A year ago, her current job didn’t even exist. Now, at the age of 26 and set to earn her Master of Public Health in December, she’s arguably one of the most important people on campus. Meet Erin Duff, ’16, Southern’s COVID-19 coordinator.

Erin Duff
Erin Duff

Duff’s job responsibilities cover a lot of territory: “First and foremost, is the randomized testing that we do on campus,” says Duff, who coordinates COVID-19 testing of 450 to 500 students a week. She also assists with Southern’s contact tracing program and on-campus quarantine and isolation efforts — and educates the Southern community on COVID-19 and how best to prevent the disease.  

About testing: It takes place in Engelman Hall in the grab-and-go store/dining area, affectionately known as the Bagel Wagon before COVID. (It’s temporarily closed for dining, etc.) Duff explains that the site was chosen to meet guidelines: adequate airflow, a separate entrance and exit, no carpeting, and a large enough space for people to wait safely. “Our student wait time is no more than five minutes, which is really great. . . . When I talk with other schools, their wait can be up to 45 minutes,” says Duff. In fall 2020 prior to the move to remote learning, testing was done Mondays and Thursdays (11 a.m. – 5 p.m.) and Fridays ( 9 a.m. – 1 p.m.).  Results were available in about two days, as of early November.

Among those tested are: student-athletes, on-campus residents, and students who are in clinical placements interacting with clients/patients — for example, nursing and communications disorders majors. The university also tests residence hall directors, athletics staff, and nursing staff. As residential students prepared to leave for the Thanksgiving break, exit testing also was available to those who hadn’t been slated for screening within the previous two weeks.

Every day is different: “Testing is the one thing I can count on to be consistent,” says Duff, who begins the day by sorting through emails. “Students and staff fill out a COVID report if they have been exposed or have tested COVID positive. The first thing I do is look for those in my email. That is my priority,” she says. She calls these students, staff and/or faculty members, gathers information, and passes it along to Southern’s team of contact tracers.

“And then things just happen,” says Duff, of her shifting responsibilities. A day will likely include: following up with Southern Health Services to learn the results of symptomatic students who went in for testing; working with Residence Life to arrange on-campus quarantine housing for students waiting for test results to come back; and reaching out to students, faculty, and staff to promote awareness of COVID and how to best protect oneself.

Staying connected: Duff meets virtually with the Connecticut Department of Public Health once or twice a week, along with representatives from all of the state’s colleges/universities. She also connects virtually with COVID-19 coordinators from Southern’s sister universities in the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system (Central, Eastern, and Western). “We have many similarities, so it’s helpful to connect on a more personal level to share ideas,” she says.

People want to know: Duff receives 15 – 30 questions a day about COVID-19 from the Southern community, including students, parents, faculty, and staff.

The most common question:  Relates to the definition of — or a misunderstanding of —  the phrase “close contact.” It’s an important consideration, notes Duff: “If someone tests positive, we deem who were close contacts to that person. We put those close contacts into quarantine.”

Southern follows the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) definition of a close contact: “someone who was within 6 feet of an infected person for a cumulative total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period, starting from two days before illness onset or, for asymptomatic patients, two days prior to test specimen collection.”  Duff echoes the CDC in noting that extended contact and extremely close contact, such as kissing, should also be considered.

Another big question: The difference between quarantine and isolation. Duff explains: “Someone is in isolation if they are sick —  COVID-19 positive. They have to be in isolation for a minimum of 10 days. They can come out of isolation when they’ve gone 24 hours without having a fever and their symptoms have significantly subsided. I say significantly rather than completely. [For example,] some people who loose their sense of taste or smell, don’t get that back for months, unfortunately, but are not contagious.

In contrast, quarantine is for those who are deemed close contacts. “They are not technically sick, but have been significantly exposed to the virus and could potentially be carrying it,” says Duff. The quarantine period is 14 days, with students typically tested eight – 10 days into their quarantine. Students are monitored each day. “If they develop symptoms – the main ones being shortness of breath, fever, loss of taste or smell at this point — we want to get them tested sooner, so that we can put them in isolation,” says Duff.

Three great moves Southern’s made from a public health standpoint, according to Duff: 1) Creating and using exceptional health-promotion signage throughout campus. “You can tell a lot of time, effort, and money went into promoting all of the best ways possible to protect yourself,” she says. 2) Requiring masks inside – and outside, when social distancing isn’t possible. Duff comments: “I like the outside piece. We’ve set the standard: if you are at Southern, you are wearing a mask, which makes is super easy for people to understand. There is no gray area.” 3) Creating the COVID-19 coordinator position.  “That is pretty telling of the work we are trying to do. [The university administration] is making an honest effort, doing the best they can in the situation we are in — even with budget challenges. It doesn’t matter what it takes, we are going to put our students first,” says Duff.

The team: Duff works closely with Dr. Diane Morgenthaler, director of health services; Emily Rosenthal, wellness coordinator; Tracy Tyree, vice president for student affairs; Robert DeMezzo, ’99, MBA ’07, director of residence life; and Jules Tetreault, dean of student affairs. A team of six Southern graduate students also work with Rosenthal, who is the lead contact tracer. “For most, it is their internship, either for their Master of Social Work or Master of Public Health. They complete a training run by the state Department of Public Health that prepares them to be contact tracers,” says Duff.

Why public health: Duff, who’d previously worked at a camp for those with special needs, came to Southern to major in special education. But an elective taken in her sophomore year — Wellness 101 taught by Lisa Seely, ’03, M.P.H. ’06 — changed all that. Noting Duff’s talent for the subject, Seely encouraged her to consider public health as a major. “It ended up being the best decision I ever made,” says Duff of changing her major. “Some students are not fans of taking [required] electives. But doing so changed the course of my life.”

How her education prepared Duff for this role: Duff loved her undergraduate courses, particularly the close contact she had with faculty, which inspired her to enroll in the graduate program at Southern. “The health promotions courses have helped significantly. What I am most drawn to about public health is the prevention piece,” says Duff.

The biggest challenge: “That every day is different and the unknown. [For example,] if I am on the phone with someone who tested positive, we don’t [initially] know how many close contacts they’ve had. And as much as we are promoting social distancing and all of the safety precautions — wearing masks, washing your hands —  I can’t control everyone. So, I have to rely on what we are doing in terms of education and trying our best to not only keep our numbers low but also to keep everyone safe,” says Duff.

Most rewarding part of the job: “Knowing that I am helping to make Southern a safer place — whether I am answering a question or letting someone know that they are a close contact or helping the student who is COVID-19 positive. Not everyone sees the day-to-day work. But I know how much effort is being put in by our team. We truly, genuinely care – and that motivates me to keep going even when the days are long,” says Duff.

Closing thoughts: “The first thing I would say is I am hopeful for our future. I know we all crave normalcy. We want things to go back to the way they were — and eventually they will. But we need everyone’s help with that. . . . We are literally in this together. We need to continue social distancing, washing our hands, and wearing our masks at all times. That’s the only way they we are really going to be able to combat the virus at this time and come out stronger,” says Duff


Sarah Hammond

Before her junior year in high school, Sarah Hammond, M.S. ‘20, had never heard of a speech-language pathologist (SLP), nor did she envision herself becoming one. But two things happened that changed her mind.

“My mom mentioned the idea of being a speech pathologist because I enjoyed my Spanish classes and really enjoyed language,” Hammond said. “She also said that since I always liked working with kids, this would just be a more specific way of teaching them.”

Then, Hammond’s high school teacher encouraged students to explore health professions-themed career options for a special project.

“I remember reading the description of what an SLP does and deciding that I was interested,” Hammond said.

Alongside her passion for working with kids, Hammond found that as an SLP — professionals who work to prevent, assess, diagnose, and treat speech, language, social communication, and cognitive-communication disorders — she would have the chance to help others in a profound way.

“I think communication is a basic human right, and I wanted to help those with communication disorders to get their messages across effectively,” she said.

Hammond enrolled in Southern’s Master of Science in Communication Disorders degree program with a major in speech-language pathology after receiving a B.S. in communication disorders and a B.A. in linguistics with a minor in psychology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. During her first year at Southern, she was a member of SCSU’s grad chapter of the National Student Speech Language Hearing Association (NSSLHA).

She served as the President of the Graduate Student Affairs Committee, a role in which Rosalyn Amenta, Assistant to the Dean of Student Affairs and member of the women’s and gender studies faculty, said Hammond really shone.

“Sarah quickly demonstrated her outstanding leadership style,” Amenta said. “She led with grace and intelligence and was always committed to new initiatives, inclusion, team-building, and operating by consensus. As the faculty advisor to GSAC, I am grateful for the professionalism that she brought to the role.”

Hammond also participated in an advanced clinical placement, interning part-time at Lawrence and Memorial Hospital in New London in an outpatient rehab setting, in addition to the inpatient acute setting. Her internship took place January through March 2020, just as cases of COVID-19 were surfacing.

“The placement was incredibly rewarding, as I got to treat both kids and adults in all nine different domains of this field,” she said. “But COVID-19 really had an impact. I started to notice lots of restrictions being placed,” including the protocols for cleaning and disinfecting.

In the interest of safety, Lawrence and Memorial made the decision to have students in positions similar to Hammond’s leave internships in order to conserve personal protective equipment. She will complete her second school-based practicum June 22, which she has been conducting from her home on Zoom.

Despite the interruption in hands-on experience, Hammond said that experiencing COVID’s effect on the educational system put her at an advantage.

“I am learning how teletherapy (online speech therapy) works,” she said. “I will have this skill set of giving services online forever after this, which is incredibly helpful when applying for jobs, especially considering how COVID-19 has impacted work life. There are many conversations about how the future of education will look while following social distancing rules.”

Looking back on her educational experience, Hammond said her decision to pursue SLP — which was influenced by her mother and that fateful high school assignment —  is confirmed every time someone is able to communicate what they want to because of speech therapy, especially now, during the protests inspired by George Floyd’s death.

“I’ve had multiple conversations with other SLPs about how we can continue to amplify the voices of those that have been silenced for years, both in our field and in our own personal lives,” Hammond said. “I think the opportunity to help someone express their thoughts in a way that they never had before is the greatest privilege.”

After graduation, Hammond plans to work in a school as a school-based SLP for her clinical fellowship year in order to get her SLP license. Eventually she would like to come back to Southern for her Ph.D. in communication disorders.

“I had many clinical instructors [at Southern] that helped me to understand both the clinical and professional aspects of this field,” she said. “All of the professors in the Communication Disorders Department are incredibly intelligent and have tons of clinical experience to share. I believe I will be a better SLP because of SCSU’s program and professors.”



Otus and President Joe Bertolino make a lawn sign delivery to a graduating senior.

About 300 members of the class of 2020 were surprised this week when volunteers from Southern’s staff, faculty, and administration — including President Joe Bertolino and Otus the Owl — visited their homes to hand deliver congratulatory lawn signs and to create the experience of a commencement ceremony. The undergraduate class of 2020 was to have celebrated their commencement on May 22 at Bridgeport’s Webster Bank Arena, but the event was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. The university has been actively looking at rescheduling commencement ceremonies to late summer or the fall, depending on what happens with the virus and related guidelines for large events.

Read more about the lawn sign deliveries and front-lawn “commencements” in “SCSU brings commencement home for some graduates – literally” (By Brian Zahn, New Haven Register, May 22, 2020).

See the photo gallery of lawn sign deliveries.


Saluting the Class of 2020, SCSU student Alexis Zhitomi

As a child, Alexis Zhitomi was a late speaker. She barely talked until she was 3 years old, and even in kindergarten, she could not complete a full sentence. But years of persistence, help from a speech therapist, and encouragement from her parents would eventually pay off.

Fast forward to her college years. Zhitomi has been a representative of her class since her freshman year, and became president of Southern’s Student Government Association in the fall semester of her junior year. She has held that position ever since, essentially becoming the voice of her peers on a variety of issues affecting students.

During the COVID-19 crisis, she even served as the moderator for a recent “virtual town hall-style meeting” in which students, faculty and staff could ask SCSU President Joe Bertolino questions about how Southern was adapting to the coronavirus pandemic.

Zhitomi said that although her background did not single-handedly spark her interest in becoming an advocate for her peers in student government, it may have played some role.

“Innately, all speech language pathologists are advocates because they are speaking up for those who may not have the ability to do so themselves,” she said. “So my speech services when I was younger might not have directly gotten me on the path to student government, but it was certainly an impactful part that helped shape who I am.

“And listening to my parents share their story of how much my speech pathologist helped me definitely got me interested in the field.”

The Shelton High School graduate and communication disorders major will graduate later this month. She was recently selected as one of SCSU’s four recipients of the prestigious Henry Barnard Distinguished Student Award, given for outstanding scholarship and community service. She plans to pursue a master’s degree this fall in speech language pathology.

She has conducted research in conjunction with the West Haven Veterans Administration to assess the benefits or negatives of certain routes of care for individuals with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). Her focus was on dysphagia (difficult swallowing), a symptom of ALS. She presented her findings last November at a national American Speech-Language Hearing Association convention in Orlando, Fla.

Zhitomi, who compiled a 3.97 GPA, has been a member of the SCSU Honors College and a recipient of several scholarships. She has volunteered with several university initiatives, such as participating in the Adopt-a-Family campaign and the SCSU Day of Service. She also was a Yale-New Haven Neuro-Speech Volunteer. She also has been an orientation coordinator for the university’s Office of New Student and Sophomore Programs.

“She has proven to be a passionate, diligent, and self-motivated student and is most deserving of this type of recognition,” said Heather Warner, SCSU associate professor of communication disorders. “Given the depth of her classroom discussions, it was easy to see her passion for people, desire to help, and thirst for knowledge.”

Vice President for Student Affairs Tracy Tyree also has been impressed by Zhitomi’s accomplishments.

“Alexis loves Southern and has a passion for making a difference in service to her peers,
Tyree said. “She has grown significantly as a result of these many opportunities and her learning has been reflected in each subsequent experience.”




Nancy Green

Nancy Green is no stranger to dark times, but as the 56-year-old graduating senior at Southern Connecticut State University lay in a hospital bed this March, deathly sick with the coronavirus, she had a thought she’d never had before.

“My lungs were so tired,” she said. “I had pneumonia, acute asthma. I was in respiratory failure. I had a fever. I felt like I was at the bottom of the ocean, and it was the only time in my life I’ve ever thought, maybe I can’t do this.”

Green had every right to feel exhausted. In many ways, she had been battling her whole life: child abuse, domestic violence, tumors (some in her pancreas, some in her esophagus), breast cancer, financial uncertainty, but the Coronavirus brought her to a frightening new low. She closed her eyes and fell into a deep sleep.

When she woke the next day, it took her eyes a while to adjust to the sunlight. But the sight of the sun through the window brought to mind a refrain she had been repeating to herself since childhood: My eyes can see farther than they can look.

“I said it to myself, and then I said, ‘Girl, you are getting out of here!’ ”

The refrain “my eyes can see farther than they can look” is Green’s own — she first wrote it in her diary when she was 12. “You might see a wall or a building, but there is life beyond that,” she said. “That was my own saying, and I always kept it with me.”

Green also shared it with others, like her friends and classmates at Southern, who affectionately referred to her as “auntie” and “cool grandma.” (Green, a sociology major, is, in fact, a grandmother to a few, but she says when she enrolled at Southern, she “gained another 150.”)

The refrain kept hope alive in Green when, as a child, she dreamed about moving past the abuse and going to college. “Growing up in the south, there was a big emphasis on boys going to school,” she said. “All my brothers got educated, and I told myself, someday, it’s going to come to me.”

In 1984, Green enrolled at Norwalk Community College, but she was just 21 and raising twins, and education took a backseat. In 2016, she enrolled again in community college — this time Naugatuck Valley — and completed her associate degree.

“I thought the idea of getting an education would be out of my system,” she said. “But then I thought, ‘I have a taste. I need more!’ ”

When one of the deans at NVCC suggested she apply for the President to President Scholarship, which would cover full tuition and fees for two years at Southern, Green scoffed, thinking she was too old. She soon got a letter from Southern President Joe Bertolino saying otherwise.

“When I got the scholarship I thought, ‘I’m really going to do this!’ ” Again she repeated her refrain — “my eyes can see farther than they can look” — and thought, “Now I’m going to look a little farther and get my bachelor’s.”

As Green tells it, she fell in love with Southern, which started to feel like a family. She developed close relationships with her peers, despite the dramatic age difference. “The more we listened to each other, the more we gained perspective,” Green said. “I opened up to them, and they opened up to me.”

Bi-monthly, beginning in October 2018, she started making home-cooked meals, complete with dessert, for dorm and commuter students that they could pick up on Mondays. Much like her “grandchildren,” she started with five and ended up with 100.

Green still had dark days. She sometimes had to catch a bus at 5 a.m. in Waterbury to make it to campus on time (it was a 2-hour, 3-bus trip). Books, laptops, and supplies were extra expenses. She struggled with domestic issues of control and abuse. She had surgery in January 2020 then fell ill with the coronavirus in March and again in April. She grieved the loss of close to 30 family and friends from COVID-19. But postponing graduation in May was never an option.

“I will do whatever I have to do to get to where I have to go,” Green said. “The word no doesn’t exist. I had a burning desire in me. I waited 30 years to start my education again, and I didn’t want it to be a dream gone by because I was sick.”

Throughout the winter and spring, while she was recovering, Green kept on track with school commitments by asking for work ahead of time, sometimes months in advance and sometimes working from a laptop in the hospital. Staff at Southern helped if they were able. Medical Director Diane Morgenthaler, for instance, drove a nebulizer from Southern’s Student Health Services to Green’s residence when Green was unable to get one after being hospitalized.

“Dr. Morgenthaler showed me how to use it right there in the parking lot,” Green said. “Because of that act of kindness and love, that kept me from going back to the hospital.”

Roland Regos, administrative assistant in the Office of the President, kept Green’s spirits up by sending her funny memes and encouraging words. To Regos, bringing humor and laughter — “light” — into her darkened world was the least he could do. Regos coordinates the Presidential Student Ambassadors program, and Green has served as one of the Ambassadors.

“Nancy is one of the most driven, dedicated, and kindest people I’ve ever met,” he said. “Her positive attitude is infectious, as is her can-do spirit. She actively mentors and seeks out troubled students in order to help them. “

Green, fourth from left, in her role as a Presidential Student Ambassador

“She is living proof that age is just a number, that anyone with the right mindset can achieve anything. Her life story has consistently humbled me,” said Regos. “Graduation means so much to Nancy. The pain and suffering she has gone through in order to get herself to the finish line is inspirational.”

Southern will be holding its commencement at a later date, either on-ground or in a virtual setting, but on May 22, Green will throw her own graduation ceremony, complete with a cap and gown and a virtual celebration.

“I have been looking forward to this for a lifetime!” she said. “I am the little train that did, not could. It all boils down to how badly do you want it? And I have wanted this for a long, long time. I have so many career choices. Look beyond the wall. The future is bright.”

Read “‘I am going to walk’: Cancer, coronavirus can’t stop grandmother from graduating SCSU,”
New Haven Register, by Brian Zahn, May 25, 2020

First graduate of 2020 Charles Vaughn with SCSU President Joe Bertolino, Provost Robert Prezant, and Vuaghn family

If there’s one constant in Charles Vaughn’s life, it’s this: learning. If you ask him, in fact, what his favorite part of his 14-year college journey has been, he says, frankly, “I was there to learn.”

Nothing more, nothing less.

But the truth is, there is so much more — and nothing less — to the 35-year-old’s quest to become a college graduate.

Charles’ journey certainly wasn’t a solitary one, as evidenced by the crowd in attendance as Joe Bertolino, Southern Connecticut State University president, and Robert S. Prezant, provost and vice president for academic affairs, conferred upon Charles a bachelor’s degree in General Studies in a special Jan. 13 ceremony. Along with Charles’ parents, Robert and Laurajean, and his brothers, Robert and David, several of Charles’ special education teachers and family friends watched as he proudly accepted his degree.

“The true test of success is persistence,” Bertolino remarked. “Charles, you have taken your own path.”

An autism diagnosis at a young age wasn’t typical in the ‘90s, but after watching the movie Rain Man, Charles’ father, Robert, thought Charles, who was five at the time, might be on the spectrum. He and Laurajean had had their suspicions, but the movie struck a nerve.

They visited the Yale Child Studies Clinic when Charles was five and a half years old and got the confirmation they were seeking: Charles was, in fact, autistic.

Thus began a lifelong association with the clinic, where Charles has been on the forefront of many of its research protocols, such as EEG studies, facial recognition, structural and functional MRI, and social learning. The diagnosis also began a life-long journey with education. Though the resources for children with autism weren’t as widespread or progressive during Charles’ childhood as they are today, taking Charles out of school was never an option because, as Laurajean says, “He’s a learner. He deserved a chance, like anyone else.”

Charles repeated kindergarten, then grade one with a special education teacher, then attended grades two through six in the Wallingford public school system in a self-contained classroom, where a special education teacher was responsible for the instruction of all academic subjects. He joined his classmates for subjects such as gym, physical education, and science, which he excelled at.

“Charles loves astronomy, science and technology. He reads Scientific American and watches the Discovery channel,” Robert says. “There was a lot of Star Trek and Star Wars at our house. And our family is big into computers and gaming.”

After sixth grade, Charles was mainstreamed — the practice of placing students with special education services in a general education classroom during specific time periods based on their skills — with an aid.

According to Laurajean, “Seventh and eighth were tough years.” Charles struggled with the social component and stimulation. From grade nine to age 21, he studied at Whitney High School East ACES. (Area Cooperative Educational Services, or ACES, offers Applied Behavior Analysis-based programs in various schools throughout Connecticut that serve students with autism and other developmental disorders.)

First graduate of 2020 Charles Vaughn with SCSU President Joe BertolinoWhen he aged out of the program, Robert and Laurajean knew Charles’ education needn’t end just because school did.

“He was interested in everything,” Laurajean says. “He is a voracious reader. We never had to tell him to study. Why shouldn’t he keep going?”

“It’s true,” Robert says. “In this one class, the teacher would always ask a stumper question on the first day and no one had ever answered it. And then Charles did.”

In 2006, Charles enrolled part-time at Gateway Community College. When asked about making the transition to college, Charles nonchalantly says, “It was fine. I’m a workaholic.”

Alongside school, he worked various part-time jobs. His favorites were office jobs, such as data programming, because he “didn’t get messy” and because they weren’t physically taxing. (Like many others with autism, Charles suffers from low muscle tone, which limits his gross and fine motor skills.)

When at home, Charles continued to enjoy his favorite past-times: conducting research on the internet and spending time with his family. He scheduled his classes in the afternoon so he had his mornings free for homework and reading.

Charles studied at Gateway for seven years, eventually earning an associate’s degree in 2013.

Still, there was another goal; a bachelor’s degree. In 2014, Charles transferred part-time to Southern, choosing to major in General Studies. His brother Robert attended at the same time, though the two didn’t share classes.

At Southern, Charles has enjoyed the welcoming environment and the peaceful nature of the large campus. His favorite spot was Buley Library.

“It was nice and quiet,” he says.

The demands of his degree were challenging at times, like the time he had to read four books simultaneously for homework — “That was tough,” he says — but there was never any doubt that he would keep going.

“We are particularly proud of Charles,” Laurajean says. “His determination to finish has been inspiring. He’s going to be a lifelong learner and Southern really helped him. It’s a testament to Southern and its diversity. Everyone truly is welcome here.”

Asked if there’s anything he wants to add, Charles says, “That’s it. I’m done.”

Really though, he’s just getting started.

First graduate of 2020 Charles Vaughn with SCSU President Joe Bertolino and Provost Robert Prezant

When Southern student Cameron Hotchkiss, a graduate student in social work, interned with Cheshire’s Human Services Department — whose targeted clients are elementary, middle school, and high school students — this past year, it was exactly what he was looking for: clinical experience in a school setting. As someone who likes helping people, Hotchkiss’ internship enabled him to work directly with children who were struggling with emotional issues, in particular those students who had missed enough school to be labeled truant. Now an MSW graduate, Hotchkiss’ unique perspective on those students may help shape school policy.

Until recently, truancy had been handled by the Department of Children and Families (DCF). Due to an influx in cases, the cases were delegated to the Department of Human Services for each individual school district, therefore eliminating the need for a DCF referral. A high number of those cases ended up with Hotchkiss.

“DCF let cases filter through us before they had to get involved,” Hotchkiss says. “At my internship, it was the first year they were doing that.”

Since it was the first time the Department of Human Services was in charge of overseeing all of the school truancy cases, there wasn’t a protocol to follow. Hotchkiss’ professor, Lorrie Gardella, associate professor and MSW program coordinator, thought that if Hotchkiss focused his capstone project on the reasons behind the truancy and was able to recommend policy, it would be a win-win.

“The goal of MSW capstone special projects is to assess and respond to a community need,” Gardella says.

Hotchkiss agreed. After conducting months of research, his capstone project, “School Refusal Protocol,” identified the main contributing factors for school avoidance: bullying, separation anxiety, and social anxiety and recommended finding an assessment tool that would allow a professional to identify the contributing factor to their client’s school avoidance issues.

“Once that factor was established,” his capstone states, “the worker will then follow the created protocol on how to help the client, whether it be helping them use specific therapeutic interventions, or getting outside support from an intensive in-home care provider.”

As Hotchkiss moved along with the project, his internship supervisor Ann-Marie Bishop, youth and family counselor for Cheshire’s Department of Human Services, helped with need assessment: how to move forward with treatment and a time frame for treatments.

“As an agency, we typically work with issues like substance abuse, but more and more we see anxiety-related issues, and oftentimes with anxiety comes truancy,” Bishop says. “Cameron’s proposal was a nice marriage of Southern’s social work program and help to us as an agency. It really filled a gap on our end.”

According to Bishop, Hotchkiss’ proposal could be piloted as early as next year.

“We have a set protocol for how we handle school issues related to substance abuse, and we wanted to have one for chronic truancy, too, so we deliver consistent guidelines,” Bishop says. “They [Cheshire schools] want assistance, and we need assistance, so it meets many needs at once.”

Ultimately, the experience met Hotchkiss’ needs as well.

“I got to work with school avoidance kids,” Hotchkiss says. “The capstone actually focuses on the research, but the kids themselves helped point me in the direction to work for. I would love to try to implement [this protocol] in other school systems. My experience at Southern was great— I wanted a combination of clinical work and school work. Southern covered all aspects of social work and reaffirmed that it’s exactly what I want to do.”

As a high schooler, Haroon Chaudhry saw college like this: You go to class, you graduate, and you are done.

“That’s all I expected,” he says, “to just do it.”

Four years ago, Chaudhry was accepted to the track team at Southern Connecticut State University and enrolled on a full academic scholarship. Before starting his freshman year, he attended the Southern Educational Opportunity Program (SEOP) Summer Academy, which helps students ease their transition to Southern. The program helped — he got to know several people and the campus — but the first day of classes he didn’t see any of those people.

“I was nervous,” he says. “I was shy.”

Fate stepped in when Chaudhry bumped into Dian Brown-Albert, coordinator of Multicultural Affairs.

“She told me about the Muslim Students Association, and I thought that would be a great way for me to get to know other Muslims on campus,” he says. (The Muslim Students Association, or MSA, is an organization for Muslims and non-Muslim students at Southern and provides a welcoming atmosphere for students of different cultures and backgrounds.)

Chaudhry always had been passionate about his Muslim heritage. Born in Pakistan, he was 13 when he and his family moved to America in 2009. He steadily had been conducting research on what it means to be Muslim in America and had even won a scholarship in high school for his research.

“That’s [joining MSA] where the transition happened for me,” he says. “I went from shy to most extroverted.”

At first, Chaudhry was just a member, but then, in his sophomore year he became president.

“Jumping in was completely unfamiliar,” he says. “I had to learn how to run an organization that at the time was a group of 30 to 40 people. I was just a sophomore and some of the members were juniors and seniors. I was nervous. But I had to learn.”

This is the point when Chaudhry amended his original philosophy of college, of thinking that it meant just going to class, graduating, and being done. This is when he realized that what he put into the experience greatly mattered — and that the experience could alter his destiny.

“I started doing speeches on campus about who Muslims are, what we do,” Chaudhry said. “People started seeing me, recognizing me, and I started becoming more extroverted, and speaking more in public. I was educating people of other faiths about what it means to be Muslim, and I started inviting other groups to collaborate.”

The momentum Chaudhry gained further spurred him on.

“Southern provided me everything,” he says. “My passion increased for the college, and I wanted to give something back, so I started to attend everything. I utilized everything that was available, and slowly, slowly, I started to get more recognition. It felt like, ‘Muslim people are stepping up.’ I started getting invitations to go to various classes and teach about Islam and how we celebrate various events.”

Chaudhry indeed was getting recognition. He was invited to become an orientation ambassador, welcoming incoming students to campus just as he himself had been welcomed. He was awarded the Social Justice Top Owl Award, recognized at National Student Athlete Day for cross country and track, and for the first time in history, the SCSU Muslim Student Association took part in the 12th annual IRIS 5k run for refugees.

Even with all his on-campus success, Chaudhry knew he had to challenge himself academically as well. As a major in Business Administration and Interdisciplinary Studies with a concentration in International Business, Communication, and Leadership Development, Chaudhry decided to test his newfound determination and to study abroad, choosing the EDHEC Business School in France.

“I felt it would put me apart from other students,” he says. “Everything changed when I studied abroad. I met so many people, and I went there with an open mind. I wanted to represent Southern to the best of my ability.” He did: While in France, Chaudhry ran a half-marathon in Marseilles, proudly wearing his Southern jersey.

When he came back to campus, he decided to “really” put himself out there, in a business sense. He created a LinkedIn profile and started touting his accomplishments.

“People started noticing me,” he says. “Someone from Amazon contacted me through LinkedIn. They’d seen all the articles written about me at Southern. They asked if I wanted to be a Brand Ambassador. I had to interview for it, and it was intense.”

Again, Chaudhry would need his Southern gear.

“Amazon wanted me to go to Seattle for training, and they asked me to put a Southern t-shirt on. I said, ‘Yes, I’d love to.’”

Now an Amazon Brand Ambassador, Chaudhry’s popularity knows no limits. He receives free products from Amazon to give away throughout the campus, plus coupons for 20 percent off on books. He’s also a Student Ambassador for the School of Business, and a Brand Ambassador for GMR Marketing and Dyson companies.

This May, Chaudhry graduated with a 3.7 GPA — earned while working six jobs, simultaneously. He is the first in his family to receive dual degrees, both a bachelor of science and a bachelor of arts within four years. He is the 2018-19 recipient for the Student Affairs University Leadership Award. He was recognized by the University Access Program for his excellent GPA and was honored by Omicron Delta Kappa, the National Leadership Honor Society, for excellence in leadership and academics. Under his presidency, the Muslim Students Association received the 2018-19 Impact Award.

When Chaudhry speaks about Southern, it’s easy to see how much his outlook has changed from his arrival four years ago, when college seemed like nothing more than a simple checklist.

“I fell in love with Southern, and my goal was to make connections. All over campus.”

And, it seems, the world.

Read about 2019 Commencement.


Watch Graduate and Undergraduate Commencement LIVE on Facebook and YouTube.

Graduate Commencement — Thursday, May 23, 2 p.m. (School of Arts and Sciences and the School of Health & Human Services) and 7 p.m. (School of Business and the School of Education, including Library Science)

Undergraduate Commencement — Friday, May 24, 10 a.m.

We asked graduating seniors — “What will you miss most about Southern?” See what they had to say.

More information about Commencement

Congratulations, graduates! #SCSU19

On May 9, 2019, the senior class held the first annual “Senior Send-Off” event in Lyman Center, a program designed to be a journey of reflection, nostalgia, and celebration. Graduating seniors engaged in a spirited 45-minute program that featured videos, performances, skits, and a few special “send-off” speakers. Following the program, seniors marched through Founders Gate as a class one more time, as many of them did as first-year students to begin their Southern journeys.

Following the ceremony, the senior class hosted a barbecue in the Academic Quad for all in attendance. Enjoy these photos of our seniors celebrating their accomplishments, as they look ahead to their commencement on May 24.