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Honors College

At a time when life has become more virtual than tactile, students in the HON 300 course, Introduction to Service Learning, at Southern Connecticut State University are finding that access to the Campus Community Garden is benefiting them as much as the local organizations they serve.

HON 300 gives students an experiential, hands-on approach to concepts like giving and collaborating, with a community focus. Most semesters, students work in local neighborhoods with community partners to build rain gardens, plant trees, and assist with habitat revitalization at several parks near Southern’s campus in the Newhallville and Dixwell neighborhoods.

This year, Suzie Huminski, sustainability coordinator, said she and co-teacher Lisa Ott decided to have the class meet outdoors and in person in the garden as long as weather and daylight permit.

“The course content for HON 300 has always focused on access to high quality outdoor green space and connections to health and well-being for individuals and communities,” Huminski said. “This is an important social justice issue as well as an environmental issue. Because of the pandemic, we decided to up our game with experiential outdoor learning. The garden is at the top of a large hillside, so there is room for us to spread out,” Huminski said.

Surrounded by fresh air and their socially-distanced peers, students are thriving.

“This class is really special,” Sam Martin, ‘23, said. “All of my classes are online this semester. It’s the class I look forward to all week.” Martin, a self-proclaimed outdoorsman who has years of gardening experience, said the gardening component doesn’t relate at all to his Special Education major but that he “loves it anyway.”

“Students appreciate so much spending time together,” Huminski said. “In between their work planting a new pollinator pathway and a late season harvest that we’ll donate to local soup kitchens, the students are engaged in sharing their perspectives with each other in a way that I have rarely seen in 10 years of teaching at SCSU: they talk openly about their own experiences as they relate to principles of service, leadership, and followership. They have fun together and are gelling as a group.”

Ott added, “I think that the garden offers a safe environment to take chances. It’s a novel opportunity for students to experience learning in a functional way. They can lay out plants in all sorts of combinations, as long as they take into account non-negotiable factors that nature sets in place. They see concrete examples that things don’t always turn out as we plan and that sometimes the unexpected creates wonderful results; it’s a safe atmosphere to share thoughts and to experiment with ideas.”

The Campus Community Garden, located down the steps beside Davis Hall, was installed in 2012. The garden consists of a large fenced-in garden space used to grow vegetables, fruit, herbs, and flowers. This fall, HON 300 students are expanding the garden with a pollinator pathway to attract bees and butterflies. The garden is student run with support from the Office of Sustainability. Interested in volunteering, teaching a class, or becoming involved at the garden? Contact Derek Faulkner, faulknerd4@southernct.edu.


Southern’s Honors College brings the best of both worlds to academically proficient students: the challenging curriculum and small class sizes found at elite private colleges — and the countless opportunities and comparatively low cost of a major public university.

First-year and sophomore members of the Honors College gathered to present their research at an on-campus student conference in spring 2018.

Julia Rotella, ’17, excelled in honors-level courses at Masuk High School in Monroe, Conn., and had her pick of potential colleges. Drawing on her long-held interest in business — Rotella sold items on eBay as a child — she looked into Bentley University, a regionally top-ranked private college specializing in business where annual tuition/fees totaled more than $41,000 at the time (2013-14).

At Jonathan Law High School in Milford, Conn., Cody Edson, ’16, M.S. ’17, also earned top grades but planned to postpone college. The oldest of five siblings, he knew tuition costs would be challenging for himself and his parents, both police officers. So he thought he’d enlist in the U.S. Navy and attend college later.

In contrast, Kara Jones, ’18, the oldest of four, says postponing college was never an option. A talented student at Stonington High School, Jones intended to become an educator — and a well-respected teacher recommended Southern, citing its historically excellent education program. “But to be honest, it was at the bottom of my list,” says Jones. “I had my eye on a number of other places. I didn’t even know about the Honors College.”

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

Ah, the twists and turns of the college search process — the oft-demanding quest for the perfect mix of access, affordability, comfort, and aspirational goals. Months later, when Jones happily enrolled at Southern, she was one of about 40 first-year students in Southern’s Honors College — a program for students who excelled in high school and show a strong desire to continue their outstanding academic success.

Her experience was echoed by Rotella and Edson. All received Presidential Merit Scholarships covering full in-state tuition and fees — and, in hindsight, all say their decision to join Southern’s Honors College was the right one. Their academic success is certainly telling — reflecting the program’s historical student-retention rate of well-over 90 percent. In 2017, Rotella graduated summa cum laude — after being named the runner-up in the American Marketing Association’s national “Student Member of the Year” competition.

As for Jones and Edson? Both moved on to graduate school at nationally top-ranked universities. In the fall, Jones started a master’s degree in the reading specialist program at Teachers College, Columbia University — aided by a scholarship covering full tuition and fees. Meanwhile, Edson — who earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in chemistry in five years through an accelerated program at Southern — is pursuing a doctorate at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, N.Y. “Applying to a Ph.D. program is very competitive,” says Edson. “But because of the research I did at Southern and all of the extracurricular activities, RPI said, ‘We want you.’ It was a very humbling experience to be wanted by such a prestigious university.”

James Kearns, assistant professor of chemistry, works with Honors College graduate Cody Edson, ’16, M.S. ’17.

Southern’s Honor College has a history of such success stories, says Terese Gemme, who’s led the program since 2002. A commitment to excellence is a hallmark of the Honors College, which offers small, seminar-style classes (under 20 students) and a focus on interdisciplinary study, faculty-student collaboration, research, and writing. “Those who apply are looking for a challenge. They want to be part of a community of scholars — and they believe that education should provide room for in-depth exploration and creative learning,” says Gemme.

At some universities, honors programs have come under fire for being isolationist, in effect creating a multi-tiered approach to education. In contrast, Southern’s Honors College is highly inclusive. Students may choose any major — and also take many regular courses. In 2016-17, honors theses were completed by 35 students representing 15 different majors, including art, communication, economics and finance, nursing, and physics.

The program was recently restructured to offer two levels of study. Most students continue to participate in the program over four years, completing honors courses in place of most university liberal arts requirements. In addition, a new Honors College minor also has been introduced, requiring a minimum of 18 honors course credits, including a capstone experience.

This capstone experience — required of all traditional Honors College participants as well as those electing the minor — has become more flexible as well. As in the past, students may complete a departmental honors thesis or creative project. But they may also conduct community-engaged research or study abroad.

The depth and diversity of their work are impressive — particularly for students at the undergraduate level. For his honors thesis, Joshua Cohn, ’17, an art major in the Honors College, held a solo exhibit of stunning sculptures he created from “repurposed earthly materials”— granite, ceramic, and metal. In contrast, Edson worked with James Kearns, assistant professor of chemistry, to develop a field test to determine arsenic levels in soil. And Rotella developed a business plan that incorporated social responsibility.

Recent Honors College graduate Joshua Cohn, ’17, mounted a solo art exhibit for his senior honors thesis.

This added flexibility is a boon to students who are dedicated to making the most of their education. “If you ask most students in the Honors College what they like to do, they can’t keep quiet. There are just too many things they’re interested in,” says J. Philip Smith, professor emeritus of mathematics and former interim president of Southern. Smith was the founding director of the Honors College and continues to teach Honors College courses, including “Ambiguity and Uncertainty in the Arts and Sciences,” an interdisciplinary course he leads alongside Michael Shea, professor of English.

Jones, who double majored in education and psychology, says the course was one of her favorites. She comments: “I love English but wasn’t able to pursue it as a major in college, so I liked having that time to explore literature — or even to talk about math because it’s not a subject I would normally approach.

“From an educational standpoint, that is something I value,” Jones continues. “I don’t think you should be going to college just for a degree. I think you should go to learn . . . to become well-rounded and a critical thinker.”

There are significant financial incentives as well — particularly relevant since college students from all four-year institutions of higher learning in Connecticut graduated with an average debt level of more than $35,490 in 2016. Beginning with the Class of 2020, all first-year students admitted to Southern’s Honors College receive a merit-based scholarship. Currently, the top 20 percent are awarded a Presidential Merit Scholarship covering full in-state tuition costs and fees. For the remainder, the scholarship covers a minimum of one-half of these costs. All are renewable for four years.

Francisco Salinas, an Honors College student who graduated in May with a degree in computer science and a minor in mathematics, says that the financial support allows students to focus more fully on their studies — as well as meaningful internships, research opportunities, and community outreach. A native of Quito, Ecuador, he immigrated to the U.S. with his family in 2001 — and went on to graduate seventh in his class at Platt Technical High School. He applied to the Honors College at his father’s urging — and says he was somewhat overwhelmed to receive the acceptance letter and learn he’d received a full Presidential Merit Scholarship. “We were immediately celebrating. That was one of the best days of my life,” he says.

There are 180 students in the Honors College, including those who applied to the program after their first-year or as transfer students. (The latter groups do not receive scholarships.)

Honors College students are a talented group: the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores of last year’s entering class averaged 1250. (The 2018 application suggested a minimum combined SAT score of approximately 1080, or the ACT equivalent.) That said, admissions is based on far more than test scores, including letters of recommendation; a review of past leadership and community service; and several essays. “I can tell you that 100 percent of our students are involved in leadership or community service in high school,” says Gemme.

Finalists are invited to an Honors College Essay Day to learn more about the program, complete a writing prompt, and join an Honors College-style class. The review process is rigorous and time-consuming, particularly in comparison to some colleges that rely solely on standardized test scores. “We only have 40 spots per year — and not only do we want the 40 best students, but we want the 40 students who we think will be most successful and thrive in the program,” says Gemme.

Honors College students share their research at an on-campus conference.

Interest in the Honors College has grown significantly, fueled, in part, by rising tuition costs at private colleges and the comparatively low cost of attending Southern. In recent years, the New York Times, U.S. News, USA Today, the Washington Post, and countless others have lauded the benefits of honors programs offered at state universities.

At Southern, there were more than 200 applicants for the Honors College’s 40 spots for first-year students in 2017 — an increase of more than 122 percent from four years prior. “The Honors College now attracts students from across the country – which it didn’t do initially,” says Smith.

Regardless of where students hail from, once at Southern, the Honors College is home. Building that sense of community, in recent years, about 74 percent of students opted to live with peers in the on-campus Honors College Living and Learning Community, located in West Residence Campus Hall.

Kara Jones chose that option her first and sophomore years — and continued to live with three Honors College students when she moved as an upper-classman. “We built lifelong friendships. . . . We worked on group assignments and helped each other edit papers. Some of the Honors College classes are very challenging, so it was good for morale to live together,” says Jones.

Students also often gather at the Honors College Library, which in March 2010 was dedicated in memory of Daniel Ort, professor emeritus of English and the Honors College co-founder. (The program began in 1982 and was initially the brainchild of Ort; Martin Anisman, then dean of the School of Arts and Sciences; and Kenneth Gatzke, professor of philosophy, says Smith, who became the program’s first director.)

Looking forward, the program’s recent changes — including the aforementioned adoption of the new minor, enhanced capstone options, an increased focus on community outreach, and scholarship dollars for all — offer expanded opportunities for future scholars. Yet, challenges remain. Gemme notes that based on interest, the Honors College could easily double in size while still keeping its small community feel. But additional funding is needed to provide more merit scholarships. “There are so many students who we think would be great in the program that we just don’t have the scholarships to support,” says Gemme.

In the meantime, she is committed to making the experience as rich as possible for today’s Honors College students. She concedes that at least initially some of these “star students” did not see themselves as Southern candidates. “But once they see what we are and what we do, they realize Southern is exactly what they want,” says Gemme. “They find it’s like being in a liberal arts college with peers who are as excited about learning as they are. And they also have all the resources of a large university — the football team, the campus-wide service learning opportunities, the theater, student government, clubs, and student life. It’s the best of both worlds.” ■

Monica Zielinski, journalism student, Poland


Head Journalist, Time for Polska, Warsaw, Poland

Southern’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), recently was awarded the Region 1 Outstanding Campus Chapter Award for 2015-16 “in recognition of outstanding programs and activities that enhance professionalism, thereby contributing service to the Society and to the profession.” Region 1 comprises chapters in the states of: Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island.

The SCSU SPJ President for 2015-16 was journalism major Monica Zielinski. Recipient of the Robin Marshall Glassman Outstanding Journalism Graduate award for 2016, Zielinski is now working for a publication in Warsaw, capital city of Poland.

“Monica, was one of those rare students who achieve academic success, at the same time giving back to students and the campus,” said SCSU Journalism Chair Cindy Simoneau.

We asked Monica a series of questions about her new professional career and her experiences as a journalism student at Southern:

First, just the basics: degree, age, hometown?

Degree: Major in Journalism, Minor in Communication, 22 years old, East Haven, CT

Tell us about your new job?

I’m currently working in Warsaw, Poland, as the head journalist for Time for Polska. It’s a new international project headed by the respected national newspaper, Rzeczpospolita. I’m interviewing CEOs and founders of top Polish brands and companies and writing articles about their products and services. The glossy magazine will be distributed at Polish diplomatic posts around the world, European parliaments, selected airports and hotels, and international trade fairs. So far I have interviewed the CEO of Inglot Cosmetics as well as founders of several tech start-ups such as Social WiFi — which allows businesses to provide free Wi-Fi while interacting with customers — and Monster & Devices, which developed a way to turn any wall or flat surface into a touchscreen. Among others are clothing companies and furniture designers. The mission of the project is to market Poland on a global scale to show investors and ambassadors that business in Poland is thriving and is worth paying attention to.

How did you come to work in Poland after attending Southern?

As a first generation Polish-American, I have been traveling to Poland every other summer my whole life to visit my grandparents and extended family. Last summer, I studied abroad in Warsaw for four weeks through a program called School of Russian and Asian Studies in partnership with Collegium Civitas in Warsaw. It was the first time the program was offered in Poland and I studied Central European history as well as security and defense. I’ve been to Warsaw several times before the program began, but living in the city was a whole new experience. I fell in love with Warsaw and I was devastated I had to leave after one month.

I kept the dream of living in Warsaw in the back of my mind throughout senior year. I even applied for the Fulbright English Teaching Assistant position for Poland and made it through the first round as a semi-finalist. I decided not to give up and researched English publications in Warsaw and stumbled upon Poland Today which was founded by a British native in 2012 who moved to Poland. I contacted the founder and received a response the next day. He was interested in my story and said he had an opportunity for me if I would come to Warsaw.

After the Time for Polska project is completed, I plan to be the online content manager for Poland Today. For now, I contribute articles, translate articles from Polish to English, and copyedit. Originally I decided to give Warsaw a try for the summer but I enjoyed my time here so much that I rented an apartment for a year and I’m truly loving it. I couldn’t have done it without the support of my family however. My grandparents live in a town just two hours outside of Warsaw so I frequently make trips for home-cooked meals and a break from the city. My sister has already booked a flight to visit for Christmas and my parents are very supportive because I’m following my dreams and doing what I love.

Why did you want to become a journalist?

In high school, I signed up for an introduction to journalism class and I really enjoyed it. Senior year I took the course again but was the editor-in-chief of the school newspaper. I fell in love with design and layout and spent hours outside of class perfecting the layout. As the sole editor, I had the freedom to create a paper I was proud of. I also enjoyed interviewing students and faculty for articles because I quickly realized how interesting people can be and they all have their own unique story to tell.

Did you have any internships, research experiences, or similar during your time at Southern?

At Southern, I was a journalism major and communication minor. I completed a summer internship at Connecticut Magazine, which gave me insight into the magazine publication world. I was also the online editor at Southern News junior year and managing editor senior year.

As for Society of Professional Journalists, I was the secretary junior year and then president senior year. I was also in the Honors College so in addition to the rigorous classes, I had to complete and defend an honors thesis. I decided to do a creative project and created my own women’s magazine for college students. It included profiles, articles, photographs and layout design all done by me. I successfully defended my thesis in April.

As a member of both SPJ and the newspaper, I frequently attended local conferences as well as ones requiring travel. With SPJ, I attended Connecticut chapter events in-state, regional conferences in Boston and New York, and the national conference in Florida. With Southern News, I attended the Associated Collegiate Press conference in Los Angeles, California, two years in a row. I also received a research grant to independently attend the ACP conference in Austin, Texas, last October.

How did your participation in SPJ enhance your education?

My participation in SPJ helped my education incredibly because I had a variety of responsibilities and I didn’t have anyone to guide me through it because the previous president and vice president graduated. I started my presidency with enthusiasm and determination. I ensured we were present at the club fair and talked to as many students as possible.

We attended the national as well as Region 1 SPJ conferences, organized a diversity event to talk about the race in the news, held the annual journalism alumni night and organized a trip to tour Bloomberg News in New York. I have to attribute our success to our incredible members: Anisa Jibrell and Vivian Englund (Vice Presidents), Josh Falcone (Treasurer), Natalie Barletta and Dylan Haviland (Secretaries) and members Danielle Campbell and Mihai Tripp.

Our members also volunteered and helped organize the Region 1 conference held right at Southern this past spring. I also moderated a panel discussion. I learned that organizing anything at a university involves a lot of planning ahead of time and a lot of paperwork from administration. I also managed the club’s Twitter and Owl Connect pages and promoted our events.

My position at SPJ taught me to lead weekly meetings, stay on top of required paperwork, promote the club and plan events in addition to being a full-time student Honors College student, managing editor at Southern News and part-time assistant at AXA Equitable Life Insurance.

What do you miss most about SCSU?

I miss my professors the most. After four years, the journalism department became like a family to me. I would see some professors twice a day for classes or meetings. They would always give the best professional advice and I just miss seeing them every day and hearing their “war stories” as Professor Jerry Dunklee (SCSU SPJ faculty advisor) would say.

They truly wanted to see us succeed and I would pop my head into their offices to boast about even small accomplishments. Unlike some departments with a larger student population, the journalism professors always made an effort to meet with me.

What do you most like to write about?

My favorite type of writing is human interest stories because I love sitting down with a subject and letting them tell me about themselves. Some people have never spoken to a journalist, nonetheless about themselves to anyone. Once I show genuine interest, they open up and sometimes won’t stop talking.

What is your ultimate career goal?

Working in Poland has made me realize how much globalization is impacting the world. I have attended conferences with business leaders, economists and political figures from Europe, Asia and the Americas. I learned about how interconnected the nations truly are and I developed an interest in this so I would like to continue to work as a journalist with a focus on international relations.

Why would you recommend journalism as a career?

The world needs respectable journalists right now. Between the political, economic and demographic issues in the United States and abroad, journalists need to seek the truth and report it. It takes investigative work, solid writing skills and a thick skin to be a journalist but it’s rewarding to see your byline next to an article.

I would recommend journalism as a career because it can take you all over the world. With technology, people can work from home or in a country thousands of miles away—which is what I have done.







Students building surfboards

The surfboard is such a part of American popular culture it is almost folkloric. Think “Surfin’ Safari,” The Beach Boys, “Beach Blanket Bingo,” Gidget, and, more recently, “Lilo and Stitch” and “Blue Crush.” Surfing has been romanticized in the American imagination for generations, but how much do any of us really know about the sport or the surfboard itself?

This spring semester, in an Honors College course entitled “Material and Meaning: Economic Geography and Sculpture,” students built their own surfboards from scratch. In doing so, they learned more about surfboards than most of us will ever know: what goes into the production of these manufactured objects or commodities; the production process’ impact on the environment and on workers; and cultural meanings of the object. The class visited beaches and studied wave dynamics to learn how they can affect the way a board surfs. They created a life cycle analysis of their boards, the purpose of which, student Hope Finch explains, “is to quantify a product’s impact on the environment, seek out potential improvements, and to clearly articulate the process through which a product is made.”

And in the end – they had surfboards!

Team taught by Patrick Heidkamp, associate professor of geography, and Jeff Slomba, professor of art, “Material and Meaning” is a hands-on practical learning experience that engages students on many levels. Heidkamp and Slomba decided to use surfboards as the object students would make in the course after encountering research about surfboards at a conference. The course’s goal is for students to create an object that teaches them about commodity chain analysis, or how to examine the process by which companies gather resources, transform them into goods or commodities, and distribute them to consumers. Heidkamp is a longtime surfer and Slomba a paddleboarder, so they also thought the finished products in the course would end up being fun for students. As Heidkamp says, “We hoped we might be able to approximate something that actually works.”

students building surfboards

The class was divided into small groups, each of which was assigned a particular kind of surfboard to study and build. One board was to be made of sustainably-grown wood; another of expanded polystyrene foam (EPS), which is slightly better for the environment than other similar types of foam; and another of materials found on beaches, such as chunks of old foam buoys and docks that had washed up onto the shore. Slomba says these reclaimed materials had “living things inside them” — ants, ticks and other insects –when they were collected, and the creatures remained inside the materials while the students worked on their board. The proposed boards represented different levels of sustainability, says Heidkamp.

Before actually tackling the job of making the boards, students researched the materials they would be using, interviewing manufacturers and other companies that supplied them with the components of the boards. They traced the commodity chain, learned about the history of surfing and its cultural origins, and made demo boards — scale models of the full-size boards they would eventually create. In the process, they also learned how to use the tools that were necessary to build their boards, creating empathy for workers who build boards for a living.

students building surfboards

Student Emma Knauerhase, whose group built the board of reclaimed materials, says, “The most import thing I learned from this project was how to be innovative . . . we were able to do anything we wanted with our surfboard! My group was able to create the surfboard from recycled material and shape it ourselves! Whereas other groups had guidelines to follow, we did not.”

Ultimately, the iconic surfboard came to represent much more to the students than a prop from a Beach Boys song. As Hope Finch says, after taking the course, she “can no longer think of the products you use everyday in the same way. When I look at my board I understand its potential to be detrimental to marine life, I am reminded of the chemicals embedded in the foam and the harm they pose to factory workers in foreign countries, and I am aware of the pollution created in order to ship and deliver the materials to Southern. The surfboard becomes so much more. The surfboard represents the countless repetitive shaping maneuvers needed to form the rails, it represents a fear of tools overcome, and ultimately it’s a physical manifestation of a deep respect for Surf Culture and those that work to keep its roots alive.”