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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.

Finding things to do in the Face of Boredom Adversity

Coming to Juniata was not a hard choice for me. Once the acceptance letters came in and I was left looking at Gettysburg and Juniata, my path was clear. I knew I would get a phenomenal education and be ready for whatever grad school or med school had to throw at me. What I didn’t know was whether or not I would be bored out of my mind for four years. I come from a small town in northern New Mexico, so I am used to the mild boredom that is bound to accompany living in a small rural community. On the other hand, central Pennsylvania with its Amish communities and verdant “mountains” would end up being a completely different experience. The summer before I left for Juniata, my coworkers teased me, saying that I was going to return the next summer sporting an Amish wife and several Amish children on my hip.

 

Thankfully that was not the case. When I arrived in Huntingdon I was struck by its picturesque quaintness. Huntingdon has a pleasant mix of revolutionary war era buildings next to more modern edifices. Huntingdon is a far cry from towns like the neighboring State College, home of Penn State, but it has its own blend of unique activities to offer. Standing Stone coffee company is a local favorite of students and townsfolk alike. After we are done studying there during the day, we often stick around for the monthly Saturday night trivia. (We haven’t won a single round or game yet, but we’re sticking with it!) Downtown we have a wide array of restaurants and cafes offering everything from pizza to scones.

 

If you’re not in the mood for food, you could head out to the bowling alley or movie theater and catch the latest blockbusters in our five screen movie theater. But if you are feeling cooped up and need some fresh air there is the beautiful Peace Chapel trail system only a mile walk from the college. It’s a great spot to run or hike or bike or to just sit and ponder. And of course if you tire of the rural life, State College is just a short drive away with somewhat more to offer the young college student seeking entertainment.

 

Whenever prospective students ask me whether or not there are things to do in Huntingdon, it’s never a hard answer. Maybe it’s because I grew up in a small rural community like Huntingdon, or maybe it’s because I have grown used to life in Huntingdon, but I never feel bored at Juniata. There is always something to do. Sometimes you just have to go out and search for it.

Madrigal

One of the first things that initially drew me to Juniata were all of it’s crazy, unique traditions- when I was looking into Juniata I spent over an hour on YouTube watching videos about all of the traditions here. This past weekend my personal favorite Juniata tradition, Madrigal, took place. Madrigal dinner comes as a reward after a grueling week of tenting. For one week during the fall, which somehow always happens to be the coldest week, students sleep in tents and are awoken almost every hour of the night for role calls and to compete in events in order to gain points. The groups with the most amount of points get to select and secure their table at the Madrigal dinner first. The competition during tenting can get pretty intense, but in the end it’s all worth it for getting to have the perfect Madrigal evening.

As a Juniatian, the entire process of Madrigal didn’t seem that weird to me, but my date was pretty confused the whole night. The pinnacle of Madrigal dinner is singing “The 12 Days of Christmas”- at the top of your lungs…while standing on your chair. While this is an integral part of the Juniata experience, it’s not something you’ll find anywhere else, so to outsiders it may seem a little strange. The dinner is also served by faculty and staff members dressed in silly Christmas attire, which makes it even more fun. That professor who just gave you some feedback on a paper that you aren’t happy about? She’s refilling your water glass. Did your boss give you a long list of work for the week? He’s serving you your chocolate cake. Things like that are a part of what make me love Juniata so much, if I went to a school that was bigger than this I would never get to experience this kind of quirky, fun event. Plus, who doesn’t love a good excuse to get all dressed up with their best friends? Madrigal is another example of how Juniata traditions bringing everyone together to give us a special kind of experience and sense of community and togetherness that you just can’t find anywhere else.

 

A Small, Unimportant, and Beautiful Life

As a Theater POE, I have had countless opportunities to build my theatrical skills through my classes and productions at Juniata. One thing I haven’t had as much experience with however, is film. My freshman year, I did a four-day intensive with an artist named Britt Whittle, who was an actor in L.A., guest starring on different television shows and commercials. The intensive was called “Acting for the Camera”, and we had the opportunity to work on different scenes from television shows, all with a camera pointed at our face, which was hooked up to a monitor so the rest of the students in the class could watch you while you worked. I got to do a scene from Gossip Girl, which was a show I used to binge-watch all of the time. I had so much fun playing a high-class celebrity, and it was definitely something I had never done before.
Since then, I have hosted “This Week at Juniata”, the school web show, and been in a few student short films, but that’s it. Working with a camera is so weird, because I’m used to being on stage, where the focus is entirely different, and you only get one chance to say a line, since we can’t cut and re-do it. Last semester however, I got the chance of a lifetime here at Juniata, and I starred in my first student feature film, which was written and directed by a fellow IMA student, Matt Gaynor.
Matt reached out to me and asked me to audition for a movie he had written, and to be honest, I had no idea what I was doing. I was very unprepared for the audition, and I went in, said my lines, felt super uncomfortable with a camera on me, and then that was that. I remember walking out of the audition room thinking, well that was the worst audition I’ve ever done…, and sure enough, the next morning I woke up to learn that I had been cast as the lead in the film. It was crazy! I wasn’t expecting it at all, but I was so excited to get to work.
We filmed for about three months, on weekends, at night, and any free time we could find. Unlike other films I had worked on, this one was full-length, so there was so much more material to work with. I was very lucky to have been a part of this project, and it has given me new experiences and lessons I am so excited to take with me into the real world. When we finally wrapped, it hit me like a ton of bricks. I had just finished my debut feature film! I didn’t know what was to come with the film, but I was so happy I was able to help.
I’m very excited to announce that my film A Small, Unimportant, and Beautiful Life is premiering this Thursday, at the Clifton 5 (the local movie theater in Huntingdon) at 8:00 PM. I hate watching myself perform, but to see myself on a big screen is something I have always dreamed about, and it’s finally happening! We are having a big premiere, with wine tasting and a Q&A, and my parents are even driving from Boston to see the film with me. I’m so excited (and nervous) for it, but this is definitely a big step in my journey to becoming a professional actor. I’m so grateful to Matt Gaynor, the IMA Department, and to Juniata College for allowing me this opportunity to grow as an artist! See you at the premiere!

Being a Student-Athlete at Juniata

For most of my life I was a pretty active kid, I loved sports, I played sports, and I watched sports. But, life got in the way during high school I didn’t really participate in sports much and I missed it a lot. Even though I wasn’t a part of a team I still considered myself active and saw myself as an athlete, so I knew that I wanted to get more involved with sports when I came to college. After committing to Juniata I looked into which club and intramural sports teams we had and was really excited about getting to play again. When I got here I joined the women’s club rugby team and loved it. It was great getting to be active again and to be a part of a team. But, then a unique opportunity came to me.

I was at a women’s volleyball game, cheering on my roommate, when I met the new women’s lacrosse coach, Naomi Radio. We talked for a little while and she tried convincing me to come and try out the new lacrosse program, but I wasn’t biting. The idea stayed on my mind for a while though, I had a friend on the team and it seemed cool enough. Then, I met her and talked to her again at a women’s basketball game a few weeks later and she convinced me to join the lacrosse team even though I had never played lacrosse before.

Initially I was really nervous about the time commitment, but it actually turned out to be one of the best things to happen to me thus far in my Juniata career. Being a student athlete has made me not only a better person but also a better student. Having to work in practice times has made my schedule more structured and made me more accountable and efficient with time management.  I’ve also become a part of something bigger than myself, giving me even more resources than I already had to support me. Now my support system has extended beyond my friends here, my professors, and my advisers- I also have my coach and my teammates. There’s nothing more reassuring during stressful times than knowing how many people around you have your back and are willing to help you out. Juniata is already such a tight-knit community, but being a student athlete here has made me feel it even more by introducing me to more people and strengthening my ties to the community.

Family and the Long Drive Home

It’s often said of young people that we don’t appreciate the value of family. In our early twenties we are most concerned with distinguishing ourselves from our families. We strive to a new life and a new character apart from the people with whom we spent the first 18 years of our life. These are admirable—and necessary—goals for college students. But that doesn’t mean a life entirely set apart from our family works best. In fact, most of the people I know at Juniata retain a healthy amount of contact with family.

What one defines as “healthy”, of course, varies depending on the sort of person you are and the circumstances you find yourself in. Many of my more extroverted friends keep in near-daily contact with their family from home, usually through the magic of text or online chat services. Some of my peers live close enough to campus that they either commute daily or, more frequently, spend the odd weekend at home. About half of our population here comes from within the state, so whether they live in Amish country or Appalachia home isn’t so far.

But for myself and many others, home is a long way away. I live in Massachusetts which—though thankfully on the same coast as Pennsylvania—is a nine-to-ten hour drive away. With the exception of Thanksgiving, I spend my breaks and free time exploring in-state or elsewhere. Many more students spend Thanksgiving here, especially those of my friends who live on the left coast. And for the ten percent of students who come from abroad, home is further away than many can appreciate—both in physical and cultural distance.

Thankfully, we are no longer living in the age where telephones require booths and quarters to operate. There are a variety of apps and services which allow one to send messages, images, and voice chat for free over any internet connection. I personally used Viber, a WhatsApp clone, while I studied abroad in New Zealand so as to save on cellphone bills. While I’m in this country, I share a group chat with my nuclear and extended families where we post pictures and musings from our daily lives.

Today more than ever students are traveling further and further away to go to college, something I believe to be an admirable trend. Distancing ourselves from where we grew up allows us to see a new way of life and gives us a chance to redefine who we are. For those of us who find ourselves flung far away from home, even with other oceans or continents between us, our modern age has at least some of the solutions. Now if I could only figure out how to get my cat to Skype me…

Zachary Hesse is a writer, commercial fisherman, and philosophy student at Juniata College. You can find more of his writings and get in touch with him at his website, zacharyhesse.com.

 

Lobbying

When I first came to college, I was thoroughly scared of public speaking and presentations. So, it was thoroughly shocking when I found myself lobbying Congress on Capitol Hill last week.

 

Capitol Hill

Capitol Hill

I was in DC as a part of Juniata’s Climate Advocates. We are a part of a larger group called Citizen’s Climate Lobby, which works to promote carbon fee and dividend (a thing which I can give you a 1-minute explanation of. Thanks, CCL online trainings!).

 

Last week, the organization had their Congressional Education Day. What does that mean exactly? Well, it means I put on went to a 10 hour training, put on my fancy clothes, and made my way to Capital Hill to meet with state representatives. Even though I now like public speaking, this was still a really intimidating experience. The other people in my meetings were strangers, I had never met with a representative before, and I had to find my way around through underground tunnels. All in all, pretty scary, but pretty cool.

IMG_6037

Overall, we had some success. I was able to do some of the presentation, which was a personal accomplishment. I realized (or was reminded by a friend) that the representatives are just people, so they shouldn’t be that hard to talk to. I would even describe the experience as a little fun. Exhausting, but fun.

 

Our little school impressed quite a few people at the conference. We brought the most students out of any educational institution that came, which is very cool considering that we are quite a small school. The thing is, Juniata people seem to care, and from what I’ve seen, they’re willing to put in the effort to show that they care.

 

This whole event was possible thanks to the hard work of a few students and one dedicated Chemistry professor, Dr. Sharon Yohn, who worked with students to establish the club only last year.

 

When I came to school, I expected to study. I expected to take finals and write papers. I expected to enjoy Huntingdon and meet people. I didn’t really expect to be pushed to the edges of my comfort zone, and to learn to do things I once believed to be beyond my reach. It was just lobbying, I know. I probably could have done it a few years ago, but now, I have the confidence and support to do this, and anything else that I can imagine.

 

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