Monthly Archives: May 2014

*The Guilford Courier ran a lengthy profile on May 28 of recent graduate Jamie Lawler. Jamie graduated magna cum laude and was one of this year’s Henry Barnard Foundation Distinguished Student Award recipients. She overcame tremendous adversity in her youth, including a stint as a homeless teen. But she will be headed to the UConn Law School this fall.

*President Mary Papazian was quoted in a May 28 post in the “Capitol Watch” blog that appeared in the Hartford Courant. She discussed during a roundtable discussion how income levels are a predictor of attaining college degrees. The roundtable included higher education officials and U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal.

*Undergraduate commencement attracted considerable media attention.

  • The New Haven Register ran a story on May 17. Video clips from the proceedings and many photos are also available on the paper’s website.
  • The Connecticut Post ran a couple of photos in the May 17 edition of the paper. A slew of photos also is included on the paper’s website.

Both papers also gave the commencement ceremony a mention in the days leading up to the event.

  • The Register ran a roundup story in its May 2 edition.
  • The Post advanced the commenement ceremony in a blog post, “Education Matters,” which ran May 15.

*Two of our graduates were featured in the online publication, CT Latino News. Julio Mansillaand Bernardo Falcon were both interviewed in an article that was posted on May 18.

*Rick Bassett, associate professor of management information systems, was featured in the May 14 edition of the North Haven Courier as the paper’s Person of the Week. Rick was highlighted for his work in the Rotary Club, on which he currently serves as a district governor.

*The Valley Independent Sentinel posted stories on May 12 about two Southern students:

  • Krystina Morgan, a student who is traveling to Peru as part of a Cruz Blanca mission trip to help poor Peruvian children.
  • Jennie Ellis, who was selected to participate in the Lipper Internship Program, which teaches students about the Holocaust.

*Armen Marsoobian, chairman of the Philosophy Department, was the focus of a May 8 articlein Today’s Zaman, a Turkish newspaper.

*Jan Jones, associate professor of recreation and leisure studies, was quoted in an online financial publication, WalletHub.

Everyone has stress in their lives. And the sources are many.

It can be the seemingly endless nights of crying babies; the increased job workload in which you think you’ll never get your head above water for the foreseeable future; or the anxiety of upcoming SATs or final exams.

But regardless of where it is coming from, stress can easily beget more stress — unless you take the time to slow down, figure out why your heart and mind are racing, and take constructive action.

Denise Zack, an assistant counselor in the University Counseling Services Center at Southern, explains that the increased heart rate and blood pressure, as well as other common symptoms of anxiety, are related to the region of the brain that responds to stress.

“The limbic system – which is a primal and very old part of the brain — interprets stimuli using your five senses to determine whether you are in danger,” Zack says.

Exercising the pre-frontal cortex of the brain during stressful situations can train the brain to react more rationally under pressure in the long run.
Exercising the pre-frontal cortex of the brain during stressful situations can train the brain to react more rationally under pressure in the long run.

Even though not getting your report finished on time or being 10 minutes late for your next appointment is unlikely to result in bodily harm or terrible consequences, these kinds of episodes can trigger the primitive part of the brain to trigger the “fight, flight or freeze” response.

“This part of the brain has been conditioned to interpret everyday interactions in much the same way a caveman would respond to life or death situations with a saber-tooth tiger,” Zack says. “The amygdala (a part of the brain) determines that a situation is stressful or dangerous and releases cortisol, adrenalin and other stress hormones into your system. That automatically sets off a cascading series of physical and emotional responses that can be very distressing.

“This can occur periodically or chronically and leave an individual feeling overwhelmed. Aside from the immediate results of these hormones raging through our blood and increasing tension, the long-term effects can wreak havoc on your physical and mental well-being.”

Zack says that over time, a patterned way of responding to similar stimuli or situations can develop. “The neurons that begin to fire together are now wired together, and an individual may feel powerless to change it.”

She notes that when the limbic part of the brain is stimulated, it makes it much more difficult for a person to engage in logical or rational thought. But by taking a deep breath and thinking about what is happening, people can access the pre-frontal cortex region of the brain, which is responsible for rational, logical thought.

To access the pre-frontal cortex part of the brain, Zack recommends asking yourself questions like:

  • Is this an old pattern (of physiological or psychological response)?
  • What is my emotional reaction beckoning me to work on?
  • Given my insight, what are my options in addressing the stressful situation?

She says this type of thinking can begin to “rewire” the brain.

“When the pre-frontal cortex is being used, more blood flow is sent to that region and by default, less blood flow is sent to the limbic region of the brain,” Zack says. “In addition, new neural pathways are formed because the individual is now thinking about their response, as opposed to simply having a reaction.”

Julio Mansilla was bartending a few years ago in the wee hours of the night at a downtown New Haven restaurant.

It was a job he held not long after having dropped out of college. While closing the restaurant, he decided to pick up a few things at a neighboring business establishment before heading home. Suddenly, a car approached and an individual asked him where one of the local establishments was located. As he started to answer, an occupant in the car stabbed him in the stomach.

Though he was bleeding and required medical attention, the wound was relatively minor. He returned to work a week later, but in the meantime had begun thinking seriously about going back to school.

“The money I was making was nice, but the ambiance of working in a bar and dealing with people who were drunk was just not for me.”

If the stabbing incident was not enough to spur a change in his career path, a similar incident just a few months later ensured that outcome. He was leaving his bartending job around 4 a.m. walking down an alleyway. Suddenly, he was approached by two men, including one who was asking for change.

“I moved his hand out of my way. I knew I was about to be mugged.” Sure enough, he was attacked and a fight ensued. He ended up getting stabbed in the leg. “I stood up and he and his friend ran away.”

The uncle of Mansilla’s roommate at the time cleaned and sewed the wound with a needle and some thread. He said he preferred not going to the hospital and racking up another medical bill, especially since the stab wound wasn’t too serious.

“I went back to work two days later and quit my job,” he said. “I made a decision right then and there to return to school.”

He moved back home with his parents and re-enrolled in classes at Southern for the fall semester of 2010. And less than four years later, Mansilla has earned a Bachelor of Science degree in computer science.

Mansilla has been participating in an apprenticeship program, working with startup companies..

“He’s a very talented and hard-working person who really is motivated to turn his life around,” said Lisa Lancor, chairwoman of the SCSU Computer Science Department. “It is such a heartwarming and inspiring story.”

Mansilla, who was born in Guatemala, came to the United States with his family at the age of 13. The youngest of three children, he graduated from Hamden High School and currently lives with his sister in the East Rock section of New Haven.

Lancor said Mansilla loves helping other people and noted how he recently wrote an app for a farmer in Guatemala while he returned to his native country for a visit. “He is a class act with his peers and is always willing to explain things to others,” Lancor said.

Mansilla said his long-term goal is to start a company of his own.

Other student success stories:

    When West African native Fatu Sheriff lost the ability to hear all but a few sounds after becoming very ill as a young girl, her whole world turned upside down.

    Not only did she have to adjust to a life without hearing, but except for her family, almost everyone treated her differently because of her new disability. Sheriff said people acted as if she couldn’t think the same as before she became deaf, and she began to fall victim to bullying on a daily basis because of the difference in her speech.

    “Becoming deaf was the biggest crisis I had to ever experience in my life,” said Sheriff. “I was so miserable.”

    Following her birth and the start of the First Liberian Civil War in 1989, Sheriff and her family escaped and sought refuge in a neighboring country. Her childhood was spent in Guinea, which Sheriff said is a beautiful country with good people and rich cultures. But at age 7, she contracted malaria, a mosquito-borne disease, which resulted in permanent and nearly complete hearing loss.

    Along with the differences in her peers’ attitudes towards her, Sheriff also had to deal with educational changes. She said, due to the lack of knowledge about disabilities and resources available in Guinea, the country can’t provide equal opportunities for hearing-impaired members of the community, so proper schooling wasn’t an option for her.

    In 2001, just before her 13th birthday, Sheriff moved to the United States, which she said was the best thing that has ever happened to her. When she reached grade 7, she transferred to East Rock Global Magnet School in New Haven, and was able to progress in her studies with the help of a sign language interpreter and hard-of-hearing teacher who tutored and introduced her to the deaf community.

    “There are no words that can express how grateful I am to (Mary Winchell), who made a big impact on the very being of my education,” Sheriff said. “I don’t think I could have come this far if it weren’t for her.”

    She later enrolled at Gateway Community College, but was referred to Southern because of its reputable Disability Resource Center, which has provided her with interpreters and note takers. Sheriff has enjoyed being at SCSU, and said she is very appreciative of the encouragement and support that Elizabeth Keenan, a professor of social work and her adviser, has given her. Sheriff has earned a Bachelor of Science degree in social work.

    Sheriff said she always wanted to follow in her parents’ footsteps of serving others, as her father was a doctor and her mother was a nurse in Guinea. As a former victim of domestic violence, Sheriff wants to help others by becoming a social worker, specializing in domestic abuse. She said she wants to bring families together and promote the repairing of their broken relationships. “I believe that family is important, and the love from family is irreplaceable,” Sheriff said.

    During her time at Southern, Sheriff has become the vice president of the National Society of Leadership and Success at the university, president of the SCSU American Sign Language and Deaf Awareness Club, and was a model for the SCSU Black Student Union’s 2013 “F.A.C.E. The Future” fashion show.

    Since she feels so strongly about the challenges she faced as a deaf child, Sheriff said she’s also dedicated to assisting the deaf and hearing-impaired community. She recently created a U.S.- and Africa-based non-profit organization called, “IDEAF: International Deaf Education Alliance Foundation, Inc.,” a group devoted to empowering the deaf community through global education.

    Sheriff said she loves living in the United States because of the educational opportunities it has provided, but misses her family in Guinea. In her spare time, she enjoys playing soccer, and after graduation she plans to earn her master’s degree in social work at the University of Connecticut’s Advanced Standing Program.

    Other student success stories:

      Margaret Appiadu Antwi remembers playing in piles of trash and drinking dirty water during her childhood. Growing up in the poor African nation of Ghana, the sanitary conditions were often fodder for a public health official’s nightmare.

      But her life changed dramatically at the age of 12, when she and her family moved to America – first to the Bronx and then to New Haven.

      “In Africa, when you’re told you’re going to see America it’s like going to see heaven,” said Antwi. “Coming to America from a Third World country and not having anything was a bit overwhelming for me and my sister, but it was also new and exciting.”

      Simple things that most Americans take for granted – such as indoor plumbing – shocked Antwi. Indeed, the quality of life for her, as well as her mother and sister, had improved significantly. But like most immigrants, the change also spurred new challenges.

      Although she and her sister learned English from their mother while still in Ghana, their foundation in the language was lacking compared with American-born children. And the education system in Ghana was not as advanced as in the United States. “Class was difficult, and kids were cruel. We were picked on for our accents.”

      But Antwi overcame her language barriers and education challenges to earn a Bachelor of Science degree in public health.

      Although school was tough in her younger days, Antwi kept herself busy and helped her mother pay bills beginning at the age of 14, when she started working as a home health aide.

      Antwi’s mother worked multiple jobs to provide for and ensure the safety of her children. “She always made sure we didn’t live in a bad area of the Bronx,” Antwi said. “We went to school in Riverdale, and there was no violence.”

      Since they lived in an expensive part of town, Antwi said they had to make some sacrifices. “We had a one-bedroom apartment,” she said, “It was me, my mom and my sister, and we all slept on the same bed.”

      After high school, Antwi attended Staten Island College to study nursing. The college didn’t have dorms, so Antwi had to live at home and commute six hours a day to class, which quickly began to wear on her.

      She transferred to Southern, where she now lives on campus and works at the Institute of Professional Practice in North Haven. After taking a class with Dr. Marian Evans, Antwi switched her major from nursing to public health. “Dr. Evans just completely inspired and motivated me to pursue public health,” she said.

      When she moved to the United States, Antwi said she was shocked at the huge differences in basic hygiene, like simply flushing toilets. “That all helped me to figure out what I wanted to do, and when I fell into the class with Dr. Evans it was like a perfect correlation to my life,” she said.

      She said the department is very student-oriented, and three teachers have gone above and beyond to support her: Evans, John Nwangwu and Sandra Bulmer. “Those three have changed my life and have been my inspiration,” Antwi said.

      Recently, Antwi served as an intern with Bulmer at the Student Health and Wellness Center. With guidance from Bulmer, she became a member of the Society for Public Health Education and was chosen for the 21st Century Scholarship, which enabled her to attend the 2014 Health Education Advocacy Summit, an educational trip to Washington, D.C.

      Antwi said she misses her extended family back in Ghana, but living in America has made her independent and strong. “My whole life has been challenging,” she said, “but if you work hard enough, you can achieve anything you want.”

      After graduation, Antwi said she plans to immediately start working in the field, and then she, her mother and sister will be looking to buy their first house. She’d also like to obtain her master’s degree and work for the World Health Organization.

      “I want to travel and go to Third World countries to educate people on basic health needs – that’s my dream,” Antwi said.

      Other student success stories:

      Her young life sounds more like something you would see on an afterschool television special than the formative years of someone who has been accepted into five law schools.

      But some 17 years after finding the strength to overcome the challenge of being a homeless teenager – a girl who was on her own and pregnant — Jamie Lee Lawler has graduated magna cum laude from Southern. And this fall, she will attend the University of Connecticut School of Law with a full scholarship.

      The 33-year-old Guilford resident has earned a Bachelor of Science degree in political science. She also has a double minor – history and psychology.

      She recently was named as one of four SCSU recipients of the Henry Barnard Distinguished Student Award, one of the university’s most prestigious student awards. A total of 12 students are selected each year from Southern, Central, Western and Eastern Connecticut State universities after being judged on academic criteria and community service.

      In addition, Lawler has been awarded the John W. Critzer Valedictorian Award for holding the highest GPA among political science majors.

      “I can still smell the dirt beneath my cheek and feel the damp morning dew on my skin from the mornings that I awoke as a homeless youth growing up in Connecticut,” Lawler said. But she doesn’t spend much time feeling sorry for herself or dwelling on her life’s earlier difficulties.

      “Even though it only lasted about a month, this experience built personal strength that will remain with me for a lifetime,” she said. “In fact, the trials and triumphs of my past have strengthened my ability to overcome adversity.”

      Although not finishing high school during her teen years, she would quickly find a job and was able to afford a rent for her and her baby. She actually earned her GED with honors in 1999, slightly ahead of the time that her former classmates received their high school diplomas during their graduation exercises. And she gained a certificate in medical billing/insurance claims analysis with Branford Hall Career Institute in 2001.

      She would later travel abroad in 2008, which included a tour of Romania. That experience motivated her to want to become a lawyer and to advocate on behalf of those who have a difficult time advocating for themselves.

      “I observed the devastation of a former Communist reign in Romania,” she said. “I saw many homeless children in that country and how they were treated.” She recalled seeing one 5-year-old boy who was told that to solve his problems, he needed to go to an office in some other building and fill out the paperwork.

      “That was just absurd. Those types of incidents really motivated me to want to become a lawyer, especially in the area of childhood or education advocacy.”

      Lawler said she believes in a “lift as you rise” philosophy, meaning that you should try to help others as you succeed in life.

      She credited Art Paulson, chairman of the Political Science Department, with having a major effect on her success in being accepted to law school. “Not only are we prepared academically, but he put us in touch with people at various law schools,” she said.

      Paulson said Lawler was an outstanding student. “Her personal and academic development make her a perfect example of what Southern does,” he said. “She has taken the long route toward becoming a student of whom we can be very proud.”

      Lawler is a former vice president and treasurer of the SCSU Pre-Law Society.

      She is married with three children.

      Other student success stories:

        Building barns and gardens, organizing service projects and helping Southern Connecticut State University students become more connected with the community. These are just a few examples of the charitable dedication that has encompassed the lives of two full-time AmeriCorps Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) and SCSU alumni, Jonathan Ruiz and Alix Lawson.

        Founded in 1965, VISTA is a national service program designed to fight poverty in America, and was integrated into the AmeriCorps network in 1993. The network consists of AmeriCorps, AmeriCorps VISTA and AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps, and targets the human, educational, environmental and public safety needs of the United States.

        Ruiz, a Milford resident, studied psychology at Southern. Lawson, a Wallingford resident, was a political science major. Both say they didn’t want to continue their education immediately after receiving undergraduate degrees last May, but didn’t know what to pursue in lieu of graduate school.

        With the encouragement from friends involved with VISTA, Ruiz began his volunteer journey last August. Lawson began in March after her former academic adviser suggested joining the program.

        “I wanted a gap year, and I was interested in stuff that would give me actual work experience,” Lawson says. “Through this program I would be working, doing a good deed, and developing as a professional.”

        AmeriCorps places VISTA members with non-profit agencies where they contribute to community projects. Lawson says she assists in several community service tasks outside of SCSU, but she’s also working to bring service organizations to Southern to help increase student awareness of volunteer opportunities.

        In addition, Lawson says she has arranged a campus tour for a local school, Common Ground High School, which will attend the upcoming “SCSU Take-Over.” The program is designed to give high school students a flavor of the college experience. “I wanted them to see the fun side as well as the academic,” Lawson says.

        Lawson says one of the things she loves about VISTA has been meeting various people by being a liaison between the university and the non-profit world. “We work for the university but we also work for the Connecticut Campus Compact,” Lawson says. Campus Compact is a national association that works with universities to incorporate community-based work into student and academic life.

        “Matt Farley of Connecticut Campus Compact has been such an amazing leader and he’s a great role model,” Lawson says. “I love all of my AmeriCorps co-workers – they’re a really interesting group of people.”

        Ruiz says he likes the VISTA environment, as well. “We’re all passionate about helping others and improving communities in Connecticut. It’s nice to be around like-minded people.”

        In association with the New Haven Police Department, Ruiz says he organized an on-campus Halloween project in October, where volunteers dressed up in costumes, made pretend doors for kids to knock on and gave out candy. He said he enjoys working with students and creating service programs such as these.

        Recently, he created an “Alternative Spring Break,” where students committed to a week of serving the community alongside the VISTA volunteers. The week of service included a barn renovation for Animal Assisted Therapy Services, Inc., a non-profit organization that provides special needs individuals with the opportunity to bond with horses and dogs as a therapeutic technique. Ruiz and the students re-painted and replaced windows during the reconstruction of the barn.

        He also has collaborated with Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services, and Wexler-Grant Community School, as well as having worked on gardening projects with Mitchell Branch Library and Brookside Apartments.

        Ruiz says Dawn Cathey, his supervisor and an assistant to the dean of student affairs, has given him advice and guidance throughout his experience with VISTA. “She’s definitely a person who has a positive outlook on so many different things,” Ruiz says. “She has such a big heart, which creates a great atmosphere to work in.”

        Both volunteers will finish their commitment to VISTA in August and plan to attend graduate school. Ruiz says he would like to study clinical mental health counseling, obtain a Licensed Professional Clinician Certificate and continue to help others through his career. Lawson says she plans to pursue European studies at Georgetown University in Washington D.C.

        It’s that time of year again — the weather turns warmer, the grass is green and the birds are chirping in the morning. But if you’re a student, these picturesque spring days can be accompanied by a knot in your stomach as you work to finish term papers and prepare for final exams.

        For most college students, early May is crunch time. High school students generally get a reprieve until after Memorial Day, when the reality of June finals really starts to hit home.

        High school and college students are urged to take regular breathers during their cramming sessions as they prepare for final exams. A few minutes of fresh air and self-reflection can lower stress levels and enable a person to study more effectively.
        High school and college students are urged to take regular breathers during their cramming sessions as they prepare for final exams. A few minutes of fresh air and self-reflection can lower stress levels and enable a person to study more effectively.

        Everyone approaches finals week a little differently. Let’s face it – some people are just better at handling stress than others. But it is very easy to get caught up in the moment – studying, writing and fretting for hours at a time with little or no down time. While diligence is instrumental in preparing for finals, it is also important to remember to “Take Five.”

        Denise Zack, an assistant counselor in the University Counseling Services Center at Southern, points to the importance of students giving themselves periodic breathers despite the frenetic pace that often accompanies finals week. She says that it is important from time to time to take a step back and reflect upon what is actually happening and see the bigger picture.

        “Getting ready for finals can be a very difficult time,” Zack says. “It usually means added stress because more time and energy is given to the task of studying, which takes time away from other activities and responsibilities. It is important to remember that you need to take time to be reflective and mindful about how you are managing the added pressure.

        “You may say there aren’t enough hours in the day to take just five minutes for yourself. You manage to come up with excuses for not caring for yourself or listening to your body and your needs go unmet. But by now, you also know that your energy gets depleted and your immune system may weaken from the stress. Something must change and the change must originate from you.”

        Zack explains that by getting caught up in the worry, the amygdala part of the brain releases cortisol, adrenalin and other stress hormones that can raise blood pressure, heart rate and lead to feelings of being overwhelmed.

        In other words, stress begets stress. And studying when your heart is racing and feelings of worry are stimulated is even more difficult and less effective.

        Zack presented a paper last week on this subject at the annual conference of the National Association of Social Workers.

        For additional tips on handling the stress of finals week, check out a previous post.