University of Vermont

College of
Agriculture and Life Sciences

Department of Plant and Soil Science

Turning Tragedy into Community Service

Also: She Took Her Own Sweet Time Applying to UVM

Grinning young woman in wide striped dress holding two marble pillar awards
For her community activist pursuits post Hurricane Irene and her efforts to involve children in outdoor programs Hillary Laggis recently received the Lawrence K. Forcier Outstanding Senior Award from UVM’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

WHEN YOU READ THE REST OF THIS STORY, you’ll be surprised that Hillary Laggis was not in any hurry to enroll at UVM. Despite a long family legacy here—her grandfather was a professor of psychiatry, her grandfather is an alumnus and her mother is a graduate —Laggis took a gap year to volunteer as an English teacher in Ecuador and South Africa. Then she applied to several other colleges, not UVM, until some of her best friends convinced her to give it a try.

Maybe what clinched it was the chance to live in the Dewey House for Civic Engagement as a first-year student; Dewey House is a residential community for students devoted to community service and long-term advocacy projects. She volunteered often at Spectrum Youth and Family Services in Burlington, including cooking dinners twice a week.

Or maybe it helped that she received the Community Service Scholarship Program scholarship.

It wasn’t long before this public communications major was off and running with her passion for public service to UVM and Vermont communities.

As a student mentor and co-chair of the DREAM Program (which stands for Directing through Recreation, Education, Adventure and Mentoring), she organized woodland scavenger hunts, hikes on Vermont’s Long Trail and other outings.

Tropical Storm Irene Changed Her

But a turning point was when Tropical Storm Irene struck Vermont in August 2011. Like so many UVM students, Laggis volunteered to help clean up. But she also enrolled in a UVM course quickly created that fall and co-taught by Kelly Hamshaw and Carrie Williams Howe. “Rebuilding Vermont” was a service-learning course that simultaneously studied, researched, helped clean up and healed the effects of the flood that ravaged the state. Laggis put her communications skills to work to create a 20-minute video on volunteerism in Waterbury after Tropical Storm Irene.

Vermont Deputy Secretary of Transportation Sue Minter wrote, “Laggis’s documentary effectively captures the unexpected magic that emerged post Irene – a “Vermont Strong” spirit that carried survivors forward, physically and emotionally.”

Laggis said later, “I had such an incredible experience working with the town of Waterbury that I decided to apply for a full-time internship to work at the Vermont Irene Recovery Office in Montpelier the following summer. It was a unique opportunity to utilize both my public communications course work and my background in disaster relief and recovery.”

Her Irene volunteer leadership led her to a place as a finalist for the Truman Prize, a national award that acknowledges students based on excellence in leadership, academics, and dedication to public service.

Carrying On a Legacy

In her sophomore year, another tragedy struck when a close friend and fellow classmate, Avi Kurganoff, passed away unexpectedly. Laggis again turned to community service. Carrying out a plan he had created but was not able to implement. She became founder and president of Avi’s Adventures, an outdoor program that matches children from low-income families with college student mentors and is a permanent program that combines forces of DREAM, the Dewey House and UVM Outing Club.

Her Irene volunteer work and Avi’s Adventures made her one of 20 winners out of 20,000 applicants nation wide to earn a prestigious $10,000, 2012 Pearson Prize for Higher Education.

“The Rebuilding Vermont class really opened a ton of doors for me, beyond just the Pearson Prize,” Laggis said at the time. “It was the first time I was actually able to apply everything I'd learned in the classroom immediately in the field.”

After that she became somewhat of a poster child for UVM’s standard of volunteerism and service learning, this photo and articles appeared everywhere on the UVM web, Vermont Quarterly in UVM Foundations solicitations.

In 2014, she became a UVM Ira Allen Society Scholar, a spokesperson at selected UVM Alumni Association and Foundation events. And at commencement she graduated summa cum laude and received the Mary Jean Simpson Award tor a senior woman who exemplifies leadership, character and academic competence.

She’s negotiating with the Manhattan advertising agency with which she interned last year, but after a graduation gift of travels to England, Switzerland and Greece she will begin job hunting in Boston, her new hometown.

It appears that UVM was the right choice after all for Laggis. “We come here for the beauty of Vermont, but we stay for the amazing people,” she said. “People here have become my mentors, my advocates, my support system. UVM and CALS changed and shaped me.”

 “It has been an astounding four years for Hillary Laggis,” said Tom Vogelmann, Dean of UVM’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences in presenting the Lawrence K. Forcier Outstanding Senior Award to her at the alumni and friends dinner and award ceremony at the Davis Center on campus May 10, adding, “we send you out in the world to do more good work.”