MaKayla Foster's four years at Saint Michael's College could be a case study in overcoming obstacles. Family loss, adapting to remote teaching in the time of the coronavirus, and developing into a leader on the field hockey field have been challenges for the senior, but she has met them all.
"My mindset and resilience have really strengthened," she said. "That pretty much sums up college for me: resilience."
The most recent change in plan has been the COVID-19 pandemic forcing the move to distance learning, altering a semester during which Foster was placed at Westford Elementary School as part of her student teaching requirements. "Even with this hiccup, it's definitely been a highlight of my Saint Mike's experience," said Foster. "I don't think I've cried that long or that hard in such a long time when I was told I had to leave my students."
Thanks to help from Education Department Chair Valerie Bang-Jensen, Foster was paired with Callie (Lumbra) Goss '12, her cooperating teacher, in a third-grade/fourth-grade classroom at Westford. The school year won't end exactly as Foster might have envisioned.
"We're still trying to figure it out," said Foster. "Public schools are pretty much going live online, live meaning there could be some live videos or having Google classroom websites or other websites online. In my case, I'm able to help continue teach the class as much as I can with my cooperating teacher, but not every school is set up that way." Despite the cloud of uncertainty, Foster noted that the Saint Michael's Education Department has adapted to the changing environment while ensuring students are able to complete their requirements and become licensed.
Foster's prior routine included early-morning car pools with fellow student-athlete Megan Reid - a senior swimming & diving captain who had been placed in kindergarten at Westford - agenda rundowns with Goss, days chock full of social and emotional learning, then a late-afternoon return to campus to get right back to planning for the next day. Instead, Foster recently returned to her family's house, surrounded by fields and few neighbors, along Vermont 116 in Middlebury, an hour south of campus. "It's a huge change of pace right now to be back at home."
But that doesn't mean the teaching and learning have ended, with Foster leading home study sessions with her two siblings - 13-year-old Caleb and 9-year-old Jocelyn - during the week of her Spring Break. Foster and her younger sister have now taken to FaceTime reading dates each weekday with Jocelyn's friend, who lives a town over. "When schools were out but they hadn't gotten to online learning from the teachers yet - the teachers were working hard to try to get that up and rolling - we had a little homeschool week," said Foster. "It was pretty cute. I definitely have a good relationship with my siblings. I would say I'm fairly nurturing but also mixed with a little older-sister bossiness."
Strong family bonds run throughout Foster's family, which has owned a farm for five generations in Middlebury, population nearly 8,500. Having grown up a mile from the renowned Foster Brothers Farm, which earned 2019 Innovative Daily Farmer of the Year from the International Dairy Foods Association and Dairy Herd Management magazine, surely she has milked a cow or two in her time. "Uh, no, I haven't," she admits, sheepishly. Instead, she has lent a hand on the administrative side of her family's compost operation, Vermont Natural Ag Products Inc. (VNAP), particularly in business and sales.
Foster's mother is a leader in the VNAP front office, where she does frequent dispatching, sales, marketing and business-related duties. "In terms of my dad, I was able to go on some tractor trailer deliveries with him," said Foster. "I remember a couple times going to Martha's Vineyard to garden centers there, so I have fond memories of that. Also, trade shows and things like that. That's kind of where I grew up, rather than going to the farm."
Foster mentioned that in December 2017, the farm - with a long history of innovation, leading to that 2019 national honor - moved its operations into the 475-cow Cow Palace. "Yeah, it's super cute," she said. "They have the cow back scratchers and water beds, and then the robotic milkers, which are cool because essentially the cows can get up when they need to and go get milked." Foster's father, Jim, was instrumental in the innovations developed by the family businesses, including a compost product known as Moo Doo, which is sold throughout the region.
Tragedy struck early in her sophomore year. On Sept. 21, 2017, Jim was killed in a farming accident in nearby Brandon during a visit to another farm. Local media reported the incident by referring to Jim as "a pillar in Vermont's farming community." A resident assistant since that year, Foster recalled the last time she saw her father, 11 days prior in Lyons Hall.
"We had just played Franklin Pierce, and I don't remember anything about how that day went, other than someone brought really good desserts for the tailgate," she said. "I remember my family having to leave and one of my siblings, on the board, wrote, 'Give mom a hug, give Jocelyn a hug, give Caleb a hug, give dad a hug,' or something like that, and so I ended up giving everyone a hug. And I'm not a touchy, feely kind of 'I love you' type person; I'm really not sentimental at all. But I remember giving each one of them a hug. And that was the last time I saw him. It's etched in my mind. I'm lucky to have a memory like that."
Foster found support within her team, with head coach Carla Hesler ensuring players had the opportunity to travel to Middlebury on a Premier Coach bus for the church service and a reception at Foster's house. Despite understandably taking time away from school to be with her family, she kept tabs on the team's progress. The first game after Jim's death was a 2-1 win over Assumption College on Sept. 23. "And then the next day," she said, "we played Saint Thomas Aquinas, and I remember Morgan Joyce '20 was there, and she said, 'we're going to score five goals today,' because that's my uniform number, and we did, and that was really cool - that was eerie cool."
After appearing in 36 games over her first three seasons - drawing two starts and tallying one goal and one assist - Foster broke out during her lone fall as a starter, depositing seven goals and adding an assist during her senior year following the most diligent summer of training in her career. While the culmination of her efforts were a hat trick on Oct. 3 in a wild 6-5 overtime victory at Bentley University, the Purple Knights' first on the Falcons' field since 1992, Foster couldn't help but recall that her first goal came against nationally-ranked Adelphi University on Sept. 21 - the two-year anniversary of her father's passing.
Jim has also not been forgotten by her teammates, with Anna Hurley '20 outfitting the team with its newest accessory in 2019 - headbands with Jim's initials, "JF", embroidered on the side, which she handed out at practice one day. "That was another special moment," said Foster.
Foster has family to thank for introducing her to the sport in the first place. "I had an older cousin who also played field hockey through high school, and that's how I kind of learned the sport was a thing," said Foster, who first picked up a stick in fifth grade and played four years on the varsity at Middlebury Union High School. She understates her three-time all-league career when she says, "I wasn't a star. I liked it and I was fast, and I had fun."
While Foster played alongside future college teammates Danielle Bachand '20 and Maryel Likhite '20 in the 2016 Twin State Classic, which features the top seniors in Vermont and New Hampshire, she was also a three-time all-conference pick in softball, played in the North-South Classic, and competed on a travel team during summers. Her height helped end her basketball career in high school, but the 5-foot-1 Foster jumped at the opportunity to continue playing field hockey at Saint Michael's. "I am so short, but the thing about Saint Mike's, it's very welcoming, and there are a lot of short people on our team," she joked. "So I felt very at home here."
In all truth, she said she did feel accepted quickly at the College, knowing she had found the right landing spot during a chance encounter with a Saint Michael's legend. "The accepted students' day, I remember one of them where they gave you lunch, and Fr. Mike Cronogue came over and sat with my mom and me and a senior at the time," said Foster, discussing the well-loved Cronogue, who died suddenly in fall 2016, just after Foster arrived on campus. "They were just very welcoming, and it was like we belonged there."
Foster not only belonged on the field hockey team but quickly found she fit in, like so many Saint Michael's students, because of the breadth of her involvement on campus. Not only an RA, Foster has been a peer tutor, Spanish tutor and Writing Center coach. She organized Operation Christmas Child donation drives for local children. While gaining induction into multiple honor societies and claiming nearly 20 academic awards from the Northeast-10 Conference and national agencies, Foster has maintained a cumulative GPA that hovers around 4.0.
"Sometimes I think, OK, my grades have been pretty good, but I've put a lot of work into that, and it hasn't been easy, even though it could look like that," said Foster. "So I've definitely been challenged here academically, so I think I got my money's worth there. Another reason I liked the college, in addition to the community and being able to play sports and realizing that I kind of wanted to be a little closer to home, was that I had not heard anything bad about the Education Department. I've had nothing but great experiences with it."
While she will complete her degrees in both elementary education and English soon, Foster isn't sure whether the classroom is where she'll ultimately end up. "I've always loved books and I would honestly love to write something," said Foster, who secured a Trustee Scholar Summer Research Grant in 2018 to begin a memoir about growing up on a farm and losing her father. "And even right now, while I am working on my teaching license, there are still so many more opportunities, whether it's going into school leadership or curriculum, other things like that, so I don't want to limit myself."
This young woman from small-town Vermont has overcome numerous obstacles to make it big at Saint Michael's College, further pushing her boundaries to progress from a home-sick first-year - "I live an hour away, not even, at times, if you drive fast. I don't know why I was so nervous" - to someone who took advantage of a two-week study abroad program to Israel and Palestine her junior year, joining the trip on a whim.
"It is really crazy to think years go by so fast, but so much happens in each of them," said Foster. "I mentioned being ridiculously home sick my first year and then bouncing back after my dad passing my sophomore year. And then I did the abroad trip and got out of my comfort zone there - I'd never been out of the country - and then now I'm student teaching and figuring out online learning. There's been a bunch of uphill things each year and now, looking back, it's like, 'I've done that, I can do that.'"
Foster's also fairly certain she knows what her father would think of her continued evolution as she stands upon the precipice of the Real World. "I think he'd be really, really proud, and my mom definitely conveys that, as well," said Foster. "I think he'd be pretty darn happy.