Spring Break on the Road Fulfills Students’ Dreams

A spring break road trip by college students is not unheard of, but when a group of Western Illinois University students piled into a rental car in mid-March it was to fulfill a life-long dream.

Chinese students Xin Tan, Shi Yong Li and Nolan Zuo are pictured with one of the shopkeepers they encountered on Route 66.

Chinese students Xin Tan, Shi Yong Li and Nolan Zuo are pictured with one of the shopkeepers they encountered on Route 66.Route66b

Three international students, spearheaded by the dream of visiting broadcasting scholar Nolan Zuo, of China, drove nearly the entire length on the historic Route 66, which stretches from Chicago, IL, to Santa Monica, CA. Zuo was joined on the trip by Western English as a Second Language (WESL) students Xin Tan and Zhi Yong Li, both also of China.

While Western was on spring break, March 11 ? 15, the three friends drove 3,000 miles of the route in six days, pausing at car museums and information stops along the way. Their section of the trip began in Springfield, IL.

“This was one of my biggest dreams in America,” said Zuo, who is studying in America through May. “I had heard about how important the route was to the area and a lot of people have never given up on this old road – we saw a lot of people trying to protect it. We really enjoyed talking to people along the way who had great stories.”

Route66dLi said he was interested in the trip because of his study of history and about how important Route 66 was to the expansion of the west. Tan said a popular car advertisement in China references Route 66, which piqued his interest in the trip.

During the trip, Tan took charge of navigation, and Li took most of the photographs.

Prior to departing on the trip, the trio spent many hours mapping out their route and the places they hoped to visit each day. During the final stop in Santa Monica, CA, Zuo said the three friends could reflect on everything they’d seen.

“When we got to Santa Monica, we could see the Pacific Ocean, and we just relaxed and enjoyed the view,” he said. “It was so interesting that on the other side of that ocean is our home in China.”

The three friends said they enjoyed a variety of American cuisine along the way but also looked for Chinese food in larger cities.

All three men said they would like to plan a return trip to enjoy Route 66. All three also have numerous other American sites they would like to see before their return to China.

For more information about stops along the route, visit historic66.com.

Alum gets dream job at Grant’s Farm

From the time Katie Vecchi was a small child, she knew she wanted to work with animals. Her childhood wish has come to fruition, thanks, in part, to her studies at WIU.

Katie Vecchi, who earned her post-baccalaureate certificate (PBC) in zoo and aquarium studies in 2012 through WIU's Department of Biological Sciences, is an elephant keeper/trainer at Grant's Farm in St. Louis (MO).

Katie Vecchi, who earned her post-baccalaureate certificate (PBC) in zoo and aquarium studies in 2012 through WIU’s Department of Biological Sciences, is an elephant keeper/trainer at Grant’s Farm in St. Louis (MO). She is posed here with Bud.

Since last year, Katie has worked as an elephant keeper/trainer at Grant’s Farm (based in St. Louis, MO), a position she calls her “dream” job and one she landed, in part, because of the post-graduate work–resulting in her post-baccalaureate certificate (PBC) in zoo and aquarium studies in 2012–she did at Western.

In an email message she sent to Jeanette Thomas, a professor in WIU’s Department of Biological Sciences and the coordinator of the department’s PBC program in zoo and aquarium studies , Katie told her former teacher about how her graduate studies at WIU helped her get her Grant’s Farm gig.

“My boss informed me whenever I was hired that my graduate certificate and especially some of the classes that I took at Western made me one of the top candidates for the position right off the bat. So I truly appreciate all of your guidance and help. I think that you and WIU have really helped me achieve all of my goals,” she wrote to Dr. Thomas.

Since starting at Grant’s Farm last year as a temporary employee, Katie has been hired as a full-time, permanent employee. Recently, she shared with me a bit more about her background, how she learned about the position at Grant’s Farm, and what she does daily these days in her “dream” job.

Q. What interested you in studying animal biology? When did you receive your undergraduate degree?

I grew up in Western Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh. From the time I was a small child I knew I wanted to work with animals, so I decided I wanted to become an animal trainer. I tried to learn as much as I could about the animals that interested me. Through this passion, I was able to get my first few jobs working with animals in Pittsburgh while I was still in high school. I volunteered at the National Aviary and volunteered, interned, and worked at the Pittsburgh Zoo. I then moved to Florida, where I attended Saint Leo University (just north of Tampa Bay). I received a dual bachelor’s of science degree in biology and environmental science, with a minor in psychology, in 2010. During my time in college, I also volunteered at Lowry Park Zoo and a small carnivore sanctuary by my university.

Q. What interested you about WIU’s PBC program in zoo and aquarium studies?

Though most jobs in my field only require an undergraduate degree, going to graduate school was one of my own goals. I wanted to enroll in a program that would help me grow and develop in my profession. I thought WIU’s program was perfect. I believe the classes I took to obtain my certificate will help me throughout my career. For example, the animal training class I took not only has helped me with training at my job at Grant’s Farm, but it also has helped me to obtain the job itself. Also, I like that we were required to take business classes. I know that as I move up in my career, I will have to take on additional responsibilities. These classes, I think, have helped me prepare for this.

Q. How did your job at Grant’s Farm come about?

Grant’s Farm posted a position for an elephant intern on the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ website. The post was for a paid, full-time position, which would last from April through November of 2012. I applied for the position in February [2012], which was followed my two additional interview processes. I was offered the job in March. Throughout my time as the intern in the department, I was able to grow and develop as an elephant trainer. Also, my superiors were impressed with my knowledge and abilities. Toward the end of my internship, I was informed that some changes were being made in my department and a new position would be available. I was then offered the job to stay on as permanent, full-time staff member.

Q. What kinds of tasks make up your day?

The large majority of my day at Grant’s Farm is cleaning and husbandry care for our elephants. We have both barns and outside exhibits to clean each day. We also prepare diets, clean staff and preparation areas, move large amounts of hay and food, and keep very detailed records of our animals. And we perform three shows each day that we are open, as well. I can act as either the speaker of the show or the elephant handler. Additionally, we do training, medical procedures, and enrichment.

Q. How do you think your studies at WIU helped you get the full-time position at Grant’s Farm?

I believe the classes at WIU gave me a huge advantage. The class I believe helped me the most is the animal training class. That course enabled me to come to the position with an extensive knowledge or training and previous training experience. It also allowed me to prove my abilities as a trainer while training new behaviors to our elephants. Additionally, classes such as mammalogy gave me a greater understanding of not only elephants but other animals at Grant’s Farm, which makes me a better asset for the education of our visitors. Finally, the classes that focused on the business and backgrounds of zoos allowed me to have a better understanding of the way these facilities run. I believe that this is not only helpful now in my career, but will also be later on.

Q. Future plans?

I am very happy with my position at Grant’s Farm. My dream job was to work with African elephants, and I have been very lucky in the sense that shortly after completing the WIU program, I was able to obtain my dream job. I would like to continue to grow as an elephant trainer and handler into the future, and I am looking forward to where that will take me. I also participated in the Shedd Aquarium internship while I was completing my WIU certificate. I think being a part of the program helped me to obtain this position, as well.

Making a Difference in Macon

Ariel Edgeworth on WIU's 2013 Alternaive Spring Break Trip

Ariel Edgeworth, one of two graduate student advisors on WIU’s 2013 Alternative Spring Break trip, volunteering with Rebuilding Macon, a volunteer organization in Macon, Georgia, that performs home repair work for those in need.

How about a Spring Break chock full of demolition, gardening, and house painting? No way, you say?

Well, for several Western Illinois University students who are members of Western’s Alternative Spring Break (ASB) group, they wouldn’t spend their time away from school this week any other way.

The nine students in the 2013 ASB group, which is part of Western’s All Volunteer Effort (WAVE), are in Macon, Georgia, volunteering via Rebuilding Macon, a volunteer organization that performs home repair work for those in need.

This year the student group is comprised of two graduate student advisors, Ariel Edgeworth (Moline, IL), a graduate student in college student personnel, and Jodi Santillie, a graduate student in college student personnel, as well as seven more students, including:

WIU 2013 Alternative Spring Break Group

Members of the 2013 WIU Alternative Spring Break group.

Some of the students are talking about their ASB experiences this week on a blog, which is available at alternativespringbreak2013

In January, the ASB group’s trip got a financial boost when they were notified they received a $1,000 grant from Liberty Mutual Insurance Responsible Scholars Program, which awards grant funds to student groups interested in volunteerism and philanthropy. WIU Office of Student Activities Assistant Director Michelle Harvey said the travel for the group is entirely funded by donations, so the grant helped to pay for this year’s trip.

“The students put together an essay application for the grant about how the mission of their trip matches with that of Liberty Mutual, which is ‘Helping people live safe, more secure lives,'” Harvey said. “We receive a little money from student fees, but the students also fundraise as a group, sending letters to family and friends and holding bake sales on campus.”

Learn more about WIU’s Alternative Spring Break at wiu.edu/asb.