Rainbows, kitties and unicorns


Gunter Kleist

Sonja Kivela

Sonja Kivela is a senior on the NVU-Johnson campus. A first-generation college student and a single mother, she boasts an impressive list of extracurriculars as vice president of the Student Government Association (SGA), an active member of SERVE, and an activity coordinator with Student Led Activity Programming (SLAP).

Where are you from and what brought you here to Johnson?
I’m from Vermont, and I grew up here. I was attending CCV when I completed my associate degree. It was during the height of the pandemic when everything was still very much shut down. So this was the only viable option really; it’s local and I could still see my family and everything.

What’s your major and what drew you to it?
I am an interdisciplinary studies major. What drew me to that was my program moving to another campus, and I used the outdoor education, therapeutic wilderness parts of my old program to form my new plan, which is a mind-body-health focus, like psychology, ecology, and the environment. So a lot of bio stuff. And then lastly were the classes that I had already taken with Outdoor Ed.

What’s your philosophy on life?
I need to drink some tea for that. My philosophy on life is…I mean if I had to put it in one word, it would be “service.” I feel like all of us have our own paths, but the only way to really bond with the community and even just grow as a person is service.

So what is or are your favorite things to do?
Can I say work? I love it. Outside of school and work though, I hang out with my kids. We play some video games, we love hiking…we’re not snow people, so hiking in the snow has been different, I wouldn’t say it’s a favorite but I love being outside and hanging with the kids.

What are your least favorite things to do?
Snow. Snow and math, those are just not in my game plan.

What would you like to be doing 10 years from now?
My absolute dream idea would be having a homestead and a piece of that being outdoor education and…a little forest school. When I first started thinking that idea it was very niche and I don’t feel I have the skills to do it quite yet. A green thumb is not part of my body, but I’m getting there. I’m working on that. I had some chickens at one point. That was cool. Homesteading is kind of big now, like that’s the thing to be talking about. There’s so many resources now that weren’t available 10 years ago when I was like “oh, van life and a homestead, that sounds fabulous.” Now there are actually ways that we can learn these skills.

What’s the trait that you most admire in yourself?
The trait I most admire in myself would be that I just love myself completely. I’m often playing devil’s advocate and I feel like having that mediator part of me, it’s probably my most amazing trait. I always try to see the different sides and allow other people to see them as well. Like when you’re not thinking about other people’s reasoning. And it’s really great to see, not only when I am sharing that, but to see a sort of change in other people saying “oh, I hadn’t thought about that yet.” I feel like with a lot of the people I meet and a lot of their different disagreements, I don’t feel like the people are mad at each other, they’re mad at the misunderstanding. So it’s always really great to be a part of that.

What is the trait that you least admire in yourself?
The one I have least admired in myself has been brutal honesty and I’m learning how to hone that. Over the last couple of years, I’ve been learning to speak with more compassion. It does not come easily and with the way that I was brought up I was always just very blunt and thought “this is the way it is.” It’s more about honesty with integrity. So, I’m working on that, but it’s still there sometimes.

What is the best advice that you’ve ever received?
It sounds cheesy, super cheesy and simple. All of us have heard it, but “don’t give up” was probably the best advice I’ve received. But it came from someone who had gone through so many things that for any one of them I would have thrown in the towel. It’s just about the persistence and learning to live from each thing, and that the growth from those things sits in there. When I finally realized what it really meant and let it speak to me, it was the most profound, mind-blowing thing. It’s wonderful.

What is the worst advice you’ve ever received?
So many? Goodness, the worst advice I’ve ever received is “shut up and keep going.” And I feel like that really mirrors the best advice, but it’s more about the grit and just pushing through and my young brain took that in ways that weren’t productive and so I think that wording matters. It’s just that “shut up and keep going” makes it seem like your voice doesn’t matter and it’s like saying, “It’ll end, so just keep going till it’s over,” and that doesn’t give anybody the power that they deserve.

Do you have any guilty pleasures?
Yes. Yes, very much so. My guiltiest pleasure lately has been binging that ridiculous Netflix show “The Circle.” I don’t know what attracts me to that, but I just can’t stop watching and I recently found myself having watched an entire season on a Saturday. It was like I was just sitting in bed eating junk food, watching “The Circle,” and I was like “what is wrong with me right now?”

If you could have dinner with any three people, living or dead, who would they be and why?
Number one would have to be my dad. He passed away when I was young, so I didn’t get a lot of interaction with him. The memories I hold are few because we just didn’t see each other often, and I’d love to meet him as an adult and really sit down with him. Then for the second person I would have to say my old professor from CCV. That was, again, during the height of shutdown and I only got to know him online, so having even a zoom, like even if we ate dinner in our own houses over zoom I think it would be fabulous – shoutout to Collin! And then I feel like I’m supposed to say someone famous or “up there,” but no, these are all very personal to me. My oldest son lives in Maine. He’s 18 and we see each other often but not nearly enough, so I think I need that for my third person.

If there really is a heaven what would that look like for you?
Oh, there is a heaven. I feel like – and here’s where my hippy dippy spirituality is going to come in – heaven is right now. It’s what we make it. And I do believe there is something beyond this physical plane, but I’ve experienced many moments of heaven right here with different people and strangers. I was at a retreat last year and it was the most amazing experience I’ve ever had. Heaven is lush. You know this otherworldly heaven that we will go to, I feel like it is lush; there’s plants, there’s flowers, there’s immense biodiversity – it’s rainbows and kitties and unicorns. No, it’s inclusion. There is no hate and stereotypes and a lot of the things that we see here. So I feel like when people can get into their soul and connect that we can bring heaven to Earth. I feel like it’s a learning process. I believe in reincarnation and that what I didn’t learn last time I’m learning now and that it’s just an ongoing cycle.

If there really is a hell, what would that look like for you
Here? I feel like some of the moments that we’ve had as a society really reflect a kind of hell. I think back to the storming of the capitol as kind of one of the biggest, but there’s been so many school shootings too. I picture hell as just the Groundhog Day of those things. Oh, I don’t like that one. Now I feel icky. Bring me back to the heaven question.

You work with a number of groups on campus including SGA and SLAP. What draws you to those things and what keeps you there?
That goes back to service. I wanted to be more involved. I see and talk to a lot of students. I’m actually very much an introvert and so it gave me the chance to meet new people and have a conversation because it’s about work, but it wasn’t in this gross office-ey setting because I get to do such fun stuff. As for why I stay, for one thing I have a voice, I get to hear student voices and share that. And then, number two, is just like having fun, and with SLAP specifically. Last year I did a resin event. We made resin keychains, and we did that because that’s something I always wanted to do… so we made it an event and it was huge. We had almost a dozen students and we ended up doing it twice that semester. It’s just fun.

So, what’s next for you after graduation?
I plan to continue here with my master’s degree and pursue leadership studies. Before school, I never had a voice. I was consistently told that what I said didn’t matter. And so coming here, I’ve been able to find that voice and between positions and different classes I’ve been able to really stand up for other students, and that is something I’m learning I can do, which is really exciting. So I plan to stay here and get a leadership studies degree.

Is there any advice you’d like to share?
Don’t give up! Follow your heart and intuition. If something doesn’t feel right, even just within the student community or just with anybody, you have the power to say something, and your voice matters. It may not always be heard, and it may not always feel comfortable, but do it anyway.