University of Vermont

Vermont Quarterly

Global view drives undergrad’s work

Alia Degen
Alia Degen


Global view drives undergrad’s work

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 last year.

Chosen among thousands of entries, Degen was one of fifty selected to go on a giving trip and personally deliver shoes to impoverished children in Central and South America last fall. While Toms signature canvas slip-ons may be a fashion statement in the United States, 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 student of Spanish 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.

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.

In addition to 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.”

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