Non-traditional school, non-traditional alumni

SNC alumni stray from the typical post-grad career path to pursue dreams of entrepreneurship and travel

Each May, crisp white lawn chairs dot the fresh green grass on Patterson Lawn on the Sierra Nevada College campus. Eager students don their caps and gowns as they excitedly prepare for this long-awaited moment.

Relatives and friends mingle on the lawn, teeming with pride and anticipation for those who will walk the stage and receive their diplomas. Parents will cry and students will cheer with excitement as they celebrate officially graduating from SNC.

After the celebration ends and the initial post-graduation shock wears off, now what?

Following graduation, alumni are faced with a vast array of opportunities and choices regarding their future.

Some may choose to further their institutional education by attending graduate school.

According to Annamarie Jones, director of Assessment and Institutional Research, 34 percent of SNC graduates have gone to graduate school following their education at SNC.

The other 66 percent will harness their newfound freedom and begin what many commonly refer to as “real life.” Some will land entry-level jobs, some will pursue internships, and some will opt for a non-traditional route, taking risks and building dreams through modes such as travel and entrepreneurship.

“Most students come out of here inspired to do something very different from the traditional cubicle job,” said Assistant Professor Ann Marie Brown.

Brown believes that this trend is partially due to the type of students SNC attracts, and partially due to the values the college embraces and how classes are taught.

“I would say that there’s no question that the way this college mission statement works, the way professors teach, we embrace innovation,” she said. “It’s also the type of students we attract – they’re more creative, they’re not conservative in terms of looking at how they’re shaping their careers.”

Brown said the combination of students coming in as non-traditional thinkers, paired with professors who teach in innovative, entrepreneurial ways, fosters the commonality for alumni to pursue exciting paths of their own after graduation.

Tea Palic, a 2015 SNC graduate, found a unique opportunity to be part of a start-up in Reno, Nevada.

Palic works as the operations coordinator for NuDown, a company specializing in ski jackets that feature a breakthrough personal insulation technology that allows for adjustable temperature-control through inflatable insulation.

Palic poses in a NuDown ski jacket
Photo courtesy of Facebook
Palic poses in a NuDown ski jacket

“I basically do everything from marketing and social media to R&D (Research and Development), operations and production,” she said.

The NuDown team consists of the company’s CEO, Bob Hall, Palic, and one sales manager. They also rely on other business partners from their marketing and PR company, said Palic.

“The idea came from group of guys from Utah that are a part of company Klymit. Our investor fell in love with the idea and bought it,” she said.

Palic said she loves the process.

As a non-American citizen, she needed a company to sponsor her work visa if she were to remain in the States.

“I cannot even describe my happiness when I found a company that I am so passionate about that is sponsoring my visa,” she said.

As a previous member of the Croatian National Ski Team and 2010 Olympic Skier, Palic said her experience in the ski industry and connections helped her land the job.

“Even though I just graduated and only have accounting experience, I am already contributing with my experiences and connections in Europe,” she said.

Palic’s future plans are to stay and grow with NuDown.

“There are so many parts of it that there isn’t even one day where I’m bored. Every day, I learn something new. The most fun part about it is using my knowledge that I have gained at SNC and implementing it into our business,” she said.

Palic put her skills in business toward something new and exciting, and she certainly isn’t the only one. Nick Cahill, a 2013 graduate, chose to follow his passions in digital arts and photography.

After landing a job as the media director at Force12 Media, having one of his photographs featured the cover of National Geographic, and creating a mobile tiny home project out of a 1988 Thomas built 33 passenger school bus (and having the story published in Sunset Magazine), it’s clear that Cahill’s efforts have paid off.

Cahill and Perez stand in front of their school-bus-turned tiny home.
Photo by Nick Cahill
Cahill and Perez stand in front of their school-bus-turned tiny home.

“Since graduating from SNC, I’ve been fortunate enough to land a fantastic job with Force12 Media as the Media Director,” he said. “We’re the largest outdoor adventure and authentic military content network on the web. Over four million viewers across our network monthly. Anything that’s internally shot, edited and or created internally is done by me.”

Cahill said he first became interested in photography around 2006 while building a race car. A friend of his had offered to take photos of the car, but continued to flake when the time came.

“I thought to myself, ‘If I want something done, I better do it myself,’ which has been a pretty big backer to my lifestyle the past 10 years,” he said. “I try my best not to depend on anyone for anything.”

During his time at SNC, Cahill worked closely with Chris Lanier, an associate professor of Digital Arts at SNC.

“Without Chris, I’m not sure I would have continued to pursue my dreams and turn them into reality. I owe Chris everything for my success,” he said.

Cahill said the process leading up to having his photo featured in National Geographic “was a nail biter.”

He was contacted by the magazine in Jan. 2015, but didn’t know that his image was chosen until April 2015. For four months, he knew he was in the running, but had no idea if his image was good enough, he said.

Cahill's photo was featured in National Geographic in Aug. 2015.
Photo by National Geographic
Cahill’s photo was featured in National Geographic in Aug. 2015.

Once Cahill found out his photo had been chosen, he signed the proper licensing agreements, sent National Geographic voided check for his payment and continued to patiently wait.

“In Aug. of 2015 I received a text message from a friend of a very blurry National Geographic with my image on it,” Cahill said. “This text came from someone who recently got a job as a graphic designer, so I figured he had some free time at work and was playing a joke. He wasn’t. I had quite the emotional roller coaster ride for the next 6 hours driving back to Tahoe from Utah knowing the world was about to see my photography.”

Along with his media and photography work, Cahill, along with his girlfriend, Jessica Perez, has created what they call the “Blue Bus Adventure”.

“Originally the idea was to buy a trailer for Burning Man,” he said. “A friend found the bus on Craigslist and my girlfriend and I thought about it over a gym session and both agreed we loved the idea.”

The duo did their research and discovered that many people converted buses into tiny homes.

Cahill works on the 1988 Thomas built 33 passenger school bus.
Photo by Nick Cahill
Cahill works on transforming the 1988 Thomas built 33 passenger school bus.

“The project is coming along great. We’ve got some major sponsors like Goal Zero supporting us with solar. The idea has turned into a full on tiny home/mobile work station rather than a burner mobile, so it’s a win-win,” he said.

Cahill said the idea behind the tiny home is now to have a full on mobile work station while being able to travel and continue pursuing his personal photography from the bus.

While the project has proved successful, it hasn’t come without challenges.

“We’re all capable of learning, it’s just a matter of how bad you want something,” he said.

“Building the inside was entirely all new for us. We’re no carpenters and have no background in woodworking. We did a ton of Googling, made plenty of mistakes and it’s far from perfect, but those learning experiences are what make it so enjoyable.”

Cahill said that financing the project has required some sacrifices.

“The biggest challenge is funding a project like this while paying rent and trying to live a fun-filled life. We’ve pretty much cut out “going out” to bars in exchange for this long term goal we like to think of as our version of success,” he said.

Cahill’s “Blue Bus Adventure” was featured on Sunset Magazine’s blog, Westphoria, in July of 2015.

“How organic this happened really loops around big time to a lot of stuff for me. Whenever I seem to be just doing exactly what I want to be doing, everything falls into place in ways I could never ever imagine,” he said.

Cahill and Perez continue to work on their Blue Bus Adventure and look forward to what the future has in store.

Eliza Demarest, another non-traditional thinker, graduated from SNC in May of 2014 and has been on the road ever since.

She said she has always had a curiosity to explore the world.

“When asked, ‘How do you do it?’ the answer to me is simple – I just do it,” Demarest said. “I believe that it is your own personal choice and I choose not to let fear control me and focus on love and trust that things will work out.”

Demarest’s solo-adventure began in Bali, Indonesia in fall 2014. She taught conversational English for six weeks in Ubud, deepened her yoga practice, spent time in rice fields and learned to surf.

“Every day, I was blessed with the opportunity to observe the Balinese culture,” she said. “Whether it was in admiration of the women crafting offering baskets for the Gods with flowers and rice, the men working in the rice fields or the children playing in the streets and waving ecstatically as I drove by on my motorbike, I learned how to appreciate the simple things in life.”

After Bali, Demarest relocated to New Zealand for six months. Upon arrival, she only had $300 in her pocket and was fearful of how she would create a life for herself with so little money.

Wanaka, New Zealand
Photo by Eliza Demarest
Wanaka, New Zealand

“Like we all do, I questioned my journey but just had to trust that everything was going to work out,” she said.

After six months of chasing summer in New Zealand working at a vineyard and then taking a gig doing backstage cleaning for musicians, she knew it was time to make a change.

She liquidated all of her belongings and booked a plane to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

“Having been blessed with the work in New Zealand, I was able to travel through Vietnam for three weeks, live on the island of Koh Phangan in Thailand for a month and afford a plane ticket home,” she said.

In Vietnam, Demarest and a friend taught conversational English to locals in exchange for meals and accommodation.

Photo by Eliza Demarest

“Teaching English to people who have no understanding of the language is not an easy task,” she said. “If I were to sum up my teaching experiences in Bali and Vietnam in its totality, it would be smile. A smile is a universal language. Something as simple as a smile allowed me to see the beauty in a difficult situation throughout all my travels.”

While in Vietnam, Demarest’s friend found an opportunity for the both of them to volunteer at a yoga/meditation and healing school in Koh Phangan, Thailand.

“Little did I know that this experience would be the best healing experience of my life,” Demarest said. “We quickly got into a routine practicing yoga twice daily, exploring a variety of meditations and indulging in yummy fresh Thai food.”

Knowing that her time was coming to an end, she booked a ticket back to San Francisco and departed the Island with $40 in her pocket.

“It was very emotional leaving the island lifestyle that was truly magical,” she said.

Demarest recently moved to Aspen, Colorado to pursue a job and experience that encompasses a more foundational lifestyle in comparison to the transient lifestyle she had been living for over a year.

“My goal is to stay in the States for a while and find a balance between my love for adventure and my need for quiet reflection and stability,” she said.

Demarest explores the local neighborhoods of Nha Trang in Vietnam
Photo courtesy of Facebook
Demarest explores the local neighborhoods of Nha Trang in Vietnam

Demarest recognizes the courage that it takes to travel, but also sees the strength in staying put in one place.

“It is courageous to travel, but it is also courageous to stay in one place and be with your naked self,” she said. “I am a very independent woman, but one thing I learned is that when you travel you let go of daily comforts and securities and learn a great deal about how to live in vulnerability and uncertainty. Neither is good or bad, it just is. I thrive off of change and choose to see challenges as opportunity for growth.”

These SNC graduates, along with many others, have taken part in the rising trend of choosing non-traditional routes for their years following graduation.

James Uyeda, director of Annual Giving and Alumni/Parent Relations, said that SNC is working to increase the participation of its alumni base. He said that alumni have access to mentorship, job opportunities, an alumni e-newsletter, connection through social media channels, and are invited to SNC events including Homecoming and Family Weekend, Warren Kocmond and Janet Pahl Ski and Snowboard Banquet and Commencement Week.

“The alumni of SNC are a diverse group who are rich in talent and life experiences,” he said. “We have alumni whose work has graced the cover of national publications, who have been nominated for Emmy awards, enrolled in the finest graduate programs, started successful businesses, and done many more accomplishments.”