University of Vermont

CESS Students Showcased at Homecoming Event

Jake Lester, Kathryn Maitland, Ellen Wixted, and Brian Vedder

Those attending this year’s College of Education and Social Services (CESS) Homecoming and Alumni weekend celebration in Memorial lounge on Saturday, October 5th had the great pleasure of being introduced to and hearing from four extraordinary CESS students talk about their experiences in the college.  The four, Jacob (Jake) Lester, a senior in Music Education, Brian Vedder, a senior in the Secondary Education program, Ellen Wixted, a sophomore majoring in Neuroscience with a minor in Special Education, and Kathryn Maitland, also a sophomore, in the Elementary Education Program with a Dual Endorsement in Special Education, each spoke in turn about how opportunities offered to them through CESS have transformed their college experience. 

On the surface, the ‘transformative’ events the four speak about might seem representative of those offered to students at other colleges or universities.  While in part true, what sets these four students apart is that they not only took advantage of an opportunity when offered, but through their own initiative ran with it and turned it into something entirely their own.  Not unimportantly, the resourcefulness each showed would not have been possible if not for the specific program offered through CESS that each embraced.  

First up was Jake Lester.  Jake spoke about his recent 2013 trip to China, an opportunity he had through the college’s Asian Studies Outreach Program (ASOP).  ASOP is a program started at the college in 1994.  Under the nurturing guidance of its first and former director, Jue-Fei Wang, and current director, Bill Williams, with full support of Dean Miller, ASOP has over the years built strong and sustained relationships with colleges and universities not only in China but also in Thailand and Japan.  For several years CESS students have had the opportunity to travel to Hohhot, in Inner Mongolia, to the Art College of Inner Mongolia University (IMU), one of the principle if not foremost colleges of art in all of China.  ASOP not only sends CESS students, but is active also in bringing IMU Art College student performers to the US, who have by their professionalism and talent delighted audiences at UVM and elsewhere in Vermont, as well as other places in the country. 

What was unusual about Jake’s trip, however, was that it was his second time going.  His first trip to Hohhot, in 2012, he took as part of a regular delegation of visiting students and faculty under ASOP sponsorship.  From that visit, Jake said, he “came back completely blown away by the music and the culture, the food, everything.  It was a great experience.”  And from the moment of his return, he “wanted to go back.” But not just to visit, but to “bring my own musical perspective over there.” His idea was to return to form a musical collaboration between music students at the University of Vermont and those from the Inner Mongolia University College of the Arts.

And that’s exactly what he did.  Together with three other music students, Andy Gagnon, Karlie Kauffeld, and Kathryn Esposito, and with support from Music Department faculty members Patricia Riley and Tom Tonner, Jake wrote a grant to support his efforts, and together with the others returned to Inner Mongolia in May 2013.  There, over a two week period, he and his fellow UVM musicians collaborated with their Inner Mongolian counterparts, overcoming language and cultural differences and succeeding in creating a piece of music, Jake called, Confluence, which he described as “meaning two rivers coming together to form one river.”  The work, Jake said, “resembled a jazz piece but with distinctive Mongolian sounds in it, Mongolian and Cuban throat singing, and horse-hair fiddles, among other traditional Mongolian instruments, joined together in unique harmonies with Jake’s clarinet, Andy’s drums, Karlie’s voice and flute, and Kathryn’s piano.  Performed before a full house at IMU, Jake and his fellow collaborators received a standing ovation.   

“It will always remain a highlight of my life,” Jake said.  “I’m just eternally grateful to CESS for the opportunity to have been able to travel to China, and to immerse myself in another culture, and to perform music in the country of origin.”

Next up was Brian Vedder, who was joined at the podium by Ellen Wixted, and Kathryn Maitland.  Brian said that the three of them would talk about Think College Vermont, a program in which all were involved.  Brian explained that Think College Vermont is a small, innovative program offered through CESS’s Center for Disability and Community Inclusion (CDCI), one that serves students with intellectual disabilities seeking a college experience.  He continued, saying, “Think College Vermont provides enrolled students with an array of opportunities that they would otherwise never have, including academic enrichment, opportunities to meet new people and participate in college activities, as well as improve and acquire daily living and career skills.  Students who successfully complete the program can earn a 12-credit Certificate of Professional Studies.” 

Brian said he first heard about the program while taking a special education class in CESS and the Think College Vermont program managers came into the class to talk about mentoring in the program.  Brian said he had always “wanted the experience of interacting with students with intellectual disabilities and figuring out ways that they could best learn in the classroom.”  So like Jake, Brian jumped at the opportunity, and within a semester of mentoring students in the program he was promoted to lead mentor.  Brian concluded by saying, “I have not only learned a great deal about the daily obstacles that students with intellectual disabilities face, but so much more about how similar we are to the students in the program.”

Ellen Wixted echoed Brian’s sentiments when she took the podium.  “I have always been interested in disability and especially looked at through a neurological lens.  I took a special education course through the Honors College called, “The Social Construction of Disability” (taught by CESS faculty member, Holly-Lynn Busier), a class in which Brian was one of the TA’s, and he gave a short presentation on Think College Vermont that sparked my interest, not only in disability per se but also disability and inclusion and how it might be affected by my interest in neurology.”  Like Brian, Ellen jumped at the opportunity, “because I really wanted to be part of this program and to be a mentor.”  She too echoed Brian’s ‘wider is better’ understanding of inclusion, saying, “As mentors we aim to create an environment wherein a Think College student can feel like any other UVM undergraduate and to think this is where I belong too.”    

Finally, Kathryn Maitland.  She too became involved in the same way Brian and Ellen did, while taking a special education class when one of the Think College mentors came to the class to talk about mentoring.  She said, she “was hooked immediately and wanted to be part of the program, and to work with students with intellectual disabilities.”  She too, like Brian and Ellen, said she came away from working in the program having learned so much about inclusion from her hands on experience. 

Each in turn spoke glowingly about the students, how excited they were to be on campus, how happy they were to be there, and how much they enjoyed taking classes.  “Taking classes is huge,” Brian said, “some have been out of the school system for a while.” All agreed too that what is so valuable about Think College Vermont is that it is an example of best practices, where inclusion means integrating students with intellectual disabilities into classroom settings with matriculated UVM students.  “One of the largest takeaways from this program is the extent to which the teachers, the students, the mentors, and the program managers, all gain from interacting with these students,” Brian concluded, with Ellen and Kathryn concurring. 

Dean Miller summed up the experience of these four outstanding students during her opening remarks before each presented.  “Now, the students you are going to hear from today, none of them have or had to do what they did, it was something they chose to do, and we are proud of each and every last one of them.” 

After hearing from Jake, Brian, Ellen, and Kathryn, we can all agree with Dean Miller’s sentiment.