Co-op Legacy Fellow Savannah-Nicole Villalba

Savannah-Nicole Villalba '18 - Sociology, Urban and Community Studies
Summer 2017 Co-op Legacy Fellow

Waterbury, CT Food Security Inventory

Dear Applicant,

As the deadline nears and you go over your proposal for the hundredth time, take a moment and read this letter for you. I know that at this point, you’ve shared edited versions with your mentors, professors, friends and family so many times the words are starting to blur together. You know you are ready: you have your project goals, you are well versed on the background material, and you are itching to get out in the field to answer the questions that set your soul on fire. I know exactly how you feel. I was in your place last October, gearing up for the largest project I’ve taken on as of date.

Click here to read Savannah-Nicole’s story

My name is Savannah-Nicole Villalba and I am a fourth year student studying Sociology and Urban and Community Studies. When I submitted my project proposal for the IDEA Grant/Co-Op Legacy Fellows Programs, I thought I had it all figured out. I would spend my Summer collecting data from every licensed food retailer in Waterbury, CT. Once I had my data, I would create some maps, make demographic connections, write a paper, disseminate my information to the community, and have this all neatly done in one short Summer. Simple enough, right?

It is so easy in college to look at the big picture. We get so involved with our major fields of study. It is common to spend all day reading academic sources and books forgetting all of the hard work that went into that 15 page PDF you skimmed before your class reading quiz. While my intentions were (and still are!) pure, I have learned over the last year that it’s not as simple and linear as my romanticized idea of research made it seem. I knew my goal was to create a strong public health rooted research proposal that would allow me to aid the City of Waterbury in securing more funding to combat food insecurity in their city. I knew that with my data I wanted to create informative and approachable one pagers for the Board of Education to send home in backpacks. I knew that I would host a town hall to explain my data in a down to earth way that could show the struggling father of four or the grandmother who was taking care of her grandchildren that the issues they were facing regarding food were larger than just their situation. I wanted people to know that there is a reason for Sociology: there is a larger, social pattern to our food environments that are always noticed but very often never spoken about. With my plan, I eagerly sent in my application and spent all Winter break refreshing my email waiting for news.

When that email came early January, I remember calling my parents on the phone before opening the response. I couldn’t even open the application beforehand, because I knew I’d peek at the first line, scanning for the “Congratulations” or “I regret to inform you of...”. When I found out that I was accepted, I was ecstatic! I made the first appointment possible with the Office of Undergraduate Research and was ready to begin the process. It was in that first meeting that I had my first taste of research: I would receive the panel's recommendations for my project moving forward.

Little did I know then that the list of 6 professors and variety of academic journals, resources, and theories to check out would lead me on the best professional networking journey of my life. I spoke to heads of nonprofits, professors from a variety of disciplines throughout the University, government officials, and community members who kept me grounded in my purpose. I would learn how to say “no” to people who I respected, admired, and honored. I would learn when to accept someone else’s idea was stronger than my own, and how to incorporate a variety of ideas into my plan to create a multi-dimensional, cross-disciplinary project. I realized that those wonderful goals I had were too big for one Summer, and found ways to edit my research proposal that was manageable while still making an influential impact on the community. Instead of visiting all food retailers, I would go to corner and grocery stores. Instead of creating maps on large printed sources and coloring in each store on my own, I would learn how to work Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to create online resources. My recommendations helped me save time, strengthen my argument, and refine my goals. This would take me right up until the end of the semester.

When grades were in and I was finally free to begin, I felt ready, excited, and prepared with tons of connections to help me if I got stuck along the way. Little did I know that these sources would become my support and lifeline in times of success or conflict. It is always interesting to begin research in the area you want to study. For me, grocery stores were mundane institutions I had interacted with my whole life. I have spent each Winter and Summer break working at a local grocery store in my town and am extremely comfortable spending prolonged periods of time inside. This feeling of familiarity would completely disappear the first time I went into a store as a researcher. I felt like I had never stepped into a grocery store before, and was more uncomfortable with each passing minute. I was certain that I would get kicked out, first for collecting data in a public space (which is totally legal don’t let anyone tell you otherwise), and secondly for impostering a researcher. I can still remember the way it felt when I left the store with my data, surprised no one had stopped me along the way. I had felt as if I had just committed the largest academic heist of all time. 

As the Summer went on and I went to more stores, I began to see changes in myself as an individual and as a researcher. I was nervous and unsure at the beginning of the Summer walking into corner stores and explaining my intentions to a stranger. By the end, I found myself not needing to pause before opening the door to give myself a pep talk anymore. I will never forget the hundreds of mini-crises I had trying to problem solve issues I never expected to encounter. I was forced to be inventive in ways I never had to be before, and then confident in the decision I chose to move forward with. (I also have all of the “EMERGENCY” emails saved in my drafts for Melissa Berkey and Dr. Caroline McGuire that I told myself to calm down before sending. My advice? Wait half an hour, talk a walk, and see if you can come up with a solution first before sending. It almost always works.) I also found myself more confident in explaining my research to professionals in the field, to owners of stores, to friends, family, and the random person in the grocery store who thought I worked there because I walked around with a clipboard everywhere I went. When I was turned away for the first time, I remember wanting to call my mentor crying. After speaking to her I learned another valuable lesson: rejection and setbacks are just part of being a researcher (and life in general!). Sometimes you win, and sometimes you can’t speak Spanish to convey your intentions well enough so you get kicked out. No matter how much you prepare yourself, there will be roadblocks you can’t (or anyone else for that matter) can foresee. That is part of the research process: going with the flow, and understanding that no matter what you study- humans, amoebas, animals, or a chemical synthesis pattern- sometimes, things just go wrong and you have to brush yourself off and try again.

Within myself, I realized that I was not just a student doing a research project anymore. I was becoming a student researcher in and of her own right. This was no longer just a side passion I spent hours watching documentaries about. Through the IDEA Grant/Co-Op Legacy Fellows Programs process, this had become my question, my proposal, and my project. All that it took me to reach this point was to have the best project mentor around, Dr. Andrea Voyer. Without her, I would have never been able to do this on my own. Dr. Voyer took a chance and invested her time, energy and support in me. From early on and even still today while she is away for the semester, she is always there for me when I need her. Instead of just giving me answers, Dr. Voyer poses questions and encourages me to think outside of the box. My project mentor has shaped this project and myself into something and someone who will change a community someday. Dr. Voyer embodies all I aspire to become. She is well poised, extremely well-educated in her area of study, easy to talk to, and an incredible academic and woman role model in my life. This project allowed me to work closely with someone I admire so much. Through this process I made friends, learned about incredible resources on campus (Michael Howser from the MAGIC department I’m talking about you- thank you for spending countless hours with me in front of computer screens this Summer.), and had Ms. Berkey and Dr. McGuire cheering me on every step of the way.

Without support systems a project of this magnitude can seem impossible to complete. There were days where I found it hard to get out of bed because I was discouraged from stores deciding not to participate in my study. I had incredible high moments I will never forget and speak about so fondly throughout this letter. I want to let you know there will be low ones as well that will stick in your mind forever. It is how you persevere in these moments that will truly shape your project. Personally, I found my support systems the most invaluable way to encourage me. It was on these days that my mother would cook my favorite breakfast meal to entice me to leave my room. I also had a close confidant that was there for me throughout this whole process. When I was feeling down, I knew that I always had a friend to FaceTime to cry, yell, or sit in silence with. Although he did not understand what I was going through, he was there with a smile and a listening ear. I found those conversations the most useful in times of discouragement. If you take one piece of advice out of this letter, take this one. Having a co-pilot in any capacity will be your saving grace. My father (and best friend) is and was my rock throughout the whole process. He changed his work schedule around for the whole Summer so he could co-pilot this research project with me. While I went into every store by myself, I knew my father was sitting in the car ready to help me clean off my survey sheets and drive us to the next location. He was the first person to hear when I was denied access and would keep my spirits high so we could finish our targeted stores for the day. Without him, this project would have been impossible to complete by myself. Thank you, Larry G. Villalba for encouraging me to chase my dreams as well as help me reach them.

I want you to know that these were the moments I was not talking about on social media or to others when they asked how the project was going. Know this: you don’t have to tell others about them if you don’t want to. This process will be entirely your own and you have to find what works for you to cope with the adversity you will face. My family and friends are the most important people in my life. I found leaning on them to be the best way to have the space to explore what kind of researcher I hope to be in the future. Without them, I would not be half the student or person I am today.

Even though I am nowhere close to done with my project (you will learn that, as Ms. Berkey says, your timeline is not concrete) I have come further than I ever would have imagined when I started this grant proposal project. I have been impacted by every person and interaction I had because of this project. Waterbury has become more than just a place on a map or a 10 minute drive from my house, it has become my heart and soul. Every day when I learn something new, I think about how I can implement the new theory, framework, or research method into my project. As I apply to graduate school, I have picked programs that will allow me to focus on the city that stole my heart. Waterbury has so much to offer: a rich history, beautiful, interesting, and passionate citizens, a wonderful location, and so much untapped potential a social scientist like me hopes to bring out. As I sit here and code my data and begin selecting journals I hope to publish to, I daydream about the day I can stand in front of a crowd and have a conversation with the residents of Waterbury. When the day comes, I know that the OUR has prepared me for the experience and I will have tons of supporters, advisors, mentors, friends, family, and community members who have helped me along the way to invite.

So as you read through my story, I challenge you to imagine your own. Know that there will be setbacks, and challenges that do not have answers in a book. Understand that when you succeed, there is a small army of past recipients, mentors, and professors who are cheering you on. Once you receive that “congratulations” email, you join a community of peers who are trying to look, think, research, and be bigger than themselves. You have come this far, and we can’t wait to welcome, collaborate, and watch you travel on this same journey so soon.

All My Best,

Savannah-Nicole Villalba

Class of 2018: Sociology and Urban and Community Studies