Despite her academic accomplishments at Mill River Union High School in Clarendon, Vt., Jessica Bullock '12 wasn’t convinced she was ready for college. “I enjoyed learning and I had a lot of passion, but I really had no idea what I wanted to do. I was under the impression that if you were going to pursue higher education, then you should have a pretty clear direction.”
After graduating at the top of her class in 2008, Bullock was eligible for a UVM Green and Gold scholarship, offered each year to the highest achieving student in each Vermont high school. That gave her the extra confidence to take the plunge.
“The scholarship provided a vote of confidence, and a certain validation that, ‘Hey, you are smart, you worked hard, your education is worth investing in,’” she recalls. “I really needed to hear that; I will always be grateful for that opportunity.”
Bullock quickly discovered that UVM was a perfect laboratory to experiment with her identity as a student and a learner.
“UVM offered so many different experiences. I met people from all over the country and all over the world. It gave me the chance to dabble in things I normally wouldn’t have considered, like rugby, sexual health research, and competitive debate.”
Her original plan was to go into social work, and she got a chance to conduct research with Alessandra Rellini in UVM’s Sexual Health Research Clinic program. It was fascinating work, and the mentorship helped spark an interest in advocating for victims of sexual violence.
Bullock finally discovered her voice during her sophomore year when she joined the UVM Lawrence Debate Union under the direction of the late Professor Alfred “Tuna” Snider, who advised the university’s debate team for over 30 years.
“It’s not an exaggeration to say that debate changed my life. Meeting Tuna was one of the greatest things that happened to me,” Bullock said, referring to him as a teacher, mentor, and friend. “He just occupied this huge space in your life—he was the first person who listened to me and said, ‘You are important, you are smart, and you should really take yourself seriously.’”
Originally unsure of herself in front of large and critical audiences, she quickly emerged as a leader of the debate team, competing in regional, national, and international tournaments spanning ten different countries over a three-year period.
“Debate has power because it teaches you that your voice has meaning, and you can create change,” says Bullock. “UVM’s debate program continues to be one of the many amazing opportunities UVM gives to its students. I love returning to watch the tournaments, talk with the new director, Professor Helen Morgan-Parmett, and meet the incredible students who walk into Huber House." The UVM debate team still invests in sending UVM students to international trainings and competitions in various locations including Slovenia, Oxford and Cambridge.
After graduating from UVM in 2012 with a major in English, Bullock taught third grade in Baltimore through the Teach for America Program. She loved her classroom and her new community, and developed an interest in advocating for her students and their families. However, like many others, she was concerned with the lack of resources in the education system, the struggle to provide individually tailored education for students at various levels of development, and the impact of the criminal justice system on children. She decided to invest in her education again, and she applied to law school.
Bullock recently graduated from Vermont Law School (VLS) with a certificate in criminal law. During her time at VLS, and with the help of professor Snider, Jess founded a nonprofit called SPEAK (Speech, Persuasion, Education, Advocacy, Knowledge) to provide debate instruction at local correctional facilities in Vermont.
“Debate is a tool for professional skill building,” says Bullock. “Our goal in starting SPEAK was to promote powerful voices for individuals whose voices are traditionally underrepresented.” Jessica still works with students from UVM and VLS to run SPEAK programs for Vermont correctional facilities and community organizations, as well as international programs. She currently serves as a law clerk for Vermont Supreme Court Justice Harold E. Eaton, Jr., another UVM alumni.