My daughter entered UVM (University of Vermont, Burlington) knowing nobody, not one person in the 10,000 students. She chose UVM for its stop-in-your-tracks animal sciences curriculum, pre-veterinary-medicine, and simultaneously entered the Clay Program with ten other first and second year students. She lived in a dorm reserved for the Arts Initiative (clay, photography, world music, creative writing…). By chance, in the year Ariela began college, the Clay Program was entirely women. One of the members studied psychology. Another would become fascinated with horticulture, sustainability, and eventually learn to fly planes. A third was a scientist. Another studied literature and art. They lived in two suites, bonded by their love of working with clay. From her first moments on campus, Ariela stepped into the community of women she hoped to find.
For the next four years, most of my phone conversations with Ariela took place while she walked to class. At the beginning of her sophomore year, crunching through fallen leaves, trees turning into the reds and golds of fall, she called. “I figured out what’s missing in my life.” She had the arts from clay, she explained, and the sciences from her major. But she longed to read and write, so she added a minor in English. A young woman in STEM, fascinated by animal sciences, in love with the written word, immersed in the arts — that’s Ariela.
A few summers into her UVM journey, she enrolled in the CREAM program — a dairy farm run by students working shifts around the clock, taking care of the farm and the animals. Early one morning, she sent a photo. She sat on the ground holding a gargantuan baby bottle. She was feeding a newborn calf, who nuzzled against her. She had arrived at her shift and found an hours-old infant girl, a healthy 104 pounds, wobbly on its spindly legs. My daughter was transported.
We spoke on the opening day of her final spring semester, senior year. We struggled to hear each other as she forged her way to class through the icy Vermont winter. I said, “It’s your first day of classes.” She smiled over the phone. “It’s my last first day.”
In that final semester, she enrolled in EQUUS, another UVM Animal Sciences gem, where she joined the team taking care of the horse barn. She signed up for a course to complete her English minor, excited to learn Middle English as she followed Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrimage. Along with several other classes, she insisted on auditing a course covering equine health issues because it was “too good to miss.” “It’s coming together,” she said in our next phone call. “What’s it?” I asked. “It’s…” she searched for the right words, “…it’s me.”
Suddenly and not suddenly, her last first day was far behind her, and she faced her last last day.
The family gathered in Burlington for her graduation and she brought us to meet the cows. As we walked through the barn, the huge animals moved forward to greet us. We smoothed their fur, and they gently nuzzled our hands and arms. They seemed to understand that they were ten times our size, and moved carefully as they slimed us with their friendly noses. I never knew that cows love human attention as much as puppies.
Ariela guided us through campus — her dorms, the library, her research lab. Strolling outside a cluster of buildings, we found ourselves next to a small tulip park, a joyful garden of white, yellow, maroon, red, purple. We entered UVM’s greenhouse and were immediately enveloped in the soft humidity. One room held tables and shelves of sweet potatoes. Another area housed many forms of cactus, each sharp and strange and weirdly beautiful. A different room was filled with tropical plants, startling in their waxy brilliance. A museum of living art, a bright surprise around every corner.
We walked outside into the springtime, treading the ground that had been covered with snow just a month before. We followed Ariela’s path, a road both individual and shared. Ariela’s UVM meant cows, Chaucer, microbiology, horses — all comfortably side by side, hand in hand. Her education meant research and tulips, Middle English and clay. And as I followed Ariela’s campus tour, I understood the essence of UVM. Whoever you are, whatever your unique and eccentric internal tapestry looks like — this university invites you to seize the experience, cover it with your fingerprints, make it your own.
Congratulations to Ariela and the UVM class of 2019. May your continuing path be filled with first lasts and last firsts, then and now and always.