Graduation Challenge after 20 years: the times have changed, but the spirit remains the same

From left: Natalie Franklin, Eliot Heinrich, and Lisa Schold.
From left: Natalie Franklin, Eliot Heinrich, and Lisa Schold.
By Chea Waters Evans

Spring in Vermont brings many things: flowing sap, daffodils, baby lambs, and the sheer panic of a CVU senior finishing a Graduation Challenge project. On Friday, May 22, 316 students completed their Grad Challenges with presentations at CVU. After two decades, the projects and students have evolved, but the challenges and rewards remain the same. Students pick a topic that interests them, and over the course of senior year create a multi-faceted project that involves working, writing, and presenting on this one experience.
Grad Challenge began in 1994, but was optional that first year. It became a graduation requirement the following year, and the five components remain the same: Community Learning Experience, Community Consultant, Research, The Paper, and The Presentation. Throughout the process, students are expected to meet deadlines, submit drafts, and meet with an advisor with updates on their progress. CVU Grad Challenge Coordinator Mary Anne Gatos has been at the helm for nine years, and says that though the projects and students have changed over time, the goal of the experience hasn’t. She has a sign in her office that says, “It’s impossible to not be learning,” and for her, this exemplifies what Grad Challenge is all about. “Life is a Grad Challenge project,” she says. “Grad Challenge was started because when the student graduates, you want to know that the student knows how to learn. That’s the key to education: if you take responsibility for learning, you keep learning.”

Eliot Heinrich, a senior from Hinesburg, exemplifies the learning aspect of Grad Challenge. After he spent an inspiring weekend this past January with the Governor’s Institute of Vermont at the Northeast Kingdom Astronomical Foundation observatory, he wanted to continue exploring what he learned there. He decided to do his Challenge on astrophotography, or, as he puts it, “fiddling with telescope knobs for endless hours in the freezing cold, and getting some really cool pictures to show for it.” As luck would have it, the Foundation recommended a community consultant to him who just happened to be a family friend, Peter Gillette, who lived nearby and had an observatory in his garage. This, Heinrich says, was the best part of Grad Challenge. “I really liked my community advisor,” he said, “for me, that was my favorite part.”

Heinrich will head off to Cornell in the fall, where he will study physics and astronomy. His Grad Challenge helped him explore a topic in which he was already interested, and confirmed for him that this is something he wants to continue to study.

Shelburne student Lisa Schold decided to get her Grad Challenge work done early—a strategy she recommends to upcoming seniors. Her experience literally went a little farther than most; because she’s part Japanese, and has family in Japan, she decided to do an internship at a business in Tokyo. She got her hours in over the summer with a lifestyle support services company called Kajitaku, where she translated business documents and their web site. Her research paper focused on business culture in Japan, something she was able to experience firsthand and connect to her business class at CVU.

Schold lived independently for the summer in a huge city, working a 40-hour a week job, exploring the city on her own, and living in an entirely different culture. Her favorite part of the trip was living in the city, and being seen as an adult. She was surprised, when it was over, that the biggest lesson she learned from Grad Challenge was “to have fun being young, because I would have the rest of my life to be a professional and make a difference in the business world.” She will study public policy or economics at Brown next year, with a focus on environmental science. Her Grad Challenge gave her a confidence boost that assured her she’d do well away from her family in college, and reaffirmed her commitment to taking the business world by storm after she graduates. “It was an all-around amazing learning experience,” she said.

Natalie Franklin, an avid skier from Charlotte, took her project in a different direction. Her Grad Challenge was to work with Renoun, a company that makes skis. Its founder, Cyrus Schenck, is a CVU graduate who recently won LaunchVT’s Vermont startup competition for his innovative ski design. Gatos points out that Franklin’s project was a good example of how students find something they want to work on, often taking an interest they already have and figuring out what kinds of careers or work experience they can glean from those interests.

Gatos finds that technology has changed the students, and the way they find information, and the way they communicate with others. She points out that through Grad Challenge, students are learning valuable skills, like holding face-to-face meetings and asking people for favors in person, that most kids don’t get in this era of texting and iPhones. She also finds that the splashiest, most elaborate Grad Challenges aren’t always the ones that make the biggest impact. After two decades of seniors learning and exploring, she says, “Some of the most amazing projects are just the ones where the student finds their voice, finds something they like, is comfortable talking to people they don’t know, and surprises themself.”