I spent part of this morning meeting admitted students and their parents. The prospective students already inspire me. Admittedly, the most common question they asked was “what’s the difference between environmental studies and environmental science?” but the other questions they asked showed that they are poised, inquisitive, and passionate.
When I was a senior in high school, if I wasn’t playing baseball or basketball, I was in the woods, looking for wildlife. I would spend afternoons catching snakes, fish, and crawdads. I spent weekends on the Buffalo River in Arkansas. I spent weeks during the summer hiking and fishing in the Colorado Rockies. There were few things, if any, that I liked more than being outside and thinking about how the natural world worked. So when it was time to go to college, I did the obvious thing that someone who so desperately loved nature would do, and I decided to major in Physical Therapy. What was I thinking??
As part of the Physical Therapy Major, we had to take a course in Zoology during our first year. I knew a fair amount about animals by the time I took it, but it was still the most challenging course I ever had. One of the things we had to do near the end of the course was something called a ‘taxonomic treasure hunt.’ It was sort of like a field quiz: we got one point for every animal we could identify to Order in the forest adjacent to campus. I was in my element; for someone who spent the better part of his childhood in the forest watching animals and identifying them, I aced the quiz. At one point, the professor and I were separated from the rest of class, and I turned over a log and saw some termites (easy one: Isoptera). The professor was impressed. But then I said “And I think the bacteria in their guts are Sarcomastigophera.” The professor replied “I don’t think most Physical Therapy majors know that kind of stuff. You do realize you can get paid to do what we’re doing right now, don’t you?” Soon after class ended, I changed my major from Physical Therapy to Biology. And today, I get paid to travel around the world and study the organisms that live in forests and on the tops of mountains.
That course, and the professor who taught it, changed my life. (By the way, that professor, Dr. David Dussourd, has always been one of my academic idols and is a friend, though we don’t see each other nearly enough; I’ve cc’ed him on this message to remind him what an important influence he was for me.)
But back to where I started this message – talking to prospective students and their parents. They ask questions, and rightfully so, about courses and major requirements. Courses and major requirements are important, but perhaps not nearly as important as the personal connections they will make here at UVM with our amazing faculty and staff, the one course or field experience that changes their life forever, the club they might join (or form) with some friends, or the research or internship the participate in. I can say that if it weren’t for David Dussourd and Sarcomastigophera, I’d probably be helping someone rehabilitate after knee surgery right now instead of emailing all of you.
And so, a challenge to all of you: if someone changed your life in college (or is changing your life!), tell them. Send an email or write a letter. Better yet, call them or drop by their office and tell them how much they meant to you and who you’ve become (or are becoming). I know that it makes my week when I hear from a former student whose life I had a small part in shaping.
Best wishes -