The first time she walked through the doors of CCV-Winooski, Sara Mecca felt uncertain. “I’d never gone to college before. I didn’t take my SATs. I was a little bit nervous about the Accuplacer [assessment].” At the same time, she was determined. “I felt like I just had jobs my whole life and I never had a career.” She’d worked in kitchens, tended bar, been a landscaper, worked construction. “…all these different things that just never seemed to lead anywhere…and they don’t pay well.” She was thinking to herself, “I’d just like to be doing something that I enjoy, and feel like I’m contributing.”
And so at 35 she started working on a degree in multimedia communications. She dreamed of becoming an investigative reporter; in her native Hawaii, she’d freelanced for the local paper and hosted a radio show.
Then in her early days at CCV, her sister gave Mecca a book that would eventually change her whole plan. Paul Stamets’s Mycelium Running sparked a fascination with mushrooms. She began to see the enormous potential of these often overlooked members of the fungal kingdom. She was hooked. She started teaching herself mushroom identification and foraging techniques. “I changed my major to science and basically changed my entire goal; I want to be a mycologist.”
While Mecca was busy narrowing in on her field of study, two other programs were helping her gain momentum. Her stepdaughter (who happens to also be studying at CCV) told her about the TRIO program. Mecca knew she stood to benefit from the specialized support the federal program offers: intensive advising and assistance with financial aid; leadership development and private tutoring opportunities; and access to grants and scholarships. She says her TRIO advisor, Jen Garrett-Ostermiller, has supported her through the financial aid process and steered her through more than one hiccup.
Mecca has also taken advantage of internship opportunities. As a student in a Professional Field Experience class, she signed up for a spring volunteer position at the Intervale Conservation Nursery in Burlington, whose mission is to restore and protect Vermont’s riparian areas; Mecca spent her days working in the nursery, harvesting and planting seeds, and preparing trees and shrubs for summer planting.
That internship was immediately followed by a highly competitive opportunity with EPSCoR (Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research). Mecca was one of just 36 students from across the U.S. and Puerto Rico to spend the summer working with Vermont’s Basin Resilience to Extreme Events (BREE) project, which is using a $20 million grant from the National Science Foundation to conduct research on the effects of climate change on the Lake Champlain Basin.
about the resources that are helping Sara Mecca get closer to her dream of becoming a mycologist.
The CCV TRIO Student Support Services Program is a federally funded program designed to help eligible students reach their academic potential and meet their educational and career goals.
Check out the Vermont EPSCoR website to learn about current opportunities and how to apply!
Professional Field Experience
While not as intensive as an internship but more enriching than a volunteer experience, PFE is built into most degree and certificate programs at CCV. It’s a combination of in-class academic work and hands-on study, working with your instructor and with a business or organization in your field.
STEM Studies at CCV
Further your education or career in science, technology, engineering, and math.
Mecca had applied for the internship once before and been turned down—but she is nothing if not resilient herself. “I applied before this because it sounded so interesting…the fact that it was field work, and that it was paid field work, and research—like teaching the best methods in how to research—which I’d been learning in other classes but not to this extent. It’s real science, you know, which is so exciting.” She says she thought of the internship as “a long shot” that first time she applied, but Garrett-Ostermiller and others encouraged her to try again. She also credits faculty member Teage O’Connor, who was her instructor for biology, botany, and natural history of Vermont classes. “He definitely encouraged me to apply again, and he was one of those teachers instrumental in helping me see that I have a science brain and that I’m on the right path and I can do this.”
Indeed, as Mecca describes her EPSCoR internship, it’s hard to imagine her being intimidated by much of anything. She’s flipping through an overstuffed binder as she talks, hunting for the graphs and charts she’s built by hand throughout the summer weeks, which detail numbers that describe the relationship between dissolved organic carbon and ionic strength in her soil samples. She talks in run-on sentences about her hypothesis and her research methods and the joy of spending every day with her hands in the dirt. Mecca says she’s come away from her spring and summer positions with a clear message: “I’m on the right path and I need to stick with science.”
Yet at the start, that most recent internship brought up a familiar misgiving. “I was the only one my age. It made me a little self-conscious at first…I felt a little bit kind of isolated at first, especially in the big group,” she recalled. “But everybody was super friendly, and part of the EPSCoR [program] is trying to get a diverse group of people into science, and age is part of that diversity.”
Mecca will complete her last semester at CCV this fall, and then transfer to the University of Vermont’s Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources. “I want to get my bachelor of science in natural resources, and take anything I can related to mushrooms.” After that, she has her sights set on graduate school, “and then hopefully [I’ll] get to be a field mycologist and write about that too…there’s so many interesting new things being discovered in the fungal kingdom, medicinally and nutritionally and when it comes to mycoremediation and how you can use mushrooms to literally suck toxins out of the dirt.”
She notes that at UVM, she’ll once again be surrounded by younger students, but that seems unlikely to stand in her way. “Better late than never,” she says. “I think I have also advantages at this age: I’m more serious about what I want. I think that EPSCoR definitely makes me feel more prepared to go to UVM, not just because of the demographics, but because of everything I learned.”
Mecca has an important take-home message for her peers: Of the resources she’s tapped into and the experiences she’s had as a result, “I would say apply, apply, apply!” She wants to make sure other students know how much they can gain. “It’s such an amazing opportunity,” she said of EPSCoR. “I couldn’t believe I was there half of the time; you know, National Science Foundation leaders in the room, and getting to see everybody present their research…just to know exactly what’s going on in this state, what they’re doing here to mitigate the effects of climate change.”
Sara Mecca wanted to go to college because she knew it would be the first step toward a career, and, ultimately, toward a life that gave her a greater sense of purpose. “And I wanted my kids to see that,” she said, adding that she couldn’t have done any of this without the support of her family. “No matter what stage you’re at, if you need to make a change for yourself, make it. Don’t expect it to be easy, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be worthwhile, which it definitely has been so worthwhile. All these doors have opened…CCV was the first door that opened all of these other doors.”