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Graduating Student Spotlight: Education beyond the classroom

Driven by the desire to educate others, Gabriela Sullivan used her time as a UF/IFAS College of Agricultural and Life Sciences student to mentor and guide others based on her own experiences with science, youth development and traveling abroad.

As a middle school student, Sullivan’s interest sparked from a science fair project, but not because she loved the science experiments.

“I was always really creative, and I would create these really elaborate science fair boards to present my projects,” she said. “It wasn’t actually the science that interested me, it was the presentation of it.”

Sullivan poses with her camera on her study abroad in South Africa.

Yet, Sullivan was drawn back to the science fair each year. She liked to create and conduct her projects, but she came alive when she got to teach others about her findings.

As she got older, Sullivan also became more involved in Florida 4-H, a positive youth development and mentoring organization. She served the organization as the state secretary and later, state president, which showed Sullivan the power that positive developmental opportunities can have on young people.

Sullivan transitioned to college and began experiencing more of the world through study abroad opportunities. The summer prior to entering the University of Florida as a freshman, she studied in Mexico, where she met Chris Batista, an electrical engineering student.

Batista and Sullivan recognized kids often struggle through the science fair. With fellow students Hannah Lyons, a microbiology and cell science major, and Georgia Hayes, a computer sciences major, they conjured up the idea to pair college students with sixth graders to provide mentoring through science fair projects. The result was named Positive Feedback.

Positive Feedback Logo

Positive Feedback was a mentoring organization co-founded by Sullivan.

“We talked to a sixth grade teacher to see what the need for their students was,” Sullivan said. “Kids struggle through the science fair. We wanted to engage college students in the Gainesville community. That’s how we came to Positive Feedback.”

Over the next two years, Positive Feedback partnered with 6 classrooms and had approximately 60 college mentors for the program.

Then, well, enter COVID-19.

Sullivan stands with the first cohort of Positive Feedback mentors.

When Sullivan entered her senior year at UF, she was the only founding member left, as the other three graduated in 2020. Through the pandemic, she adapted the mentoring program into guiding packets, in which Positive Feedback offered several science projects students could choose. The organization would provide students with materials to conduct the project and guide them through setting up their own experiment.

“The guidebook included seven projects students could choose from,” Sullivan said. “They were take-home kits so the kids could do the projects at home, and they could adjust variables to try different things.”

Sullivan’s engagement with science education and mentorship fueled her passion for environmental education, but while she was helping with Positive Feedback, she was also traveling the world.

“I’ve studied abroad and gotten to go to Mexico, South Africa, Madagascar and, as a CALS LI [Leadership Institute] student, Morocco,” she said. While abroad, she gained a better understanding of international conservation and how culture plays into the understanding of conservation. These experiences fostered Sullivan’s appreciation for social sciences.

Sullivan and a friend she made on her study abroad in Madagascar.

“Those experiences helped shape this ‘big world’ idea,” she said. “There are so many social factors such as culture and religion that are often overlooked. A huge part of conservation is the human component, the human behaviors and actions.”

Sullivan is graduating with a degree in natural resource conservation, but learning beyond the classroom has placed her on a path to eventually obtain her master’s and doctorate degrees. Until then, she plans to take a bit of time off from school. Sullivan is currently a semi-finalist to teach English in Malaysia as a Fulbright Scholar. She also plans to continue some of the research she worked on during her undergraduate experience, to refine her knowledge and skills so she can better educate others about the environment and conservation.

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