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Thanksgiving Spotlight on VSAC Students’ Expressions of Gratitude

Written by
Stephen Mease

November 21, 2022


Student photos from VSAC

The VSAC team wants to say a special “thank you” to all of the students who have participated in our VSAC Student Spotlight profile series over the last year. We truly appreciate your taking the time -- and having the courage -- to share your stories with the world.

And in the spirit of Thanksgiving, we share excerpts from a few of those stories, proving that our gratitude often extends far and wide – to family members, neighbors, public servants, and even situations of adversity – for making us who we are today.

Phoebe Stoddard, Craftsbury

Phoebe was grateful to her co-workers and customers at the Craftsbury Village Store, where she worked during high school, for sharing their variety of life experiences and helping her realize she didn’t have to have her future “all figured out” at 18.

“I heard from people from all different backgrounds, and that made me realize that life doesn’t have to be a straight path.”

She was also grateful to the 802Opportunity Scholarship Program, which covers up to two years of free tuition at CCV for low-income Vermonters impacted by the pandemic.

“That scholarship opened the doors to college. I’m so appreciative, and I’m so glad I did it,” said Phoebe, who is majoring in behavioral science at CCV and aspires to work as a school counselor.

Samantha Hadvab, Benson

This determined student, who grew up as the oldest child of a disabled single parent in a low-income community, was grateful for her grandmother’s constant belief in her, which gave her the confidence she needed to rise above her humble beginnings.

“Grandma always believed in me, no matter what. And she would always tell me how she was accepted to college and wanted nothing more than to go, but her family didn’t have the money to send her. So, her dream was for me to go to college,” Sam said – an aspiration she shared and carried with her every day. “I never had a thought in my mind that I wasn’t going to college.”

Sam graduated from UVM in 2022 with a degree in medical radiation sciences and hopes to pursue a career in cancer treatment.

Jay Natola, West Burke

Jay was a successful musician whose career was on the rise until the pandemic hit. In a strange way, he was grateful to COVID for inspiring his “second act” – photography – which he pursued with the help of VSAC’s Educational Opportunity Center.

“Had COVID not happened, I would still be playing music, doing what I was doing. No doubt in my mind,” said Natola, who was a well-known member of NEK-based bands Subject to Change and The Beardos (and noted that he still hoped to be able to play a few shows a year once gathering restrictions abated). “But I think my life has changed. This photography thing is definitely working. At 50 years old, this is a new act in my life. And I think the second act is always better.”

Brayden Bixby, North Clarendon

Brayden was grateful for experiencing the camaraderie of the fire service at a young age, which gave him a sense of belonging and ignited a passion to help others. He grew up watching his dad, who is a deputy chief with the North Clarendon volunteer fire department and rode along to his first fire call at age 10.

“There’s such good chemistry. How everything unfolds, just blew my mind. It was like watching a perfectly choreographed team,” he said.

Brayden, who logged hundreds of service hours as a teenager with the North Clarendon Volunteer Fire Department and the Rutland City Fire Department, started classes this fall at Lakes Region Community College in Laconia, New Hampshire, which has one of the top-ranked fire science programs in the country. After college, he’s determined to help the next generation.

“The guys in Rutland and North Clarendon helped me progress in life. I’d like to start up a junior program, teach classes to younger kids, and get them fired up as much as I was,” he said.

Devon Kimball, Vergennes, and Calleen Ferris, Randolph/Fairfax

Both Devon and Calleen are the oldest children in large families. While they both had supportive parents, they also had certain expectations set for them – in Devon’s case, getting a job right out of high school, and in Calleen’s case, always putting the family’s dairy farm first.

They were both grateful for their ability to break through those expectations, with the encouragement and support of their VSAC counselors.

Devon became the first in his family to go to college, turning talent and accomplishment on the football field into valuable athletic scholarships and leadership experience. He is now mentoring and advising his younger siblings, also talented athletes, to follow a similar course. He recently graduated from VTSU Castleton and is pursuing graduate study, while working as an assistant in the university’s athletic department.

Calleen was the first in her family to be able to participate in extracurricular activities off the farm. With her parents now more understanding of those pursuits, her younger siblings are active and highly decorated high school athletes and actors, which bodes well for their own college aspirations. As for Calleen, she earned a degree in inclusive childhood education from NVU Johnson in 2022 and started her first teaching job this fall at Sheldon Elementary School. 

Calleen and Devon are appreciative of the support they received and proud to be able to use their own accomplishments to encourage their siblings and their students to expand their own horizons.

When it comes to going to college and realizing their dreams, Calleen said, “Lots of kids are doing it all on their own. And the reason they got there is that they have [mentors like Anne Kaplan, my VSAC counselor], who said, ‘you can do this. You can break this cycle.’ It’s so powerful to have that.”

This story is produced by Vermont Student Assistance Corp., created by the Vermont Legislature in 1965 as a public nonprofit agency, to advocate for Vermont students and their families to ensure that they achieve their education goals. Our vision is to create opportunities for all Vermont students, but particularly for those—of any age—who believe that the doors to higher education are closed to them. We begin by helping families save for education with Vermont’s state-sponsored 529 savings program. To help Vermonters plan and pay for college or career training, our counselors work with students in nearly every Vermont middle school and high school, and again as adults. Our grant and scholarship programs attract national recognition, and our loan programs and loan forgiveness programs are saving Vermont families thousands of dollars in interest. Visit to learn more.