I am a New Yorker, born and raised on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where I have lived most of my life since. I grew up with my, Mom, Dad, my two older sisters Sydney and Liza, and of course our dog Simon, who joined the family when I was around 11 years old. When I tell people from outside of New York City that I grew up in Manhattan, I am often asked what it was like to grow up there. I always find that funny, as I have nothing else to compare it to, but I always say it was as good a childhood as I could have asked for. I was also lucky enough to travel a lot growing up, and have been to a lot of places outside of the country. Some of my favorite childhood memories are from a visit to my Dad’s childhood city of Cape Town, a journey through the Pacific Northwest, and a combination of city and nature in Argentina.
I was undoubtedly born into fortunate circumstances, but I do believe my parents did a great job teaching myself and my sisters to value and be aware of this, and worked hard to keep our feet on the ground. While my Dad worked in the world of business, my Mom worked for the Goddard Riverside Community Center for most of my childhood. She still works for the same program that focuses on providing free tutoring to families and children who could not otherwise afford it. I often spent time after school doing homework in her office, and to see the workings of a non-profit community center was an impactful experience.
Soccer was an equally large influence on my life growing up. Both of my sisters and I played travel soccer from age nine through high school, so it really did capture the whole family, with most weekends spent in the car going to either my own games or those of my sisters. That said, I was the only one who became an avid soccer fan. What started as a relatively casual following of Manchester City Football Club around age 11 morphed into something of an obsession by the time I reached high school. I played all four years of high school, and continued my fandom through that time, with my love of the team and the game as a whole undoubtedly becoming a fixture in my life.
During my high school years, I also solidified or formed some other interests that continue to influence me today. The first one was a real passion for music. While I had played both guitar and piano at younger ages, I began to really explore music and expand my repertoire. It was no longer just about classic rock and alternative rock as it was for me at an earlier age. Jake, my best friend in high school and to this day, became the primary influence on my music taste, introducing me to various genres and sub-genres within Hip-Hop, R&B, and Pop that I’d never really explored. Given his future career in the music industry, it seems like it was a good choice.
Through the guidance some excellent teachers in high school, I also began getting a sense of some academic interests that are undeniably present today. One who stands out was my history teacher Mike Tillman. He was easy going and quite funny, and we bonded over a mutual interest in rock and roll. He was able to both engage and challenge me, sparking an engagement in global studies and politics, and probably shaping me as a person who is much more interested in the humanities that in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics.)
After high school, I chose not to go on to college immediately, instead working for several years in my home city of New York. I worked as a busboy and waiter and explored life as in independent young adult for a few years. I also found myself volunteering quite a bit, which I attribute to that importance of socially important work I saw my Mom doing throughout my childhood and teenage years. The various interests I’ve mentioned continued to grow in different ways in this phase of my life. Formal travel soccer morphed into pick-up games in the park, and I even did some volunteer coaching as a side gig. What did not change was my Manchester City fandom, which remained strong as ever. In the realm of music, my expanded tastes and new independence allowed me to go to lots of concerts. While on a few special occasions I went to some bigger concerts at places like Madison Square Garden and the Barclays Center, the majority of those I attended took place at small venues with lesser-known artists. As it were, the most memorable ones were those smaller ones. A few concerts that stick out were those of Dominic Fike, RIZ LA VIE, and Men I Trust. Without the presence of school, I still tied myself to the interests in politics and international relations by becoming an obsessive reader of the New York Times.
After a few years, I felt ready to take the college path that I always knew I’d end up on eventually. Given that I’d been out of school for a few years, I chose to ease myself into it. I began taking classes part-time and Hunter College and switched jobs to work as a dog walker, which allowed me to attend without any conflict. That fall semester I took two classes, and both created lasting impressions. The first was the simple introductory writing class that Hunter College requires its students to take, but we were allowed to choose our own topics for the major paper of the class. I chose to write an argumentative paper on gentrification and displacement in Harlem, which coincided with my developing interest in urban issues and inequality.
However, the more impactful class was undoubtedly Approaches to Religion. The class focused on the view of religion by different academic disciplines. We read books on religion written by anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists, and theologians. The class was a truly incredible experience, provoking some of the deepest reflection in my life, thus far. The brilliance of the course was due to the instructor, Professor Brian Foote. I was fascinated by his lectures. He and I developed an excellent relationship, so much so that I took another course with him in the spring semester. He also wrote recommendations for the various colleges I would go on to apply for as a transfer student. While my lifelong devotion to soccer and music remained strong, this was the time where I really began to think about what lay ahead for my career in the long term. I started to be a bit more aware of my intellectual and academic interests and learn more through reading about the many topics in the realm of social issues that I knew I cared about, but had never before explored. During this period, I really began to grow the interest in an intersection between academics and the world around me that I see in myself today.
Shortly after I started my second semester at Hunter College, the Covid-19 pandemic hit the world. I was quickly living with my parents again, and finished the semester remotely. It was during this time that I also finalized and sent in my applications to transfer to several schools. University of Vermont was my top choice, and I was able to get in. When the fall 2020 semester rolled around, it was still before any introduction of vaccinations, and life was still far from normal.
Although I was officially a student at the University of Vermont, I took my classes online from my childhood apartment in New York City, further exploring my academic interests through the classes I was taking. A geography course on race and ethnicity in the United States further solidified my interest in academic exploration of social issues, but I also felt a desire to contribute to solving those issues that I was exploring in the classroom. The pandemic was so destructive to so many lives, and with my previous experience volunteering it felt like a good time to do so again. I started volunteering at West Side Campaign Against Hunger, a food pantry in New York City. As a volunteer, my role was fairly limited at first. I was really just a cog in the system, somebody to help with moving boxes and packing bags. However, as my time there continued and I took on additional hours, the role grew. I began to spend a lot more time doing the client-facing parts of volunteering. Interacting with people, some of whom had been food insecure for many years, and some of whom needed this service due to the economic collapse brought by COVID-19, was an incredibly impactful experience. I was undeniably aware of how much need was out there, but it felt powerful to be contributing to solutions, even in my limited role as a volunteer. I continued with more or less the same schedule in spring of 2021. I took my classes, kept volunteering at the food pantry, and spent plenty of time outside as the weather allowed.
In the summer, with the remarkable improvement in the outlook on COVID-19, I finally moved to Burlington, Vermont, to get myself settled in before starting in-person classes in the fall. I took a few classes online, and also began to put down some roots in my new area. At the start of the summer, I began volunteering at an organization called Feeding Chittenden, focused on tackling food insecurity in Chittenden, the county in which Burlington resides. It was a really interesting contrast to the larger-scale operation in New York. However, the most notable aspect of my summer was the job I took at a homeless shelter in town. It was my first time as a paid employee doing social work, and I had far more responsibility than I ever could in a volunteer capacity. It has corresponded with an even greater appreciation of this socially important work: the ability to interact in a more significant way with the homeless population in Burlington has brought a deeper and more nuanced perspective of related social issues than I could get in a classroom and as a volunteer.
This fall, I will be taking classes in person at the University of Vermont, and my primary role will be that of a college student. That said, I still intend to continue with both my volunteer work and my job at the homeless shelter, and look forward to consider my academic interests in real world scenarios. I will also of course be maintaining those other hobbies, playing intramural soccer and attending as many concerts as I can at the small venues here in Burlington.
– Griffin Kapelus