The Trinity Reporter Winter 2005
Making time to serve others

By Jim H. Smith
Photograph by Nick Lacy

  Maria Taverna

It was Henry Thoreau who famously asserted that, "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." That observation had such a ring of cold authenticity that it is still routinely appropriated, more than 150 years after it was written. 

But Thoreau might have also observed that the converse of that gray fate is not always a rarefied clique with the highest profiles. Some people—like the remarkable man who retreated to the solitude of a modest cabin near Walden Pond—change the world irrevocably by devoting themselves to its improvement a day at a time. In defiance of the ugliness and hopelessness that often color the evening news, they live lives of quiet distinction, solid achievement, and service to others.

And you can find them almost anywhere.

Take Watertown, Massachusetts, for instance. Six miles northwest of Boston, and just a few miles east of the place where Thoreau composed his great book, it's an unpretentious kind of town. But its residents have been quietly transforming the world for several centuries, just as one of them, Maria Taverna, has been quietly working to transform the lives of her fellow students and the young people she mentors on the Trinity campus.

Manufacturing took root there early, and local factories produced a wide array of goods. One company was the first in the nation to produce cotton sails for ships, including the USS Constitution. Another, founded by Freeland and Francis Stanley, made dry plates for cameras and launched the Stanley "Steamer" automobile in 1897.

But mostly Watertown is populated by solid citizens who care about the place where they live. As its Web site says, "Watertown is rich in ethnic diversity and culture(and) boasts a high level of citizen involvement." It's the kind of town where folks enjoy first-rate athletic facilities and parks, but nobody takes it for granted. Parents reinforce middleclass values, and most kids have an after-school job.

A student leader who walks the talk
"The class of 2001 was a very close group," says Watertown High School mathematics teacher Karen Trendholm. "There were many strong students in that group. Maria Taverna was a standout among them." Friendly and popular, Taverna was a National Honor Society scholar, active in the school's community service club, and very devoted to Watertown's senior citizens. But, says Trendholm, what really distinguished her was the commitment and reliability she brought to those activities.

Taverna was the kind of student leader who walks the talk. "She would have been an asset to any school," says Trendholm. "Whatever needed to be done, she was always the one who took on the responsibility. If there was extra work to be done, you could count on her to pitch in. She was a very bright student, but down-to-earth and levelheaded; a hard worker. There were many strong students in her class, but she stood out."

No one was surprised, says Trendholm, when Maria ended up enrolling at Trinity. The daughter of an engineer, she always excelled at mathematics, defying a trend that only a few years ago accounted for a large gulf between the respective performances of girls and boys in math and science. But that gap has closed significantly in the last few years. At Trinity, about half of the students in the math classes Maria now attends are women.

In Taverna's case, it was not simply excellence in math that brought her to Trinity. Though the College enjoys a good reputation among math students, she says she was interested in the broader scope of liberal arts. Like many students, she was unsure what sort of career she wanted to pursue when she arrived in Hartford.

One of the reasons she came to Trinity, Taverna says, was because she was looking for opportunities to participate in activities that would help her grow and explore career avenues. Over the last three years, she has wisely taken advantage of Trinity's extensive array of career planning services. For a while, she considered a teaching career. These days, she says she's leaning toward finance.

Whatever she does, teaching will almost certainly be a part of it. The young woman who distinguished herself in high school for her service to others seems congenitally incapable of not serving.

Service is one of her strongest assets
Last year, she was a counselor for Dream Camp, the summer camp and a year-round after-school mentoring program founded at Trinity in 1998 for disadvantaged youngsters from the Hartford area. In order to be considered an eligible candidate for Dream Camp, students must be nominated based on merit, character, and or personal accomplishment.

They could not have asked for a better role model, says Keri Salisbury, a leader with the Dream Camp program.

"Maria was a hard worker," says Salisbury, "but she was also one of the kindest people I've ever met at Dream Camp. We provide after-school activities for young people. The student counselors help them with their homework. Maria always added to that experience. She took a lot of time to get to know the youngsters personally and to treat them as individuals. I was always impressed with her compassion."

It was also experience that would payoff this year when mathematics professor Philip Brown was looking for a student mentor for the first-year seminar on weather that he has taught for several years. When Brown asked his former student mentor, Sarah Woog, if she knew any students who would be good candidates for the slot, Woog didn't hesitate to recommend Taverna.

The weather seminar exposes first-year students to a wide ranging overview of meteorology. They learn about the basic mechanisms of weather and climate, learn about great storms and catastrophes, and explore how weather has affected the history of the United States, including the World War II invasion of Normandy. "I didn't need a student who was specifically knowledgeable about the weather," says Brown, "but I did need a student who could handle the responsibility. In that respect, Maria came to me with very strong credentials. It's not always fun being a mentor. It involves a lot of work. The mentor has to be available to the first-year students regularly. The job really calls for an exceptional student who can help new students address many challenges."

The responsibility goes beyond the one-semester weather class, which meets twice weekly. As a first-year mentor, Taverna lives in Jarvis, a first-year residence hall, whose residents include the students from the weather seminar. Though all of the first-year seminars end in December, the mentors continue to reside in the halls through the spring semester and are expected to help the residents with problems that can range from academic to social.

"My mentor, when I was a first-year student, was Danielle Marquis," recalls Taverna. "She was enormously helpful to me and to other students I knew. When I had an opportunity to take on that responsibility, I jumped at it."

"It doesn't surprise me in the least that Maria has been involved in those activities," says Trendholm. "Service is one of her strongest assets. She'll be an asset to any company or organization she works for."


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