Small-town Vermonter adjusts to big university

BURLINGTON — When Jack Spanierman, a freshman at the University of Vermont, joined the Catamount Commitment program, he had no idea that after he gave an almost ad-libbed speech, the president of the university would offer to be his mentor.

"[The program] is geared to making sure that in-state students have the resources they need to thrive in the UVM community," Spanierman said. "We have monthly meetings, check-ins; it was very helpful in the first couple months of the year. 'How's your first week been?' and ways to cope with things — it built a little community.

"After the first month we had this meeting, talking about our first month as a Catamount," he went on. "I had talked to the program advisor a good amount, and she asked me if I wanted to speak on behalf of the group about my first month. I said, 'Sure, I'll do that!' I thought it would be standing in a circle in a little room."

He recalled that the program advisor suggested that he should prepare "a few things to say — nothing too strenuous. The location should have been a little hint — it was the Grand Maple Ballroom, so I walk in and there's tables set up all over the room, and a buffet, a big lectern with the university seal at the front of the room, and a screen. The president is there, the provost is there, and here I am with some loose notes I'd written on my phone. And of course it was after the president's speech. He spoke, a very formal eloquent speech, and then it was my turn. I had to swallow my pride — I didn't have a formal speech."

Spanierman, who grew up in Putney, told the crowd about coming to UVM from a small town, and attending a student meeting in the university gym.

"I just spoke from the heart," he said. "My experience was definitely different from someone who grew up in Burlington. There were 2,500 people in that gym, and I realized that there were more people in this gym than in my entire hometown."

Following his speech, Tom Sullivan, president of UVM, asked the Catamount Commitment program director if Spanierman would like him to be a mentor, and the two met in the president's office.

"It felt very formal," Spanierman remembered. "The receptionist offered me coffee and took my coat."

The actual meeting with the president was more relaxed.

"We were just trying to get to know each other, him telling me about himself, how he got to where he is now, and some problems we see about the university," Spanierman said. "Whether we like it or not, we're connected to the world of technology. He walks around the campus a lot, and he says hello even if he doesn't know someone, and he said that people walk around attached to their devices, and if he says hello they don't even hear him. It's important, especially given our beautiful location, to look up once in a while.

"We talked about things I'd talked about in my 'speech' — my connection to my state and family," Spanierman continued. "I remember him saying that when he went to college he would always have a call with his family on Sunday evening. I feel like staying in touch with your family is a very important

connection to your past - and your future."

Spanierman was invited to apply to the Liberal Arts Scholars Program, which provides coursework with a specific focus to a cohort of students who also live together. Spanierman chose the Understanding Critical Social Problems program, which examines issues through a social-science lens. He said that when he was considering applying to the program, he was encouraged by Lachlan Francis, who also lives in Putney and graduated from BUHS before going to UVM. Spanierman said he and Francis bonded over Teri Appel's classes at BUHS.

"Lachlan told me, 'If you loved Ms. Appel's class, you're going to love this.' We absolutely loved any class she taught," Spanierman recalled. "It was less lecture; there's material you prepare for class, and you discuss it, you dissect it - it's more like a seminar, and that's what this program focuses on."

He noted that the program's coursework is rigorous.

"It's been pretty tough," he said, "but there are students who were in the program last year, and they said, 'Now college is so easy because the program was so hard,' so I'm looking forward to that."

As a first-semester freshman, Spanierman took courses in economics, sociology, and political science, but with a particular perspective.

"Our Econ class was the most out-there," he commented. "I took an econ class at Bratt, which I really liked, but this was almost the sociology of econ, the history and how different economic theories and people who influenced theory affect the world and its people. The title of the class was Capitalism and Human Welfare, so it was very much about the effects of capitalism, which, given our society, we're not openly told."

In the fall semester he took a math course in addition to his social-science courses; in the second semester he's taking an anthropology course, focusing on environmental issues, and a geography course that focuses on cities.

"It's called Lives of the Global City," he explained, "as in a city that strives to be a capitalist center, where a financial center defines the area, like a Tokyo or a London. We share about how great these cities are, but also what's underneath, what people's lives are like."

Spanierman is very happy at UVM, where he has gotten to know other students from all over the country, from Alaska to Florida. He had some advice for Vermont students.

"Even if you don't really see yourself there, or are adamant about not going, I think everyone should visit and walk around the campus and soak it all in," he said. "I just remember being blown away, because it was so different from the Vermont I knew. UVM really is the perfect balance between a large public research university and the small liberal-arts college.

"One of the biggest concerns is that people think it's too big for what they're looking for," he continued. "If you're looking for that smaller feeling, in all my classes there are 27 of us, which is comparable to a smaller college. At the same time, it has all the resources of a research university.

"We hear this all the time — it's what you make of it," Spanierman concluded. "You could have an experience where you're just a number, but if you don't want that, there are so many opportunities to find a smaller community and absolutely thrive in it."


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