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Southern's Black Student Union (BSU) has supported students, alumni, and the community-at-large for more than six decades. A newly endowed scholarship forwards that important work — while honoring Barbara Matthews, one of the BSU's first advisers.

Barbara Matthews, SCSU's associate director emeritus of counseling

You’d be hard pressed to find someone who understands college students better than Barbara Matthews, associate director emeritus of counseling. “I’ll tell you one thing about Southern students. They come here determined,” says Matthews, who worked with thousands during her 30 years at Southern — including members of the Black Student Union (BSU), which she advised throughout her tenure.

Originally called the Organization of Afro-American Students, the BSU was formed in 1968 and was still a young organization when Matthews came on board in 1972. Its establishment reflected a national movement. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned discrimination in education on the basis of race, color, and national origin. Still, many black students who enrolled at predominantly white colleges and universities faced hostility. In an effort to support students and promote positive change, in 1966, the first Black Student Union in the nation was established at San Francisco State College [now University].*  Two years later, Southern followed suit. “Black students on campus needed direction and a voice. The Black Student Union made that happen,” says James Barber, ’64, M.S. ’79, Southern’s director of community engagement.

Throughout the years, Matthews remained a mentor. “We were a force to be reckoned with, I’m proud to say,” recounts Michael Jefferson, ’86, who was elected president of the BSU in 1984. “We had to meet certain challenges, and I don’t know if students today appreciate how difficult it was at times. She [Matthews] was a huge influence. She was my confidente,” adds Jefferson, now an attorney based in East Haven.

Like many BSU alumni, he’s remained active with the organization and was instrumental in setting the groundwork for the scholarship. It began with “Martinis and Wings,” a BSU reunion held at Jefferson’s home in 1997. BSU alumni came to reconnect and raise funds to support students. They also celebrated Matthews, who received an award for paving the way for so many.

In 2019, the fund was fully endowed. The Barbara Matthews Endowed Scholarship was awarded for the first time during the 2019-20 academic year and will continue to benefit students who are active members of the BSU in good academic standing.

The scholarship is a fitting tribute to Matthews, who devoted her career to higher education. A 1968 graduate of Queens College, City University of New York (CUNY), she first worked in academia at a city-run residence hall for college students. Urged on by her coworkers, she earned a master’s degree from Hunter College in 1971, and joined the staff at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, which had just opened its doors as the youngest institution in the CUNY system.

Then she heard about a newly created position at Southern. “Students from the BSU came up with the plan,” recalls Matthews. “They were reaching out for someone to work with them. That’s why I felt an immediate connection, and it hasn’t been broken since. This one caught my heart. It’s been a love affair,” she says.

Several alumni of the Black Student Union (BSU) gather to formally establish the Barbara Matthews Endowed Scholarship, named in honor of the longtime adviser of the BSU. [Seated from left] Matthews and Michele Helms, ’92, an ESL teacher. [Standing from left] James Barber, ’64, M.S. ’79, Southern’s director of community engagement; Attorney Michael Jefferson, ’86; President Joe Bertolino; and Kermit Carolina, ’94, M.S. ’03, supervisor of youth development and engagement with New Haven Public Schools.
Several alumni of the Black Student Union (BSU) gather to formally establish the Barbara Matthews Endowed Scholarship, named in honor of the longtime adviser of the BSU. [Seated from left] Matthews and Michele Helms, ’92, an ESL teacher. [Standing from left] James Barber, ’64, M.S. ’79, Southern’s director of community engagement; Attorney Michael Jefferson, ’86; President Joe Bertolino; and Kermit Carolina, ’94, M.S. ’03, supervisor of youth development and engagement with New Haven Public Schools.

Her career has been a calling as well — one that’s enhanced the lives of generations of students. Southern’s campus has become increasingly diverse in recent years: in fall 2019, about 40 percent of the incoming class are students of color and 21 percent of full-time faculty are minorities. But when Matthews arrived in 1972, diversity was not a campus hallmark. As late as fall 1984, fewer than one in 20 full-time undergraduates was black and fewer than one in 100 was Hispanic. Among the 406 professors at Southern in 1984, only five were black — about one percent.

“Most of us were coming from the tri-state area from high schools where the student body looked very different from Southern,” says Jefferson. “Coming to a place like Southern was sometimes difficult. . . . It was important for us to create a supportive organization to deal with some of the challenges,” he says.

Throughout the years, the BSU, guided by Matthews, promoted inclusivity in countless ways. Noting a dearth of black faculty, the BSU sent student ambassadors to talk with academic department heads about the issue. Concerned about the percentage of black student-athletes who weren’t graduating on time, the BSU worked with the administration to dedicate an academic adviser to them. The group also organized cultural events for the entire campus.

Historically, the BSU’s commitment has extended to the New Haven community as well. Members worked on voter registration and advocated for children at New Haven Board of Education meetings. They also strove to enhance local neighborhoods. Michele Helms, ’92, remembers working on a comparative analysis of a nearby neighborhood while she was attending Southern. She recalls finding a high number of liquor stores and a disturbing lack of resources. It was upsetting and a call to action.

“I continue to hold BSU close to my heart because it was a platform that empowered me to make a difference — and she [Matthews] was a big part of that,” says Helms, an English as a second language [ESL] teacher in Stamford, Conn.

Her sentiment is echoed by Kermit Carolina, ’94, M.S. ’03, who, as a student, was president of the BSU. His memories of the organization include Saturday mornings spent with New Haven children who came to campus for mentoring and tutoring. “We had an opportunity to make an impact on the greater New Haven community. Every year, this commitment was passed down from president to president,” says Carolina — now supervisor of youth development and engagement with New Haven Public Schools.

Through each program and initiative, Matthews kept a careful eye on her students. “We’d be sitting in her office, talking about the BSU. And she’d casually swivel around to her desk, and say, ‘So, how are classes going? How are your grades?’” says Jefferson.

“I had access to their academic information!” Matthews says, with a laugh.

“It really was like having a campus mom,” says Jefferson.

“We never wanted to disappoint you,” adds Carolina.

This enduring, almost familial, connection — fostered by Matthews over three decades and beyond — gives the BSU much of its strength. In October 2018, the BSU held several events in conjunction with Southern’s Homecoming. The BSU tailgate alone drew about 400. Among them was Kendall Manderville, a senior majoring in recreation and leisure studies, who is president of the BSU today and the scholarship’s first recipient. He met Matthews there after hearing about her for years — and notes that the scholarship is inspiring and needed.

“Finances aren’t the only reason students of color might have difficulty staying in school, but they’re a primary issue. All of us have friends who didn’t come back because they couldn’t afford it,” says Manderville.

He continues: “I also feel students of color, especially black students, are not always aware of some of the resources available to them. They are not aware of how many scholarships are out there. So having one that’s just for them, right here at the university . . . It makes a difference.”

Southern Alumni Magazine cover, Fall 2019, featuring Peter Marra, '85

Read more stories in the Fall ’19 issue of Southern Alumni Magazine.

When disaster strikes, Katherine Bequary, ’93, and David Denino, ’75, M.S. ’76, travel the country and the world — saving lives and providing solace.

David Denino, '75, M.S. '76, worked with many survivors in McComb, Miss., a post-Hurricane Katrina evacuation zone. [below] In Mosul, Iraq, Katherine Bequary, '93, works behind the front lines at a crisis-care clinic run by the organization.

Think of the worst human tragedies of the last 15 years — earthquakes, hurricanes, mass shootings. Chances are Katherine Bequary, ’93, or David Denino, ’75, M.S. ’76, were there to help.

Bequary has traveled the globe as executive director of NYC Medics, coordinating emergency care in places few are willing to go — from earthquake-torn Haiti and Japan to the remote mountains of Nepal. In summer 2018, she returned from one of her most challenging assignments yet: running a crisis-care clinic in Mosul, Iraq, just behind the front lines in the fight against ISIS. Bequary says more than 10 percent of the trauma casualties reported in the city were children, many of whom died before they could reach a hospital.

The clinic, which moved with the fighting, did whatever was needed — starting IVs, applying tourniquets, inserting chest tubes — to stabilize victims and help them survive the journey. Staffed 24/7, it provided life-saving care to more than 2,600 patients in the span of a year, many of whom were civilians shot by ISIS snipers while trying to flee the city.

“Every mission always has a powerful message or takeaway, but I have to say Iraq, by far, has been the most important work I’ve ever done,” says Bequary, 49.

“Not only for the medical intervention our team provided,” she adds, “but for the hope that comes with seeing so many people putting themselves in a conflict zone to help a stranger.”

Psychological first aid
Closer to home, as the mental health lead for the Connecticut/Rhode Island American Red Cross, Denino, 66, manages teams of mental health volunteers dispatched to disaster scenes around Connecticut and the country. He administers what he calls psychological first aid, setting up mental health triage based on patients’ levels of distress. If someone needs medication or a hospital, Denino works to connect them with services in the community.

A licensed professional counselor and director emeritus of counseling services at Southern, he trained as a Red Cross crisis responder following the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001.

“When I watched the towers go down, I felt paralyzed,” recalls Denino. “The call for help went out far and wide, and I couldn’t do anything because I hadn’t been vetted.”

Too late for 9/11, he was sent to New Orleans a few years later, assigned to the shelters housing residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Subsequent missions included hurricanes Sandy, Irene, and Harvey as well as the mass shootings in Sandy Hook, Conn., and Las Vegas. In Las Vegas, Denino worked in the family assistance center, offering counseling and comfort to people who survived the shooting or lost loved ones. Staged in a conference hall “three times the size of Costco,” he remembers the center being eerily quiet despite being filled with concertgoers and workers, mostly in their teens, 20s, and early 30s.

David Denino, ’75, M.S. ’76, finds a moment of comfort in the midst of helping others.

“A lot of them were struggling a couple of days out with sleeplessness and anxiety,” he says.

In addition to counseling the victims, Denino also kept an eye on the mental health of his fellow volunteers, helping them process their emotions and cope with stress. He earned the 2017 Meritorious Service Award from the National Behavioral Intervention Team Association (NaBITA) for his work in Las Vegas and in Texas after Hurricane Harvey. In 2018, he served as the organization’s president, leading efforts to prevent suicide and violence on college campuses and K-12 schools. In July 2018, the U.S. Secret Service issued a report concluding that the most effective way for schools to prevent targeted violence is with a behavioral intervention team — heightening the focus on NaBITA significantly.

Southern roots
Now living in Wallingford, Conn., with his wife, Vanessa [Pomarico] Denino, ’92, M.S.N. ’98, Ed.D. ’18, and two dogs, Denino traces his interest in counseling to his days as a resident adviser at Southern’s Neff Hall. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in recreation and leisure, he stayed on for a master’s in counseling and landed his first job at Southern right out of grad school.

He spent 37 years at the university, retiring as director emeritus of counseling services in 2009, and he still teaches in the clinical mental health program. In 2007, he received the J. Philip Smith Award for Outstanding Teaching, one of Southern’s top faculty honors. He credits his mentor, James Brine, professor emeritus of counseling and school psychology, with steering him toward higher education.

As the executive director of NYC Medics, Katherine Bequary, ’93, has organized aid efforts around the world, including Nepal.

Bequary, who lives in New York City, came to Southern as a physical education/athletic training major intending to be a physical therapist, but says the university prepared her well for her eventual, if unexpected, disaster-relief career. She credits Gary Morin, professor and chairman of the Department of Health and Movement Sciences, for teaching her that physical and emotional healing go hand-in-hand.

“It’s a big part of what we do [at NYC Medics],” she says. “We’re there to provide the physical care, but it’s so much more than that.”

After graduating from Southern, she held several jobs in the healthcare field before earning a master’s in public health from the University of Connecticut in 2010. She had just finished her thesis when the Haiti earthquake struck, and she learned through a friend that NYC Medics was mobilizing to help.

“I deployed with them and have been involved ever since,” says Bequary. In December 2019, she traveled to Yemen, which has been ravaged by civil war. NYC Medics is working to legally implement a program there and Bequary hopes to return soon.

‘Humbling and inspiring’
Asked why they do what they do, Bequary and Denino offer slightly different takes on the same answer.

“If I could just have people stand in my shoes for one day, they wouldn’t even need to ask the question,” Bequary says. “When people embrace us and open their arms to us . . . it’s the most humbling and inspiring experience in the world.”

She offers a story about a 3-year-old Iraqi boy she found wandering alone at the clinic. Through some detective work, Bequary eventually learned his mother had been a patient, shot in the stomach during a mass casualty incident, one of 60 civilians with serious injuries brought to the clinic in a single day. In the chaos, mother and son had been separated. Although critically injured, the mother survived, and Bequary was there for the joyful reunion: “He hadn’t spoken for three days, but as soon as he saw his mother, he just started crying out to her. He ran over and embraced her. It was incredible,” she says.

Like Bequary, Denino cites the people he helps as his inspiration. “With Katrina, I was talking to people who lost everything — everything — including members of their family or extended family, and the first thing they would do is hug you and say, ‘Thank you for coming here,’” Denino recalls.

He remembers the relief on one woman’s face when he was able to locate her elderly mother in a shelter, and recounts how some neighborhood families brought a home-cooked, fried chicken and biscuits dinner to the volunteers — a welcome change from the military-style MREs [meals ready to eat] they’d been dining on for days.

“You come home and it takes a little while to recover emotionally,” he says. “But when I’m out there, I feel good about it.”