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Jonathan Gonzalez-Cruz is beating the odds. “Graduating college as an undocumented student is the exception — not the norm,” he says.

Statistics verify his words. About 65,000 undocumented students graduate from U.S. high schools every year — and just 5 to 10 percent go on to college, according to the College Board’s 2009 report, Young Lives on Hold. But on May 18, Gonzalez-Cruz will cross the stage of the Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport. Conn., to accept a degree in mathematics and economics from Southern Connecticut State University — with departmental honors in the latter.

Gonzalez-Cruz was born in Mexico City and came to the U.S. with his family when he was 4 years old. Today, the 22-year old is in the U.S. through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. It’s an increasingly precarious position, and as a result, he’s spent his college years juggling — balancing the demands of intensive Honors College courses, two challenging majors, and political activism at the local, state, and federal levels.

He says the undeniable pull toward political activism began the day after Donald Trump was elected president. “I remember that night — realizing that not only my future as an undocumented immigrant was threatened, but also the futures of my brother, my mother, and many of the kids I worked with as a catechism teacher and during summer camps,” he says.

Gonzalez-Cruz [second row, second from right] joins others in support of undocumented students.
Gonzalez-Cruz has felt the anguish of family separation personally. He was only a sophomore in high school when his father was deported to Mexico after a minor traffic stop led to his arrest. He clearly recalls being unable to say goodbye, watching the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) van drive away, and realizing that his father wouldn’t return home.

Despite the heartbreak and turmoil, Gonzalez-Cruz excelled at school, even tackling challenging advanced-placement courses. In 2014, he enrolled at Southern where he was accepted into the competitive Honors College and was awarded a prestigious Presidential Merit Scholarship, which covered full tuition and fees. He immersed himself in the Southern community, mentoring high-achieving, low-income students from New Haven Public Schools through the Gear Up program and serving as an undergraduate teaching assistant.

Then, as threats to DACA became widespread, he made a decision. “I knew there were two pathways in front of me: remain silent and let whatever happens happen, or take an active role fighting for the fate of undocumented immigrants and their families,” he says.

Jonathan Gonzalez-Cruz, ’18, appearing on Fox 61.

Gonzalez-Cruz chose the latter. He joined Connecticut Students for a Dream, an undocumented-youth-led organization. With the group’s help, he led events for undocumented immigrants in the community and also held presentations for educators who worked with this population. Eventually, Gonzalez-Cruz decided to take a more public role, sharing his story with the media to draw attention to the plight of immigrant families. “My involvement centers on immigration because I understand the pain of coming home every night to an empty plate at the dinner table,” he says.

He’s seen numerous triumphs. Lobbying efforts in Washington, D.C., secured the support of U.S. Senators Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, both of Connecticut. In December, he was elected vice president of the Greater New Haven Young Democrats. More recently, the Southern senior helped lobby successfully for passage of a Connecticut bill that allows undocumented students to apply for institutional aid.

“I am so proud that we were able to help get this legislation passed,” says Gonzalez-Cruz, who received the university’s Economics Honors Award in 2017 and 2018. He continues: “As citizens, we should work to make it possible for all students — regardless of their immigration status — to achieve their goals and realize their dreams. When they do, we all win. These students are our future. They are going to change the world.”

Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy signs legislation that allows immigrant students without legal status to be eligible for institutional financial aid at state-run colleges and universities. “I am so proud that we were able to help get this legislation passed,” says Gonzalez-Cruz witnessing the signing, seventh from right.

Gonzalez-Cruz will be among them. He was an immigration law intern with the firm, Krasnogor & Krasnogor, and plans to attend law school — with a goal of working toward immigration reform. In the meantime, he is a top applicant for the highly competitive Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute’s Public Policy Fellowship Program. The final selections will be announced later this spring.

For now, graduation is on the horizon. “It’s not just for me,” he says. “It’s a way to honor my parents and all of the sacrifices they made when they decided to come to the U.S. They gave up their families. They knew they wouldn’t see their mothers, their fathers, their siblings. . . . I can never repay them, but I know this is what they wanted. And I know that none of this would be possible without them.”

Jerry Angelica Photography

Graduating senior Terri Lane is ready to sing, to raise her voice — a soulful, mighty four-octaves — to the rafters for the latest in a lifelong series of standout performances.

Lane has opened for Foreigner and the late Johnny Winter; won WPLR’s Battle of the Bands; and sung backup for Michael and Orrin Bolton, Harry Connick Jr., Eddie Money, and a host of others. But May 18 marks a special milestone for the self-described “bluesy rocker chick,” who will sing the alma mater at Southern’s undergraduate commencement exercises — minutes after crossing the stage to receive a bachelor’s degree in music.

Commencement is a celebration of beginnings, but this will be a culmination of sorts for Lane, the final of three performances packed into an emotional two days. Southern also will hold two graduate commencement ceremonies on May 17, and Lane will sing several songs at both, including a personal selection, “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” by Simon and Garfunkel. She’ll preface each with a short recollection. “About my journey and how there is always hope — and a helping hand to get us through,” she says.

After completing several classes during Southern’s summer session, Lane moves on to Columbia University, Teachers College to begin its prestigious graduate program in music and music education. Making her achievement all the more inspiring, she’s overcome years of horrendous childhood abuse at the hands of her mother, who suffered from severe alcohol and drug addiction.

“We lived in an upper-middle class part of Trumbull, and no one knew what was happening inside of our house,” says Lane, who recalls wearing pants and long sleeves to hide bruises — and missing school when her injuries were too severe to cover. “I was bullied because I was so thin and withdrawn,” says Lane, who still managed to earn top grades.

She suffered through years of abuse before a guidance counselor stepped in. “The types of stories I was telling . . . they just couldn’t believe it at first. It sounded preposterous. What mother would starve her own child,” says Lane. She was placed with a loving foster family for a time. But her mother refused to relinquish custody. Eventually, after being forced to return to her original home, Lane was emancipated as a minor at the age of 15.

She eventually found peace with her mother — and, says that today, she holds love and forgiveness in her heart. Later, when both her mother and a half-brother died in separate drug overdoses, she says the sense of loss “put her into a tailspin.”

Music major Terri Lane, ’18, performing at a sold-out concert at Toad’s Place in 2007. Photo: Andrew Wallach Photography

Through it all music was a saving grace. At the age of three, Lane sat at her grandmother’s piano, “pinging” out melodies heard on the radio. When she was 11, she began classical voice training — and received her first standing ovation at the age of 14 at a school concert. “School and music were my only outlets. They kept my alive,” she says.

Plans to attend college on scholarship to major in music were put on hold. But music remained a touchstone — a source of income and solace. “I never said no to a gig,” says Lane, with a smile. “I was in the studio and performing musical theater at a professional level. . . . I studied acting and got into my first band. I wrote songs.”

She also began working in the energy sector, taking classes at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute at Hartford and moving up the corporate ladder. She was working in management, when she had an epiphany and finally resigned. “It was time to change my lot — to go after my dreams completely, ” she says. In 2010, drawing exclusively on her extensive industry experience, Lane became an instructor of voice at the University of New Haven. The work united her love of music and teaching — and ultimately confirmed the importance of earning an undergraduate degree to further her career.

Lane’s path led to Southern, where she started undergraduate classes in spring 2014. “When I researched the schools, Southern was it,” she says. “I’d researched the professors, the degree plan, and everything offered. I was so amazed by the experience of some of the professors — especially their musicianship. . . . It was very important to me that they be actively involved in music.”

Terri Lane, ’18, [third from left] was one of the first recipients of the Stutzman Family Foundation Music Scholarship, funded by the Stutzman Family Foundation. Highly accomplished as a Southern student,
Walter Stutzman, ’09, is an award-winning adjunct faculty member. From left: Stutzman and Stutzman Scholars Kristen Casale, ’17; Lane; Jaromy Green; Mary Rose Garych, ’17; and Brendan Donovan, ’18.

After successfully auditioning, Lane was named one of several recipients of the first Stutzman Family Music Scholarship, funded by the Stutzman Family Foundation. Like other music majors and minors, she also benefited from the Southern Applied Music Program, which provides free weekly voice or instrument lessons. The program is funded by the Stutzman Family Foundation as well.

“When I started, I could sing about 3¾ octaves. They have taken me a little over four octaves since I have been here. I am actually stronger than I have ever been as a singer,” says Lane, who worked with applied lesson instructor Rebecca Barko.

The faculty, in turn, are effusive in their praise of Lane. Craig Hlavac, interim associate dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, comments on her acceptance into Columbia University’s graduate program: “This is a testament not only to her perseverance and talents, but also [to] how Southern can prepare students from all backgrounds to thrive in both employment and at the graduate level.”

Lane, meanwhile, can’t wait to begin the next phase of her education. She plans to start performing again once settled into graduate work — and says she’ll keep sharing her story to help others hurt by abuse. She hopes her words of survival bring courage and solace.

“I know what it is like to play in front of thousands of screaming fans — to feel that extraordinary rush of love,” she says. “ I don’t hold anything back when I sing. I give everything — even the pain. It’s the only way I know. That’s how I healed myself over the years.”

She did what she loved and success followed. Julia Rotella, ’17, graduated summa cum laude after being spotlighted as one of the country’s top student marketers.

School of Business and Honors College graduate Julia Rotella, '17

Among the 11,000 students who are members of the American Marketing Association (AMA), graduating business administration major Julia Rotella is a standout, finishing second in the organization’s 2017 Student Marketer of the Year competition. “It was really amazing to see my name up on the screen,” says Rotella of the honor, which was sponsored by Northwestern Mutual and announced at the AMA’s International Collegiate Conference in New Orleans in March.

The Monroe, Conn., native has always been drawn to the world of business. “I knew I wanted to be a marketing major since I was very young. As a kid, I actually had an eBay account and would sell things,” says Rotella. She also assisted her mother at craft fairs — learning about trade shows and how to best display products. “I enjoyed the satisfaction of selling things — being able to see the results of marketing. . . . Of course, I didn’t know that it was called marketing at the time,” she says with a smile.

That changed in Rotella’s sophomore year at Masuk High School in Monroe, Conn., when she enrolled in a marketing class. “I remember thinking, ‘Yes! This is what I want to do,’” she says. A gifted high school student, she took Honors level and Advanced Placement courses — and was an ideal candidate for very selective colleges and universities. After considering tuition costs, she chose Southern where she was accepted in the Honors College and received a Presidential Scholarship, a merit-based award that covered her full in-state tuition and fees for four years.

Choosing to commute to campus, Rotella made the most of her Southern experience, joining Southern’s collegiate chapter of the AMA, now known as SUMA — SCSU Undergraduate Marketing Association. As a sophomore she became president of the organization, a post she held until graduation. “SUMA has really helped me to become rooted here, to feel like I am part of a community,” she says.

It’s a community marked by achievement. In 2017, SUMA was a semifinalist in the AMA’s prestigious Collegiate Case Competition, finishing among the top 17 colleges and universities. (Semifinalists and finalists were listed in alphabetical order within each category without a specific ranking.) Southern was the only institution of higher learning in Connecticut to reach this level — and joined Providence College as one of only two in all of New England.

The competition — open to AMA’s 370 collegiate chapters — challenged teams to develop a comprehensive marketing plan for e-commerce giant eBay. Southern’s chapter tackled the assignment admirably. “The students were thrilled. They deserve a lot of credit for finishing in a group that included representatives from some very prestigious schools,” says Randye Spina, assistant professor of marketing and SUMA’s faculty adviser. SUMA also received the AMA’s award for outstanding chapter planning.

Looking forward, the group hopes to build on its success under the leadership of Jennifer Bucci, incoming SUMA president. Among the organization’s greatest challenges — obtaining funding to attend the AMA’s international conference. “They are going to make finals,” says Rotella, who is seeking a position with a marketing agency. “I am not going to be a part of it. But I will be watching from the outside. It’s going to be amazing.”

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Passing the Torch
More from recent graduate Julia Rotella, ’17, including a few of her tips for current and future Owls.

Self-Motivated: As a sophomore, Rotella launched her own company, JR Marketing. She’s created websites, logos, brochures, social media posts, and more for numerous clients, including the Monroe Youth Commission, the Monroe Economic Development Commission, Alcohol and Drug Awareness of Monroe (ADAM), and others.

Scholarship support: In addition to the Presidential Scholarship, Rotella received the Eleanor Jensen Endowed Scholarship and the Anthony Verlezza Endowed Scholarship.

Advice to Honors College students: “Push through it. At times, the work load is very strenuous. But if you are in the Honors College, it’s because you can handle it.”

One recent honor: Southern’s Scholastic Achievement and Leadership Award in Marketing in May 2017

Real-world experience: Rotella had marketing internships with TeamDigital Promotions; GoECart, a provider of on-demand ecommerce solutions; Talking Finger, a social media marketing agency; and ASSA Abloy, an international company offering a complete range of door-opening products, solutions, and services.

On building relationships: “Talk to your professors. If I had a question about a paper or an assignment, I’d meet during their office hours. . . . Having those conversations helped me a lot.”

Get involved: “College is what you make it. If you are motivated . . . a go-getter who is going to make things happen, then you are going to enjoy your experience. I enjoyed my years at Southern because of SUMA Marketing.”

bloggettingjob
The job search after commencement can seem like a daunting task, even for those who are well-prepared.

As college and high school students receive their diplomas this spring, thoughts of finding a job are bound to proliferate.

Can I find a job that fits into my career plans? How long will it take to find something…anything? What can I do to maximize my chances of landing a particular position?

Two years ago, then Gerri Prince, Southern’s coordinator of employer recruitment programs, and Pat Whelan, who was then the university’s associate director of career services, offered some helpful suggestions to new graduates.

We thought this would be a good time to share that post with our readers.

Good luck to all the graduates!