The Top Owl Social Justice Award is given to recognize contributions in helping the university achieve its mission of creating and sustaining an inclusive community that appreciates, celebrates, and advances student and campus diversity at Southern Connecticut State University.
The DEI Advisory Council seeks nominations for the Top Owl Social Justice Awards to be presented monthly in the 2022-2023 academic year. The Top Owls are publicly recognized on campus and receive a certificate and an honorary Social Justice pin. The awards recognize the contributions, leadership and service of deserving part-time and full-time faculty, staff, and students for upholding Southern’s core values of dignity, respect, kindness, compassion and civility. Awardees are individuals who contribute to promoting the principles of human rights, social justice and anti-racism at Southern Connecticut State University.
For the month of January 2023, the Top Owl Award honorees are undergraduate student Letel; graduate student Jonell Bailey; Chelsea Ortiz, associate director of nursing admissions, enrollment management, and communications; and English Professor Brandon Hutchinson.
Letel is the president of the Black Student Union (BSU) and vice president of Brotherhood of Scholarship and Excellence (BROSE), all while focusing on his academics. In addition to his work with BSU and BROSE, he is connected with other cultural groups on campus as well as organizations that do not fall under the Multicultural Center umbrella. One of his nominators wrote that he “makes sure to bridge the cultural gaps and works tirelessly to continue to make sure there’s a safe space for every culture to feel comfortable.”
His fellow students’ success is also important to Letel, and along with holding himself to a high standard, he encourages his peers to strive for academic success. “Whether that be them celebrating passing a test, consistently getting good grades on assignments, or even being able to push themselves to get to class on time, I believe it’s important to have pride in all the aspects of a student’s life in order to be a successful student,” he said. “It’s important to understand success is not measured in your grades but about the time and effort you put into things to see an outcome.”
Jonell Bailey works as the graduate intern in the Office of Career and Professional Development (OCPD) and keeps diversity, equity, and inclusion at top of mind in all she does at Southern. She promotes DEI in the workplace, specifically, as she oversees the students in the career peer program within OCPD. Her leadership has inspired this group of students to feel empowered to develop programming and activities that reflect their interests. The programming she has initiated helps to raises awareness of workplace discrimination based on identity, culture, and perception.
Bailey’s nominator wrote that she is sensitive to students’ needs and emotions and keeps her door open, assisting walk-in students who need to be heard and helped. Bailey “connects with each of our students on an individual level, holding space and appreciation for their own identities first. The support she provides for our students is with a goal to help each understand how to enact their own definitions of success. . . . Jonell helps our students’ matter, thrive and succeed. We are lucky to have her in the OCPD.”
Chelsea Ortiz has been very committed to the work she does for the School of Nursing for the past eight years. She was part of the team that helped SCSU establish a partnership with the Yale New Haven Hospital system. The work she did for this partnership clearly demonstrated what this type of partnership could do for our current and future students, including financial resources, academic resources, and access into the nursing program. Ortiz is devoted to increasing the diversity of nursing students being admitted each year. The number of first-generation and BIPOC students being admitted into the program has grown under her leadership within admissions.
Ortiz is responsible for recruiting students for each of the nursing programs, but she also takes a genuine and proactive interest in making sure that nursing students are retained and successful throughout their program. She works closely with faculty and staff to ensure everyone is doing everything they can to support nursing students. Outside of SCSU, she is part of the Connecticut National Association of Hispanic Nurses and is the chair of their Scholarship Committee. These scholarships provide future and current nursing students, regardless of their background, with the opportunity to continue their education within a nursing program.
Her nominator wrote that Ortiz “is a very humble individual that does the work she does because she wants to see students be successful in achieving their dreams, especially those students who have thought that achieving their dreams was not a possibility.”
English Professor Brandon Hutchinson was praised by one of her nominators for being “always front and center in terms of promoting student perspectives and making sure our students have avenues for providing their input…” Hutchinson recently revised and now co-directs the administration of the new Africana Studies interdisciplinary minor at Southern, and students are excited to explore the opportunities that this program provides. As an instructor, her nominator wrote, Hutchinson’s “respect for her students and moves to maintain inclusive and productive academic communities in the classes she teaches provide a pedagogical model for her colleagues throughout the English department (and, I would think, well beyond).”
In terms of Southern’s core values of treating others with dignity, respect, kindness, compassion, and civility, Hutchinson demonstrates them not only in her class design, teaching practices, and curricular work, but also as a compassionate and supportive colleague. Her nominator wrote that “When we were discussing how to structure the election of a new department chair this past fall, Dr. Hutchinson regularly made sure that we considered how best to support the person working in the role and helped lead us to craft a model for inclusive support structures covering a wide array of departmental business while also ensuring our department remained committed to social justice and anti-racist initiatives across the University….In sum, Dr. Hutchinson’s work as a teacher and colleague illustrates through and through the core values that this award was designed to recognize.”
Another nominator wrote of the “generous and genuine way in which she opens space for people to be their full selves.” Hutchinson led an energizing and nuanced discussion in 2021 with writer Zakiya Dalila Harris at Lyman Center and connected Southern community through the summer discussion of The Body is Not an Apology, one of the selections in the social justice community book read of 2022. “I always feel comfortable in the discussions she leads because I can count on a safe space, insightful questions, and community connection,” wrote the nominator. “She’s a steady presence on Southern’s campus, and I’ve learned a lot from her.”