Author: Jill Deans

Reflections and Advice from a UConn Senior

By Dana Chamberlain.

College was hard for me. I came in not really knowing what I wanted to do and am graduating still not fully knowing what’s next for me. But if there’s one thing that I’ve learned over the past four years at UConn, it’s that success isn’t linear. Some people enter college knowing exactly what they want to do, never change their mind, and end up happy in a successful career. Other people spend many years trying to figure out who they are and what they want to do, trying out a bunch of different paths until stumbling upon something they love. So, all of this is to say, you don’t need to know exactly who you are and what you want to do at 18 or even at 22. The most important thing is that you never stop learning or growing. Things will hopefully fall into place when you are honest with yourself about what you want in life and put in the work to get it.

 As I reflect on my time here at UConn, there are a few things I wish I fully understood earlier on. To the incoming first-year class, here are some things I wish I knew my first year:

 Mental health above all

I am no stranger to depression and anxiety. I know how hard it can be to get out of bed when all you want to do is sleep the day away or to work on an assignment when your mind is elsewhere. Trying to stay on top of your academics while maintaining friendships, participating in extracurricular activities, and worrying about your future can be really overwhelming and stressful.

At the end of the day, you are not a robot and can only do so much. It is so unbelievably important to put your mental wellbeing first. Take time each day to care for yourself and rest. Set boundaries when you can. If you have a ton of assignments all due on the same day and know you won’t be able to finish it all without depriving yourself of sleep, reach out to your professors to see if you can get a deadline extension. Or if you agreed to hang out with a friend on the weekend but are feeling drained after a particularly hard week, text them to see if you can hang out another time. Most people will understand as long as you communicate with them and are honest about when you think you can get things done.

UConn has quite a few resources to help you out too. You can reach out to SHaW-Mental Health for counseling services, the Dean of Students Office to receive extra academic support, and the Center for Student Disabilities to receive housing and/or academic accommodations to support any learning differences or different abilities you might be have. And don’t underestimate the value of a friend who is a good listener! You’re not alone and you will get through this! 

Grades are important, but not as important as you might think

Grades are important, so you should try to attend all class sessions, develop good study habits, go to office hours, make friends with your classmates, form study groups, and reach out to your professor with any concerns you might have. However, your grades don’t define you, and one bad grade isn’t the end of the world. It’s more important that you continue to improve throughout the semester and your college career and develop good relationships with your professors.

 If you’re worried about future jobs or graduate school, you can always explain why you received the grade you did in a cover letter or interview (whether it’s because you were attending to a personal issue or math just isn’t your strong suit, for example.) Also, having formed good relationships with your professor means that they can vouch for you when you need it. Ultimately, letters of recommendation speak louder than grades.

Get involved

I know that everyone says this, but it’s so important to get involved. College is supposed to be fun! Go to the Involvement Fair each semester and sign up for any and all clubs that interest you. I met so many cool people through attending club meetings and events. Getting involved helps you make friends, learn more about your interests, and feel connected to your campus.

Networking matters

I didn’t really understand how important networking was until my junior year. Job hunting can be rough. Sometimes a familiar face is all you need to get your foot in the door. So, develop good relationships with your professors, TAs, advisors, mentors, classmates, coworkers, etc. You never know who might know of a great opportunity for you or who can speak highly of you in spaces you don’t have access to.

Take risks

Be open to trying new things and take advantage of every opportunity that comes your way. I applied to a summer research program for undergraduates (REU) my freshman year on a whim and got in. Now, I’ve been doing research for three years, have had so many doors opened for me, and am planning on a career in research. You never know what could come from saying “yes!”

 UConn has a lot to offer. Reading “The Daily Digest” every day is a great way to find out about what’s happening on campus.

Be your own advocate

Last but not least, it’s important to be your own advocate. With so many students on campus, sometimes your professor or advisor won’t notice that you’re struggling. Ask for what you need. Reach out. Remember: closed mouths don’t get fed.

Finding Light in the Darkness

By Yvette Oppong.

All of the injustice that took place in 2020, from the exacerbation of environmental injustice due to COVID-19 to the many examples of racial injustice in our society, had made me feel very hopeless. It just seemed as though African Americans and people of color were not made for success while living in America. One thing that helped me get through the traumatic events of 2020 up until now is trying to find the positivity in every situation, especially in light of the negativity surrounding this pandemic. One way I did this was making a goal to learn how to truly take a break and relax. Before the pandemic, I always felt as though I did not have enough time for anything, like completing the next assignment, planning for the classes I needed to take, applying for programs for the summer, etc. Throughout this entire quarantine, I have made a purposeful effort to try not to worry constantly about what I have to do next, because everything that has happened has taught me to be grateful for the moment and to cherish it.

In doing this, I have also made an effort to set aside time for myself for myself. I have been spending more time in nature, which has really helped me to relax and be more appreciative of life and the planet. In addition to this, I have been learning how to cook, learning how to do box braids, cornrows, twists, and passion twists on myself. Learning how to cook has been a very enjoyable experience for me because it keeps me from stressing about my work, and I am able to make food I enjoy eating. Learning how to do different styles on my hair has also been very fun for me because I have always wanted to learn how to do my hair and the process of learning, although frustrating at times, is rewarding in the end when you see the results. Doing this also helps me relax and forget about anything I am stressing about because I am focusing on one thing. Although I can improve on these, I am so glad that I was able to have the time to learn more about myself and challenge myself.

Another thing has helped me relax is embracing, pursuing and incorporating my passions with my career interests. Whenever I used to think about what I would be doing after graduation, I would get overwhelmed and stressed out. Now, I am trying to change how I think about my future; so instead of worrying about how I am going to get to where I need to be, I have been planning and incorporating my passion for Environmental Justice into my passion for medicine. I am always trying to affirm within myself that I can accomplish this goal and anything else I want to pursue because I didn’t get this far just to get this far. I am doing my best, and that is something I have been reminding myself of lately so that I do not put too much pressure on myself. Getting to this point was a very difficult process for me, and although I have a lot to improve on, I am grateful for the progress I have made and where I am at.

Limitless

By Soohyun Oh.

As a sophomore here at UConn, my life is filled with uncertainties. I like to think that I have my life and my future figured out, but quite frankly, I am not very sure if I do. This “college thing” came to me like a quick tsunami wave: from taking SATs in high school to being a sophomore in my spring semester. While some students might have already figured out their whole life plan, some might still be undecided majors who aren’t sure what they want to do after graduation.

I entered the University of Connecticut as an exercise science major and I had two possible plans: physical therapy or medical school. Exercise science was a familiar field to me. Like many exercise science majors, I was involved with sports throughout high school, and I was in an environment with a lot of rehabilitation work and physical therapy. For some reason, I wanted to go into the medical field. It was strange because I had no prior experience in the medical field except for hospital TV shows and documentaries which are often a misrepresentation of the realities of medicine. Maybe I was drawn to the white coats, their high social status, not to mention their high payroll. I had very little knowledge about both fields of physical therapy and healthcare, and that’s where the uncertainty developed and my anxiety kicked in.

However, with my experiences at UConn, I can turn my uncertainties into opportunities. As soon as I started my classes, I loved my major. The thing that I love the most about the major is the interdisciplinary course offerings and the flexibility. As a pre-medical student in exercise science, I am taking classes in hard sciences, kinesiology, nutrition, public speaking, psychology, and the list goes on. All these different courses allow me to gain knowledge in various science fields that are relevant not just to exercise science. The coursework is interdisciplinary, but they are also classes that I can apply in my daily life. Courses such as exercise prescription, nutrition, and principles of weight-training provide me with knowledge of exercise planning, nutrition management, and weightlifting. With these classes, I am also able to gain a small insight into what kind of work the physical therapists, nutritionists, and athletic trainers do.

In addition to the courses that help me get a sneak peek of what the fields entail, I also am able to expand my learning outside of the classroom through the College of Agriculture, Health & Natural Resources (CAHNR) itself. I can talk to the CAHNR faculty and professors about my interests. I’ve learned about the different types of physical therapists in addition to those working with athletes. Some physical therapists work with flight attendants, children, and horses (how cool is that!). I have also learned that physical therapy isn’t the only path you can take. I discovered you can continue in graduate school in biomechanics or exercise physiology to be in a research field and even work with companies like Nike or Hershey’s to develop their products. Also, with involvement in research, I can explore cellular and molecular biology, studying how various cell stresses can affect the development of organisms. Through research, I can learn lab techniques, data analysis, questioning, and problem-solving, all of which are necessary skills for graduate school.

One project that I and a colleague started recently with my principal investigator, Dr. Elaine Choung-Hee Lee, is the B.ethical project, which is a blog discussing the medical and scientific ethical issues to educate and bring awareness on the topic. The field of bioethics was something that I have never expected myself to be interested in and study. With this project, I expanded my knowledge on topics such as scientific data on women, racism and discrimination in scientific publications and experimental designs, microaggressions, health disparities in medicine and STEM professions.

When I started college, I expected my life to play out smoothly like a record player because now I am a “grown-up” in college studying a particular field. However, I was not in a place where I expected to be at this stage of my college career. Also, the COVID-19 pandemic put us, college students, into quarantine, limiting our learning opportunities inside and outside of school. Uncertainties and not having a set plan in your life can be scary and challenging and can make you anxious. However, not having a set path also means that your education is limitless: you are not bound in your learning. Through this learning process, I have gained more experience and knowledge about my fields of interests interested in order to someday soon decide on my future path. If your future is uncertain like mine, learn and explore, and you’ll find something that calls you!

ARE: My Major and Me

By Jigar Kapadia

Ever since I enrolled at UConn, balance has been one of my biggest mantras. Finding it has allowed me to experience a wide variety of opportunities, from networking with UConn alumni to embarking on field trips with UConn’s Wildlife Society. Likewise, I wanted my degree to to prepare me for the diverse array of situations the future will have in store. That is why I majored in Applied and Resource Economics or ARE for short. Majoring in ARE has prepared me to think analytically about problems in production, marketing and management within business firms through examples in natural resources and agriculture industries. The program grants a Bachelor of Science degree, and offers three main concentrations. I have taken courses that apply to each of the three, and all have enabled me to develop highly advantageous skills that I can carry forward into my professional life.

Business Management and Marketing will especially suit those interested in business. One course I took within this area, Computational Analysis in Applied Economics (ARE 3333), laid the foundation for me to analyze agricultural business problems and management decisions through Excel. Because of the course, I now know how to create formulas that minimize the amount of actual work needed in setting up a spreadsheet and get the necessary data I need faster. This skill in Microsoft Office and similar programs is key for communicating a presentation or data entries within a business environment. On top of this, the courses in the concentration help establish a strong understanding of consumer choices as well as profit and risk management, while also explaining how factors such as law and government policies have an impact on agricultural business decisions.

Environmental Economics and Policy is great if you are interested in legislation and the state of natural resources. This is especially true for Environmental and Resource Policy (ARE 3434), which lays out the history and procedures surrounding important environmental and natural resource issues like environmental quality, energy use, natural resource management, and valuation of natural resources. This information gave me a strong understanding how policies are crafted within the United States and provided an important context to answering these same issues in the future if I am part of a government agency or private business that provides services in sustainability, environmental, or natural resource areas.

The Developmental Economics and Policy concentration seeks to address issues like world hunger and poverty both domestically and internationally. I gained a better understanding about how national and international agricultural analysis is conducted in Food Policy (ARE 3260), while in Economic Geography (GEOG 2100), I was given a thorough overview of issues such as transportation and allocation of resources at the local, regional and global economic level. Both gave me the chance to apply techniques such as cost-benefit analysis and risk investment decision-making, which is key for careers in governmental policymaking as well as international organizations such as the World Bank and Save the Children.

ARE also offers 3 minors, including Business Management and Marketing along with Environmental Economics and Policy. The third option is Equine Business Management, which provides an overview of marketing, management, and financial principles in equine management. On top of this, there are opportunities to receive credit for approved internships and projects, which allows you to apply the knowledge from coursework to the real world. I had the chance to do so in the Farm Credit East Fellows Program through the Professional Internship Course (ARE 4991). Even though my experience was cut short due to the pandemic, it still provided an insightful opportunity into how a lending financial services provider such as Farm Credit East serves agriculture and natural resource-based businesses. Assignments given throughout the course simulated the tasks done daily within the firm, including determining the creditworthiness of borrowers, analyzing a company’s probability of defaulting, and evaluating real estate property value.

Thanks to the programs offered in Applied and Resource Economics, I have been able to balance my efforts into a specific set of skills and experiences that suit me best. Now I know how to be both analytical and constructive when it comes to information thanks to Business Management and Marketing. My time in Environmental Economics has made me more aware of how our natural resources are managed and maintained to suit our needs, and Development Economics and Policy has given me a better understanding of how logistical decisions are made here in America and abroad. These approaches, accompanied by hands-on internship experience, have set me up for a well-balanced career path as I look ahead to the world beyond college.

Searching for Stories in Unconventional Places and in Unconventional Ways

By Shaharia Ferdus.

Ever since I was a child, I loved stories. My mother would read me countless bedtime tales when I was young, and after I immigrated to America from Bangladesh, I often found myself buried in a book because it was easier to get lost in fantasy worlds with fictional characters than to confront the foreignness of my new home or the faces around me. Now as an adult, I am proud that I am at least a little braver than I once was. Years of forcing myself to reach out and get involved in my community and later on campus have made talking to people less difficult than it once was. Unfortunately, the busier schedule now also means that the natural bookworm in me has little time to get lost in a traditional book like before. So, I’ve had to be creative and search for stories in unconventional places and in unconventional ways.

Not everyone is meant to be a writer, that much is true. But in my time as a nurse aide (albeit only eight months), I have come to find that some of the best stories are told by ordinary people. As I work in a rehabilitation clinic, it is always exciting to watch patients who previously could not move, walk on their own again in a matter of weeks, thanks to therapy, a supportive network, and their own determination and effort. Hearing from some patients as they work to regain their capabilities is always inspiring, and I strive to be just as hardworking and optimistic as they are. But for other patients, there is no recovery, no return path to normalcy.

For these individuals, I cannot do much but be present and listen. It is actually one of the most rewarding aspects of my job and a privilege I hold dear because I am aware of how difficult it is to be vulnerable around strangers. But I have also come to appreciate how comforting it can be for them to open up to someone. The few minutes I take to ask patients about their day and listen to them talk about their families, their goals, their lives beyond the hospital, is just me being friendly. Not everyone cares, but for some, my efforts make enough of an impression that they recall our exchanges fondly whenever I come to see them. So in between tasks, I try to make time to talk to my patients. Whatever their prognosis is, I am thankful to be there for them. Even if I cannot do much to improve their overall condition, I can at least listen, and that itself can make all the difference to a patient’s outlook on their recovery.

Here at UConn, I deal with a different kind of story – that is, the story being told, and now actively being written by me, through research. Switching out a pen for a micropipette and a library for the NCBI database, I coauthor a mystery in which I am a detective. The mystery: how does the gut microbiome affect liver health? It’s a question that has come to dominate my research experience ever since I joined the Blesso lab in the Nutritional Sciences Department sophomore year, and one I am not sure I have the answer to as I prepare my honors thesis, nor one I expect to know the answer to even after graduation in May. It’s a frustrating situation getting insignificant results and not knowing the answer; I’m not used to not getting answers as a student. But as my PI reminds me time and again, this is an open-ended tale. As more evidence is compiled by many scientists across the world over time, the story will build, but the mystery itself may never be fully resolved. I still cross my fingers hoping that sooner or later, I will encounter an exciting detail that furthers the field tremendously. But for now, I’ve learned to be proud of my involvement (however small) in the development of this global story of human curiosity and intellect.

Being an ambitious full-time student leaves little time for reading books that are not the required course readings. Even if I found time to travel to the library, most are closed now anyways, thanks to the pandemic. But that has not stopped me from seeking out stories and feeding my inner bookworm. Whether happy or sad, complete or incomplete, I want to hear them all. But more importantly, I want to be a part of building those stories – stories of human ambition and achievement. The future is unpredictable and unwritten, but I am my own author, and this story will have a happy ending. “The End” (for now…)

Maintaining a Global Perspective

By Alma Jeri-Wahrhaftig

I come from an incredibly global family. My maternal grandmother was born in England and raised in Rhodesia (now modern-day Zimbabwe), and my father immigrated to the United States from Peru. Over time, my family has slowly expanded to five of the seven continents, and as a result, I have had the unique experience of learning and incorporating lessons from various cultures around the world. My experiences and interactions with my family have shaped me into the person I have become today and continue to influence me. It is through my family, friends, and experiences that I have recognized the importance and benefit of maintaining a global perspective in everyday life.

My grandmother has lived in three different continents throughout her lifetime, each different from the first. She and her family moved from England to Rhodesia at the age of eight and then later moved to the United States as an adult. Her stories of adventure and travels circulate throughout my family, and have created a desire in me to travel and have similar experiences. My grandmother and her stories have helped me gain a better understanding of the differences and unique aspects that make up our world.

My father came to the United States when he met my mother and started a completely new life. He learned a new language, began a new career, and raised a family. My father instilled in me a strong work ethic, and helped me become a decisive problem solver. Through my father, I learned that with an open mind and creative thought, every problem could have a solution.

While my family is composed of a variety of cultures, my parents ensured that my brother and I would be able to participate in our cultures and have a strong understanding of them. A mix of Peruvian, English, Zimbabwean, and American objects, dishes, music, and more filled the inside of my home. Outside of my home, my family also worked to ensure that my brother and I would be able to travel to these same countries to visit family and appreciate our background. This upbringing has taught me to remain open and accepting to new people, cultures, and ideas. It has taught me that being open to new experiences can only bring adventure, and enhance an individual knowledge of the world. Most of all, it has helped me to embrace my own identity and filled me with a motivation to learn about the various other cultures of the world.

Over time and travels, I have discovered how a global perspective allows for new ideas and innovation to be brought about through diverse thought: how it allows for an openness and acceptance to new ideas, provides a better understanding of the globe, and creates a motivation to learn more about the world around. Of course education abroad is a great opportunity to experience this wider view, but a global perspective does not have to be brought about just by travel or family background, it can be achieved through your immediate surroundings.

At UConn, we have the opportunity to enroll in a large variety of classes and participate in different organizations that can help further our knowledge of the world. Different opportunities include the courses we enroll in, such as anthropology, women and gender studies, or language study. We can participate in various organizations and communities, such as the global house learning community, the cultural centers available at the Student Union, different clubs, or study abroad. We can even gain this view by the shows we watch, the music we listen to, and the books we read. It is simply how we view and learn from the world and the experiences with which we surround ourselves that can help us better understand the world and those who live in it.

A global perspective does not need to come from a grand life experience and it may not always provide the same set of benefits. However, we can only stand to gain from trying to learn more about others. While some may apply this perspective in their future career, a global perspective can help with daily interactions with others as well. It can make people better listeners, more accepting, more understanding, and help strengthen our connections to another across the planet and here at home.

Don’t Underestimate the Powers of Pets

By Megan Davenport

Let’s be honest, the Covid-19 pandemic has dramatically impacted how we go about our everyday lives. It has influenced everyone in different ways and poses one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century: how to be social from afar. For anyone who knows me or has met me, they know that I am a ball of social energy and thrive on human contact to maintain that outgoing personality. I’m not gonna lie, I have struggled with finding creative ways to connect with others during this pandemic. I’ve tried everything from texting to social media to face-timing and zoom calls — they were all great ways to socialize safely, but still left me feeling empty and longing for physical contact. That’s when I realized how important my physical connection with animals was going to be for my mental health and wellbeing.

This fall semester, I was working in the UConn dairy heifer barn to help with Little I training, and just being down at the barn physically working with calves elevated my mood and restored that social energy I would usually receive from human contact. I’ve always considered the barn to be my home away from home, and that has never proven more true than it has in 2020. Even on my worst days, when physically isolated from others, the calves I worked with made my entire day go from dreary and hopeless to exciting and cheerful. I always knew that being around animals made me feel better, so this was all I needed to maintain a positive and hopeful attitude towards life.

Once I came home from school for winter break, I would go out to my barn and just sit in the hay with one of my calf’s heads in my lap. It made every worry I had go away. Similarly, snuggling up by the fire with a warm blanket and a fluffy cat to pet made me feel at peace. There are so many people who have suffered so much during this pandemic, and although I am grateful that I have not lost any close friends or family to Covid, I know many friends who have lost loved ones or have suffered in other ways. Whether you lost your job, are struggling to make financial ends meet, feel overwhelmed with virtual classes, and/or miss seeing your friends and family dearly, everyone is looking for an outlet for the stress, grief, and hopelessness associated with this global health crisis. As more and more businesses, gyms, schools, libraries, and more close, the world is becoming crippled mentally and socially. It is vital for each and every one of us to find what works best for us to help us combat these dark times.

I am grateful that I have various pets to spend quality time with. However, not everyone is fortunate enough to have cows in their backyard or even have a pet cat or dog, but for those who don’t, I’d implore them to buy some plants. Yes, you heard me, plants. Even if they’re small succulents from the store, being surrounded by any source of life, even plants, can make the greatest difference in mental health and can significantly improve your mood. This pandemic has been one of the biggest tests of willpower and resilience for humankind in a while (or at least in my lifetime so far) and is going to continuously knock us down when we least expect it. It is up to each and every one of us to muster the strength to keep getting back up and fighting back harder. Whether it’s spending time with your pets, going on a hike, or even watering that little cactus on your bedside table, give yourself a reason to persevere through this monumental obstacle. Do not let Covid win. We are all in this together, even when physically apart. So go buy that succulent, pet your dog, or go on a walk around the neighborhood. Nothing can stop you from practicing the self-care that you deserve… not even a global pandemic.

Don’t Be Scared To Fail, Embrace It ‘Til You Succeed

By Matthew Barrios

As far back as I can remember, all I knew was that I had to push myself always to be the best. Not for myself, nor my friends or loved ones, but for my parents. Even though it may sound like a cliche, my parents have always been my heroes. They were immigrants who came to this country with nothing more than a 6th-grade education, an identification that only worked in Guatemala, and fifty dollars in their pockets. Since then, both of them were able to groom four children: my older sister (who is now a fully registered nurse in one of the best hospitals in New England), my 17-year-old little brother (who is already in line to get scouted by colleges), and my 12-year-old sister (who is becoming a prodigy in gymnastics). Lastly, there is me: the first child to ever move away from home, live at a major state university, and gain a spot in one of their most competitive majors on record. All of us wish to make our parents and loved ones proud, but one thing I learned while attending UConn was that I was scared to fail.

Becoming a part of the class of 2022 at UConn Storrs was a whole game changer. High school was too comfortable for me. UConn challenged me to jump out of my comfort zone. It was a bumpy transition into the common college student life, but eventually I got the hang of it. Still. I had this lingering fear of failing. Every semester got more challenging. Every class got more difficult and kept asking more of me bit by bit. Every night kept getting shorter, I started to run out of time to study and began to miss assignments. Freshman year, I wasn’t that scared because I had enough time on my hands that I could take multiple jobs and still get outstanding grades in my classes, yet it was always that fear of failing that kept crawling up my neck and taking over my body slowly, like a virus. One thing that I learned from attending UConn for the past two and a half years is that you shouldn’t be scared to fail.

Failure teaches you where your errors happened and how you can become better next time. Failure shouldn’t be our worst enemy; rather, it should be our teacher. Our teacher tells us to always pick ourselves up and prepare to tackle the problems ahead. We always mistake failure for the end, when in reality it’s giving up that takes away our second chance. We may fall, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re down for the count. There is still time to get back up and reach the finish line or score that goal or knock out that last study session to ace the final.

The most important lesson that I have learned, and am still currently learning, is that it’s okay to fail. It’s okay to get an unpleasant grade because, at the end of the day, it fuels your motivation for a second chance to correct it. A soccer player doesn’t get better by just practicing one free-kick; they get better by constantly missing until they finally find the right angle to make a goal 10/10 times. Because of failure, I am now within my third year of the four-year Landscape Architecture program with a promising internship while holding employment as a student tour guide at the Lodewick Visitor Center on campus as well as a Club Sports manager for one of my favorite sports, soccer. The university offers so many opportunities to discover who you wish to be or possibly become. I found myself more comfortable at one of the five culture centers on campus, the Puerto Rican Latin American Culture Center. There I became part of a community that later became my home away from home along with some other groups that gave me memories that I will never forget.

Widening Perspective

By Zachary Duda

As a child I was always taught that no one could be the best at everything, no individual had all the answers, and ultimately it takes many people to accomplish a significant task. Growing up with this mindset gave me an interest in the stories other people had, the experiences I lacked and how I could use the perspective of others to form opinions rooted in something other than my own personal path.

Here at UConn, the value of perspective is a key component to working with others. In a community that brings people together from all walks of life, our success depends on our ability to welcome differences and weave them into one complex communal story.

For me the story began when I first arrived at the Waterbury Regional Campus, where I spent the first year of my UConn undergraduate career. At the time, I was milking cows morning and afternoon at a dairy farm a half an hour away. Often, I would arrive on campus smelling less than ideal for class and definitely had a fair share of comments thrown my way. Many of my fellow students were from urban and suburban minority communities and virtually none of them had ever seen a farm, let alone worked on one. This led me to realize how different thirty minutes of travel by car can be in our small state. To put it bluntly, I stuck out like a sore thumb.

As the days and weeks passed in my first semester, I began to make new acquaintances at the campus, fellow peers with different backgrounds and skin tones, who, just like me, were trying to find their piece in the larger puzzle. I would talk to them about the farm, cows, and corn they would often say things like, “I didn’t know we have farms in Connecticut,” or “I can’t believe people still milk cows.” All of this was fun really; what I learned from them about living in an urban area, not seeing open fields or traveling by car to every destination and what they learned from me about a more rural life broadened the way we looked at our thirty minute separation. However, out of my entire year spent at Waterbury, one experience made me realize how we can never take our own perspective for granted. As a white, rural, male freshman, I had made several friends with students from races, genders, religions, and economic backgrounds different from my own.

One day when I arrived at school, still wearing my chore clothes from that morning and reeking of cows, I saw my friend Woody with a group of his friends and decided to walk over and greet him. Naturally, as we always did, we shook hands and talked for a few minutes and I went on my way. Later that day, in the class we had together, Woody sat down next to me and said that his friends, who were all African American, like he was, had been surprised that we were acquainted. He explained to me that his friends had thought I was racist due to the way I dressed and the job I had. That’s why up until that point they never talked to me. Our different lives, locations, and appearances made them believe I was something I was not. Just as I could draw up assumed conclusions about them before having ever talked to them. I asked myself then how many times were they thought to be something they were not? How often are we all judged on first glance, without any connection made?

This single event made me realize how valuable perspective is in every single case where two differing stories meet. After that experience, I realized that the most important tool I had to make friends with anyone was perspective. When used properly, a wider perspective facilitated by the stories we share helps us realize that people share a common humanity even when their lives may appear very different. It is human nature to judge–we all do it; however, we cannot let our first-hand judgements become our lasting impressions. In a community like UConn, we can either see the differences around us as isolating who we are, or we can embrace the diversity and connections we have to expand our view on the world around us.

Venturing Out of the Comfort Zone

by Kimberly Alvarez

Since I was 15 years old, the jobs I usually obtained were in the agricultural field, whether it be at the Stew Leonard’s petting zoo, ShopRite’s floral department or at a dog boarding facility. Being so familiar with these types of jobs, I was always hesitant to work in any other field. While I know for a fact that an agricultural career is in my future, I decided towards the end of April 2020 to venture into social work.

I believe that stepping out of my comfort zone every once in a while can prepare me for that unpredictable future, so I took on a job working at my city’s emergency homeless shelter. As the COVID-19 pandemic took a toll on everyone’s lives, many seemed to forget about the neglected edges in each community, like the homeless. Key public locations, such as libraries, public restrooms and food banks closed down. These prime locations were a necessity for many individuals. Luckily, the State of Connecticut opened an emergency shelter housing 50+ residents, and I was able to get a position there. Before working at the shelter, I was never aware of how many individuals were affected by homelessness. Stepping out of my comfort zone has benefited me with this knowledge and allowed me to offer support to my community. 

Going into the shelter I had no idea what to expect regarding the precautionary measures for COVID-19. There are rules that must be followed by every resident: always wear your mask; apply hand sanitizer whenever you enter the building; keep a 6ft distance from anyone at the shelter. Monthly testing is required for all staff members/residents and both day/night temperature checks are mandatory. Adhering to these rules has been successful and makes the environment safer in my eyes. On a daily basis, breakfast, lunch and dinner is provided to the residents. There are also caseworkers who help them with rapid housing or with job searches. Shelters tend to be all about stabilizing those in need, as they overcome the obstacles in their way and find a stable path. This is when housing opportunities are brought up and jobs are encouraged. Unfortunately, homeless individuals can lack many things such as affordable housing options, a genuine support system and many tend to struggle with addiction. The goal is to provide guidance and not be seen as an authoritative figure.

Raising awareness for the homeless is so important for every community. I have been blessed with the opportunity to work with such amazing people and listen to them when they need a shoulder to lean on. I recommend adding new dimensions to your life, whether it be once a week, once a month or once a year. Stepping out of your comfort zone may lead you to discover a whole new passion. Agriculture will always be my forte; however, being there for any individual in need is key to my lifestyle now. Eventually these small changes you make in your life accumulate and create a positive outcome as the time goes by.