Monthly Archives: January 2017

Students in Nicaragua

Winter break may feel like just a distant memory for most students by now, but for one group of Southern students, this year’s break created memories that will last a lifetime.

Members of a university club called Global Brigades traveled to Nicaragua from January 5-13 to work on a project to help improve water access and sanitation for a remote village. The students did all of the planning and fundraising for the trip and did not receive course credit for their work; their efforts were all volunteer. “I think this level of volunteerism abroad is a first for SCSU,” says Michael Schindel, assistant director of the Office of International Education and the club’s adviser.

The Southern group is a chapter of the national nonprofit organization Global Brigades, the largest student-led international community service group. Global Brigades operates in four countries — Ghana, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama — and provides ongoing support within the countries. Essentially, different college chapters fundraise to pay for airfare, accommodation, and funds to support the projects in these countries for periods of one week to 10 days, with the option of going for longer. One university chapter joins a project after another leaves, so that the projects can remain continuous. The projects focus on different community needs relating to public health, medical and dental needs, engineering, microfinance, water access, and human rights.

Nicaragua, students, Global Brigade

The Southern chapter has been on campus for two years, and this was the group’s first time conducting a “brigade” abroad. Students Sleman Hussein and Amanda Saslow and a core group of other students started the chapter; they drafted the constitution, made all the connections with the national organization, and recruited members. For the trip to Nicaragua, the executive board oversaw all of the travel arrangements, as well as fundraising, planning the “Charla” (a community public health lesson that was presented to a group of children, entirely in Spanish), and designing the t-shirts.

Hussain praises the dedication of the students who joined Global Brigades. “We went through many hurdles and obstacles to build the club,” he says. “We have 14 devoted people who spent the last couple years fundraising money, not for a vacation, or to donate to a church or soup kitchen. No, we have 14 devoted people who took time out of their busy college schedules to go to a third world country and break their backs for a week.”

Saslow agrees, adding, “I am so beyond proud of not only the 14 individuals joining us on the brigade but the entire Global Brigades family that we’ve established at Southern. It has been incredible seeing students support each other and stand by each other in an environment where it’s very easy to feel alone. Working with these 14 people has been a life-changing experience and I’m definitely walking out of here with a heck of a lot more than just a degree.”

Nicaragua, students, Global Brigade

Student Emily Gersz, a member of the club who went to Nicaragua, says she found the experience “life-changing.” She admits the trip “was a ton of hard work . . . but I’d do it 100 times over to see the gratitude in the eyes of the families we helped.”

According to Paul Nicholas, a member of the club’s e-board, the students did manual labor each day for five days, waking up at 6 a.m., taking a two-hour bus ride to Jinotega, the community where they worked, and then working side-by-side with the families they were helping. Together, they built concrete floors, sanitary stations, and septic tanks for homes that were typically made out of cinderblocks and wood branches, with dirt floors.

“The families were so welcoming and humble; letting us (complete strangers) work in and outside their homes,” Nicholas says. He explains that the group worked on building sanitary stations because many families don’t have toilets or showers at all. Because the women have back problems from always bending down to scrub clothes when doing laundry, the wash stations in the sanitary stations were raised to a higher level.

Nicaragua, students, Global Brigade

Nicholas says the conditions some of the families live in helped him realize that “there are so many more important things to worry about in this world . . . as opposed to all the small things we worry about here in the U.S.” He learned that the men in Jinotega make about two dollars a day, while the women have to walk miles carrying clean water from a clean source. Before Global Brigades became involved in helping Jinotega, the village’s water had a high concentration of fecal matter, causing parasites and disease. The solution Global Brigades is providing is to build an irrigation system directly connecting clean water from the mountains to many communities.

Part of the Global Brigades model is to have the community receiving assistance also participate in the work and provide some funding, so that the community is helping itself and taking ownership of the improvement projects.

Student Annie Kaczmarczyk’s outlook on life was transformed by her experience on the trip. “My perspective on what I take for granted has been drastically changed after seeing people live without basic life necessities,” she says. “What impacted me most on the trip is truly how much compassion and joy the people of Nicaragua have, even in such a dire state.”

Schindel says, “I am so proud of and impressed by this group of students. They took all of this on, set a goal, and worked all year towards achieving it.” Schindel applauds the students for volunteering their winter breaks “to spend it digging trenches for water pipes, laying concrete foundations in people’s homes, building sanitation stations with access to potable water and waste removal, and teaching children about proper hygiene.”

See an album of students’ photos from the Global Brigades trip.
Nicaragua, students, Global Brigade

A team of Southern business students has earned a berth in next month’s Northeast Venture Capital Investment Competition after securing a victory recently in a similar statewide event.

The team of Peter Blanchet, Alec Santo and Paul Barlow turned back stiff competition from Quinnipiac and Fairfield universities in December to gain the win. It marked the second straight time a Southern team won the Connecticut Venture Capital Investment Competition. Last March, the trio of Santo, Barlow and Egzon Dauti took the inaugural edition of the state competition.

Student teams from Connecticut colleges and universities presented business and investment plans. The investment plans were evaluated by investment industry professionals.

“It was a wonderful achievement for our students,” said Adam Abugri, chairman of the Economics and Finance Department and faculty advisor. “To qualify for competition against schools such as Harvard, MIT, and Cornell speaks to the capabilities of Southern’s students. We all should be proud of our students.”

In addition to the trophy, the team earned a $500 grant from the Entrepreneurship Foundation Inc. to support the travel expenses that will be incurred for the trip to Boston for the regional competition. The team’s entry fee for the regional competition has also been paid for by the foundation.

“Your students acquitted themselves well,” said Mike Roer, president of the Entrepreneurship Foundation, to Abugri. “You should be very proud of them.” Roer plans to present the trophy to the team at a future event on campus.

“Applying classroom investment techniques in a competitive, hands-on atmosphere is truly exhilarating,” Santo said. “This experience motivates my passion to pursue a competitive career path.”

Blanchet expressed similar sentiments.

“I learned a lot from this experience and it was exciting to hear pitches from so many passionate student entrepreneurs,” he said. “I was impressed by how dedicated these entrepreneurs were to their start-ups, and it was interesting to negotiate with them as if we were truly in a position to invest heavily into their companies.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Scott Graves, drone

In April 2010, Scott Graves was watching news coverage of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. A geologist and oceanographer who spent his early career making maps from aerial views of the landscape, Graves began wondering: How would scientists document the spread of the spill along the coastline and into surrounding marshes?

Curious, he started poking around the internet. The federal government had basically shut down flights over the area, but Graves learned a small group of researchers was getting aerial shots by dangling cameras from kites and balloons.

Thinking it would be great to bring the technique to Southern, Graves, associate professor in the Department of the Environment, Geography and Marines Sciences, decided to learn what he could and worked with his department to acquire a balloon and a kite.

“I just started ‘MacGyvering’ camera systems together,” he recalls, referencing the 1980s TV character known for cobbling together everyday items to get out of tough situations. Then, a few years later, drones became widely available, and Graves thought: “That’s it.”

Today, Graves is a pioneer in the growing movement to use drones for environmental research and conservation — and he’s passionate about sharing that technology with Southern students. Over the last year, he has donated about $10,000 worth of drones, mapping software and other related equipment to forward the effort at Southern.

He has also gifted about $70,000 to establish the Osprey Endowed Scholarship for Environmental and Marine Studies, named for the coastal bird that flies at the same altitude as his drones. The scholarship is earmarked for undergraduate and graduate students who are conducting research with a faculty mentor through the Werth Center for Coastal and Marine Studies or the Center for Environmental Literacy and Sustainability Education, both research centers at Southern. Although it’s not required, the first two recipients have included drone technology as a focal point of their projects.

Peter Broadbridge, who is pursuing a master’s degree in science education at Southern, notes that receiving the scholarship in 2015 changed his perspective on life — and possibly his career path. Broadbridge, who studied the health of marshes along West Haven’s Cove River, worked with Graves to parlay the scholarship into a NASA-funded grant to continue his drone-assisted research. This year’s winner, Christine Woehrle, is using drones to study the health of local vineyards.

Graves’ commitment to students and the environment also is forwarded through his leadership-level involvement with GLOBE — The Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment Program — which is sponsored by the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Science Foundation (NSF), with support from other government agencies. An international science and education program, GLOBE connects students, teachers, scientists and citizens from around the world, inviting them to conduct hands-on science related to their local environment and put it in a global perspective. GLOBE’s 21st annual meeting and student research experience is being held at Southern from July 30 to Aug. 4.

In Graves’ opinion, drones hold enormous potential as a less expensive, more effective way for environmental scientists to collect data from aerial perspectives. “This is an incredibly powerful tool for getting information on landscapes that might otherwise be inaccessible,” says Graves. “In the past, if you wanted to have aerial photography, you either had to hire a helicopter or an airplane — either of which needed to fly very high. But now, for a couple thousand dollars, you can get a drone that carries a 4K camera, learn how to fly it yourself, and get very low-altitude imagery.”

Graves’ obsession with learning about his surroundings dates back to childhood. Growing up in Malibu, Calif., he spent hours with friends exploring the creek near his family’s home.

“I’d get home from school and my mom would say, ‘See you at sundown,’” he recalls.

During his senior year in high school, he took an earth science class and decided he wanted to become a geologist. After earning a bachelor’s degree from the University of California-Santa Cruz, he took a job with the U.S. Geological Survey, where he was charged with producing a map of coastal erosion in the Arctic.

In 1986, Graves’ quest to earn a doctorate in oceanography led him to the University of Rhode Island. But funding for research was sparse, and Graves ultimately graduated with a master’s degree when his major professor retired abruptly before he could finish the program.

“I was devastated because I’d spent five years in a Ph.D. program and passed all the preliminaries and qualifications,” Graves says. “Here’s your dream. You’re pursing it and the door slams right in your face. So what do you do? You have to change directions.”

He took a break from academia to work as a snowboard instructor before landing a job with a nonprofit organization, where he co-designed an environmental education curriculum for middle schoolers. While presenting at a conference at the University of Idaho, he was recruited into a doctoral program, and earned his doctorate in science education in 1999.

It was there that he got his big break — authoring a successful $7.5 million federal grant to train teachers from New Jersey to Oregon in how to use GIS (geographic information system) technology to document 200 years of change along the Lewis and Clark Expedition Trail — a career highlight that would consume his time for the next five years.

In 2005, wanting to move to an urban area near the coast, he came to Southern and never looked back. “I fell in love with the programs and the people in this department,” he says.

While he has made smaller donations to his various alma maters, he reserves the bulk of his philanthropy for Southern. Graves also was among a group of benefactors — that included the Werth Family Foundation and others — who recently bought the Southwest Ledge Lighthouse in New Haven for student research.

Reflecting on the ups and downs of his own career, Graves says his philanthropy is a “pay it forward scenario,” noting he’s “had some breaks along the way.”

“I know what it’s like to have your dreams shut down — and I know what it’s like to suddenly see a new horizon and go for it,” he says.

arafehWhen she first broaches the topic of “white privilege” in her educational leadership classes, Sousan Arafeh braces for some tension in the room.

“Some people get a little uncomfortable initially,” she said. “The concern has to do with their emotional safety. They think, ‘Am I going to be exposed as x, y or z – insensitive, foolish, racist?’ That is an understandable sentiment.”

She assures her students — most of them white and already working as teachers or school administrators — that the exercise isn’t about assigning blame or making anyone feel guilty about their “whiteness.” She said it’s about helping them understand any implicit biases they may have – as well as how their own experiences and perceptions can differ from those of other races and cultures — so they can be better leaders.

Arafeh, associate professor of educational leadership and policy studies, included the topics as part of her “Leadership Development” course, which focuses on organizational/interpersonal communications and is targeted to aspiring school principals and department heads seeking Connecticut Intermediate Administrator Certification.

She said the discussion is particularly crucial in Connecticut, where classrooms are becoming more diverse; minority teachers are in short supply; urban schools remain racially isolated and a staggering achievement gap exists between white and minority students.

“It’s really important to me that my students understand this landscape in an objective, critical way, but also in a very personal and empathic way — a sensitive way,” she said.

Implicit biases are unconscious stereotypes that can shape how people behave and make decisions, even if those decisions are not intentionally discriminatory. In classrooms, Arafeh said, implicit bias can lead to lowered expectations for minority students, harsher discipline, or misunderstandings. She added that these can lead to more serious structural results, such as a school-to-prison pipeline, especially for black males who she said are disproportionately incarcerated.

Many times, implicit bias behaviors are well-meaning, but harmful. “A teacher may say, ‘Mary Lou, go help Jose with his paragraph,’” Arafeh explained. “The intent is to help him, but there’s an implicit bias that he can’t do it or needs help, when maybe he is just fine or needs a little more time.”

She cited a recent study by the Yale Child Study Center suggesting that children are subjected to bias as early as preschool. The study, which included more than 130 preschool teachers, found teachers were more likely to focus their gaze on black boys when asked to view videos looking for signs of “challenging” classroom behavior. The children being observed were actors and the video clips showed no actual misbehavior.

The researchers suggested that such biases could be one reason behind the higher rates of expulsions among black preschool children.

Arafeh also spends time in her class talking about white privilege, the idea that white people enjoy unearned advantages based on their skin color. She shares “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” a 1988 essay by Peggy McIntosh, who listed 50 of those advantages, from things as simple as being able to find bandages that match her skin color, to being confident she can go into a store alone without being followed or harassed.

“It’s just eye-opening for white teachers and leaders,” Arafeh said. “I think most of them have never thought about their whiteness as a race or privilege and what it can mean for them or those around them. And remember, these are educators, so I think their orientation is to be very open-minded.”

While there’s plenty of open discussion in class, Arafeh also encourages her students to share their thoughts anonymously on notecards. “There are always one or two students who don’t buy into the idea that understanding whiteness is part of understanding and striving for equity,” she said, but most leave her class empowered with “a desire to grow and do things better.”

“When it comes to equity and social justice, we cannot stick our heads in the sand, any of us,” Arafeh said.

“I’m very proud of the students who do step into this space of looking critically at whiteness and race, no matter how difficult it is, or uncomfortable. When they do, they are better equipped to understand the complexities of their diverse schools, communities, and interpersonal relationships. They can better see the biases and inequities in these spaces and develop ways to constructively intervene.”

A new year always brings thoughts of self-improvement or changing one’s life course, but making life changes are not always as simple as they may seem.

This month, Creative Writing Professor Michele Merlo is making a fresh start in a familiar place. Merlo had a long career as an actor in New York City before she began teaching English at Southern in 2011, and because of her love for the stage, she is now returning to that career, marking a new chapter in her professional life.

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Michele Merlo (Photograph by Julia Gerace)

From January 25 to February 11, Merlo will appear in Schreiber Shorts, this year’s 10-minute play festival – an annual tradition — at the renowned T. Schreiber Studio in New York City. Established in 1969, the T. Schreiber Studio is recognized as one of the foremost professional theater studios in New York City.

Terry Schreiber himself is Merlo’s former acting coach; she was first a student of his over 20 years ago. “The studio has a great history,” Merlo says, adding that Schreiber has been in the business for 45 years.

Merlo, who grew up in New Haven, fell in love with the theater after high school, when she worked in the box office at Long Wharf Theatre. A friend had moved to New York to become an actress and encouraged Merlo to join her and give the stage a try. Merlo found success, and acted professionally in New York for 20 years, in off- and off-off-Broadway theater. Some favorite theater credits include La Ronde, The Miser, Miss Julie, and The Wild Duck. She also appeared on television, in principal roles on NBC’s Another World.

“I love the rehearsal, the process, the frustration, the discoveries” of acting, Merlo says.

Then around 1999, Merlo’s parents back in New Haven became ill. “I came home to look after them,” she says. She moved back to Connecticut, got a job at a New Haven law firm, and decided to pursue her second love – writing and English literature. She earned her B.A. in English at Albertus Magnus College, where she was valedictorian of her graduating class, and then came to Southern for the M.A. in English, with the creative writing concentration. She was accepted to become a graduate teaching assistant under the mentorship of English Professor Will Hochman, for whose guidance she is grateful, and she has been teaching composition and creative writing to Southern undergraduates ever since.

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Michele Merlo and Kevin O’Connor in Moliere’s “The Miser” (Photograph by Joseph Clementi)

Merlo says she took the M.A. program for her own enrichment and “didn’t ever think about teaching, but it presented itself to me,” and she found she loved it. “Teaching is something like acting,” she says: both require preparation and performance. Although she’s very happy teaching English at Southern, she decided over the past two years that her love for the stage had not left her and she wanted to get back into acting.

Although she missed acting “with every bone in [her] body,” she says she was “scared because I knew how hard it would be.”

She called Schreiber – “whom I hadn’t seen in 20 years” – and “he said ‘welcome back,’ like I’d never left.” To prepare herself to audition, she worked with SCSU theatre alumnus Raphael Massie, ‘99, resident artist and curriculum supervisor of Elm Shakespeare Company.

To cast Schreiber Shorts, the studio held three days of auditions for people who had studied there. Merlo auditioned, and a few days later, got a callback. She was thrilled to be cast in the show.

“I’m having so much fun,” she says, admitting that in this new chapter of her life, she’s lucky to have the best of both worlds: acting in New York and continuing to teach at Southern.

For more information about Schreiber Shorts and tickets, visit the T. Schreiber Studio website.