Vanessa Petion ’18: Finding her ‘Passion for Social Advocacy’ at Stetson

portrait outside
Meet the Class of 2018: Vanessa Petion

The American-born daughter of Haitian parents, Vanessa Petion grew up in two cultures.

“At home, I was Haitian first and then outside of the house, American next,” said Petion (pronounced Pay-shun), adding she spoke Creole growing up in Orlando because her mother does not speak English.

It was a challenge to navigate two worlds and she found a balance at Stetson University through the Multicultural Student Council, becoming chair of the umbrella organization for student organizations, such as the Black Student Association, Caribbean Student Organization, Kaleidoscope Gay/Straight Alliance and Muslim Student Association.

She also became a peer tutor at the Stetson Writing Center and conducted research that she and three other tutors presented at a national conference in New York last year.

“I’ve always wanted to come to a small town and have that small-town atmosphere. When I came to DeLand and found Stetson University, I was really excited because I can walk everywhere and meet all of these people,” she said. “Just joining organizations like the Multicultural Student and then becoming a writing tutor especially helped me meet different people in different fields that really got me going into figuring out who I am and what I want to do.”

Vanessa stands beside Jim Johnson, waving and smiling at the photographer
Vanessa Petion talks with Jim Johnson, ’68, a retired corporate sales executive and organizer of Stetson’s annual Multicultural Alumni Networking Lunch, at the event in November 2017.

Her experiences took her out of her comfort zone and helped her figure out the next step in her career path. This fall, she will attend grad school at American University in Washington, D.C., studying strategic communication with an interest in social advocacy.

“Just finding that balance at Stetson, the Multicultural Student Council really helped me with that. … When it comes to identity and shaping that, and my passion for social advocacy and impact, that was cultivated in the Multicultural Student Council,” she said.

A Communication and Media Studies major, Petion initially planned to become a journalist. Then she “took a class on cultural advocacy, activism and protest. Then, I took another class on rhetoric and identity, like public memory and whatnot. By combining those together, I was like I really want to do something visual and representative within the media,” she said.

She sought advice from her professors and “that’s how I realized I wanted to do public relations,” Petion said.

Jelena Petrovic

Jelena Petrovic, Ph.D., assistant professor of communication and media studies, “definitely helped me to grow. … Especially with communication classes, there are so many to take. I was like, ‘What am I interested in?’ Not only did she push me out of my comfort zone, but she really respected me as a person and student, and talked me through a lot of things and validated my choices.”

Petion has had “this passion” for helping her peers since high school, and she became a writing tutor through the encouragement of a teaching assistant in her First Year Seminar.

“She was like, ‘Hey, your writing is really good and you like it. If you like it so much, become a tutor,’” Petion recalled. “And so, I did.

The four students sit together outside on a bench with all their convention materials.
Vanessa Petion joined (left to right) fellow writing tutor Katie Howell, Jeanette Jakupca and Kitty Geoghan to present their research in October 2017 at the National Conference on Peer Tutoring in Writing in New York.

“I love seeing the progression of my students. It’s really fun just seeing how they came in not knowing anything about punctuation or real grammar rules. Then, seeing how well they have come about and the way they are so confident in their writing. … I feel like a lot of people think when you get to college you have to lose your voice for the sake of academia and that’s not true,” she said.

“The one thing Stetson has really taught me is to try new things,” she added. “I can be really stubborn. I really can, especially when I’m uncomfortable. But Stetson has really brought me out of that shell.”

Petion will be taking that spirit to Washington and American University to earn a master’s degree.

“There’s a lot of nonprofit work and just so much interesting culture” in that city, she said. “So, D.C., here I come!”