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Big Brothers Big Sisters: Continuing My Love For Community Service in College

All throughout high school I was a volunteer with Sunday school programs, volunteered at community outreach events, and was a camp counselor every summer. It started as a graduation requirement for high school but I grew to love it. Working with kids is a really rewarding experience that I want to continue in college.

I was first introduced to the Big Brothers Big Sisters program through Juniata Inbound. The Inbound program is a combination of an introduction to your classmates and a transition into college life. Inbound offers a variety of retreats such as plexus, biking, hiking, equestrian, community outreach, etc. For Big Brothers Big Sisters, each student was paired with a youth from the nearby community. We participated in an assortment of activities including bowling, rollerblading, swimming at Lake Raystown, and a day at Del Grosso’s amusement park.

2017 Big Brothers Big Sisters Inbound Retreat Group at DelGrosso’s Amusement Park

2017 Big Brothers Big Sisters Inbound Retreat Group at DelGrosso’s Amusement Park

Once lobster fest came around in early September, Big Brothers Big Sisters was the first club I signed up for. We meet weekly for the after school program and once a month for larger group activities. In the after school program, we usually take part in endeavors such as cooking, board games, Ping-Pong tournaments and the Huntingdon Art Walk. For the monthly events, we’ve gone to the Lake Tobias Wildlife Park and had various holiday parties. Witnessing the reactions of the kids when they are taking in a new experience is remarkable.

The Big Brothers Big Sisters program was created to encourage youth to aspire to be the best version of themselves. Seeing the improvement in communication skills, engagement and participation of the kids is what keeps us coming back every week. Keeping the kids engaged in their academics, sports, art programs and other pursuits is one of the goals of the Big Brother Big Sister program. Connecting with the kids over something as simple as our mutual love of fruit snacks is an amazing feeling. Not only is it a great way to reach out to the community but it’s a great way to take a break from the grueling world of classes and homework and play a game of bingo or compete in an incredible intense ping ping tournament.

There are plenty of opportunities available at Juniata to expand your horizons or to continue towards your original horizon if you so choose. Being able to continue interacting with the community and make even the smallest difference in people’s lives is by far one of my favorite things about Juniata.

The Best Class I have Ever Taken

Though we aren’t even a month into the semester I’m pretty positive that I’m currently in not only the best class I’ve taken at Juniata, but the best class I’ve ever taken. When I enrolled in Constitutional Interpretation: Civil Rights I was initially terrified and a little intimidated (it is a mouthful after all). I’m a politics POE so as I was browsing the politics course selections for this semester the name peaked my interest because it stood out from the others, but it also stood out because it’s taught by Dr. Lauren Bowen, the provost. I had yet to take a class with her and honestly I didn’t even know that she taught classes, to me she was just one of those official administration people who occasionally speak at events- except she wasn’t even one of the fun ones like Matthew Damschroder; she was the one who oversaw all of academics which when following the energy of Dr. Damschroder or the “celebrity” of President Troha is considerably less interesting. I added the course to a list of classes I was considering, but it wasn’t something I was super excited about or really wanted to take.

Provost Bowen meeting with students.

Provost Bowen meeting with students.

But, at an event discussing the Charlottesville incidents Dr. Bowen was one of the speakers and shared her insight on the civil rights side of things and really caught my attention. Some of the things she said challenged my thinking and made me want to hear more, it was at that event, after hearing her share the tiniest bit of her knowledge, that I solidified that I had to take this class. Now, in our fourth week of classes, Dr. Bowen has yet to disappoint. I come to class everyday and feel thoroughly challenged and I leave not only feeling like I know so much more than I did before but somehow always having even more questions than I did before. This is the first class where I’ve genuinely wanted to do my homework; I always feel compelled to be over prepared rather than under prepared. I think the best part of the class, which also originates from Dr. Bowen and how she is as a teacher, is that it doesn’t even feel like work. I’m challenged in the class every day but it doesn’t feel like a challenge, it’s fun and exciting and it’s all so subtle. She knows just the right questions to ask, just the right points to make, and she has a knack for being able to find the weakness on any side or point of an argument. This class is the epitome of what it means to be in a class at Juniata- to be challenged, to have your horizons broadened, to be able to see something that you’ve known forever (like the Constitution) in a way you’ve never seen it before. On top of that, Dr. Bowen is the epitome of a Juniata professor: she’s intelligent, experienced, and engaging.

The Gift of a Good Mentor

About a year ago, I wrote a blog about a mentor of mine here at Juniata, and since I am heading into my last semester and nostalgia is hitting me like a tsunami, I thought I should revisit the topic. My current mentor came into my life about the same time I wrote the last blog about mentorship and, at the time, I had no idea what an effect her mentoring would have on me.

Dr. Regina Lamendella has been at Juniata for just about six years now but she has definitely left an enduring mark. About two years ago, Dr. L and one of her former students Justin Wright, decided to start their very own bioinformatics company, Wright Labs, to fill a niche in the ever growing world of bioinformatics. The specific area of bioinformatics that we dabble in is host and environment microbial interactions. Basically we analyze how bacteria in the human body affects certain disorders and overall human health, and how certain bacteria in the environment are helping to improve or worsen the condition of said environment. We work on a wide array of projects with an even wider array of collaborators, some students working alongside top names in the sciences like the EPA.

Dr. L in her native habitat.

Dr. L in her native habitat.

Through Wright Labs and the tireless efforts of Dr. L and Justin, the students in their lab have had the opportunity to do some amazing,  graduate school level work as undergrads. That kind of research experience, regardless of the field you want to go into, is invaluable and very impressive to an interview committee of a graduate or medical school program (I know as I am currently in the graduate school search process).

Its not the various projects and tools that Dr. L has made accessible to the members of her lab that makes her such a good mentor though. I have never in my life met someone with quite the work ethic and stamina that Dr. L possesses. She is always in meetings with collaborators or writing grants or teaching classes and lab courses or raising her two kids. Yet despite her insanely busy schedule, she always finds time for her students when they need her. You might find a quick ten minutes with her over lunch or you might catch her on a walk around the quad with her new baby. But no matter where she is or what she is doing, she’ll make the time to talk to you.

Above all, though I think without meaning to, Dr. L is teaching those of us in her lab how to be good mentors, and by that same virtue to be mentees. She teaches us how to ask good questions and is constantly challenging us to think critically about the research we do and about the research others do. Almost weekly two of the lab members present on a paper on some new advance in the world of bioinformatics, and its our job as lab members to delve into it and see if the results makes sense and if the methodology was sound.

When it comes down to it, Dr. L has made me a better person by making me a better student. Her guidance has helped me become more focused and organized in my academic life which has translated into the way I live my personal life. And my experience with Dr. L is not an isolated event. Every professor at Juniata strives to mentor their students to not only make them better learners, but better members of society. The professors here take an honest interest in their students’ lives and do their best to guide and help them through their four years here. Without Dr. L I still wouldn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life and I definitely would not be accepted into a graduate program. For that reason I will be forever grateful to Dr. L.

What Comes Next?

As I approach my final semester at Juniata, I can’t help but feel overwhelmed with the thought of “what comes next?”. Family members, friends, and coworkers always ask what my plans are once I graduate, and thanks to Juniata College and the Theatre Department, I can say with confidence exactly what I am going to do once I leave.
One of the new classes the Theatre Department has implemented is called Integrated Experience. It’s a one-credit class where the seniors of the department meet with all of the faculty once a week to discuss what comes next, and how we are going to get there. The curriculum is self-driven, so the students decide what their deliverables are going to be for each week, instead of being given coursework by our professors. At the beginning of last semester, we spent a considerable amount of time creating our personal mission statements, as well as identifying what our one-year, five-year, and ten-year goals are. For me, I knew that I wanted to move back home to Boston after I graduate to focus on building my professional acting career, and then move to New York City to perform on Broadway when the time was right. In order to get there however, I needed to do some research. For the first few weeks of the semester, I brought in information about different theaters in the Boston area, what types of performance they do, directors to contact, etc. I worked on building/editing my resume, as well as crafting cover letters to different directors. It was definitely intimidating putting myself out there, but I am so grateful for these uncomfortable experiences, because over winter break something very exciting happened.
Me and Cosimo Sciortino ('20) performing in "She Kills Monsters" at Juniata College.

Me and Cosimo Sciortino (’20) performing in “She Kills Monsters” at Juniata College.

I had the privilege to meet with Spiro Velodous, the Artistic Director of the Lyric Stage in Boston. I went to the theater, we chatted about my experience and repertoire, and I did a sample audition for him right there in his office. We talked about upcoming auditions for the area, and he told me that I have a lot to offer and he’s excited about my future. It’s safe to say I had a very successful break and am more than ready to graduate. It’s one thing to have met with a director and have upcoming plans for performing, but it’s a whole new level of excitement for someone who hasn’t even graduated college.

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