Claire Varner’s UNE Adventure

People don’t typically think of adventurousness and practicality as going hand-in-hand, but for Claire Varner ’10, this duo of character traits has afforded her experiences that have, quite literally, taken her to great places.

Having grown up in rural Michigan in a farming community, Varner faced a big decision when the time came to select a college. Her choice had come down to UNE, in the distant state of Maine, and another college only 15 minutes from home, a school that Varner describes as almost identical to UNE if one were to substitute cornfields for the ocean.

“I would have had a lot of friends there; I would have been able to come home whenever I wanted; I knew the area. It was very easy for me to picture what my life would be like if I chose to go there,” she explained. “But I decided to go with something different and unpredictable.”

Varner balanced her decision to go with the unknown with practical reasons for choosing UNE.  Thinking she might go into the medical profession, UNE’s strength in the health sciences was a plus, as well as the fact that there was a women’s team for volleyball, a sport that Varner had played continuously since fifth grade.

But not long after starting at UNE as a medical biology major, Varner felt herself gravitating toward a completely different field of study. When asked to prepare a presentation for her English class, she found herself absorbed in the historical background of the literary work on which she was presenting.

“After I gave my presentation, people asked me if I was a history major, and that got me thinking,” she recalled. Soon after, she changed her major, but her decision was not a whimsical one made without careful thought. Acknowledging that career paths for history majors are not as well-defined as those who study pre-med, Varner opted to double major in both history and secondary education. “I didn’t know if I even wanted to teach,” she admitted, “but the double major made sense in terms of getting a job after graduation.”

Varner’s adventurous side led her to study abroad during her time at UNE. And once again, she chose to go with an opportunity that offered more of the unfamiliar. Opting for more than a UNE-organized study-abroad experience, she ventured to Cyprus for a semester in a program in which she was the only UNE student. Studying at the international University of Nicosia, Varner’s best friends during the semester were from Nigeria and Iran.

During her time in Cyprus, an incredible deal on plane tickets to Istanbul, Turkey presented itself, and Varner was torn. The trip was to take place the weekend before her final exams. Her decision to go turned out to be both adventurous and academically sound. While the traveling didn’t allow for as much studying as she normally would have done, she found herself acing a final exam essay question about the Ottoman Empire as the direct result of her personal experiences in Istanbul. “At UNE, you learn so much from books and professors,” Varner explained, “but actually experiencing a place makes such a difference.”

As her UNE graduation approached, Varner made a list of her top three goals: to get a job, continue her education, and to have an adventure. She accomplished all three by taking a job teaching English to children in a private school in China, while she worked on her master of education degree online.  Not knowing any Chinese, and having no formal experience teaching children ages 2 to 12, Varner learned as she went along, and was driven to succeed.

Realizing she still had a long way to go before she would be completely comfortable leading her class in China, Varner was determined to work at her teaching skills until they became second nature. “If I’m going to do something, I’m going to be the best at it . . . I didn’t like feeling like I was just getting through the day. I want to conquer what I do, not just stay afloat.”

After seven months, Varner returned home from China and found a job teaching social studies at a middle school in Fryeburg, Maine. It’s been another adventure for Varner, teaching to an age group she had never taught before, and living in an area where she knew no one.

But the practical side of Varner maintained an important emotional connection. She served as assistant volleyball coach at UNE for three seasons, making the hour and twenty-minute drive from Fryeburg to Biddeford four times per week. Once regarded as the far-away college that represented the unknown, UNE had become a reliable grounding force to her, a place to which she knew she could always return during life’s big adventure.