For years, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has been committed to providing veterans with timely and convenient access to healthcare. As the number of veterans grow and VA enrollees become more dispersed across the nation, appointment backlogs and significant travel necessary to attend appointments challenged the VA to create a solution that better served this deserving population of American citizens. Previously, referring veterans to physicians within their own communities was often a time-consuming task for VA staff that presented obstacles impacting everything from follow-up treatment to reimbursement procedures.
Since 2017, the VA, in partnership with Cognosante, a leading technology provider based in Falls Church, Virginia, has been working to solve that problem. Cognosante launched the Community Care Referral and Authorization Program (CCR&A), which, through user-friendly software technology, is streamlining the VA’s patient referral process for millions of veterans. For ten weeks this summer, Margarite Fisher ’22, who graduated from Hollins University this spring with a bachelor’s degree in business, is serving on the team created to help veterans get the care they need faster.
The CCR&A system allows VA caregivers to more quickly refer veterans to local healthcare providers, including the coordination of treatment with doctors the patients already know and trust. The results have been dramatic: Over the past three years, CCR&A has generated more than 17 million community referrals and authorizations for more than three million veterans and reduced wait times by 75 percent, all while reducing costs for both the veteran and the VA.
Senior Program Director Sue Burke noted that Fisher, who will pursue a master’s degree in digital marketing beginning this fall at the Rennes School of Business in France, has played a key role on the CCR&A Project Team. “Margarite is using her strong marketing background to create an interactive team newsletter, while also working on long-needed updates to project standard operating procedures (SOPs) and other mission critical process templates. Her ‘can do’ attitude and willingness to dive into various facets of project management on a large and highly visible government project have proven valuable to our progress as a team this summer. We’re incredibly grateful to have her as part of the CCR&A team.”
Fisher’s opportunity to enhance the public healthcare experience comes through her participation in Cognosante’s inaugural Women in STEM Alliance – a program in which Hollins is a founding member. In partnership with women’s colleges, this unique diversity program is designed to increase access to IT careers for women technologists and offers non-technologists a front row seat to the skills needed for a successful career in business, strategy, or operations. Students apply academic studies to real-world projects, gain marketable career experience, and learn to collaborate with peers and professionals across the organization.
“Our University Engagement partnerships help develop the workforce of the future,” said Jennifer Bailey, chief administration officer at Cognosante. “Through mentoring, power skills training, and project leadership responsibility, these transformative opportunities set young professionals on a path to long-term career success. We’re excited that Hollins recognizes the value of the program and look forward to deepening this partnership to serve the university’s students for years to come.”
The gut microbiome is the community of bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other microorganisms that live in the human digestive system – and a very big deal in terms of our ability to fight disease.
“The gut microbiome is the most important scientific discovery for human healthcare in recent decades,” said James Kinross, a microbiome scientist and surgeon at Imperial College London, in a July 2021 article in The Guardian. “It’s a vital organ in your body and you need to look after it,” noted Professor Tim Spector, an epidemiologist at King’s College London, in the same piece. “If you do that, it will look after you.”
“We discovered it – or rediscovered it – in the age of genetic sequencing less than 15 years ago. The only organ which is bigger is the liver,” Kinross added, while also admitting, “We don’t really know how it works.”
Hana Olof ’22 intends to become one of the scientists who unlocks the mysteries of the gut microbiome and harnesses its potentially considerable impact. The biology major and psychology minor first learned about the investigation of gut health when she took a microbiology class at Hollins with Assistant Professor of Biology and Environmental Science Mary Jane Carmichael.
“We were encouraged to read recent articles in that field and were assigned a weekly article review. Through that, I discovered the gut microbiome,” Olof said. “It introduced me to a whole new different area of study, and since then I’ve been reading more and more about it. I’m so fascinated with it. I didn’t realize gut microbes were associated with different diseases, or that you could also use them to reduce the effect of diseases, such as irritable bowel syndrome.”
Investigating the gut microbiome has solidified Olof’s burgeoning interest in biomedical research. “It has been really helpful to work with the different faculty in the biology department. My classes and lab experiences have trained me on how to do research, prepare lab reports, and analyze data. They create an environment where asking questions is encouraged.”
Olof said that foundation has been invaluable in the experiences she’s enjoyed as an undergraduate beyond the classroom. In the summer of 2020, she participated in an internship through Eastern Virginia Medical School and sponsored by the Hollins biology department where she worked with a team to develop a hypothetical treatment for COVID-19. The project was conducted entirely online with video technology due to the pandemic. Drawing on her psychology minor, she was awarded a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship the following year and conducted research on the topic of “The Influence of Prior Suspect Familiarity on Cross-Race Effect.” This March, Olof and Soha Munir ’23 presented a poster on the topic at the 68th Annual Meeting of the Southeastern Psychological Association.
“Their work was motivated by the large number of wrongful convictions that have been due to the cross-race effect, which is the finding that witnesses to a crime are worse at correctly identifying a suspect of a different race than their own,” Visiting Assistant Professor of Psychology Alex Wooten explained. “This has unfortunately led to a disproportionate amount of innocent Black individuals being falsely identified.”
Wooten noted that Olof and Munir’s research is significant in that it establishes that “the cross-race effect also applies to situations where the suspect is casually familiar, which has yet to be shown before. The findings suggest that just because an eyewitness says they are familiar with a suspect following a crime does not guarantee they will make an accurate identification, particularly when the suspect is of a different race.”
“I want to thank the psychology department and Dr. Wooten for all the valuable skills I learned,” Olof stated. “The fellowship really helped me to see the steps that go into research design.”
Engaging in those remote projects served her well during the 2021 January Short Term, when she completed an internship at the Atlanta Botanical Garden remotely from her home country of Ethiopia. “I didn’t have a lot of experience in botanicals but it was a really amazing experience to work with them because they helped me to learn about the conservation of plants and grow my skills at analyzing data.” Olof added that the Garden staff graciously accommodated her circumstance working from home. “They were kind enough to factor in the time difference. So, instead of meeting in the morning, we would meet in the evening to talk about what we did throughout the day.” She was also challenged by less-than-reliable internet service, “and there were times when I had to go to different places to get a connection. But in the end it worked out well.”
For the 2022 January Short Term, Olof and two other Hollins students completed a Signature Internship with San Antonio-based Vascular Perfusion Solutions (VPS), which is developing ways to help transplanted organs last longer outside of the body. “We observed procedures related to the preservation of hearts for transplantations,” she explained. “Currently, the preservation time is only four hours and their aim is to extend that so that people in distant locations can have more of an opportunity for organ transplantation.”
Olof said the opportunity for her and her fellow students “really taught us a lot. This is when I really appreciated what I learned at Hollins. We already had so many experiences writing articles and so we were asked to edit some of VPS’s articles before they were published. We analyzed a lot of data for them as well, and our experiences through our different biology classes enabled us to do that accurately.” Because of Hollins biology department’s emphasis on query and examination, Olof was comfortable initiating a dialogue anytime she came across something she didn’t understand, and that confidence enabled her to call attention to an error she found during her VPS data analysis.
Olof’s search for the right graduate school to further her study of the gut microbiome and the immune system came to fruition when she learned of a faculty member at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg who is focusing on that area. “I reached out and said I’d really like to work with her,” Olof recalled. “She called me for an interview, we talked more, and then I got accepted to her lab and to the university.” Olof will begin her two-year master’s degree program in September and can continue at the university if she decides to go on to earn her doctorate. “They offered me an opportunity to pursue my Ph.D. work there, and if I do that then there’s a potential for me to finish it faster than the typical six years because they would take my master’s degree into account.” If Olof chooses to enter the workforce after completing her master’s degree, “they have connections with industrial companies that focus on gut microbes.”
Olof is excited about the possibilities offered by gut microbiome research. “Nowadays there are many conditions that don’t respond to the traditional method of treatment – there are so many antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Plus, in developing nations such as my home country of Ethiopia, there is no easy access to medications. So, this idea of treating disease through dietary modification or reducing disease by taking a prebiotic feels very promising to me. And if we could find innovative treatments that won’t have as many side effects on people as drugs do, I feel like that would also be a great thing to pursue.”
When she was eight years old, Chin Wai “Rosie” Wong ’22 discovered that she enjoyed keeping a diary. She loved it so much in fact that one day she noted in it, “I want to be a writer.”
Throughout her education growing up in Hong Kong and mainland China and her undergraduate career at Hollins, Wong has indeed pursued a remarkable enthusiasm for communication. “I started doing communications work a long time before I came to Hollins,” she recalled. “I was a personality on my high school radio station’s English-speaking channel, and I helped plan and host student activities and performances, including my high school graduation. I’m so glad my school trusted me. I got the chance to work with other students with similar interests.”
Wong’s decision to attend college abroad had its genesis when her middle school summer camp traveled to the United States in 2013. “That was the inspirational moment where I thought, ‘This is somewhere I want to go,’ because I grew up with music, movies, and a lot of other cultural elements from the U.S. It was a part of me as I grew up.” While she never got to visit Hollins as a prospective student, she chose it because “it matched my criteria for undergraduate studies. I was looking for a liberal arts college with small class sizes. I did a lot of research on the majors Hollins offers, and I learned I could double major in communication studies and theatre, something that I always wanted to do.”
After coming to Hollins, Wong found that she could “study communication in a more systemic and scholarly way that just opens paths and makes me want to keep pursuing it.” Improving her ability to speak English fluently is also a source of delight. “It’s such a big compliment when I meet someone and they ask me, ‘Are you from here?’ Being physically in a space and communicating with local people is so different from learning English from a textbook, and I have learned not only what to speak about but how to speak as well. That’s why I see language as more than just a tool. It is everything.”
Wong’s theatre major complements her communications work. “I enjoy being in productions and meeting new people. There are such close relationships in the theatre space. The faculty and staff are collaborators who welcome your vision whether you are an actor, a designer, or serve in other roles.”
Wong has grown her skills as a writer through the internships she’s completed. During her sophomore year, she spent her January Short Term with Peace Boat US, a non-governmental organization in New York City that enables people from around the world to study global concerns such as war, environmental degradation, and gender violence. Wong worked on a variety of internal projects where extensive writing was needed. This year, she interned with the Global Communications team at The Estée Lauder Companies, also in New York City.
“Whenever you intern in an organization, you have things to learn,” Wong noted. “You learn about the culture of the organization. You have to learn how things are done and what you should do. You are not an isolated individual, because what you do affects many others. I definitely think that being a communication studies major helped me understand and practice that.”
As a contributor to The Teen Magazine, Wong is drawing upon her time as a Hollins student to inform high school students and ease their anxieties as they prepare for college. “I was inspired by my role as a tour guide last semester. I got to meet with students to introduce them to Hollins and explain what we have here. I thought, ‘Why not amplify such a message to almost anyone who is going to college?’” Her first article for The Teen Magazine earned over 1,000 views. “I was able to write about something that I’m really passionate about, and that’s my life experience.” She also served as an ambassador for Hollins’ international programs. “We have so many things to offer current and prospective students. And this is what I longed for before entering college.”
In her final semester at Hollins, Wong helped pioneer the launch of a podcast network for the university called HU Sound. She envisions podcast episodes covering a wide range of topics, but she is especially excited about one particular aspect. “I want to amplify faculty voices. I love working with all my professors and I want to hear their stories.” Fittingly, the first podcast Wong produced and hosted features Assistant Professor of Theatre and Theatre Department Chair Wendy-Marie Martin. As an alumna of the Playwright’s Lab at Hollins and now the head of Hollins Theatre, “I thought it would be a very valuable moment for me and for the community to hear what she had to say,” Wong stated.
After graduation, Wong will be assisting the Global Communications team at The Estée Lauder Companies as the digital editorial consultant. She will be working with the Optional Practical Training (OPT) authorization designed for international students who wish to remain in the United States to acquire work experience. Wong believes academic knowledge and professional practices go hand-in-hand in her growth and achievement.
She’s also taking the time to assess how her four years at Hollins have impacted her. “Being a college student really transformed me as a person. I am more confident now. I speak English more naturally. I’ve also cultivated a futuristic mindset. I love reminiscing and I feel nostalgic every now and then, but my action shows I’m always moving forward.” Even though coming to the United States for college meant physical and emotional distance from her parents back in China, “they have been very supportive, and they are impressed that I’ve come so far. My parents are very proud of me for being so insistent about English as a language and communication in a broader sense. They are also proud that I’ve become more independent and able to do things on my own. Now, I’m not just their daughter, I am also their closest friend.”
In her first year at Hollins, Virginia Lucey ’24 experienced an epiphany after taking classes and labs in environmental science and ecology. “I really got into it,” the sophomore from Great Falls, Virginia, said. “I was definitely interested in pursuing environmental science as my major.”
For her ecology lab, Lucey got a taste of experiential work beyond the classroom when she and a friend tracked bird migration. She realized, “My favorite part of science is getting my hands dirty, the going outside part,” and she set her sights on performing field research during this year’s January Short Term. Because of the richness in biodiversity there, she learned there were numerous opportunities for field work in locations around the equator. She intended to pursue such projects someday, but for the moment, Lucey wanted something a little closer to home. In addition, she was more interested in how northern species have evolved and was drawn to studying more about them.
Struggling to find programs that focused on northern ecology, Lucey contacted her advisor, Assistant Professor of Biology Elizabeth Gleim. “She reached out to some Hollins alumnae, and one of the opportunities she quickly found involved researching wolves in Minnesota. I thought, ‘That sounds amazing.’”
For J-term 2022, Lucey was accepted at Osprey Wilds, a private, nonprofit residential environmental learning center located in east central Minnesota. Blending classroom instruction with extensive hands-on research, the center “allows students to come in and get field experience for the first time,” she explained. “The student research actively contributes to the work of Osprey Wilds.”
After arriving in early January, Lucey worked an intensive schedule of ten-hour days for two weeks. She and approximately 40 other students from across the country began by absorbing the basics of everything from wolf ecology and the politics of wolf conservation to tracking wolves and other northern animals such as bears and birds. With this foundational knowledge, the group headed north to Ely, Minnesota, home of the International Wolf Center, which “advances the survival of wolf populations by teaching about wolves, their relationship to wildlands, and the human role in their future.” There, the students observed the ambassador wolves Axel, Grayson, and the seven-month-old pup, Rieka.
“Every day was a different kind of adventure,” she recalled. At the Wildlife Science Center near Osprey Wilds, the students observed the behavior of more than 100 wolves. “About half of the wolves had been born at the research center and were bottle-fed, and the other half came from wolfpacks that had been rescued after they had become a problem in a certain area. It was cool to see the difference in how they behaved. Bottle-fed wolves are much more dangerous than wild wolves. To a fully wild wolf, humans are an unknown so they tend to avoid us. Bottle-fed wolves don’t fear us and almost see us as part of the wolf hierarchy.” Thus, Lucey noted, it’s humans trying to “domesticate” or “tame” wolves that leads to dangerous interactions, not wolves themselves. Wild wolves will avoid humans, whereas wolves that have been raised around them will interact more closely. They do not see humans as a source of food, but close interaction can be dangerous if they think a human is threatening their pack position or territory.
After working at the Wildlife Science Center and International Wolf Center, Lucey and her group traveled still farther north, where they actively tracked wild wolves, both in the air and on the ground. “We did telemetry flights, where we went up in little four-seater planes and tracked wolfpacks based off of radio collars,” she said. They also spent extensive time hiking in forests and on ice. “We’d be like, ‘It’s so warm today!’ when the temperature rose to minus-15 degrees. Wolf research is mainly done in the winter. The main time you can see wolves from the air is when they are traveling over frozen lakes. That’s the only time you’re going to catch them from out under the trees, where they blend in completely. When it comes to tracking them in the woods, you can follow their step-by-step paw prints through the snow. During the summer you really can’t do that unless of course you’re an exceptionally skilled tracker.”
In the Minnesota wilderness in January, weather conditions are generally the biggest potential hazard. “We spent a lot of time in advance studying about winter survival, how to avoid frostbite and warm up different appendages.” But just because wild wolves weren’t a significant threat didn’t mean she and her group could let down their guard. The students were eager to find moose tracks, but they wanted to avoid any close interactions with a live moose, particularly if they had a calf with them, which makes a moose more dangerous than wolves.
“A wolf will see you and think, ‘You’re not worth the trouble’” Lucey explained. “A moose will see you and think, ‘If I don’t attack you, you may attack me,’ or its calf.”
Conducting research at sites where wolves killed prey such as deer offered Lucey some of the most fascinating learning experiences. However, finding those sites often depended on happenstance. “We would be driving somewhere and would suddenly stop because our instructor had seen vultures or ravens. He would take us out to where they were and we’d find kill sites that were sometimes still in process – a wolf will come back to one several times if it’s a big prey. In one case, we got to do an informal dissection to gather information such as how healthy a deer was at the time of the kill.”
Lucey described her two weeks in Minnesota as “an amazing opportunity for anyone who wants to look into field research and prepare for what it’s really like. It’s not always pretty – a lot of wild animal research is dealing with blood and guts and scat – but our instructors and others made sure we got to listen to a lot of cool people, leading experts who are running a lot of different wolf projects all over the world. We got to learn about opportunities that you can’t find out about online.”
She added, “Wolves are one of those big charismatic animals that field researchers dream of working with, and the reality of getting into that selective field is small. So, this was definitely a step into that. It was just an awesome experience.”
Top photo: Virginia Lucey ’24 (far left) with members of her wolf tracking group (photo by Autumn Pozniak)
As a student at an all-girls’ high school in her home country of Pakistan, Sajila Kanwal ’22 thought her career path was set. She had aspirations of becoming a doctor, and was enrolled in her school’s pre-med program.
But during her first year at Hollins University, Kanwal soon discovered after taking a sociology class that she also found other fields of study equally as appealing. “It took me some time to kind of realize what I really wanted to do,” she recalled. Her educational exploration ultimately led her to classes taught by Visiting Assistant Professor in Global Politics and Societies Ashleigh Breske and Associate Professor in International Studies Jon Bohland.
With so many interests, Kanwal decided to major in international studies with a minor in social justice. Those passions coalesced last year when she took Breske’s Globalization and Local Responses course.
“I did research on women’s health in Pakistan and their access to sexual and reproductive healthcare,” she said. “I have first-hand experience of not being able to easily access those services back home because sexual and reproductive health is such a sensitive topic.” Kanwal said she hoped the subject would ultimately become her senior thesis, but a lack of available data presented obstacles. At the same time, she increasingly wanted to learn more about, and work with, refugees and immigrants in the United States. “So, I thought that focusing my thesis on undocumented immigrant and refugee women in this country, and their healthcare, would be a good idea. My research is about organizations that help women get access to sexual and reproductive services in Virginia, their policies, and what they are doing different compared to other organizations that cannot reach their goals.”
A class last spring on public health and social justice with Assistant Professor of Public Health Abubakarr Jalloh helped inform her thesis work and solidify her plans post-Hollins.
“I learned a lot about how there’s so much disparity in the healthcare system in the United States,” she explained. “Even during the pandemic, immigrants were completely ignored, even though they were bringing food to our tables. They were having to work even if they were sick. That really kind of drew me into public health, and I’m applying now to graduate school public health programs.”
In January, Kanwal will begin an internship with Ipas, a nonprofit organization based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, that promotes initiatives around the world to increase women’s ability to exercise their sexual and reproductive rights. She’ll work part-time and remotely in Ipas’ development department, where she will conduct individual and foundation donor research and study embassies located in countries where Ipas offices have programming. “Ipas has an office in my home country, which is amazing,” Kanwal said. “I’m going to be involved in a lot of fundraising. The contract is for one year, but I can end the internship in June if I find a full-time job after I graduate from Hollins. I definitely think it’s a great opportunity to start with in my public health career.”
“It has been such a gift to watch Sajila grow and mature during her time at Hollins,” said Ashley Browning, Hollins’ vice president for enrollment management. “She is a wonderful ambassador for our community. I am certain that her contributions at Ipas will make a meaningful impact on their work.”
Kanwal noted that she has enhanced her leadership skills through a number of extracurricular student activities. For the past three years she has served as a mentor in Hollins’ International Student Orientation Program (ISOP), and she works in the university’s Office of Admission, where her responsibilities include sharing on social media her everyday experiences with professors and her fellow students. She is a member of the Diversity Monologue Troupe, a team of student leaders that promotes understanding of the university’s rich diversity while helping to broaden perspectives on the various stereotypes common in society. She’s pursuing a Certificate in Leadership Studies from the university’s Batten Leadership Institute. And, she works as a community assistant, helping support the academic and personal development of each individual in the residence halls.
“I’ve learned a lot from my co-workers and supervisors,” she added. “Their empathy has really driven me to care for others and build my own character.”
The Hollins senior also praises her professors (“Their kindness is beyond limits. They understand you as a student, they give you honest feedback, and they want the best for you. I wouldn’t have had this at a bigger college.”) and her host parents, Marcella Griggs and Peter Trower of Blacksburg (“They have been of great support during my entire Hollins journey. They have really helped me a lot to get to where I am.”).
Kanwal is spending her Winter Break in New York City, where she will be volunteering for a refugee organization. Then, during January Short Term she’s heading to the Universidad de Alicante in Spain to immerse herself in study tours, activities, and courses in health sciences and social sciences.
“I’m proud of myself for choosing Hollins,” she said. “I wouldn’t have had this experience of self-development otherwise. I’m definitely looking forward to seeing what the future brings for me in terms of opportunities and options. I’m open to everything that interests me and see the best in each possibility.”
Herrington describes herself as “a passionate lover of art history” who plans to pursue a career working in art museums. Her past experience includes interning at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, where she researched the museum’s founder, digitized materials, and installed exhibitions. She has traveled to Greece and Italy to conduct art historical research and says the experiences helped her to “appreciate the value of an arts education as a means to explore any subject, time period, philosophy, and culture.” Genevieve Hendricks, associate professor of art history at Hollins, says Herrington is “enthusiastic, inquisitive, and an inspiration for students.”
Founded in 1931, the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts is the legacy of Hagerstown native Anna Brugh Singer and her husband, Pittsburgh-born artist William Henry Singer, Jr. Featuring a collection of more than 6,000 objects, the museum has important holdings of American painting, Old Masters, decorative arts, and sculpture. The Jean Cushwa College Internship is graciously funded by an endowment from former Singer Society member Jean Cushwa, which allows the museum to participate in the important work of fostering the next generation of arts leadership.
As a veteran of 34 meets, including four Old Dominion Athletic Conference (ODAC) championship competitions, and co-holder of multiple relay event records, Hanna DeVarona ’21 of the Hollins University swim team is one of the school’s most accomplished student-athletes. She has placed in the top 16 in multiple events each year at the ODAC Championships, and this March the conference recognized her with one of its highest honors, the Bonnie Kestner Sportsmanship Award, which recognizes ODAC swimmers who “have demonstrated consistently good sportsmanship, ethical behavior, and unselfishness in his/her daily participation in intercollegiate athletics.”
Competing in a sport she loves convinced DeVarona that athletics would be her vocation. However, taking Associate Professor of Communication Studies Lori Joseph’s Health Communication course as the COVID-19 pandemic emerged during her junior year gave the business major a new perspective. After graduating from Hollins this spring, DeVarona will begin her Master of Public Health degree with a concentration in communication and marketing at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
“I had never considered public health before, and that class made me realize that in the past I had actually been afraid to learn about health myself. When I was able to study it, I was no longer afraid,” DeVarona explained. “I know there are people out there who are just as afraid as I was to learn about health, but I don’t want them to fear something that isn’t fearful.”
DeVarona’s aspiration of becoming a health communication specialist may be a departure from her previous, long-standing career goal, but she remains steadfastly committed to what she describes as “my true calling, which is helping people as much as I can. I enjoy it, and that’s the whole reason why I’m drawn to public health.”
For the Woodbridge, Virginia, native, “being a true student-athlete has been absolutely wonderful. When I was looking at Hollins what stood out to me was that I could find that balance. Hollins does such a great job of that. The coaches understand that you are a student before you are an athlete, and the professors are supportive and accommodating as well. I really give credit to my professors and my coaches as well as my teammates for being able to get things done throughout my four years here.”
DeVarona’s list of accomplishments is indeed impressive. In addition to majoring in business with a concentration in marketing, she is minoring in both communication studies and economics. She’s a member of the Student Athlete Advisory Committee; Omicron Delta Epsilon (the academic honor society in economics); and the Honor, Conduct, and Appeal Board. She’s been a lead admissions ambassador and an orientation team leader, and she’s pursuing a certificate in leadership from the Batten Leadership Institute. This year, she’s serving as the Hollins Student Government Association’s athletic chair and has been inducted into Chi Alpha Sigma, the student-athlete national honor society. For the 2019-20 academic year, she was awarded the Hollins Athletics Service Award, which honors the individual who has best shown the true character of Hollins in rendering service to the athletic department while demonstrating a high degree of leadership, initiative, and dedication.
DeVarona has also completed three internships during her undergraduate career, one each on campus with the university’s alumnae relations and athletic departments, and a virtual internship during this year’s January Short Term in global communications at The Estée Lauder Companies in New York City.
“Even though it was remote, I learned a lot,” she said. One of the highlights was attending virtually an international summit in Hong Kong, where she got a global outlook on dealing with reputation and issues management. During the month, she also participated in researching and drafting briefings for Leonard Lauder, chairman emeritus and former CEO of Estée Lauder, as he prepared for media interviews in conjunction with the release of his new book, The Company I Keep: My Life in Beauty.
“I got to meet a lot of great people, some of whom studied health communications in graduate school and offered to help me with making connections in the D.C. area if I chose to pursue that career path,” she added.
On a personal level, DeVarona says she has benefited from the camaraderie she’s enjoyed as a member of the swim team. “We’re all equals, we’re all here to swim with each other, and our goal has been to have as much fun with each other as possible.” Those bonds have become even stronger during the pandemic. “This year our team has definitely grown more into a family. That’s something that I want to take along with me in the future. Even when we went home during Winter Break, we all got together regularly on Zoom calls and even played games online. Among Us (an online multiplayer social deduction game) was the most popular.”
At GW, DeVarona is hoping to continue swimming competitively. The university has a club team, but “there’s a chance I could compete with their varsity team since I still have eligibility.”
When DeVarona was recruited to swim at Hollins, “the moment I first stepped on campus, it felt like home. When I heard about the connections you make with the professors and alumnae, that put everything in place for me. I don’t think I’d be where I am, or who I am, today if I went somewhere else. I’m just really thankful to Hollins for giving me so many opportunities and helping me pursue things I’m so passionate about.”
During her first visit to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center when she was eight years old, Megan Bull ’21 announced to her dad she wanted to be an astronaut when she grew up. A return trip when she was 16 found her no less resolute.
“I was in total awe watching a video on the Mars exploration program,” she recalled. “I leaned over to my mom and told her I would work at NASA one day.”
Bull’s dream will come to fruition this summer when she embarks on a ten-week virtual internship with NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. The mathematics major with a concentration in data science will be participating in the Enrich Knowledge Graphs Through Graph Data Science intern project from June 7 – August 13. She will help create a people analytics knowledge graph using Neo4j (Network Exploration and Optimization 4 Java), a graph database management system designed to leverage data relationships and associate data as it is stored.
“Every organization collects data, but not many people know what to do with it,” Bull explained. “The idea is to be able to use the data we already have to predict trends: look at things that have happened and anticipate the likelihood of other things happening. The project itself focuses on occupation data within NASA and skills associated with certain professions. The objective is to analyze the similarities between jobs that share the same sets of skills and predict which people would be successful in these positions given their previous experience.”
When Bull first learned about the internship from Visiting Assistant Professor of Mathematics Molly Lynch, “I knew it would be a long shot, but I was going to apply anyway,” she said, motivated by the goal she had steadfastly remained committed to through a significant part of her life. Later that same week, she took part in a Hollins Alumnae Board virtual event for seniors.
“Elizabeth Kolmstetter ’85 was one of the participants and she urged anyone who was interested to check out NASA internships.” Kolmstetter is NASA’s director of talent strategy and engagement.
Bull let Kolmstetter know that she was already working on her application, and that set the stage for a powerful example of how the Hollins alumnae network supports undergraduates in their career preparation. Kolmstetter gave Bull her email address, and the two scheduled a Face Time meeting the following evening.
“She served as my mentor throughout the application process,” Bull said. Kolmstetter subsequently told her that David Meza, chief knowledge architect at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., was heading up the Enrich Knowledge Graphs Through Graph Data Science intern project, and would like to interview her.
“I thought it sounded fantastic,” Bull related. “A couple of hours after the interview, I received an email telling me I’d been selected for this internship. I called my mom (Rebecca Boone Bull ’90) – I was screaming over the phone – and my roommates were laughing. ‘We were going to ask you how your interview went, we guess it went well!’”
Bull was excited to share her senior project, “Examining Bias in Facial Recognition Programs,” with Meza. He told Bull he was particularly impressed with her commitment to learning new things, and her range of skills.
“Graph data science is not something I’ve worked with previously,” she said. “It’s something that’s entirely new to me, so he’s sending me resources on a daily basis to review.”
Bull’s internship with NASA will be the culmination of a Hollins career that began when she first toured the campus as a high school junior with her mom. “I fell in love with it. I loved how open everyone was, students kept coming up and asking me what I was interested in and what I wanted to do. Hollins was one of my first college visits, so it really just set the precedent.” A mentorship program that matched high school students with women in STEM professions encouraged her to pursue a mathematics major, and a class in the Google Applied Computing Series taught by mathematics professors Julie Clark and Steve Wassell convinced her to concentrate on data science.
“I was never interested in computer science until then, and Dr. Wassell is the reason I decided to pursue data science,” Bull said. She praises the entire mathematics faculty for how “they are able to nurture every single student who comes through. Dr. Clark has been my advisor since I declared. She’s been an amazing mentor and she’s wickedly smart. Seeing a woman who is just so successful in her career, it was so inspiring. I’d never really seen that before in academia.” She adds that Wassell has helped her figure out where to apply for graduate school, and that he, Clark, and Director of Quantitative Reasoning Erin Levering have all been generous in writing recommendation letters on her behalf.
Majoring in mathematics led to Bull tutoring for Hollins’ Quantitative Reasoning Center beginning in her sophomore year. She has served as an Honor Court member, vice president for the class of 2021, and member of the swim team for three of her four years. She’s also finishing a certificate in leadership studies from the university’s Batten Leadership Institute and works as ambassador for the university’s Office of Admission. “I’ve been an admission ambassador since my first year,” she said. “I started doing it because I love Hollins so much, and I want other people to love it as much as I do.”
Beyond campus, Bull has enjoyed two study abroad opportunities, spending Spring Term 2019 in London and the 2020 January Short Term in Florence, Italy. She’s completed two internships as well, one with Boyd-Pearman Photography in Roanoke her first year, and the second during her sophomore year that brought one of the most impactful experiences of her life full circle.
“Working with our Career Center, I created my own remote internship with Women in Technology (WIT) in Falls Church, Virginia,” an organization dedicated to advancing women in the field through leadership development, technology education, and networking and mentoring. Bull interned with WIT’s Girls in Technology initiative, the same program that placed her with women who are STEM professionals while she was in high school.
As she preps for her NASA internship this summer, Bull is busy applying to graduate schools. She plans to pursue a Master of Science in computer science but has not made a final decision on where she will be attending graduate school in the fall.
“I would really like to go into artificial intelligence engineering and machine learning,” she said. “They play pretty well together.”
Each year, Hollins sophomores, juniors, and seniors can apply for an exceptional array of internships through the university’s Signature Internship Program. Sponsored by Hollins alumnae in a variety of fields and available during the January Short Term, these internships carry academic credit and offer a stipend of $300. Housing is often provided.
Jonea Mathis ’23 so impressed her supervisor during her 2021 J-Term signature internship that she was asked to stay on with the organization this spring.
The communication studies major interned remotely with Peace Boat US, a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization headquartered at the United Nations Plaza in New York City. Through educational programs and experiences intended to inspire positive action in a number of areas, including social justice, the environment, and nuclear disarmament, Peace Boat US works to promote a culture of peace and sustainability through voyages around the globe.
“I was specifically looking for opportunities for communication studies majors,” Mathis recalled. “When I saw Peace Boat US on the list of available signature internships, it seemed like an interesting organization. I did some research on my own and decided I really wanted to work for them.”
“We truly appreciate all the support from Hollins students each year,” said Emilie McGlone, director of Peace Boat US. “Our intern team is a key part of our mission to educate young people, raise awareness about important global issues, and create a more peaceful future for all.”
In 2020, Peace Boat US launched a virtual internship program so that students could work online and participate in United Nations conferences and events from home. “I got used to a virtual internship faster than I expected,” Mathis said. “I was afraid I wasn’t going to be able to keep up, but my supervisor was very helpful and we were in constant communication. I was encouraged to speak up for myself and I learned a lot.” She played a vital role in Peace Boats US’s social media presence on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, and also engaged in grant research and writing. As an important nuclear weapon prohibition treaty was going into effect, Mathis was actively involved in the effort to share news and information by writing articles for the Peace Boat US blog.
“It has been a pleasure to work with Jonea this year,” McGlone said, “and thanks to her support as an intern, we invited her to continue working with us into the spring semester.”
“I thought that sounded really good,” Mathis said of the opportunity to serve as the organization’s coordinating intern. She works closely with five new interns who joined Peace Boat US in February. “After my classes are done I look in to see what everyone else has been doing and make sure that we are all on the same page and things are getting done in the way I know our supervisor wants them to be done,” she explained. “I’m really happy I have worked with them as long as I have, and listing this internship on my résumé as extending beyond J-Term will be good.”
As a result of her Peace Boat US experience, Mathis is making international travel a priority in her future educational and career plans. While at Hollins she wants to take advantage of study abroad opportunities. In addition, she is already exploring global experiences post-graduation, including the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program (JET), which allows young professionals to live and work in cities, towns, and villages throughout Japan and represent the U.S. as cultural ambassadors, and Peace Boat US’s Global English/Español Training Program (GET), where students are inspired to use language to make connections around the world. Mathis is minoring in Spanish and hopes to be fluent in the language by the time she graduates from Hollins.
“I just want to see the world and learn from people in a conscious way, and that’s something this internship has really helped me to see,” Mathis said.
For McGlone, Mathis’ internship demonstrates the partnership between Peace Boat US and Hollins is stronger and more productive than ever. “We look forward to having more Hollins students join us in the future as we continue to create opportunities to gain first-hand experience that can help them find meaningful work that they are passionate about.”
After graduating from high school in her native city of Kathmandu, Nepal, Aditi Sharma ’21 wasn’t sure how she wanted to further her studies. But there was one thing at the time of which she was absolutely certain.
“I had little intention of coming to America” to go to college, she said. “I wanted to stay near to my family.”
The events that led to Sharma taking what she calls a “leap of faith” to venture on her own to the United States and attend Hollins University began during the gap year she took after finishing high school.
“In Nepal, the subjects you take in high school are usually what you are going to do for life,” Sharma explained. “I took accounting, so during my gap year I worked as a finance assistant to see if that field was actually for me before jumping into college.”
Sharma was employed by a nonprofit organization in the public health sector. She interacted with clients from around the globe, and it was a representative from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) who first suggested that she consider institutions of higher learning in the U.S. “He felt that there were many more programs in America that would be beneficial for me as well as some good scholarship opportunities. Financial considerations were big for me coming from a developing country.”
While not totally convinced, Sharma nevertheless applied to several U.S. universities. “My parents had studied in India and Nepal, so they had no idea what was involved. My high school counselor was very helpful, but mostly I was navigating everything from financial aid to applying for a visa by myself. It was very daunting.”
As the time to make a decision approached, Sharma found herself increasingly drawn to Hollins. “I took a virtual tour of campus and saw how beautiful it was,” she said, but what impressed her most was the personal approach of the Office of Admission.
“They reached out to me and were so open. I felt like I was being heard. I had no idea what I was doing, and they were so quick to respond to my questions, even the smallest ones. From filling out forms to learning what Hollins is about, what it offers, and what accommodations it has for international students. I felt like I already belonged to the community.”
Bolstered by a belief in herself and support from the people who had seen her potential, particularly her family, Sharma enrolled at Hollins. “My family didn’t know what I was getting myself into, but they wanted the best education for me.” Sharma lived with her parents, paternal grandparents, and a younger sister, “and everyone was always encouraging, telling me to be the best I can be. I was so thankful that they trusted my judgement.”
After arriving at Hollins, Sharma enjoyed her freedom and learning so many new things. “I knew what I wanted to study (she would become a business and economics major pursuing a finance track). At the same time, being in a liberal arts environment I got to take all these amazing classes in sociology, environmental science, art history, and drawing.” Still, adjusting to a new environment, speaking English all the time, and missing her family were at times stressful. She credits History Rocks, her first-year seminar with Associate Professor of History Peter Coogan, with boosting her confidence.
“Professor Coogan and that class encouraged me to speak out. I’m very vocal now about a lot of things. My high school friends wouldn’t recognize me, I was so timid then and in the shadows. In Coogan’s class you were obliged to talk, and once that started happening my confidence grew. History Rocks really helped me, and I can’t thank him enough.”
Finding her voice, Sharma got actively involved with Hollins’ Student Government Association (SGA), Cultural and Community Engagement (CCE), and the International Student Orientation Program (ISOP). “I still remember contacting a Hollins senior before I arrived here. She helped me with things like, what and what not to pack, which flight to take, and what airport to fly into. You’re coming from your own comfortable home space, you’re scared and you’re nervous about moving into a new country, and I always let incoming international students know if they need anything I’m always here. CCE has a great structure for connecting international students and guiding communication and going through all these changes and opportunities together as a group really helps. I love seeing the international population at Hollins grow.”
One of Sharma’s most remarkable experiences occurred last spring when she embarked on a semester abroad in London. She had always been fascinated by the United Kingdom and reveled in visiting landmarks such as Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle. She also had an internship lined up with Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. “As soon as I heard London had an internship program, I knew I wanted to go there. When I landed, it felt like I was walking on air.”
Sharma and her friends first began hearing about the COVID outbreak near the end of February when they learned students studying abroad in Italy were forced to return home. “I felt really bad for them, but I was still in denial,” she said. “There was no news of anything in London or the UK as a whole.”
But after coming back from a group excursion to Sweden in early March, London students were notified by the International Programs office at Hollins that Hollins Abroad-London was transitioning to online instruction due to COVID’s threat. Students could either continue living with their host families or go home.
“I wasn’t planning on returning to Nepal,” Sharma said. “I had lined up a job on campus with the Alumnae Association for the summer, so I was going to travel directly from London back to Hollins at the end of Spring Term.”
Then, Sharma and other students in London learned from International Programs that the U.S. policy had changed and that students who were not from the U.S. would not be allowed back into the country. Simultaneously, the UK announced it was going into lockdown within two days. “I had to book a flight immediately to Nepal. The trip is about 21 hours, and I would have to make a connecting flight along the way. What if the place where I’m in transit gets locked down and I can’t fly out from there? Fortunately, a fellow student from Nepal and I got the perfect flight out just before the UK lockdown began.”
Sharma was relieved to touch down in Nepal, but deeply sorry to leave London and particularly her internship, which had been coordinated by Hollins alumna Meredith Pierce Hunter ’97. “I wanted to work in fundraising in the fine arts sector. Meredith was very involved in the whole process and all the people on the internship were extremely helpful. It broke my heart to leave without saying goodbye.” Fortunately, there would be good news for Sharma after she arrived back in Nepal: Hunter had worked with International Programs to ensure that Sharma could continue her international internship virtually. “I was so happy. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity, a dream come true.”
London is six hours behind Nepal, but Sharma was able to successfully juggle taking two online classes while completing her internship. Typically, she would work on her internship between 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. (Nepal time) and then attend classes remotely at night. “I was so grateful to continue the internship. I did so much work, there was no difficulty in communication, and they even threw me a virtual farewell party.”
Sharma remained in Nepal through the summer. When Hollins students were given the option for Fall Term 2020 to come back to campus or take classes remotely, she decided, “I wanted to experience my senior year in person.” As SGA treasurer this year, Sharma spearheaded one of her proudest accomplishments, a fund designed to help any on-campus resident who needed financial assistance to go home or live off-campus during Winter Break. “It worked out beautifully. My fellow roundtable members and the business office helped make sure the funds got into the students’ accounts. That’s why I did the fundraising internship in London, I wanted to see how I could use my financial knowledge to help others.”
Currently applying for jobs after graduation, Sharma is looking to build upon an already impressive resume that includes J-Term internships with Gilman Hill Asset Management, the International Spy Museum, and Omega Wealth Management. Ultimately, she plans to use that experience to earn acceptance to business school. As with her Royal Botanic Gardens internship, Sharma is grateful to the Hollins alumnae who curated those internships and continue to be very supportive. “Work experience is crucial to getting into business school because the finance and business fields place so much emphasis on learning and implementation. I’ve been reaching out to alumnae and they’ve been really helpful and responsive.”
When she first arrived in America, Sharma “had no idea I would be the person I am today. This is where I have had the most experiences, where I’ve been myself the most. I’ve been challenged, and I’ve challenged myself. It all happened here. It all happened at Hollins.”