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A self-described mediocre student, Kristen Dearborn almost didn't make it to college.

Kristen Dearborn, 2016 Barnard Scholar

In the spring of 2013, a string of her college applications had been rejected. By her own admission, she was not a very good student in high school – her report cards reflecting an “alphabet soup” of grades. “I just didn’t like school very much,” she said.

And when she finally received an acceptance letter – from Southern Connecticut State University — it was conditional. She would need to pass two courses with a grade of “C” or better during the summer between her senior year at Sheehan High School and the fall semester at SCSU – a testing ground known as the “Proof of Ability” program.

The program is designed for students who show signs of academic promise, despite inconsistencies in their grades. Dearborn had started showing improvement in her grades during her junior and senior years of high school, spurring admissions counselors to give her a second look. She took up the Proof of Ability challenge in earnest.

“I wanted to prove to myself I could do it,” Dearborn said. “Those two classes were intense for me.”

Despite the pressure, she passed those courses – a writing composition and a communications class — with flying colors. She would be allowed to enroll for the fall.

“I was so elated,” she said. “I said to myself, ‘I’m doing this. I’m moving in.’”

Not only did she set her sights on a college degree, but she sought to graduate in three years – a full year earlier than the traditional four-year path. Her plan was to take classes during summer and winter sessions, in addition to full course loads during the fall and spring semesters.

And right on schedule, on May 20, Dearborn will be receiving her diploma – a Bachelor of Arts degree in English — after three years of classes. The SCSU Undergraduate Commencement ceremony will be held at the Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport, starting with the procession at 10:15 a.m.

Dearborn proved to be a model student. She earned the prestigious Henry Barnard Distinguished Student Award – which honors four SCSU seniors each year for outstanding academic achievement and community service. She attained a 3.7 GPA, in addition to having served as vice president of Sigma Tau Delta (English Honor Society) and a member of the Zeta Delta Epsilon Honorary Service Society. She also is a volunteer at Yale-New Haven Hospital.

“I loved every second of my experience at Southern,” she said.

Vivian Shipley, a CSU Professor of English who taught Dearborn in two poetry courses, said she was impressed by the student’s vigor, as well as her poetry.

“I have been teaching full time at SCSU since 1969 and Kristen is one of the most talented poets I have ever taught,” Shipley said. “Kristen had a remarkable ability to interact with other poets because she is open-minded and sensitive to cultural differences. She also enabled others to open up and share their ideas because she was courageous enough to write about some very complicated subjects. Like Kristen’s multiple achievements at SCSU, her moving poems provide inspiration for all who read them.”

Michael Shea, chairman of the SCSU English Department, also praised Dearborn.

“Ms. Dearborn’s story is among the most inspiring and fascinating I have heard from a Southern student,” said Shea. “Her journey of personal growth…is the kind that inspires all of us who work with students at Southern.”

Dearborn has been accepted into SCSU’s Master of Public Health program, which she will begin during the upcoming fall semester.

Shayla McQueen, student, Commencement story

On the joyous morning of May 20, Shaylah McQueen will walk across the stage to receive her diploma at Southern’s undergraduate commencement ceremony — an achievement made all the sweeter by the fact that she once considered dropping out of high school.

In the midst of her academic triumph — she will graduate magna cum laude and has received Southern’s Jack Georges Memorial Award recognizing an exceptional senior majoring in recreation and leisure studies — McQueen says she’ll never forget the moment she almost lost hope. Then a senior at James Hillhouse High School in New Haven, McQueen was sitting in a classroom with other sky-high academic achievers when the conversation took a familiar turn. “I heard them talking about who would be in the top 10 of our high school class,” she says. “And no one said my name.”

The omission was bewildering. McQueen was an outstanding high school student who excelled in advanced classes, including a college-level media course at Southern. With an overall grade point average well above 4.0, she was a member of the National Honor Society, president of the Spanish Honor Society, and an extremely active community volunteer who also participated in varsity sports and the Drama Club.

McQueen was also a teenage mother who had unexpectedly become pregnant as a high school junior. Many were supportive. She credits the high school’s Supporting Parenting Teens Program with helping her stay in school. But she also recalls classmates’ taunts, whispers, and stares — and despite McQueen’s many accomplishments, the odds were not in her favor. Only 40 percent of teen mothers finish high school and fewer than 2 percent complete college by age 30, according to research released by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The pressure became overwhelming for McQueen. “I remember going home one day and thinking, ‘I am not going back to school. I am done. I can’t do it,’” she recalls. The next morning, she felt the same. Then she heard a familiar buzz, her phone signaling an incoming text message. “I looked down and read, “Shaylah, you are valedictorian.’”

More good news followed, with McQueen awarded the prestigious Gates Millennium Scholarship. The award, presented to only 1,000 out of 24,000 exceptional applicants nationwide (4 percent), provides full college tuition, as well as graduate tuition in the fields of computer science, education, engineering, library science, mathematics, public health, or science. The award recognizes exceptional achievement among African American, American Indian/Alaskan Native, Asian American/Pacific Islander, and Hispanic American students.

Armed with the scholarship, McQueen first enrolled at Wilson College in Pennsylvania, which offers a program for single parents. The initiative enabled her to live on campus with her young son, Arlander, and attend school full-time. “It is awesome that he can honestly say, ‘Mommy, I went to college,’” says McQueen, with a smile. “I always want to be his advocate and his supporter. . . . The best step you can take as a parent is to be that role model — to live what you are trying to instill in your child.”

In 2014, the Gates Millennium Scholar transferred to SCSU. “Southern was always my number one choice,” says McQueen. “In high school, I was in the teacher-prep program which is affiliated with the university. I’d taken a class at Southern and loved it. . . . I’d been on campus, met the professors and students, and knew it was an exceptional university.”

She notes that majoring in recreation and leisure studies with a concentration in therapeutic recreation — a major she discovered at Southern — has allowed her to integrate her passions. “I’ve always known I want to mentor, counsel, and teach youth. . . . I’ve also always loved performance art — drama, creative writing, poetry, you name it,” says McQueen, who cites Southern’s Lyman Center for the Performing Arts as a favorite spot on campus.

McQueen lauds Southern’s faculty for its support, particularly Associate Professor Deborah Smith and Assistant Professor MaryJo Archambault, both from Southern’s Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies.

Married and living in New Haven with her now five-year-old son, McQueen credits her mother and husband for helping her make the most of her education. In addition to attending school full time, she works at Montowese Health and Rehabilitation Center as a therapeutic rehabilitation assistant and is a recreation leader at New Haven’s Hill Central School (kindergarten through eighth grade), where she previously attended. “I want to be that role model,” says McQueen of her young charges. “ . . . to let them know that whatever they want to do, the sky’s the limit.”

Looking forward, she will continue her pursuit of education. Twenty-eight percent of Gates Millennium Scholars transition into graduate school. Having enrolled in Southern’s master’s degree program in special education, Shaylah McQueen will be happily among them.

NFL player Jerome Cunningham

NFL player Jerome Cunningham will be among the Southern students to walk across the stage at Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport later this month to receive their college diplomas.

Cunningham, who had been a tight end with the New York Giants for the last two years – including as a starter for part of last season – said he originally came to SCSU because it was one of the few schools that offered him a scholarship after high school. Although waived by the Giants a week ago, he was claimed Monday by the New York Jets.

Cunningham, who grew up in Waterbury, will receive a Bachelor of Science degree in recreation and leisure studies with a concentration in sport management. He will participate in the SCSU undergraduate commencement ceremony on May 20.

“I want to be a sports agent and represent myself one day,” he said.

Cunningham said he was contacted by the Giants before his first season. “Before the next season, I made sure I took advantage of every opportunity and trained as hard as I could.”

He ended up earning a starting tight end spot.

Cunningham said SCSU prepared him well, both academically and athletically. (Former Owls’ coach Rich Cavanaugh) prepared me very well. He made sure nothing was given to me. But all that hard work and discipline helped me to never give up.”

He said about the only thing SCSU didn’t prepare him for on the field was playing in front of a crowd of more than 80,000 NFL fans, compared with a maximum crowd of about 8,000 when he wore the Owls’ uniform.

On the academic side, Cunningham said the faculty approached things in a similar manner. “The teachers here are phenomenal,” he said. “Nothing was given to you in the classroom. They are making sure that you are not just being passed you through and that you are actually learning.”

Cunningham said he is looking forward to being handed his diploma. “It’s a great feeling to graduate,” he said. “I didn’t realize the implications of it until I spoke to my grandmother and I told her I was going to graduate this May. She said I was the first one on my dad’s side to actually graduate and I’m going to be the second one on my mom’s side. So, it’s a huge accomplishment to my family.”

Cunningham has been volunteering at Hill Central School, an elementary school, where he previously had done an internship. He hopes to be a role model for the children. “I just enjoy coming back and giving back to people in the community,” he said.

Before playing for the Giants, Cunningham was a four-year member of the Owls’ football team, starting at tight end for three seasons. He recorded 61 catches for 690 yards and 7 touchdowns during his career.

Nursing Grads

A half dozen Southern students have received their doctoral diplomas in nursing education – the first group of students to earn that designation from the university.

The students participated in the winter graduate commencement exercises at the Lyman Center for the Performing Arts. The undergraduate commencement ceremony was held earlier in the day.

The Ed.D. (Doctor of Education) in nursing education program was launched in 2012 as a collaborative effort with Western Connecticut State University in Danbury. The six SCSU contingent is among a group of 14 students who have completed their degree requirements at the two universities.

“It is exciting to have our first graduates receive their degrees,” said Lisa Rebeschi, chairwoman of the Nursing Department. “Each has worked diligently in their pursuit of developing the science of nursing education. The students have completed dissertation studies that add to the body of knowledge with regard to teaching and learning in nursing education.

“Our faculty are extremely proud of their significant accomplishments,” she said. “We are confident that these alumni will continue to have a significant impact within higher education.”

The program is geared toward individuals with a master’s degree who would like to teach nursing. It typically takes students about three years to complete the 51 credits needed. The students take the classes part time so that they can continue working while they pursue their degree.

Rebeschi said enrolled students come with varied professional backgrounds and have previously demonstrated clinical expertise in nursing practice.

“The structure of the program allowed me to continue working as an advanced practice registered nurse while completing my degree, thus lowering the financial impact on my family,” said Philip Martinez, who works at Middlesex Hospital in the Department of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine. He also serves as a specialty coordinator for the Graduate Entry Prespecialty in Nursing (GEPN) program at the Yale School of Nursing.

“I am quite proud of being in the first cohort of graduates and plan on using my degree to continue teaching in the university setting, while continuing my research on the academic needs of second degree nursing students in accelerated nursing programs,” he said.

Rebeschi said Linda Roney, who became the first student to complete the degree program when she successfully defended her dissertation in August, is another example of someone with valuable clinical experience. Roney served as the pediatric trauma program coordinator at Yale-New Haven Children’s Hospital from 2009-2014. She currently serves as a full-time faculty member in the Fairfield University School of Nursing, while maintaining her practice as a clinical nurse at Yale-New Haven Children’s Hospital Bridgeport campus.

Most nursing doctoral programs in the country fall under the Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy) or D.N.P. (Doctor of Nursing Practice) designations. The former focuses on research, while the latter centers on clinical skills.

But the Ed.D. program is geared toward developing nursing teachers and was one of only a handful in the country when launched. It is designed to address a state and national shortage of nursing faculty. With such a shortage, it is difficult for colleges and universities to maintain or expand their nursing programs, even though there is both a serious need for more nurses and increasing student interest.

“I want to congratulate the faculty of both (SCSU and WCSU) nursing programs, particularly those faculty who have been engaged in the development and implementation of this program from its inception,” said Greg Paveza, dean of the School of Graduate Studies. “I also want to express my appreciation to my fellow deans and provosts both here and at Western, past and present, for the time and energy also devoted to ensuring the success of this program.”


Karim Calle received her undergraduate degree in social work at Southern’s winter commencement exercises on December 18 — but she has spent years working for social change. “I am very active with my community, especially the immigrant community and my Hispanic community,” says Calle, who immigrated to the United States from Peru with her family when she was six years old.

Both parents were inspirational. “My dad was a political figure in Peru,” says Calle of her late father. “My mother is very involved with her church and the community. She is proud . . . a spokesperson, who is not afraid to say what she needs. But she does so with respect. She says people tell her, ‘Your daughter reminds us so much of you.’”

Calle recalls that her mother — then a widow with young children — often faced discrimination, which was intensified by language barriers. “I was her translator for everything, so I felt her pain, too,” Calle says.

Her involvement with Unidad Latina en Accion (ULA) — a grassroots social justice organization made up of immigrants in the Greater New Haven area — came naturally. ULA is dedicated to furthering workers’ rights, and immigrant and civil rights, while promoting culture and the community. While Calle had already been active with the organization, her commitment was heightened by a requirement to complete community work as part of her social work major. “I did so much work for ULA that semester . . . so much more than was required,” says Calle, with a smile.

A social policy class taught by Yan Searcy, associate dean of Southern’s School of Health and Human Services, gave her the opportunity to take her commitment to the next level.  “With Dr. Searcy, I became much more involved in terms of lobbying . . . and learning how legislative sessions run. I didn’t know any of that until I attended his class,” says Calle.

She was a quick study. One of Searcy’s assignments was to follow a bill. Inspired by her work with ULA, Calle was drawn to Senate Bill 914 — An Act Concerning an Employer’s Failure to Pay Wages. “This bill requires an award of double damages to workers who have not been paid or have been underpaid by their employers,” says Calle. The stories she heard from those in the community provided a wealth of inspiration. She talks about women faced with sexual harassment. Underage workers who didn’t attend school, working 60 – 80 hours a week and being paid $5 an hour. Employees who worked countless consecutive days, too afraid to ask for a day off.  Others who never received the wages they were owed. “The biggest challenge was that the immigrant community was so fearful of coming forward. They were fearful that they might be deported. They were fearful that they might not be able to find another job if their names were listed anywhere — and these testimonies are public.”

Calle wrote a testimony to members of the Labor Committee on behalf of some of these workers, after asking Dr. Searcy for advice.  “The first thing he said, was just speak from your heart,” she says, noting she was present from 11 a.m. in the morning to 11 p.m. at night on the day she gave her testimony. Her commitment to following the bill didn’t end with the class. “I didn’t give up — not for one second,” says Calle, who hopes to attend a graduate program that combines community involvement and policy, and sees a future in politics.  She recalls emailing senators and representatives, and asking others to do the same . . .  visiting the Connecticut legislative office building up to three times a week. She dropped off literature compiled by ULA. Made phone calls and sent texts. Networked and brainstormed.

Calle also kept in contact with her professor. Prior to the start of her last semester at Southern, she emailed Dr. Searcy a photograph. She is one of 17 people standing around Connecticut Governor Dannel P. Malloy at a bill signing ceremony for Public Act 15-86, An Act Concerning an Employer’s Failure to Pay Wages. Like the others pictured, Karim Calle is smiling.

Karim Calle