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May 8, 2020

It’s not the spring college students across the country had planned on, but UVM's Class of 2020 has given us so much to celebrate. In the weeks of quarantine alone, they’ve shattered the university record for most Fulbright U.S. Student Awards received in a single year and they’ve risen to the challenges presented by the pandemic; in fact, 95 nursing seniors asked for a head-start into the battle before them. And on May 17, 3,000 baccalaureate, master’s and doctoral degrees will be conferred upon them in a way like never before.

Though the Class of 2020 faces unprecedented challenges in this road ahead, if one thing is to be certain for this remarkable class, it’s that they will continue to dream, dare and do things differently. Read on to meet a few of this year’s outstanding undergraduates and learn more about how UVM will celebrate the Class of 2020.

Jamie Benson on a morning hike in the Green Mountains.

A sunrise hike is a rite of passage for students at UVM like Jamie Benson who work hard and play hard. He recalls a particularly great summer morning when he and his buddy Nick left at 3:00 am to catch the morning show: “We got up before the crack of dawn, knocked out a beautiful hike, shared some laughs and got to watch the sunrise over Lake Champlain. We hiked back down, went and got brunch at a local diner and it was barely 9:00 a.m.”

When Jamie Benson ’20 first created his individually designed major in Healthcare Structure and Emergency Medical Services Research, he couldn’t have imagined that a global health crisis would hit just before his graduation. But luckily the Waterbury, Vermont, native is poised to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic on both the local and global fronts as an advanced emergency medical technician and population health researcher. Benson will continue his work coordinating personal protective equipment distribution for Vermont at the State Emergency Operations Center during the COVID-19 crisis and will build upon his existing research at the Larner College of Medicine on the efficacy, distribution, equity and structure of Vermont’s trauma care system. Ultimately, Benson plans to add a medical degree to his resume and build a career “trying to understand and improve the medical systems we rely on when we are sick and injured. My field of study touches on many aspects of how we take care of each other as a society, and how we evaluate and improve the systems designed to help us when we need it most,” he says.


Zach Bernstein

Like many UVM students, Zach Bernstein ’20 loves to ski and be outdoors in Vermont. But he also spent a semester in New Zealand taking data science classes, hiking—and studying the history of that country’s indigenous Maori people. “It was super eye-opening to see how they were overtaken by Europeans—a similar path as the U.S., but a completely different place.”

In high school, Zach Bernstein ‘20 came east to visit the UVM campus and “just fell in love,” says the Chicago native. “It’s gorgeous here; fall is just unreal — and on top of that, it’s a super-open, accepting campus,” he says. “As a young queer boy, who was coming out of the closet, that was a big priority for me.” This summer, Bernstein will head farther east, to Boston, to start a post at MassMutual as a data engineer in their Data Science Development Program. Through his new job, he’ll pursue a graduate certificate in data engineering — “and I’m hoping to end up working on transportation, perhaps for the FAA,” he says, digging into the data “about how people move, fly, drive.” Bernstein will be one of seven pioneering students graduating this year from UVM’s data science program that began four years ago. “It’s the intersection of computer science with statistics,” he explains. How has his time in Vermont moved him? “It's been life changing. I did a complete 180 and flourished into the person that I really feel like I'm meant to be over my four years at UVM.”


Matt Bompastore and friends on Alternative Spring Break in West Virginia.

Matt Bompastore (center, held aloft by pals) rates an Alternative Spring Break spent repairing a storm-damaged home in West Virginia as one of his favorite weeks of college: “Coming together with seven other strangers and becoming trusting friends and an effective team within a week was an amazing experience.”

Graduating with a bachelor’s degree in microbiology from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and a particular interest in infectious disease, Matt Bompastore '20 has a decidedly on-point diploma in this time of pandemic. A sophomore-year course first drew his focus to infectious disease, which he has since pursued through his studies and research experience under the guidance of Matthew Wargo, associate professor of microbiology and molecular genetics. Bompastore’s work with Wargo explored the bacteria Pseuodomonas aeruginosa, studying how it lives in its pre-infection environment, potable water. “The better we understand these diseases, the better we can prevent them,” he says. The new UVM grad will stay on at his alma mater, enrolling in the Larner College of Medicine, working toward his goal of becoming a physician. A volunteer at the UVM Children’s Hospital throughout his college years, Bompastore will be on familiar ground. Compassion and connection were key to his volunteer role working (OK, mostly playing) with the young patients and their siblings, and bringing comfort to the stress of hospitalization.

Emily Bruggeman at the Red Square in Moscow.

When Emily Bruggeman ’20 returned from a semester abroad in Russia, she wasted no time catching up with her advisor Professor Kat Scollins. “We enjoyed a cup of tea while discussing all of the thorny aspects of life in Russia. Her insight was fascinating to compare and contrast with my own experiences, and helped me refocus my major takeaways from that period of my college career,” she says of the highly impactful conversation.

From the Red Square in Moscow and frozen Lake Baikal in Siberia to the nation’s capital in D.C., Emily Bruggeman’s double majors in political science and Russian language studies are quite literally taking her places. Though she’ll soon be on her way to Washington, D.C., for a coveted internship researching U.S.-Russian foreign policy issues at the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity, Bruggeman makes it clear that, right now, her mind and heart remain on campus at the University of Vermont. An accomplished scholar and debate competitor, Bruggeman describes her time at UVM not by debate wins, grades or experiences abroad, but by the people she met along the way; like the female inmates she coached at the only women’s prison in Vermont on their public speaking skills, or her serendipitous friendship with a lottery-assigned roommate, Caroline; and Professor Kat Scollins from the Russian Department. “All future students who grace her classroom are beyond fortunate; it will be hard to find another professor like Kat!” she says of Scollins, whose guidance she sought from her first semester at UVM. “The mark of an excellent professor, though, is someone who offers guidance beyond the academic. Professor Scollins filled that role tremendously as a reliable advisor to turn to when things got hectic or uncertain.”

Michael Chan

“Understanding how our experiences differ allows us to find similarity and will better prepare us for the future of work,” says Michael Chan ’20, who’s looking to make the business world more sustainable and socially responsible.

“Storytelling is a powerful tool in changing the world around us,” says Michael Chan ’20. And that’s exactly what the double major in business administration and environmental studies intends to do as a research analyst at boutique market research firm, Fulcrum Research Group, upon graduation. Throughout his years at UVM, Chan has been carving out a space for himself at the intersection of sustainable business, marketing and communications, which all culminated in his Honors College thesis research project: understanding how identity influences small business social responsibility. “Despite being less researched, small businesses are key change agents in their community’s transformation toward a more sustainable future,” he explains. Chan conducted personal interviews with local entrepreneurs of varying genders, geographic locations, races, industries and sizes about how they started and grew their businesses. When it comes to building a more sustainable and socially responsible future, his findings indicate that connecting to the experiences of those deemed “other” in our communities helps increase awareness of individual purchasing power. Learn more about Chan's research.

Ethan Foley drops the puck at Hockey's SGA Night in 2018.

As student government president, Ethan Foley did the honors of the ceremonial puck drop when the Catamounts took on Maine at UVM Hockey’s SGA Night in 2018.

New students are invariably advised that “getting involved” is fundamental to finding success and making the most of their college years. Ethan Foley ’20, a secondary education/social sciences major, could be Exhibit A for the wisdom of granting your elders a listen on this one. Being a member of the Dewey House for Community Engagement, a campus tour guide and a student rep on the Board of Trustees, and founding an on-campus food pantry are just a few of the places where Foley “got involved.” He marks serving as president of the Student Government Association as the most formative experience of his years at the university. Through that role, he found the mentorship of Pat Brown, director emeritus of Student Life and a key inspiration as he aspires to a career in higher education administration. Foley’s next stop is the University of Maryland for a master’s degree in the field. “Becoming an educator is incredibly exciting to me, as I have a career to look forward to that involves a lifetime of empowering others to become their best selves,” he says.

Xavier Giddings

Xavier Giddings ’20 in Uganda. “This past winter break, I studied public health nursing abroad in Africa. We worked with people in villages, had vaccination clinics, shadowed in a variety of hospital settings and mapped public health resources. I learned about cultural and health practices, and even learned some of the language. It was a life-changing experience.”

Ninety-five UVM nursing students chose to graduate early this year and enter the workforce, providing reinforcements to the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. Among those students: Xavier Giddings '20, a professional nursing major who is now a registered nurse in Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center’s Surgical Intensive Care Unit. “I feel immense pride in my future profession and the role I’ll play in helping people on their darkest days,” says Giddings. He reflects on the breadth of knowledge he gained in his four years, learning how to see and understand physical problems under the guidance of faculty like advisor Jason Garbarino, and developing another skill: the “emotional intelligence that nurses are known for.” He further honed his people skills as an admissions’ tour guide. “When first-year students approach me to let me know that I was their tour guide and that they’re now loving their time at UVM, that is a feeling that never gets old.” Giddings will also work toward earning another degree, on the adult-gerontology nurse practitioner track in UVM’s Doctor of Nursing Practice Program.

 Sophie John Nordic skiing.

Sophie John ’20 raced on UVM’s Club Nordic Ski Team all four years, and served as captain this year. A love of the outdoors “definitely influenced my decision to become an exercise science major,” says John.

Avid Nordic skier Sophie John '20 came to UVM knowing exercise is, in fact, often the best medicine. The exercise science major had her sights set on becoming a physical therapist from the outset. “With obesity and lifestyle disease rates rising, exercise practitioners are more and more needed,” she explains. But John soon found new niches and intersections under the guidance of professors Karen Westervelt and Susan Kasser: a course taught by the pair, Icelandic Thermal Springs, sparked an interest in integrative health. Her Honors College thesis research with these two faculty examined the incorporation of nutrition into physical therapy, something she now wants to use in her future practice. A series of courses and years of volunteering deepened her experience with adaptive sports. “I absolutely loved the tight-knit department at UVM,” says John. Starting this summer, she’ll pursue her Doctor of Physical Therapy degree at MGH Institute of Health Professions in Boston.

Olivia Machanic

“As many business students know, taking a headshot is a labor of love," says Olivia Machanic. "There’s a lot of trial and error, but when you finally capture the perfect image it will show off your growth, dedication and professionalism. It took four years to get to where I am today and coincidently the same amount of time for this photo.”

Statistically speaking, if you are a member of the UVM community, it’s highly likely that at some point or another your path has crossed with Olivia Machanic’s during her four years at the University of Vermont. The business administration student has held dozens of leadership positions in organizations ranging from the Student Government Association and Inter-Resident Association to the Grossman Student Advisory Committee and serving as manager of the Women’s Varsity Lacrosse Team. But, of all the experiences she’s had on campus, her participation as an AdvoCat for UVM admissions “outshines the rest,” she says. “Giving tours to incoming students and prospective families was a major highlight of my college career and I grew greatly as a person.” Having dedicated her time at UVM to fostering connections and building relationships with others across the university, it may also come as no surprise to learn that she’ll be doing just that at Unilever upon graduation. As a member of the supply chain team at the company’s New Jersey headquarters, Machanic will connect customers around the world with products and find new and innovative ways to address the economic and health concerns challenging the global supply chain today.

Vanessa Myhaver at event with person

Vanessa Myhaver (left) and her friend Anne Marie Stupinski, both members of the Class of 2020, at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, the world’s largest gathering of women in computing. “There were, like, 25,000 women there—twenty of us from UVM,” says Myhaver. “I came back with three job offers,” she says, but turned them down for a post at NASA.

A black hole — a well in spacetime where gravity is so strong that nothing, not even light, can escape — is “hard to imagine,” says Vanessa Myhaver ’20. Still, she will spend the next year and a half working with NASA — imagining not just one black hole, but three. “I hope to identify what the gravitational waves would look like when a supermassive black hole collides with a binary system of two other black holes,” she explains. Sound messy and chaotic? Exactly. “I hope to identify chaos,” says Myhaver, a math major at UVM with a double minor in computer science and philosophy. “It's not even sure whether that will be a chaotic system. It's expected to be, but there hasn't been much research done around it.” Myhaver will spend the summer working for NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center on this problem and then return to UVM in the fall to continue her research through an accelerated master’s program in applied mathematics, studying with chaos expert Professor Chris Danforth. “So is chaos a natural phenomenon of the whole universe?” Myhaver asks. “My interest in black holes began with the realization that I can describe a lot of things with mathematics — but it wasn’t until I got into philosophy that I was like, wait, there may be no answer to this question.”


Nisha Nadkarni conducts work in a laboratory

From her first toe-dip into research on water quality to her first fulltime dive into stormwater mitigation and watershed protection, the Rubenstein School poised Nisha Nadkarni to swim in a sea (or lake) of meaningful water research and opportunity.

Environmental sciences graduate Nisha Nadkarni ’20 almost had a very different journey through UVM. A week before classes started, she switched her major from exercise science into the Rubenstein School. Foresight was 20/20 in this case as a hands-on summer internship has led to a fulltime position at Blue BTV, where Nadkarni will continue consultation work she began with local Burlington residents about ways to best mitigate stormwater issues and protect the Lake Champlain watershed. "Visiting people’s homes and talking to them about stormwater infrastructure to put on their property was different,” says Nadkarni of other data-driven and evidence-based projects she’s worked on. “They’re not coming from that perspective of stats and numbers; they just want to know what they can do to contribute. It made me excited that there can be a collaboration between these communities and the scientific world.” Learn more about Nisha Nadkarni.


Jillian Scannell smiling at a student rally

Jillian Scannell ’20 at a climate change march on the UVM campus—that she organized. She has a “passion for the environment,” she says, and a “belief that policy can be used as an approach to solve environmental problems.”

For Jillian Scannell ’20environmental studies major and political science minor — academics and activism dance together. “My first class in my first year was Professor Amy Seidl’s Environmental Studies 001,” she says. “We ended up forming a group called UVM Stands — made up of students and Amy. We held a pro-environment rally and chartered a bus to the People’s Climate March in Washington, D.C.” Four years later, Scannell has TA’d for Seidl’s course twice, run for Burlington City Council, won a Truman Scholarship, organized an on-campus climate march — and just finished a year-long term as president of the UVM Student Government Association. “I am most proud of the work we did to decrease food insecurity, opening Rally Cat’s Cupboard, UVM’s low-barrier on-campus food pantry,” Scannell says. She was planning to spend the summer in Washington, interning for Senator Leahy as part of her Truman Scholarship — then COVID-19 hit. Pivoting, she plans to work this year and then use the funds from her Truman award to attend graduate school. “Climate change is the grand challenge that my generation must address,” Scannell says. “I am one of the next generation of leaders who will support bold climate action.”

Sam Serrantonio atop Mount Philo.

Getting down to Mount Philo for a hike, sometimes with her sisters from Delta Delta Delta sorority, was a favorite break from studies for Samantha Serrantonio.

As graduation approaches, native Vermonter Samantha Serrantonio '20 has her plans firmly set for what’s next. She’ll embark on a career in elementary education as a classroom teacher at Highgate Elementary School, up near the Canadian border. Committed to the vital role teachers play in shaping the future, not only of their students, but more widely of society, her passion for education has grown deeper during her UVM years. Lecturer Ellen Baker has been a key mentor on this journey. “Ellen walked alongside me in the toughest yet most rewarding semesters of my time at UVM,” Serrantonio says. “She was always reminding me that I would make a great teacher someday, always there with open arms if I needed someone to talk to.”

Stina Sickmueller wears jersey number 1 with fellow Club Field Hockey team members.

Captain of her Club Field Hockey team, Stina Sickmueller (jersey #1) also made time to compete in squash. The versatile member of the Class of 2020 also plays flute, but regrets she didn’t have time to join the UVM Orchestra or an ensemble as an undergrad. With one year remaining to complete her accelerated master’s program, there’s still time for the rare field hockey-squash-flute triple.

Receiving her bachelor’s from UVM this May is a major moment for Stina Sickmueller '20, no doubt about that. But it’s also just one milestone along her full journey at the university, as she enters a fifth year to complete her accelerated master’s degree program in the UVM Department of Nutrition and Food Sciences. Within that unit, she credits faculty such as Todd Pritchard, Paul Kindstedt, Cathy Donnelly, Beth Bradley and Jean Harvey with helping her sharpen her academic focus. She also appreciated sampling broadly from university disciplines, influenced by an “eye-opening” anthropology class with Jonah Steinberg and a philosophy course on “The Ethics of Eating,” taught by Tyler Doggett, that brought her interests full circle. All have combined to sharpen her commitment to helping advance progress in systems and policy to create a food industry that is safe, widely accessible, sustainable and high-quality.

Alex Taylor

On evenings that Alex Taylor wasn’t working on a professional theater design or studying marine chemistry into the night, the chemistry major could often be found at Oakledge Park. “I loved coming to this place over the summer with friends on walks or runs. It’s one of my favorite places to see the sunset in Burlington,” he says

The beginning of Alex Taylor’s professional path resembles something more similar to running in circles. As an Honors College student, his personal pursuits in theatrical design, entrepreneurship and storytelling on the weekends seemed at odds with his academic interests in chemistry and environmental science during the weekdays. But ultimately it was his appreciation for the liberal arts and the guidance of Giuseppe Petrucci, a professor of analytical chemistry, that would help Taylor find his sure footing at the nexus of design and science. Under Petrucci's advisement, Taylor embraced the dichotomy and created a scientific podcast, “Hidden Ocean,” for his thesis that shares marine chemistry through stories and features interviews with scientists from around the world. “I’m seeing my two seemingly separate paths converge,” he says, having just successfully defended his thesis.

Taylor graduates this spring with honors in chemistry, hands-on work experience at a Burlington chemistry startup and with more than 40 professional theatrical designs under his belt through his own company, ParadigmX. Next he’s headed to Berlin, Germany; “where I’ll be evolving my company to provide innovative storytelling through design for a number of clients in the chemical, photographic and startup spaces,” he says.

Stephanie Wobby

“I tend to be very shy and introverted,” Stephanie Wobby confesses. But with support from English Department faculty like Didi Jackson, Wobby eventually found her voice as a creative nonfiction writer. Her award-winning work focuses largely on her military experience.

After a particularly challenging semester of physics, Stephanie Wobby ’20, an aspiring cardiothoracic surgeon and biochemistry major at the time took a step back and asked herself: “What are you really doing, Stephanie?” But with two deployments as an Army medic already under her belt, pulling the trigger on a change in career plan during her junior year was no easy decision. But Wobby knew that what she lacked in STEM she more than made up for in creative writing abilities. Throughout her years at UVM, supportive English professors like Didi Jackson, Major Jackson, Greg Bottoms and Maria Hummel helped her translate her Army medic and other life experience into compelling creative writing content. “They all made what had been a writing hobby more realistic and they took it seriously,” she says, now as a graduating English major and award-winning writer. Wobby’s essay “7 lbs., 8 oz.” — written for Professor Bottoms’ class, about learning to handle a rifle in the Army — was named first runner-up for the Los Angeles Review’s 2019 creative nonfiction award. Upon graduation, Wobby will earn her MFA at Columbia University, where she’s been accepted to their competitive nonfiction program.


Writing for this piece contributed by Josh Brown, Kaitie Catania, Andrea Estey, Tom Weaver and Kate Wettergreen. Photos by Sally McCay and courtesy of featured students.

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