On the cusp of change

Sawyer Alberi is a professor of behavioral science at JSC and teaches a variety of sociology and alternative medicine classes, as well as the wilderness first responders course and first aid. A retired war veteran, Alberi was involved with the selection of the Common Book for this semester, “Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging,” by Sabastian Junger. Basement Medicine sat down with Alberi to discuss her experiences in the military as an air medic, her travels around the globe, an upcoming first aid course she is teaching and her belief in the importance of individuals serving their communities.



Tell me briefly about yourself.
I am a California girl who fell in love with New England. I fell in love with this history and the culture, and since I came out this way for college I kind of never went back out west. My family still actually asks me when I’m coming home. It’s been a long time. They still haven’t quite figured out that this in my home now. So that’s how I got here, I guess you could say. I am fortunate enough to have had a lot of opportunities, and I try to make sure I take advantage of every one that I can. I am a patriot as well as a Patriots fan, I am a feminist, and I truly believe in service — service to our community and service to our country.



How did you end up at JSC and have you taught anywhere else before?
I used to work for the American Heart Association and I taught medicine. When I first moved to Vermont, I took a ride to see the area, and I’ve always been drawn to colleges because I feel like there’s always a great population of people and it also encourages a youth and culture, and an awareness of the world around us. I came here and I drove around and I was like, “Wow, this is really a cool place, I would love to work here.” So I stopped in at the dean’s office and I asked what goes on here and they asked if I could teach first aid and I said yes. I think this was a couple of days before the start of semester back in 2001. We did have to delay the start of the semester, however, because that was when 9/11 happened. I was working as part of the Disaster Management Assistance Team — DMAT — and the medical assistance team. So I got sent out to ground zero at this point. I called up Johnson and was like, “So I know you just hired me, but uhhhh, I gotta go.” So I came back a couple weeks later and started teaching first aid.



What is your favorite class to teach at JSC?
My degree is in transformative leadership education and my focus is on media and gender. So certainly my media class I teach is one of my favorites, because I think that it is important as media really influences our lives in a really prolific and consistent way. The other class I really like to teach is Intro to Sociology. You get freshman in that class who are just starting to understand themselves and the world around them and to really be part of the process where people discover who they want to be in life, it is such a privilege. You don’t get that in any other way and that is just really extraordinary to me. Any of the medical classes are also a good time because teaching people skills that they can use to make good decisions, and have preventative medicine, and save a life somewhere . . . you can’t beat it.



Where have some of your travels taken you?
My favorite place on the planet is Antarctica. I spent some time there around 1993 and I loved it there because I’m a cold weather person, for sure. Finland I love as well. Anywhere around the arctic and Antarctic circle, the circumpolar areas are just great places to go. Places that are hot and humid are difficult for me to enjoy because I just don’t like the weather. However, whenever I travel I really put a lot of effort into appreciating a place for what it can offer. For example, when I was in Belize, I was miserable every single day, but I went to the Mayan ruins, really enjoyed the savannah, tried to get into the monsoon season, and really tried to embrace the “suck,” as we might say in the military. Those places are just really cool. When you get the opportunity to travel you really have to appreciate everything for what it is. Even in China the pollution was horrible, but the Great Wall was just extraordinary.



How do your travels enhance your teaching?
One of the things, when I was in college, I realized it’s easy to get the sense that your voice may not matter. One of the things that I try to bring back into the classroom is the fact that everyone’s voice really does matter. Just because you go to a small town college in a state that’s really small doesn’t mean that you can’t have an impact around the world and that your voice cannot be heard.



What’s the most interesting experience you’ve had during travels?
Once I traveled with one other instructor and we worked in Finland and it was hysterical because, on our one day off, I took this train up to Rovaneimi to see reindeer and Santa. On this train, I talked to this woman all night long and I interacted with a bunch of other people. I must have spoken to a hundred different people in a 24-hour period, and I was on a train for 20 hours of that 24-hour period. When I got back, my fellow instructor was like, “How was your day off?” and I was like, “It was awesome! I talked to all these people and I had all these great adventures.” And he’s like, “I said four words: I want pizza, please.” And that’s it. And to me it’s extraordinary because you had a whole day here and you had pizza. Part of the travel process is just being able to embrace everything you see and being open to those opportunities.



What is the most valuable lesson you learned during your time in the military?
What happens is that, especially during war, you don’t just go to war and come back and everything is the same. You’re changed as a human being and that’s part of the process. So the question when you come back is what do you do with that change. That’s one of the things that I’ve really worked hard for and one reason I really believe in the common book this semester, “Tribe.” To me, the veteran population in the state of Vermont needs to be welcomed back because of what they have to offer the community. What I was able to do was take something I’m very passionate about, wartime medicine, and create a course curriculum for conflict medicine for free-lance reporters who go out there in the field. Normally they have no training and no equipment and go out into these conflict zones and hope they don’t die. And that, to me, is just criminal because, as a media junky, having the news brought to me by people who are putting their lives at risk is just tough to swallow. So what I really wanted to work with is to train these journalists how to manage themselves in conflict, because I truly believe that everyone in conflict has the right to know how to save themselves and the other people around them. Regardless of what side you’re on, you should have the right to know how to do that. And when people don’t, that’s stressful to me, so I’ve managed to take some of what I’ve learned from the military and gleaned some good information out of it and brought it back to my community. That’s what “Tribe” is about. It’s about saying, “I learned something in a horrible situation while I was working overseas for you, and I want to bring that back to the community to make a difference for people that matter.” And I think that veterans do that every single day, we just don’t always see it. And if we can appreciate veterans for that process, we’ll find that they bring back a whole lot more than we ever thought they would.



What do you think is the most pressing social issue right now?
I feel like we are on the cusp of some social change. What worries me is that there is usually violence attached to that somehow, and there is also pain and suffering for people who don’t deserve it. But I feel like we’re on the cusp of some significant social changes and I think that that is good. There are so many veterans right now and I’d love to see a better integration of folks coming back from the war. Especially in small communities like Vermont. When we came back from war in 2010, it was one of the biggest layoffs this state has seen in a long time, which has caused some significant problems. And if we, as a community, can manage that a little bit better, I think that we are gonna move forward. We are not gonna stop being at war, and sometimes I think people see veterans as a campaign issue. This is a Vietnam veteran, this is an Iraqi veteran. I think going forward that it’s just going to be defined as a veteran of war. This is something that we’re gonna have to dynamically incorporate into our communities at a regular basis. Being a citizen soldier was awesome because I could do so many things. I could teach, I could be a citizen and, when needed, I could still serve. It’s a very noble profession to go into the military, and it’s kind of scary right now, but for people to say they want to serve their country is a really great thing. How do we reward that, and how do we validate that, and how are we gonna make them contributing members of our society?



In what ways are you involved in veteran reintegration?
The common core this year, “Tribe,” is about veterans and coming home. I worked to try to convince Johnson to choose it as the common core this year. We will be offering a two-day conflict and remote first aid course right after the author of “Tribe,” Sabastian Junger, speaks on Nov. 10. It takes place on the 11th and 12th of November and all proceeds will go towards his non-profit organization, RISC, a medical program for journalists in combat. Anyone can take the first aid course I’m teaching, but the people who should really take this course are journalists. We’re gonna talk about medicine, we’re gonna talk about travel medicine and we’re gonna talk about how to keep yourself safe should things go bang and boom. Anyone who is interested in any kind of journalism should get an introduction to this, because what we know now is that you don’t have to go to some foreign place to be involved in conflict. With any of the riots that have been out there, we can see how dangerous it is to be a person covering events in general. Some of the people we taught the first course to were at the Boston Marathon during the bombing and were able to help people there.



What do you want your students to take away from your classes?
I want students to understand they are part of this world, that they need to be actively engaged in some part of their community level and that they need to critically think. I think those are important things that millennials need to take from any of the classes that I teach. I think, if that happens, we’ll end up with a generation of folks who will really make the social changes I was talking about.