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Dean’s Award ’22 – NSM: After Geography success and COVID-19 challenges, Rebecca Vail looks toward an improved world

Though she "struggled to stay sane" through the COVID-19 crisis, Dean's Award recipient Rebecca Vail nonetheless rose into the top echelon of Sac State students. (Sacramento State/Andrea Price)

While working toward a near-perfect GPA at Sacramento State, Rebecca Vail juggled studying, research, work, volunteer service, and personal battles with the coronavirus.

In the classroom and outside of it, Vail emerged as one of the University’s top scholars and role models. She is the 2022 Dean’s Award winner for the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics. It is one of the awards given each year at Commencement to one student from each of Sac State’s seven academic colleges.  

Rebecca Vail
Rebecca Vail says she will pursue a master's degree and ultimately hopes to "do something that makes the world a better place.” (Sacramento State/Andrea Price)

While compiling a 3.96 GPA in Geography, Vail fashioned “an exceptional record of service,” said Chemistry Professor Claudia G. Lucero, who chaired the committee that nominated Vail for the award.

That record includes participation in the NASA Women in STEM High School Program, which offers students the chance to work with the Johnson Space Center in Houston to design missions to Mars. She also has volunteered at the Discovery Museum Science and Space Center, a local senior care center, the Sacramento Food Bank, and the Department of Water Resources State Fair Drought Program.

Vail worked with Geography Professor Anna Klimaszewski-Patterson to research fire-management practices among indigenous Californians. Their analysis of sedimentary charcoal at Markwood Meadow in the Sierra National Forest has received national recognition.

A Sacramento native, Vail graduated from Mira Loma High School with a 4.0 GPA before enrolling at American River College, where she studied Engineering and Computer Science. However, it was the field of physical geography – the study of the natural environment including the atmosphere and biosphere – that truly captured her interest.

“My geography class was the one I enjoyed the most, and I have loved geography every step of the way since then,” she said.

Vail transferred to Sac State in 2019 and began working closely with Klimaszewski-Patterson. She joined the American Association of Geographers and the University’s Geography Club, and worked as a lab assistant and instructional student assistant. Vail also is a member of the Phi Theta Kappa honor society.

In 2020, after COVID-19 forced most classes into virtual sessions, she and her fiancé both caught the disease. Her fiancé developed serious breathing problems, and she rushed him to the emergency room.

“It was terrifying,” she said. At the same time, she was working at a local convalescent hospital, where patients were suffering from isolation, and getting sick and dying from the virus.

“I struggled to stay sane through it all,” Vail said. Sessions with a Sac State therapist helped her cope.

The myriad challenges that Vail faced while pursuing her diploma “make her accomplishments and dedication all the more impressive,” said Lucero, who called her perseverance “inspiring.”

Vail is set to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in Geography, and plans to pursue a master’s in Biology at Sac State. Ultimately, she anticipates a career in the environmental field.

“I’m not sure what my future holds,” Vail said. “I’ll have a lot of choices.

“But in the end, I just want to do something that makes the world a better place.”

2022 Deans' Awards

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About Cynthia Hubert

Cynthia Hubert came to Sacramento State in November 2018 after an award-winning career writing for the Sacramento Bee. Cynthia believes everyone has a good story. She lives in East Sacramento with her two cats, who enjoy bird-watching from their perch next to the living-room window.

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