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GEAR UP student Rhiana Carr heads toward toward a career in neurosurgery

Written by
Emily Stetson

January 26, 2023


Rhiana Carr

When college-bound Rhiana Carr was starting her final year at Fair Haven Union High School and thinking about next steps, the top-ranked college just 18 miles down the road from her home in Orwell wasn’t initially on her application list. 

Even though Middlebury College was very familiar to her—given that she worked there between 20 and 40 hours a week during her high school years—the part she knew wasn’t on the official campus tour. As a prep cook in the dining hall kitchen, her Middlebury experience had been mostly “back of house.”

“I had only seen one building and one office, and my impression of the place was just that the students weren’t always the nicest when they were hungry,” Rhiana recalls with a laugh. “But the summer before my senior year, I randomly decided to take the Middlebury tour. After that, I said, wow; this campus is really pretty, and exactly what I want.” 

Once Rhiana applied and was accepted—and found herself on the other side of the pizza counter—she started to feel a bit daunted by the idea of a broad, liberal-arts education, with so many other smart people (the older students who had intimidated her at times during her high-school years) now sitting beside her in class. 

An activity during freshman orientation week helped her see things differently. 

“Everyone was asked to write their biggest fear on a piece of paper, fold it up, and toss it into the center of the circle,” she recalls. “Then, one by one, we each picked a random piece of paper and read it aloud. Most of those fears were ‘I’m not smart enough to be here.’ That made me realize that everyone felt the same way.”

Rhiana graduated from Middlebury in 2022 with a degree in neuroscience. She’s now working as a Clinical Research Coordinator in the J. Philip Kistler Stroke Research Center at Mass General Hospital in Boston, with an eye toward medical school. 

She credits her time at Middlebury for helping her grow from a shy former pizza-server into a confident people-person and future healthcare provider.  

“I realize that I’m able to connect with all kinds of people because I have so many random pieces of knowledge in the specific things I took classes about,” she says. And college introduced her to people from all walks of life and many different cultural backgrounds, providing a range of diversity that hadn’t been possible within her rural Vermont upbringing. 

Even before she started at Middlebury, Rhiana realized that she needed a college that would offer her new perspectives, and she credits VSAC’s GEAR UP program for helping her discover that. GEAR UP is a federally funded program that offers college and career counseling to modest-income students to help them go on to college. In GEAR UP, she worked with VSAC Outreach Counselor Tia Stillman, who had been a mentor and friend to Rhiana and her older sister since their days at Orwell Village School, where Stillman was the school counselor before going to work at VSAC.

“I’ve known Rhiana since she was in elementary school, and she always struck me as confident, strong-willed and determined,” Stillman says. “I have no doubt that she will accomplish her career goals and continue to be successful. I’m so proud of her.”

Rhiana recalls that the college visits, organized and sponsored by VSAC, were particularly helpful. 

“College visits were a very cool way to find out what’s out there, along with other people my age,” Rhiana recalls. “Even though I didn’t end up applying to any of the schools we visited, those tours gave me an idea of what I was looking for and not looking for.” 

“I remember we visited a small environmental-science college that was sort of in the middle of the woods. And I thought, ‘You know, I think I need to be around more people. I don’t want the same thing I’ve already experienced in life to this point.’ That’s not something I would have been able to do without VSAC.”

Rhiana is now settling into life in the big city of Boston—yet another level up from tiny Orwell and from the college town of Middlebury. “At first it was overwhelming. It’s so unlike Vermont,” she says. “It’s been an eye-opening experience, but there’s so much opportunity here and so much room for growth.” 

Her work at Mass General is a critical part of ongoing research in stroke treatment. “We gather data on how different medications affect the likelihood of a patient having future strokes, and what are the best medications to give to specific populations,” Rhiana explains. She loves the work, and looks forward to gaining more experience there for the next few years before going on to medical school.   

Her goal, Rhiana says, is to become a neurosurgeon—something she’s had in mind since she was little. 

“My grandma was a nurse, and I used to love playing ‘hospital’ with my grandpa. Taking care of others is something I’ve always enjoyed. And growing up with my stepdad, who has a rare neurodegenerative disease and is now in a wheelchair, funneled my interest into neuroscience.”

On the lighter side, Rhiana has also found a way to nurture her love of people, by working part-time at a neighborhood brewery. “I get to meet people from all over, and I love it. I can talk to people about practically anything. That’s one of the reasons I’m in healthcare,” she says.