A 14-student delegation represented Hollins University at the three-day National University Model Arab League (NUMAL) Conference in Washington, D.C., including the winner of the event’s highest award.
The National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations (NCUSAR) welcomed 22 colleges and universities to the 2022 conference, which was held March 24-27. The goal of the NUMAL Conference is to simulate the diplomacy and decision making of the Arab League, an alliance of more than 20 Arab countries formed in 1945 to promote economic, political, cultural, and scientific cooperation as well as independence and sovereignty among its member nations.
Bianca Vallebrignoni ’23, president of the Model UN/Model Arab League club at Hollins, coordinated the delegation’s trip to the conference with the support and attendance of Assistant Professor of Political Science Courtney Chenette and John P. Wheeler Professor of Political Science Edward Lynch, the club’s faculty advisors. All students who participated in the conference successfully applied for grants from the Warren W. Hobbie Ethics and Service Endowment, whose purpose is to facilitate experiential or service learning opportunities that require students to confront values or ethical issues.
Mollie Davis ’22 was named the conference’s Outstanding Delegate, the top honor bestowed by NCUSAR. Davis was recognized for her representation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on the Joint Defense Council. The senior called her four years on the Hollins Model UN/Model Arab League team “the biggest opportunity I’ve had to push back against what society expects of people who stutter, and I’m grateful for that.” Motivated to make space for all advocates, Davis further reflected that her success “had an impact on more than just myself.”
“Model conferences deepen students’ understanding of diversity within the Arab world through research,” noted Chenette, “but also strengthen and amplify the voices of diverse leaders through debate.”
Hollins delegates served in critical roles at every level of conference planning and execution, The Secretariate student leadership included Susanna Helms ’24, who was chief justice in the Arab Court of Justice simulation and adjudicated cases designed and prepared over the last year by Salima Driss ’23. NCUSAR’s student program coordinator, Katie Grandelli ’20, continued her Model Arab League leadership legacy in her professional capacity, “extending the Hollins dynamic of collaboration, cooperation, and celebration to all participants,” said Chenette.
Held annually, NUMAL celebrated its 39th year in 2022. Started as an informal demonstration simulation at Georgetown University in 1983, NUMAL has grown to host over 400 students from approximately 25 colleges and universities annually. Delegates train year-round through mock simulations, course-structured research, and participation in regional Model Arab League conferences to prepare for this highly competitive international simulation. The 2022 conference was hosted by the Ronald Reagan Building & International Trade Center in Washington.
Ten Hollins University students are among the 342 new initiates from 11 universities welcomed into Omicron Delta Kappa (ODK), the National Leadership Honor Society, for 2022.
Students initiated into the society must be sophomores, juniors, seniors, or graduate/professional students in the top 35% of their class; demonstrate experience in at least one of the five pillars of leadership celebrated by ODK (academics, athletics, service, communications, and arts); and embrace the ODK ideals. Fewer than five percent of students on a campus are invited to join each year.
Hollins students joining ODK this year include:
Regina Davis ’22, English major, Blackstone, Virginia
Fanny Estrada Lugo ’22, Spanish major, Cassatt, South Carolina
Natalia Sarram ’22, English major, Carlsbad, California
Adarra Blount ’23, history major, Fuquay-Varina, North Carolina
Jasmine Carmichael ’23, public health major, North Chesterfield, Virginia
Margaret Gildersleeve ’23, communication studies major, Woodbridge, Virginia
Egypt Matthews ’23, business major, Fayetteville, North Carolina
Claire Ross ’23, English major, Ashburn, Virginia
Aden Watts ’23, psychology major, Fort Gay, West Virginia
Leah Wilkins ’23, political science major, Beaumont, Texas
Headquartered in Lexington, Virginia, ODK has 313 circles of record at colleges and universities across the United States. The society honors and develops leaders through scholarships, workshops, career development, leadership resources, and a lifelong connection to other members. ODK also champions its leadership values of collaboration, inclusivity, integrity, scholarship, and service. Among the society’s distinguished members are Presidents Joseph R. Biden Jr., George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, Gerald R. Ford, Richard M. Nixon, and Franklin D. Roosevelt; physicians Michael DeBakey and Jonas Salk; journalists Ann Compton (Hollins class of 1969), Walter Cronkite, Roger Mudd, Cokie Roberts, and George F. Will; authors Pat Conroy, James Dickey, and Tom Wolfe; and athletes/coaches Peyton Manning, Arnold Palmer, Dawn Staley, and Pat Summitt.
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.”
Carlia Kearney ’23 wasn’t part of Hollins’ FLI program for first-generation, limited-income students during her first year at the university, but that didn’t disqualify or discourage her from eventually becoming an enthusiastic participant.
“I honestly didn’t know the FLI program existed until [Assistant to the Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students] Trina Johnson reached out to me the summer before my sophomore year. She thought I’d be a good candidate to be a FLI Guide, and I thought it would be a good experience.”
FLI Guides are sophomore, junior, or senior mentors who work closely with students during pre-orientation and throughout the academic year to enable them to build relationships, connect with valuable resources, and learn important tips for success.
“I knew how I felt as a first-generation, low-income student when I entered my first year here,” says Kearney, who hails from Franklin, Virginia. “So I wanted to be there for anyone facing similar challenges.”
Kearney believes her most important role as an FLI Guide is “validating students’ feelings while questioning their way of thinking to broaden their perspective. I want to make sure they know their doubts and their long-term and short-term goals are being heard. I just want to be a part of their support system.”
In addition to gathering for weekly dinners and other activities sponsored by FLI, Kearney says she is in constant touch with the five students she mentors through group chats and seeing and talking to them individually almost every day.
“It’s all about helping them find their place of belonging, which is hard in a new environment,” she explains. “They may not know where they fit in or are fully aware of the groups that are available to them. A lot of people are so withdrawn and afraid that they won’t push into those outlets. What we do is, we try to expand their comfort level.” She adds that one of FLI’s goals this year is getting the campus community involved in program activities. “We hope to expand their networking to meeting people outside of FLI.”
Kearney encourages students to “take advantage of any and every resource. Create your own path and take control of your happiness. Have faith, because there is something special in you, whether you see it or not. Believe in yourself because you deserve everything positive that life offers. In FLI, we understand each other’s doubts, fears, and insecurities, and there’s no shame in talking to one another because we’re very comfortable and it’s a safe environment. There’s that encouragement element that comes from having those conversations and knowing, ‘Hey, this person’s gone through the same thing, and they’re thriving.’ We tell those doubts and fears to shut up. Your purpose is bigger than a little fear telling you that you can’t go to college.”
Above all, Kearney says, “I want to help other people adopt a growth mindset. There’s always room to grow in anything, so just helping people realize that and have them share it from person to person, that’s what I want to do. I want everyone to be on the same page and succeed.”
Throughout her Hollins career, Kearney has tried to embody that advice and feels “I’m at a place where I’m my most authentic self. And because it’s so genuine, I can share it with others. I can spread the same joy and optimism, and I’m way better at being a mindful listener.” She says she still wants “to keep growing as a person,” and her involvement in Hollins’ Batten Leadership Institute is “providing me with the tools I need to be the best version of myself.” She’s also taking a diverse array of classes that she is confident will help create opportunities for her after graduation when she plans to attend law school.
“I’m not sure yet what type of law,” she notes, “but it’s going to be something challenging.”
As a high school senior in Texas, Summer Allison ’23 produced a paper for her dual credit English course that would have an enormous effect on her future.
“I wrote about the benefits of women’s colleges and how they foster leadership in women,” she says. “Since that paper, I always wanted to come to a women’s college because I thought it would be the best option for myself, particularly because I’m first generation, low income. I thought that the best option for me would be having the ability to create leadership within myself. I also thought Virginia would be a nice change of pace from Texas, and maybe Hollins would be right up my alley.”
As fate would have it, Hollins was launching a new program called FLI, designed to serve first-generation, limited-income students. Allison was invited to be part of FLI’s first cohort during her first year.
“I think the attributes that attracted me to FLI was that I knew I wouldn’t have my mother to depend on here. Also, I grew up in a small town where you go to school with the same people you’ve always known. I wouldn’t have that here and there was no one for me to fall back on. I knew I had to establish relationships early on, and if there is one characteristic of myself where I wanted to belong, it’s definitely first generation and low income.”
FLI is led by sophomore, junior, and senior mentors who work closely with students during pre-orientation and throughout the academic year to enable them to build relationships, connect with valuable resources, and learn important tips for success. Drawing upon their own first-hand experiences, the guides had a profound impact on Allison. “They relied on what they personally knew about campus to give us knowledge rather than something that was just cut-and-dried like, ‘This is what our training says to tell you.’ It was very insightful and really cool.”
For Allison, having those connections throughout her first year made a major difference in her adjustment to college life. “I knew I always had at least one person that I could ask questions without feeling like an idiot, feeling like I don’t belong, or feeling like I should already know that answer. That was big, being able to communicate with a person like me enough to understand my perspective and not make me feel as though I were an outsider.”
When Allison made the transition to FLI Guide her sophomore year, she was able to draw upon more than just her first-year Hollins experience to help new students. For a number of years, Allison has been supported by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which is devoted “to advancing the education of exceptionally promising students who have financial need.” She applied to the organization’s Young Scholars Program when she became eligible at age 12, and subsequently was accepted into the Cooke Foundation College Scholarship Program, which will enable her to graduate from Hollins debt-free. (Read more about the Cooke Foundation’s impact on Allison.)
“I thought there were aspects of what I knew from being in the Cooke Foundation and working my way to be able to go to college in the first place that I could add to the FLI program,” she explains. “I never wanted my position to just be ‘guide.’ I genuinely wanted to be friends with the students. It’s about being nurturing as much as it is understanding what I have from training and being able to apply it.”
When FLI students first arrive on campus, Allison focuses significant effort on helping them make the switch from the high school to the college environment. “They don’t always understand that within the university, it’s actually a little town, a community. They don’t know the layout of the campus and they have no idea about the offices and services that are most beneficial to them. They don’t know how to look for those things, but I also don’t think they were given the skills necessary to even think to look for those things. The way that you depend on your parents when you’re not in college, transitioning to a college where you may be miles away from your parents is incredibly daunting.”
So, Allison gives her students a crash course in learning the Hollins campus, inside and out. “I tell them, ‘I’m going to take you to the library, the IT department, Health and Counseling Center, and Career Center. I’m going to show you where the business office, registrar, and financial aid are located.’ I’m always here to help, but this is what they are going to need in their own arsenal to navigate college life.”
Allison is double majoring in sociology and public health, and has helped establish a public health club at Hollins. “We want to provide practical knowledge such as how to have safe sex or how to apply for health insurance, especially if you’re from out of state and you might need something like Medicaid. We also want to inform students about policies that are being enacted, how those affect them directly, and why it’s in their best interest to vote for people who would create the most beneficial policies for us particularly as a student body.”
With the Cooke Foundation’s continued financial support, Allison plans to attend graduate school after Hollins and is considering careers in environmental law (“Climate change is having a big impact on public health.”) and public policy analysis.
Allison’s passion for activism, particularly on one’s own behalf, is something she seeks to instill in FLI students. “If you’re absolutely itching to go to college, you’ve got to take that into your own hands. You cannot wish, hope, or pray that someone else will do it for you. You have to represent yourself as a first-generation, low-income student who is worthy to go to college. Advocate for yourself. Find a network of people that is willing to help you realize that dream.”
Allison encourages other Hollins students to join FLI and argues the program should not be stigmatizing. “Changing the name ‘first generation, low income’ would be concealing our identity in a way that harms us more than it benefits us. I don’t think participating in a program that is meant to help you and only you in your particular circumstances is a bad thing. What we do is so integral to first-year students.”
In light of the fact that she had to overcome so many obstacles to attend Hollins, Allison says she chooses to view FLI “as a symbol of pride. I think other people should do the same.”
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.”
The spirit of community outreach at Hollins manifests itself in so many ways.
Some of the examples include Students Helping Achieve Rewarding Experiences (SHARE), which recruits and places student volunteers with a variety of community agencies and organizations; Sandusky Service House, a campus residence hall where students are required to perform at least ten hours of volunteer work each month and promote service activities on campus and in the community; and the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, which seeks to serve the Hollins and surrounding community through volunteerism and leadership presence.
The Hollins commitment to helping others added a new chapter last month when Maria Vest ’21 became a volunteer at the fire department in the nearby town of Troutville in Botetourt County.
“I spend my free time at the firehouse,” the biology major and chemistry minor from southern Maryland explained.
Vest’s interest in becoming a first responder stemmed from her involvement with the Hollins Outdoor Program (HOP). It began her first year when she took part in HOP’s Wilderness Orientation Program, a five-day excursion that blends instruction in outdoor living skills with activities such as canoeing and a high ropes course. In subsequent years, Vest has led the Wilderness Orientation Program as well as other HOP trips, and ultimately she became interested in completing her Outdoor Leadership Certificate. Part of the qualification for the certificate is earning the Wilderness First Responder designation, which provides the tools to make critical medical and evacuation decisions in remote locations. This January, Vest and her roommates traveled to Brevard, North Carolina, to complete the nine-day, 80-hour course.
After the intense training, Vest was eager “to do rescue/EMT kinds of things. But here in Roanoke, the vast majority of those positions are paid. I wasn’t qualified to compete with people who get paid to do that kind of work.”
HOP Director Jon Guy Owens was driving home one day when he saw a billboard advertising that the Troutville Volunteer Fire Department was looking for volunteers. Vest had suddenly found “the next best thing. I applied on their website, and after an interview I joined the department. I had to go through a training process as well as a background check. Then, I learned all there is about the different trucks, equipment, and procedures.”
Vest coordinates her service as a fire department volunteer around her academic responsibilities at Hollins. “I have a couple of late days of classes, but on my lighter days I’m usually finished around 1 p.m. I’ll go to the fire station for anywhere from two to eight hours. If things are quiet, I’ll sit and do homework. But if the bell rings, I’ll throw on my gear and hop on the truck.”
Vest is not technically a firefighter yet, but she’s hoping to take classes to earn that certification this May. Nevertheless, in the meantime she will play a vital role should anything happen. “I will be working outside with everything from helping access fire hydrants to giving the firefighters the tools they need. I had to learn every single tool that is on every truck, where it’s located and how it works. My focus will be on how I can be helpful and doing whatever they tell me.”
The Troutville Volunteer Fire Department may be located in a very small town (the U.S. Census Bureau estimates the population at less than 430 people), but that doesn’t diminish its importance and skillset as first responders. Because of the department’s proximity to Interstate 81, “they get called into a lot of vehicle accidents to help ensure traffic safety or even to extract people from cars and trucks. They have giant saws to cut guardrails and hydraulic tools to remove metal from vehicles or open doors,” Vest said. “They also monitor a section of the Appalachian Trail and help rescue people who have hiked too far out or were underprepared. That’s more of what I am trained to do with the Wilderness First Responder certificate, how to react and provide the best care possible when you’re in a situation with limited resources. They even rescue large animals – if a cow or a horse gets stuck in a ditch, it’s the fire department that gets them out.”
Vest has tremendous respect for her fellow fire department volunteers. “The people who do this, they’re really good people and they care. There are many interesting things you don’t ever think about where they help the community.”
She feels the same admiration for the colleagues she’s established through HOP, beginning with Owens. “Jon Guy has been a great advisor and mentor over the past four years. He is such a huge asset in what makes HOP, HOP. He’s so involved and really cares about his students, and his enthusiasm plays a big part in making HOP so much fun.” Working closely with Owens her sophomore year was part of her motivation for saving Outdoor Athletics, Hollins’ club for whitewater racing and rock climbing. The club began floundering when all its officers were studying abroad, so Vest jumped into the leadership void. Starting with just four members, she helped make Outdoor Athletics vibrant again, and continues as club president today. “We worked so hard to spread the awareness of it,” she recalled.
Vest also praises Dina Bennett, owner of Mountain Shepherd Adventure School in Catawba, Virginia, where Vest took a J-Term course her sophomore year called Survival in the Modern World. Bennett subsequently offered her a summer job with Mountain Shepherd’s GEMS (Girls Empowered by Mountain Shepherd) program. “I taught middle school girls how to grow with courage, confidence, and compassion. We have all different levels, and each year they get to come back to have another experience. We did everything from basic survival training to hiking on the Appalachian Trail, caving, rock climbing, and canoeing on the New River.”
In addition to the connections she’s made with Owens and Bennett, Vest is grateful for the friendships she’s formed through HOP. “They became the people that were really most influential in my Hollins experience and cared about me the most.” When Vest had to take a year off from school due to illness, “all my friends that I made through HOP reached out to me. Dina and Jon Guy, they were huge in that part of my life.”
Vest had originally planned to pursue a pre-vet track at Hollins, but dealing with her health challenges and “getting involved in that world made me think about medical for people. So, I’m applying for graduate programs in biochemical and molecular medical biology.” This summer, she hopes to engage in lab work through a partnership between Hollins and Virginia Tech that enables Hollins students to take part in VT’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship program. It’s a demanding educational and career path, but Vest is confident that the influence of her HOP experience will continue to provide balance in her life.
“Being involved with HOP has made me focus on the things that truly make me happy. I am good at science and I enjoy it, but it’s definitely a lot more fun to be out hiking than organizing molecular structures.”
Top photo: Maria Vest ’21 (left) and HOP Director Jon Guy Owens canoeing on the New River during a HOP Fall Break camping trip in 2019.
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.”
Throughout her time as a Hollins undergraduate, Te’ya Mitchell ’21 has been guided by a passion for transformative change. She launches a new chapter in that commitment this July when she embarks on a four-year fellowship with Urban Teachers, an inclusive organization whose mission is preparing educators to improve the lives of children in urban schools. Over the past ten years, Urban Teachers has brought more than 1,500 aspiring, culturally competent teachers to three of the nation’s cities with the highest need: Baltimore, Dallas, and Washington, D.C.
“You get to work closely with a teacher as well as a whole team of mentors that follows you throughout your four years with the program,” Mitchell, who will teach in D.C., explains. “The goal is not only to help you become a good teacher in the classroom, but also become invested in students’ lives outside the classroom.”
The senior from Little Rock, Arkansas, began her Hollins journey considering three possible majors, ultimately deciding that gender and women’s studies would be the best route to realizing her goal of addressing institutions that disadvantage marginalized people (she is also minoring in English and social justice). “What stands out about gender and women’s studies is it concerns itself with your perspectives, your lived experiences, where you come from, and how all of that shapes your view of the world. The skills I learned in this major – research skills, conversation skills, critical thinking skills – are skills I’ll be able to take with me for the rest of my life. Also, I wanted to study racism and classism and the gender and women’s studies program focuses on these issues.”
“Te’ya is a brilliant and tenacious advocate for educational equity and opportunity,” says Assistant Professor of Political Science and Gender and Women’s Studies Courtney Chenette. For an assignment in Chenette’s Gender and the Law course last year, Mitchell researched and proposed a future application of the law and theory introduced in the class. “Te’ya wrote of her aspiration to apply to Urban Teachers, noting that ‘education is about people…and they acknowledge that structural racism and inequality have kept generations of urban children from receiving the education they deserve.’”
Mitchell admires Urban Teachers for its willingness to challenge those power structures and its acknowledgment that racism and classism have an impact on education. “Urban Teachers is going into schools and instead of just fitting into the existing system, they are looking at the ways that system can be changed to make it more sustainable and a really empowering place for students. When there’s a teacher who is an authority figure and a student at the bottom, you are just telling stuff to them. Education should be about building connections with students based on their backgrounds, their culture, and their home life, and teach them that way rather than from a perspective of, ‘I’m so far removed from you that we can’t communicate.’”
One example of Urban Teachers’ tangible success in making a difference that Mitchell cites is their efforts to further initiatives that have been put into place over the past five to ten years “to deal with conflict in the classroom in ways that make sure students have methods to calm themselves rather than punishing them with suspensions.”
Mitchell believes there is an even greater sense of urgency to meet students’ needs in light of the impact of COVID-19. “Even before the pandemic, there was a huge gap in technology. Now, with online learning, a lot of students just don’t have access to computers or the computers they have are broken. The pandemic has definitely created a barrier between class space and home space, and there’s a race gap and a wealth gap involved with that. Since we don’t know at what point we will go back to in-person learning, how do we help students who have things going on at home? How do we work with them instead of punishing them for not having the perfect home space or being the perfect student? They need to be seen as people and not as bad students.”
Urban Teachers is highly selective and acceptance involves a rigorous application procedure that requires essay writing, personal recommendations, and a lengthy interview process that includes an all-day session with teaching, group exercises, and individual interviews. Not only are prospective fellows seeking to work with the organization itself, they are also applying simultaneously to the master’s program in education at Johns Hopkins University. Fellows complete their master’s degrees during their first two years with Urban Teachers.
“I’m very excited about that,” Mitchell says, noting that she will pursue certificates in special education and in teaching English as a second language at JHU. After finishing her fellowship with Urban Teachers, she says her next stop will be law school to prepare for a career in either education law or family and children’s law.
Mitchell sees tremendous potential for how her studies at Hollins will intersect with the goals of Urban Teachers. “I think there are lot of overlaps between Urban Teachers and the gender and women’s studies program,” she explains. “Communication and a lot of other skills I have learned are directly transferable – they don’t have to be translated to fit into education because they are a natural part of education. At the same time, having a better understanding of power and privilege in this country will make me a better teacher and advocate for my students.”
The number of Hollins students recognized this year is a record for the university.
Model Arab League (MAL) is a project of the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations (NCUSAR), a non-profit organization based in Washington, D.C., that seeks to foster greater understanding of the Arabic-speaking world by U.S. students. NCUSAR also sponsors internships, study trips to the region, international conferences, and networking opportunities, and the organization’s student programs coordinator is a Hollins alumna: Katie Grandelli ’20. Hollins has taken part in MAL conferences since 2015. (The university has also participated in Model United Nations [MUN] conferences since 2000.) John P. Wheeler Professor of Political Science Edward Lynch teaches the MUN/MAL class and advises the MUN/MAL Club.
ARMAL, normally held on the Hollins campus, was conducted virtually this year. For the first time, the conference included a simulation of the Arab Court of Justice (ACJ), and Hollins is the first host of a regional MAL conference to have an ACJ; students who participated were assisted by Assistant Professor of Political Science Courtney Chenette, a practicing attorney.
Hollins students earning honors at ARMAL this year include:
Lillian Albrecht ’24, who won two awards for her work on the ACJ: Outstanding Justice and Outstanding Advocate.
Salima Driss ’23, Jaiya McMillan ’23, and Susanna Helms ’24, who were recognized with Outstanding Advocate awards.
Acadia Czeizinger ’22, Mollie Davis ’22, Maggie McCroby ’22, and Bianca Vallebrignoni ’23, who received Distinguished Chair awards for leading various conference councils.
In addition, Carly Jo Collins ’21 and Delia O’Grady ’22 served as ARMAL’s Secretary-General and Assistant Secretary-General, respectively.