Every year we checks in with our alums who are either in college or have just graduated. With the pandemic, the economic downturn, and the national demand for social justice, this is a crucial year to find out how our alums are coping.
Sierra Vines, a Graduate of University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (BFS ’16)
What year did you graduate from college?
I officially graduated on May 10, 2020 from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with two bachelor’s degrees. I obtained a Bachelor of Science, in Biology, and a Bachelor of the Arts in African and African-American Diaspora Studies.
Tell me about your work at college.
While at college I was granted the opportunity through my work-study grant to become a research assistant at the Program on Integrative Medicine my junior year. At this job I was assigned to a project that aimed to develop an artificial intelligence chat-bot for African-American Type II Diabetics. To my surprise I was given a lot of freedom to provide input and direct messaging into the software that would aid a group of people to whom I belong and chose to study academically — African Americans. To combine my love for health, culture and race in a program that seeks integrative approaches to wellness and health was an awesome experience, to say the least.
What has this year looked like for you, pre- and during the pandemic?
Prior to the pandemic I reached the half-way point of my last semester of the undergraduate career. I truly saw the finish line ahead and it was daunting, but when the pandemic occurred my anxiety of the future relaxed. I realized that the whole world was literally slowing down at the time in my life when I was feeling rushed into true adulthood, providing me with this unique opportunity to catch up with my life. During the pandemic I had to move back home to New York from North Carolina and spend needed time with my family. I realized how selfish one can be when at college — I only had to wash one dish, one fork and one cup after making a meal that I only had to eat. Adjusting to being at home again means a lot more dishes, but this time with my family is priceless.
What’s the plan for the summer and fall?
Fortunately, my research assistant position was graciously extended ‘till this October. So, I have been and will continue to work from home until then. I am hoping to find another job where I can work on more technical skills related to the health field and find a mentor to help me reach my dream of being a physician.
What age did you enter BFS?
I entered BFS in the 7th grade, at 12 years old.
What was your transition to BFS like?
My transition to BFS was challenging in that I had assumed that navigating my blackness in a majority white space would be easy. Prior to BFS I never had to be as mindful of my culture, race and other identifiers since the majority of people in my previous surroundings shared those same identifiers. Thus, feeling that I was different and not having the correct terminology or ability to articulate my experience created this mountain that I had to climb that others could not see.
What teachers had a profound effect on your experience at BFS?
Although there were many teachers that impacted me greatly at BFS, for me to honestly answer this question I can’t limit myself to just teachers. I say this because I felt like I was at home with my aunty when sitting with Donna waiting to get picked up. David Gardella gave me a place to have fun and be myself within sports, a place that I never would have imagined that I would fit. Leaving school and running to Kevin Narvaez, and he would tell me how proud he was of me, gave me a little more confidence when I felt like I was behind. When I was sick and had a sore throat one day, the assistant chef, Joe, made me fresh ginger tea and we would chat, having a great time. I looked forward to lunch so I could see Nitza Rivera. She would always greet me with a warm smile and hug me whenever she got a chance. I feel that the janitorial, kitchen staff and sports staff at BFS were my safe havens of love, support and transparency.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention any teachers because there were so many that I could go on and on about. I loved Sidney [Bridges] and his compassion for students, enthusiasm about literature and spirit of gentleness. My beautiful women of color teachers, like Zenzile Keith and Megan Schumacher who lit up the room, were so necessary in my coping with my own blackness and gender. I found a forever family member in Tiffany Huggins who, to this day, I can call on for anything! Then my advisor Pete Prince and Jesse Phillips-Fein showed me what true ally-ship meant.
What advice would you give current students at BFS?
Take in every opportunity that is presented before you, because they aren’t as accessible in the lives of others. Please get to know the people who help keep the school clean and put food in your belly — the supporting staff at BFS is what makes BFS’ light shine so brightly. Please save your essays, notes, and ideas because, who knows? You may need them one day even if it’s to remember how far you’ve progressed. Oh, and we all know that the school is small so drama could travel fast, but there’s an upside to that, it leaves just as fast. So, embrace the good moments tightly and push past the immature, messy moments. This is the time to cultivate yourself into who you want to be — you don’t have to wait for college. Start now.
How did the Quaker education you received at BFS prepare and guide you for your studies at college, on a micro and macro level? (For example, daily life and challenges, as well as the larger issues of growing up, being away from home, and navigating the world of the university for the first time).
Quakerism taught me the value of taking time to enjoy the quiet moments, because in those moments lie truth. It is so easy to get lost in the hustle and bustle of life, especially as one ages and seeks to advance oneself in a career or simply becoming an adult. It’s important to find peace in the moments of stillness and share that stillness with others. I learned that not every moment you have with someone else needs to be filled with vocalizing one’s opinions, but there is a beauty in waiting and listening. As I went to college, I knew that my reflection was key to my growth because of the many times I was able to sit and reflect during Meeting for Worship. My commitment to social justice and equity was a lesson instilled in my Quaker academic upbringing and pushed me to major in African and African-American Diaspora studies. I now have a better grasp on understanding systems of oppression and how I can play a role in dismantling it. I think my Quaker education provided me with a platform to speak truth to power while engaging in dialogue with those that may not share my story.
What’s a lesson you’re taking from these last several months that you feel will impact your growth or has made you more resilient?
These few months have shown me that normal doesn’t exist and for that I’m grateful. Let me explain. It’s easy to adopt a mindset that to attain success one should follow a “normal” course of life. That path usually looks like high-school, college, professional education, then career. These months have completely shattered the notion that I had for a long time of the “normal” sequential climb toward achievement.
Instead of thinking about what application I can send out or studying for a placement examination, I greet my grandparents with a kiss on the cheek and ask them what they want for breakfast. When I see them finish their plate and are satisfied, that feeling is better than an “A” on any test! Trust me, they’re picky.
What I’m saying is that my new lifestyle isn’t going to fit a mold and it was never meant to. The pandemic was a necessary disrupter to my illusion of normalcy. I am comfortable in my quirky path toward success.