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New Haven

In the heart of New Haven, two Southern graduates are lifting up their community through separate organizations — both dedicated to the greater good.

Once labeled a "difficult' high school student, Adam Christoferson, '10, now uses his talent to help others through Musical Intervention, the New Haven-based nonprofit organization he founded.

During the worst days of his childhood, Adam Christoferson, ’10, turned to music as both his anchor and escape hatch. As a kid, he recalls living with his mom, who had schizophrenia, in a rent-subsidized apartment on Rock Street in New Haven, on the edge of one of the city’s roughest neighborhoods. His father, a Vietnam veteran, struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder. When his mother’s illness progressed, Christoferson spent time in foster care and eventually moved in with his grandmother.

Music became a lifeline. Coming from a musical family — his uncle is New Haven-born singer-songwriter Michael Bolton — Christoferson learned to play drums as an 8 year old and later took up several other instruments. “It was my expression. It was the way I communicated in the world,” says Christoferson, now 34. “When there was absolute chaos all around, music kept me together and kept me healthy. It kept me, me.”

“I wanted my life to contribute more than a job.” — Erik Clemons, ’04, CEO and president of ConnCAT
Erik Clemons, ’04, grew up poor in Norwalk, Conn. By the time he was a teenager, his father had disappeared and his family moved to Stamford, where he shared a cramped, one-room apartment with his mother and three siblings. In the next few years, the family moved a lot. Clemons bounced from school to school — a different one for each year of high school — and the instability was reflected in his grades.

In spite of those experiences, both men persevered. Today they are each successful social justice entrepreneurs in the Elm City, running organizations that help people, including many facing extremely difficult life challenges. Clemons, 52, helms the Connecticut Center for Arts and Technology (ConnCAT), a nonprofit that provides after-school arts programming for at-risk youth and job training for unemployed and underemployed adults in the health and culinary fields.

Christoferson, meanwhile, shares the therapeutic power of music with New Haven’s homeless and recovery population through Musical Intervention, a drug and alcohol-free space in a downtown storefront on Temple Street, where people can write, record, and perform their own music. He is now working to expand the concept nationally.

Both men say Southern played a big role in their success, citing mentors who recognized their potential and steered them toward life-changing internships. “What happened to me at Southern is that I found out I had some ability. I had some competence,” says Clemons. “There were just some incredible people who left an indelible mark on me.”

Erik Clemons, ’04, CEO and president of ConnCAT

Following the call
Clemons says his upbringing left him ill-prepared for college, so after high school, he worked various jobs to support himself before landing a position as a mail sorter at the U.S. Postal Service in Stamford. Married and raising four girls, he’d stay there for 16 years, but always had bigger dreams. “I wanted my life to contribute to something greater than a job,” says Clemons.

After 12 years at the post office, he decided to follow his calling. He enrolled at Southern as a full-time sociology major, driving to New Haven for classes after work and returning home at night so he could be back at the post office for his 6 a.m. shift.Knowing his desire to work with young people of color, Shirley Jackson, a former Southern sociology professor who was also Clemons’ adviser, recommended him for an internship at the youth-development organization LEAP (Leadership, Education, and Athletics in Partnership) — where he would eventually rise to become a board member and then Connecticut executive director.

In 2009, his work at LEAP caught the attention of Carlton Highsmith, a retired New Haven businessman who was trying to replicate an acclaimed New Hampshire job training program in the Elm City.Highsmith asked Clemons if he would help him build and run the program. Clemons said yes, and in 2011, he became ConnCAT’s founding chief executive officer. The nonprofit began with the after-school program and adult courses in phlebotomy and medical billing and coding, and has since added a culinary program, a student-run restaurant, and a high school entrepreneurship camp. Southern hosted the camp in July. In January, ConnCAT scored a $1 million grant from KeyBank to further grow the program.

Asked about his favorite success story, Clemons points to two of his adult students, one in phlebotomy and another in medical billing and coding, who now are teachers in the program.“It’s not just about job training. It’s about how can we get people to see that there are possibilities beyond the conditions they see. That’s kind of the story of my life as well,” he says. “I never thought about being a CEO or founding CEO of anything,”adds Clemons. “I was able to do some really amazing things because people noticed me. That’s it.”

Adam Christoferson, ’10, founder of Musical Intervention

‘He gave me a shot’
On paper, Christoferson says he didn’t appear to be “college material” either. Branded a difficult student” and channeled into special education, he knew his GPA and test scores couldn’t get him into Southern. So he pleaded his case to Richard Farricielli, then the interim vice president for student and university affairs. Christoferson told him about a teen center he was trying to launch in East Haven and how he wanted to one day do something that would change the world.”

“He gave me a shot,” recalls Christoferson, who was granted conditional admission. Once on campus Christoferson immersed himself in student life, becoming a resident adviser, joining student government, and starting an Ultimate Frisbee team. But a few years in, he lost his way. He took time off to live in Hawaii. He fell into depression. “I was reading Deepak Chopra and trying to get my life together. I really didn’t know what my path was,” he says.

Eventually he returned to Southern, still unsure about his future, until he accidentally stumbled on a link for information on recreation and leisure studies while registering for classes. (Today, it’s the Department of Recreation, Tourism, and Sport Management.) “I just clicked on it and it opened up all these key courses that were, basically, what I’m all about,” he says. He decided to pursue recreation therapy and began to excel academically.

His adviser, James MacGregor, now chair of the department, set him up with an internship at Yale New Haven Children’s Psychiatric Inpatient Service unit, where he was later hired as a recreation therapist, a job that sowed the seeds for Musical Intervention. His first week there, Christoferson noticed a girl drawing a picture of someone singing. “I asked her if she wanted to make music with me,” he recalls. His supervisor gave him permission to bring some recording equipment onto the unit.

“And it was a hit,” Christoferson says. “This girl completely transformed, being able to make music and record it.” His work was later featured in the World Congress of the International Association for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and Christoferson would be invited to speak at international symposiums. In 2015, he won a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to work with the homeless population.

The following year he opened Musical Intervention, where he continues to see miraculous transformations through music. “There are people who have been homeless for such a long time, they haven’t had a guitar to play. That’s what we provide. There are people who are in crisis with drugs or mental illness and they let [music] go years ago and missed it,” Christoferson says. “While they’re in treatment, they’re able to come to us and regain all of that passion and creativity that was lost.” ■

New Haven is a foodies' paradise — with Junzi Kitchen among students' favorite new dining hotspots. Alumnus Andrew Chu, '10, MBA '13, the restaurant's director of operations, reflects on the excitement of working for the successful startup — and how Southern helped prepare him for the feast.

Photo: Junzi
Andrew Chu, '10, MBA '13, is director of operations at Junzi Kitchen, a student favorite in New Haven.

Andrew Chu, ’10, MBA ’13, is energized by the lightning-fast pace of a restaurant startup. “If I went to a 9 to 5 desk job, I would be incredibly bored,” says Chu, director of operations for Junzi Kitchen. The restaurant, which was founded in New Haven in 2015 by a group of Yale University alumni, has already expanded to include several New York locations, all specializing in northern Chinese cuisine. Chu was among Junzi’s earliest team members — drawing on experience gained from his family’s restaurant background and two Southern business degrees. Both prepared him for a rewarding, demanding schedule. At Southern, he was a graduate intern, a resident hall adviser, an orientation ambassador, and treasurer of the Cultural Affairs Club and the Ski/Snowboard Club. “I was one of those kids,” says Chu, who also worked off campus — and served on what is now the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities Board of Trustees. In the following interview, he shares his thoughts on Southern and business.

How did you become involved with Junzi?
It was really through networking and living in New Haven for so long. I moved to New Haven when I was 17 — so I’ve been in the city for some time. Mutual friends were working with Junzi’s co-founders at the very beginning. One of my friends, Reed Immer, who is a New Haven local, signed on to do marketing. He introduced us, and my background fit. My upbringing was in Chinese restaurants. My family had a restaurant in Middletown, Conn., called Debbie Wong Restaurant. We also had a few in Massachusetts. They were banquet-style restaurants — most 65 – 70 seats — with the location in Middletown seating about 300 for weddings, Lion’s Club meetings, and other events. So it was more of an operation.

So it’s in your blood.
It’s kind of ironic. My dad will say to me: ‘You didn’t want to take over the restaurant when you were younger. Then you went, got all of this college education, and now you want to get back in the restaurant industry.’ But Junzi is very different from your traditional, neighborhood Chinese restaurant. I saw a great opportunity for growth and forward momentum.

What are your responsibilities with the restaurant?
I am one of the operations managers for the company. In 2015, there were only seven of us. With a recent hire, we are at 17 employees now, so we’ve grown considerably in three years. In the beginning, I oversaw store operations. But now I am happy to be transitioning into more of an HR [human resources] role, which I enjoy immensely. Working closely with people on communication, making sure policies are followed. And I still get to have my hand in a little bit of everything else.

You earned two business degrees at Southern. Did you always plan to major in business?
From high school on, I had a business track in mind. I was interested in marketing as an undergraduate. In terms of the MBA degree, I was given an amazing opportunity to become a graduate intern for Judicial Affairs [at Southern]. So I was earning my degree while gaining experience.

Noodle bowls at Junzi

How did Southern help prepare you for your career?
Serving on the board of trustees for what was then the Connecticut State Universities system was instrumental — especially doing so while going through Southern’s business program and earning my MBA. I was able to take what I was learning in the classroom and apply it to a real-world setting. That experience definitely taught me to hold my own . . . to be able to walk into a room of senior business leaders and understand what they were talking about. I remember there being a $171 million budget just for Southern. So I gained an understanding of those type of numbers, and I was part of meetings and conferences where all different aspects of business were discussed. It was very exciting. [laughs] It was also very nerve-wrecking. But it gave me experience.
I also had side jobs while attending graduate school. I was a sales rep for a snow board company based out of Waterbury, Vt., and worked at a retail store out of Berlin, Conn. I like to stay busy.

Was there anyone at Southern who had a particularly strong influence?
The board of trustees was a huge influence.Then, without question, my graduate internship with Student Affairs — and all of the administrators I worked with [through the division]. Chris Piscitelli [assistant dean of students and director of student conduct], Denise Bentley-Drobish [director of student involvement], Sal Rizzo [director of new student and sophomore programs], and Eric Lacharity [interim associate director of student involvement] — all had such a major impact. A lot of it was them stressing the importance of getting involved and networking. That helped me exponentially get to where I am today.

The restaurant also takes reservations for a monthly chef’s table, featuring culinary specialities.
The restaurant industry has a reputation for being very demanding. I’d imagine that would be even more so with a successful startup.
At the very beginning, it could be discouraging: having six-day work weeks and 10-plus hour work days. Without question, you do have to work extended hours. But it helped build me into a better person. I’m more professional and more organized. I’ve learned so much from them. And, honestly, I live for this. If I went to a 9 to 5 desk job, I would be incredibly bored.

Looking forward, where do you see yourself 10 years from now?
I’d like to ride this out to see where it takes me. I spent a lot of my earlier years — in my 20s — figuring out what I actually wanted to do. I always had a focus on business — and once I found this [opportunity], it was really exciting, especially coming in close to the beginning. I think I was employee number three. I went from working with our chef, cooking in the owners’ apartment. We’d be there at 8 a.m. testing recipes — and the co-founders would be sleeping after staying up all night talking with investors in China. Now two stores are open. Our NYU location is about to open. [The store is slated to open this summer.] And we just locked in a new location on 41st Street between Bryant Park and Times Square. We are working on a new round of fundraising. . . . There are so many really exciting things happening – and I only see this company growing. In terms of opportunities, this is going to give me the greatest amount of growth and the greatest amount of challenge – both personally and professionally. To be able to come in at the ground level has been incredible. I want to invest as much time and effort to seeing Junzi grow. Nothing would be more satisfying to me than to one day say, ‘We have 100 units throughout the U.S. — if not internationally.’

Any advice for students?
I would tell them to get experience while they are earning their degrees. I know that it is incredibly challenging for a lot of young people to know what they want to do — to think, for example, I want to ultimately be the VP of human resources for a major company. That’s why I encourage people to start exploring different aspects of business while they are going to college. I thought I wanted to do marketing — and low and behold . . . I’m interested in HR.
It’s also very much about networking. Building relationships. Putting yourself out there, even if it makes you nervous. Networking is what helped me get to where I am today. It’s what’s helped the business [Junzi] expand.

We’ll end with something light. What’s your favorite dish at Junzi?
Junzi has a “build your own”-style menu. I really like the jaja noodle bowl. I build that with spring noodles, the jaja sauce, pork as the protein — all stir-fried with a little bit of cucumber and scallions to top it off. That’s my go-to combo.

Photos: Junzi 2018

CARE, New Haven

Above, left to right: Yan Searcy, associate dean of the School of Health and Human Services; Sandra Bulmer, dean of the School of Health and Human Services; Alycia Santilli, CARE director; and Jeannette Ickovics, CARE founder

The Community Alliance for Research and Engagement (CARE) is partnering with Southern Connecticut State University to enhance its ongoing efforts to improve the health of residents in New Haven’s lowest-income neighborhoods.

Since its founding in 2007 at the Yale School of Public Health, CARE has worked to identify solutions to health challenges such as diabetes, asthma, and heart and lung diseases through community-based research and projects focusing on social, environmental, and behavioral risk factors. During the next three years, CARE will transition from Yale to SCSU’s campus, with SCSU becoming responsible for CARE’s community engagement work. Yale will continue to manage and finance CARE’s research agenda while gradually shifting that work to SCSU.

“This partnership with SCSU represents a powerful next step in the evolution of CARE by engaging with a local state university to drive deeper change into our neighborhoods,” said CARE founder Jeannette Ickovics. “This is an opportunity of mutual benefit:  a way to extend CARE’s work in New Haven, provide continuity and new energy to the work, and provide a platform to launch a center at Southern. “

The new SCSU Center for Community Engagement will help foster student service learning, advance community-engaged scholarship, and benefit CARE’s community partners, said Sandra Bulmer, dean of SCSU’s School of Health and Human Services (HHS). With Alycia Santilli as director, and Ickovics serving in an advisory capacity, CARE is beginning its transition to SCSU this month, Bulmer said.

Southern’s School of Health and Human Services is unique in Connecticut in combining seven disciplines under a single umbrella –  communication disorders, exercise science, marriage and family therapy, nursing, public health, social work, and recreation, tourism, and sport management. As a result, academic opportunities are highly interdisciplinary, while the school’s wide range of internships means that students participate in the community while earning their degrees.

“SCSU’s students and faculty are tremendous assets that will bring CARE expanded opportunities in community-based research, programming, and policy change, leading to further improvement in the health of New Haven residents,” Bulmer said.

During the transitional period, YSPH will remain as the central hub of CARE’s research activities, with a focus on data analysis from its New Haven Public Schools and neighborhood health surveys, said Santilli, who began her employment with SCSU Sept. 23 as a special appointment faculty member in the Department of Public Health.

“The potential of student, faculty, and staff power, combined with the legacy of work initiated over the past decade at the Yale School of Public Health, will be leveraged in a new way that I hope will have a lasting impact for another decade to come,” Santilli said.

“I am excited about the capacity and resources that this expanded partnership can bring to the SCSU campus community and the Greater New Haven area. As I become familiar with SCSU, two things stand out: the drive to best serve students and the commitment to social justice. These are simultaneously familiar and fresh perspectives from which CARE can begin to refine our focus on improving health in the New Haven community.”

Santilli, who has been with CARE since 2007, will spend the coming months transitioning CARE’s operations to Southern’s campus, developing CARE’s new strategic plan, and launching its new community engagement activities. She will split her time between offices at Lang House and Southern on the Green in downtown New Haven.

More information about CARE, including its accomplishments and publications, can be found on the CARE website.