my fraternity … I ‘found’ myself at UVM. It’s the mix of all of those—not a single one—but a totality. And I love UVM because of it. That’s why I am trying to give back now with the professorship and the annual award. It’s a love of the place.”
Frank Cioffi ’77
Led initiative to create two permanent positions held by students on UVM’s Board of Trustees. Former Vermont commissioner of economic development under Governor Howard Dean, current president of Greater Burlington Industrial Corporation. UVM Trustee since 2001, currently chairs the Board Governance Committee. Lives in St. Albans, Vermont.
Prior to becoming SGA president, Frank was an SGA senator participating in a Board of Trustees committee meeting when a trustee motioned to do away with co-ed housing. Frank, who sprang to life when he heard the trustee’s words, couldn't believe what he was witnessing. When the motion was brought to a vote, Frank leaned forward and voted with the nays. “You can’t vote,” the committee chair told him. “We’ll see about that…” replied Frank. He then ran for SGA president and led an initiative to add two students to the Board of Trustees with full voting power. With a little help from legislators around the state, a parliamentary procedure from the lieutenant governor and a lot of savvy maneuvering by Frank and his SGA team, the initiative was successful and the next SGA president oversaw the selection of the first two students on the UVM Board of Trustees.
Geoff Liggett ’78
Founded Student Legal Services to help students get legal support and advice. Started career in career planning in colleges, transitioned to fundraising and development work. Is now director of development at Choate Rosemary Hall preparatory school. Lives near Wallingford, Connecticut.
“It was Frank Cioffi who brought me into the SGA and got me involved with trustees, senior administration, campus issues, and that sort of thing. And he had it in his head that I was going to be the next president after him, in part to ensure that a few of his initiatives were implemented—most notably the selection of the first students to the Board of Trustees. Frank encouraged me to run, but it wasn’t really my personality to go for it. I preferred being behind the scenes running things. But he convinced me to run and before I knew it, every time I turned around one of my friends would be out there shaking hands telling people to vote for me, it was just too funny! It was Frank that brought me in and Frank’s political “machine” that helped me get elected. It changed the course of my life and for that I will be forever grateful.”
Dale Rocheleau ’80
Left largest law firm in Vermont, Downs Rachlin Martin (DRM), to help run the largest electric utility in Vermont, Central Vermont Public Service. Has since returned to DRM as senior counsel serving business and energy law clients. Married his college sweetheart, Michelle Ducharme ’80, and together they have three children. UVM trustee since 2010, currently serving as vice chair of the Audit Committee. First SGA president to work closely with Pat Brown. Lives in South Burlington.
During his term as SGA president, Dale was one of the first students to serve on UVM’s Committee on Baccalaureate Education (COBE). The committee was established by then-President Lattie F. Coor and charged with the task of developing core education requirements for a bachelor’s degree. Dale recalls that the university had eight colleges at the time, each with its own list of prerequisites and degree requirements. President Coor’s vision for a general education curriculum met with heavy resistance on campus. Dale supported the committee’s recommendations, but the campus did not. Soon after the COBE report was released in 1980, the Faculty Senate and SGA Senate overwhelmingly repudiated the proposed changes. Opposition continued for the next thirty years. In 2011, as a UVM trustee, Dale had the privilege to join in a unanimous vote of the UVM Board to approve UVM’s first General Education requirements. And this year, Dale supported a board resolution to name a campus building after Dr. Coor, remembering his role in sparking an enduring examination of what it means to provide a high-quality baccalaureate education.
Rob Miller ’89
Joined Citibank’s management training program then, after five years, returned to Vermont to enter public service. Was Vermont’s commissioner of economic development after Frank Cioffi and is now head of global business development for Conning, an institutional asset manager. Lives near Hartford, Connecticut.
One of the questions I asked during these interviews was “What’s next for you?” For Rob, “I want to spend time with my family. My kids will be grown and gone before I know it. And I want to achieve success professionally so that I can ultimately do things that are meaningful in a different way afterwards. Whether through public service, volunteer work, travel, or all of the above.”
Robert Rosen ’90
Took time to travel and ski after graduation, then started work on Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign. After law school, left enviable job at prestigious law firm to work at The White House under President Clinton. Later worked for Senator Ted Kennedy. Is now director of Executive Office and Philanthropic Partnerships for Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Lives near Seattle.
Rob has worked with some fascinating people, among them Bill and Melinda Gates. “I relish what I do here. I have an extraordinary job in an extraordinary place and the ability to really make a difference. My path was not linear and I’m glad I took the year I did in Colorado. Trust yourself to take risk in your career. At some point you’ve got to narrow your focus…but not yet.”
Shelley Scipione ’93
Helped make cross-college minors and student mentoring possible at UVM. Worked for online industry leaders eBay and Walmart.com in California before heading to Colorado. Recently started as the senior director of eCommerce for Pharmaca in Boulder, Colorado. Lives in Denver.
“I’m still always figuring out if I’m on the right track of what I want to do. Fit is important and you just know if it’s not right. In my last job it wasn’t the right fit so I took time to re-evaluate. Now I’ve sort of come full circle by returning to Colorado since my first job out of school was as a ski coach in Winter Park. But I’m here and I’m excited about my new role and am excited to be working in Boulder!”
Alex Wilcox ’94
Grew up in Vermont with love of airplanes. Became third employee of JetBlue and helped set up UVM/JetBlue partnership to support UVM’s recruiting from inner-city high schools. Is now CEO of JetSuite private-jet company. Lives near Irvine, California.
“Pat Brown used to talk to me about California and how on a summer day everyone would go down to the beach. And when I got here, I never could figure out why he ever left. I learned a lot from him. He doesn’t do anything but ask you a bunch of questions and then you leave feeling like you’ve actually done something. Obviously hugely popular for a reason. He is the best listener in the world.”
Andrea Minkow ’00
Left post-grad job to join Howard Dean’s presidential campaign. Worked for several prominent politicians before moving over to event management. Now works as the co-founder of a tech startup, MINKERMAN, which is making major events smarter and safer with a unique combination of software, hardware and consulting. Lives between Palo Alto, California, and New York City.
“My time with SGA played a huge role in my UVM experience. It gave me an outlet for being political. I felt like I had an avenue for creating change and was part of a body that was taken seriously. It gave me a community to be involved in and a serious place to practice being a public figure, winning, losing, being a manager, figuring out how to get along with people…all of these experiences that I draw on every day.”
Bill Tickner ’02
Took time away from UVM after “coming out” to friends, family and SGA to empower other student governments across the country to advocate for gay rights. Has worked at Google for eight years, is now account executive. Lives in San Francisco.
Bill’s advice for the Class of 2013: “Before you can go out and look for success, make sure you define it. The default is money, fame, power, etc. But maybe it looks different for you.” For Bill, success is having a good job that he enjoys, access to snowboarding, surfing, camping, mountain biking, and a city full of good friends. And he’s pretty successful.
Bryant Jones ’05
Involved in purchase of Trinity Campus and various design aspects of University Heights Residence Halls, including loft-style rooms. Works as an international affairs policy analyst at the Office of Management and Budget, Executive Office of the President (he gave me a tour of the West Wing!) were he advances the president’s priorities around governance and democracy, public diplomacy, and human rights. Lives in Washington, D.C.
Advice for the Class of 2013: “Treat every personal interaction as if it is a job interview.” After graduation, you may feel like a grunt at first, so build your networks and don’t burn bridges. Bryant started as an intern at The White House and was able to transition that opportunity into a full-time job. His other advice is to, “Work hard, play harder.” In his UVM commencement speech he told his peers to, “travel the world and travel through your mind. By adding chapters to your book of life you will deepen your understanding of your surroundings and gain wisdom.”
Sarah Poirier ’06
SGA president before I arrived at UVM. Moved to Florida to pay off student loans and met an executive at a nationwide distributor of local foods while waiting tables and worked there for over four years. Recently left to become vice president of sales for Sourcery, a local food sourcing tech-startup in San Francisco. Lives in San Francisco.
Advice for the Class of 2013: “Be nice to everyone.” Sarah moved to Florida, started an unpaid internship with a local mayor, and worked in restaurants to pay off student loans. One particularly long and stressful shift at the restaurant, her final customer was overstaying his welcome. Sarah remained friendly and started chatting with the customer. Turns out, he was an executive at a company Sarah had a career interest in. Not only did she land a job, the executive even let Sarah have her summer 2012 wedding at his house in Florida.
Seth Bowden ’07
SGA President when I came to UVM. Was my boss during internship at Greater Burlington Industrial Corporation, where he is director of business development and works for Frank Cioffi. Lives in Burlington.
Do you ever get the itch to leave Vermont? “Not really, not to leave. Once every six months or so I have a little freak out where I decide I’m going to move down to New York or something. But there are so many things I love doing here. There’s a lifestyle in Vermont that is highly enviable if you’ve got the right people and it’s the right fit—professionally and personally. When I feel like my time is up and I need to go do something different I don’t know where that will take me. But at the moment there’s so much that I’m still learning to do here, and I feel like my work makes this community a better place to live.”
Kesha Ram ’08
SGA President before me. Vermont state representative since 2008, recently became public engagement specialist for the City of Burlington and also a UVM trustee. Lives in Burlington.
Advice for the Class of 2013: The importance of personal relationships is paramount—in life in general, but especially when you’re getting out into the job market for the first time. The connections that you made will last a lifetime. Think long and hard about the faculty and mentors that will remain mentors and give you the best references. And if you ever feel discouraged, think about all of those people who want to see you succeed and the large network of alumni who care a lot about the experience they had at UVM and love helping others that shared it. And then give back to your institution.
Besides the former SGA presidents who gave me their time and their stories, thank you to the following UVMers who helped me along the way: Steele Taylor & Juliana Marton, Debbie Fox Roderer, Brian Roderer, Betsi Fox Oliver, Tom Oliver, Allison Goldsmith, Binh Douglas, Jimmy Candon, Ben Porter, Justin Thompson, Asher Thompson, Barrett Johnston, Julia Shotwell, Claire Chevrier, Marta Ascerio, Hannah Freedner, Alice McGinty, Josh Miller, Kirsten Turner, Annie Raser, Ian Prieto, Joseph Thomas, Emily Porter, Howard Lincoln, Erik Stavrand, Pat Brown, Peter Buswell, Keith Miser and Bryan Dufresne. And also to my parents for all sorts of support along the way. Don’t worry Mom & Dad, your AeroBed wasn’t stolen in Vegas. And, of course, thank you to Vermont Quarterly for giving me a really good excuse to "drive around for a few months” and meet a lot of amazing people.