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Self-quarantining and social distancing measures this spring because of COVID-19 led to widespread disruptions in people’s schedules. Adjusting to those changes took a toll on everyone — young and old — and particularly children on the autism spectrum, who can experience enormous anxiety when deviating from routine. To help parents navigate the new terrain, Southern’s Center of Excellence on Autism Spectrum Disorders created Friday Friendly Forums, a series of five conversations with center staff on a variety of autism spectrum disorder topics. The forums are free and can be viewed online at any time.

“The idea was to support caregivers,” said Kari Sassu, a research scientist with the center.

That support is critical: It can mean the difference between optimism and despair, and between healthy growth and discouraging setbacks. It has everything to do with how the center serves and supports the region, from top to bottom — so that thousands of children and young adults with autism in the state get the chance they deserve to live happy, productive lives. And during the pandemic, the center didn’t stop its outreach efforts.

“For people with autism, the loss of routine has affected them so much,” Sassu said. “That causes anxiety and behavioral changes. The center may be physically closed right now, but its support isn’t.”

The first Friendly Forum, “Structure and Flexibility,” provides support for families and caregivers of children with ASD as they navigate the homeschooling experience. It was born of Sassu’s own experience as a full-time working parent of children on the spectrum who recognized “the importance of structure and predictability.”

“There are competing demands,” Sassu said, “for parents who have work and there may be other children, too. A lot of our kids on the spectrum need a schedule and guidance to execute extra tasks. That can be daunting, to spin all of those plates simultaneously.”

The second, “Virtual PPT Meetings,” is led by Sassu and Kimberly Bean, another research scientist with the center. Much like it sounds, it discusses considerations for planning and placement teams (PPT) to meet virtually, which Sassu said can be overwhelming.

“We heard parents were really struggling with that,” Sassu said.

Forum three, “Transitioning to Homeschooling,” is a discussion of the ups and downs associated with transitioning to homeschooling. Four is “Supporting Communication,” guidance offered by Barbara Cook, assistant professor in the Department of Communication Disorders at Southern, and five is “Self-Care for the Caregiver,” led by Sassu, who talks about the concept of self-care and its importance, especially as it relates to those caring for children with special needs right now.

In addition to the forums, the center has organized a free virtual program, SCSU CCD PEERS, a young adult social skills program based on the UCLA PEERS program, which is an evidence-based, caregiver-assisted social skills intervention for youth 18 – 21 years old with ASD. The program covers conversational skills, dating skills, peer pressure, electronic communication, and more. Sessions are held via Zoom on Mondays, 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. The final session is July 27.

The center also created a First Responders Autism Training program, an online course that began in January 2020 that’s especially relevant given the increased reliance on medical professionals during the pandemic.

“If an ENT shows up if someone is injured and there’s no training already, it’s important for them to have the background so they better know how to care for someone who is on the spectrum,” said Meaghan Reilly, a student worker at the center. The course includes a video presentation and a live discussion board via Zoom with one of the team members from the center.

Sassu said the center’s online offerings will continue to expand throughout the summer with webinars about Title IX and the International Disability Alliance, which improves awareness and rights for individuals with disabilities.

“We’re also in the process of putting together a series of talks for students with autism spectrum disorders on college campuses,” Sassu said. “There are some for students and some for faculty, and then some for peers. Also, a training series for school-based professionals. If students on the spectrum are going to transition back to school or continue online, they’re going to need help to address transitioning.”

Response to the online forums and offerings has been encouraging as the center continues its commitment to providing much-needed services.

“This is an unpredictable time,” Sassu said. “We all are going day-to-day, but for people with autism, it’s unsettling. The question is, how can we make it work so everyone — parents, teachers, providers, and students — are their best?”

The SCSU President’s Recognition Committee proudly presents our tenth group of SouthernStrong awardees. These awards shine a light on faculty, staff, and students who are lending a helping hand, with acts of kindness large and small, not only for their fellow Owls, but also for friends, neighbors, and strangers.

We recognize and celebrate Ashley Burkell, Alyssa Maddern, Jay Moran, Sal Rizza, and Meredith Sinclair for their commitment to making a difference and stepping up during the pandemic crisis. Their acts of kindness are making a positive impact during this difficult time.

Do you know an unsung hero who’s been making a difference during the pandemic? Please nominate them so their kindness can be celebrated!

Ashley Burkell

Nominated by a faculty member, Ashley Burkell is a public health major, and her nominator wrote that “each year she strives to do more to promote equity.” Burkell recently emailed her nominator, who is also her advisor, to tell her that learning about privilege freshman year had led her to understand how she needs to help others with less privilege. While educating herself on social media and attending recent protests, she still didn’t feel it was enough. On a recent weekend, Burkell decided to use her week’s grocery money to make vegan pasta and garlic bread and sell it in her neighborhood (with contact-free pickup) to support Black Lives Matter Global Network. In fewer than three days, she had already raised $1100. Her nominator reports that Burkell intends to repeat this drive in July with a local social justice/equity group as the recipient. Burkell, her nominator wrote, even included instructions for safely warming the food, to avoid food-borne illness. Burkell, she wrote, “is using all she has learned in her public health and nutrition classes to help promote health equity.”

Ashley Burkell

Alyssa Maddern
Nominated by a faculty member, Alyssa Maddern is a full-time student who completed her undergraduate degree in recreation & leisure (concentration: therapeutic recreation) and is continuing her education for her master’s at Southern in recreation therapy. She was hired in February as a part time activities assistant at Maplewood Senior Living at Orange (MAO); however, amidst the pandemic, she has been working more and has been given more responsibilities and challenges to overcome. Due to this pandemic, her nominator wrote, Maddern “has been able to prove herself and her expansive abilities through creating innovative activities for her residents. Those activities include developing and distributing a daily BINGO newsletter to play together, but apart from others, a Workout From Your Apartment packet that shows her residents how many repetitions of an exercise they should do, a detailed explanation of how to do the specific exercise, and a hand drawn cartoon figure, properly doing the exercise, a Fun Brain Fitness Packet she creates for each and every Friday that includes themed sudoku, word searches, crosswords, anagrams, hidden pictures, etc. She has also provided Happiest of Hours to her residents’ apartments, facilitates 1:1 Hallway Exercises, developed and distributes a TV Guide for her residents to follow and tune in to entertaining movies and shows Thursday through Sunday, rolls around a cooler as the ice cream woman and distributes a variety of ice cream to her residents, developed and collaborated with her residents to create a ‘We Are All In This Together’ banner, and the list continues on.”

For all of her efforts, Maddern was recently awarded the H.E.A.R.T Award for the month of May at MAO; H.E.A.R.T. is the philosophy MAO associates embody in their work performance, going above and beyond with all their heart. H.E.A.R.T stands for Humor, Empathy, Anatomy, Respect and Reaching Out to Others, and Trust and Triumph. Her nominator wrote that “Each and everyday Alyssa brightens the lives of older adults who have been separated from family and friends during this epidemic! She is truly a hero!!”

Alyssa Maddern

Jay Moran

Nominated by a colleague, Southern’s Director of Athletics Jay Moran has led his staff, coaches, and teams — comprised of approximately 500 student-athletes — through, at his own admittance, his most challenging year as an athletic director. The department was faced with the EEE scare in the fall, which Moran addressed, and through coordination with his staff managed to avoid canceling any athletic competition or practice. Shortly thereafter, Moran’s nominator wrote, “the athletic department and gymnastics program, to say nothing of the entire SCSU community, was struck with the tragic loss of [student gymnast] Melanie Coleman. Jay has dealt with personal tragedy of his own, and never backed away from lending a helping hand and the needed patience to anyone that needed to talk.”

Moran then oversaw a midseason coaching change and was later confronted with the coronavirus pandemic. His nominator wrote that “he has been at the forefront of coordinating efforts for the entire Athletic Department in lending support to its student-athletes, and has worked tirelessly with the message being the same along the way: we have to get our student-athletes safely back on campus and get our fall student-athletes a season. Jay’s style of leadership ensures inspiration to his staff and coaches and presents himself as personable and approachable to student-athletes, as they are always first in line for his attention.”

Jay Moran

Sal Rizza

Nominated by a student, Sal Rizza, director of Orientation, Transition and Family Engagement, was described as having “contributed numerous outreaches and important knowledge to Southern students and people in general during this hard time for people fighting for a change in systemic racism. He has been a shoulder to cry on, person to reach out to, and an educator to fight for this change and make it possible for others to fight too.”

His nominator added that he recommended Rizza because students look up to him. Rizza has been on Instagram lives with students “to send positivity and distractions from being in quarantine,” wrote his nominator. “He has tried to give students a positive place to go, in order to feel like they are at home on Southern’s campus. There were many Instagram lives and event schedules that he and his orientation crew put together that truly helped me and other students during this time.” Rizza is also a part of the Orientation Ambassador Alumni group on Facebook, and his nominator wrote that he is “always available to reach out to and support those who are suffering through the tragedies in the black and brown communities.” Rizza, his nominator wrote, has always supported students and lifted them up through hard times, but “he has just truly shined through during this time. He was an amazing boss when I worked as an orientation ambassador during my time at Southern and he is an even more amazing person inside and out. Students are very lucky to have him on Southern’s campus.”

Sal Rizza

Meredith Sinclair

Nominated by a student, Meredith Sinclair, associate professor of English education, is described as having always been a supportive professor: “As soon as we went online” when the pandemic caused campus to close in the spring semester, her nominator wrote, “she assured us that our mental health was the first priority, and she adjusted our class to meet the needs of the students. Her biweekly TEAMS chats provided a place not only to discuss class content, but to express how we are feeling during these times.”

Sinclair taught an engaging class not just on the methods of teaching, but on unlearning racist biases in order to become better teachers, her nominator wrote. Sinclair is a member of the Educational Justice Collective at Southern as well and has reached out to the group to arrange discussions on teacher activism. Since the semester has ended, Professor Sinclair has continued to show her support for the Southern community by voicing her support for the Black Lives Matter movement and the end to racial injustice, especially within education, and attending protests.

Meredith Sinclair

#SouthernStrong graphic with photo collage of SCSU students, faculty, staff, and alumni
As the university prepares to reopen, here’s a look at how the Southern community responded to the early phases of the COVID-19 pandemic — and upheld its commitment to education.

First, the good news. Southern’s physical campus is slated to reopen for fall 2020, with classes beginning on Aug. 26, following a staggered move-in for residence hall students. Courses will be offered in a HyFlex model, a combination of on-ground and online courses. Public health guidelines will be followed (face coverings, class size, etc.) and, if the need arises, the university is prepared to pivot to an all online schedule. The goal is to complete the entire fall semester as scheduled, with one caveat – on-ground classes will end at the Thanksgiving break. After Thanksgiving, all remaining classes and final exams will be held online and all student services will be offered remotely.

The plan is a promising return to normalcy for the campus community.

The first campus-wide warning came in January: an email with tips for fighting seasonal influenza included a sentence about the outbreak of a respiratory illness caused by a novel coronavirus identified in Wuhan, China. The news became increasingly dire in the following weeks, and, on Feb. 26, U.S. officials reported the first non-travel-related case of the illness now officially known as COVID-19.

On campus, the disease’s rapid-fire spread came to light on March 10, after a Southern student attended an event where another participant later tested positive for the virus. Southern’s physical campus was closed (initially for five days) for a deep cleaning, a process that included licensed professionals in HAZMAT suits.Southern’s campus has remained shuttered through spring and summer to date, following the Office of the Governor’s directives for statewide closures and the decision of the Connecticut State Universities and Colleges system.

At the macro-level, the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented: in early June when the university magazine in which this article first appeared went to press, there were more than 1,800,000 cases and 106,000 deaths in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — figures that have been tragically surpassed today. Like the nation and, indeed, much of the world, Southern is mourning profound losses. Students, university employees, and alumni have become ill from the virus, some seriously. While impossible to track all cases, Southern graduates have died from COVID-19.  No student has died from the virus as of June 24. The university is also navigating a new world order, driven by an overarching directive: ensuring the health and welfare of the Southern community and the community-at-large.

To be clear, the university was never closed. Instead, over a 10-day period that corresponded with students’ spring break, faculty prepared to adopt remote/online learning for the remainder of the spring 2020 semester. On March 23, all Southern courses began being offered remotely /online, with summer sessions soon following suit. With fall’s campus opening in sight, here’s a look at some of Southern’s initial responses to the early phases of the pandemic.

More at:  go.SouthernCT.edu/strong    inside.SouthernCT.edu/coronavirus

Demographic of SCSU students, Grad assistants/interns/faculty/staff, with collage images
The People:

Piloting Southern through the COVID-19 pandemic is complex. The university is a home-away-from-home for 11,072 people — more residents than 44 percent of cities/towns in Connecticut. In spring 2020, the Southern community included 9,212 students (1), a figure that comprises 7,456 undergraduates and 1,756 graduate students, both full- and part-time. There are also 2,050 faculty and staff, including some 190 students working as graduate assistants/interns.

FEMA setting up cots in response to Covid-19 at SCSU Moore Fieldhouse
Changing Places:

On March 31, 2020, the National Guard began assembling a 300-bed “Connecticut Medical Station” inside Southern’s Moore Fieldhouse [above]. (2) Designed as “overflow” space for Yale New Haven-Hospital in anticipation of a surge of COVID-10 patients, the facility fortunately had not been needed as of early June. The university also made available 2,500 rooms in nine residence halls, which were used minimally to house some National Guard staff.

A New Way of Working:

Following the governor’s mandate for statewide closures, about 1,662 faculty and staff began working remotely. They are responsible for most university operations — from admissions and teaching to information technology and health services. Those designated essential employees — 34 unsung heroes as of press time — continue to regularly report to campus. Among them: the police chief and officers, and the facilities team, including grounds crew, custodians, receiving staff, mailroom workers, supervisors, dispatchers, and building tradesmen.  An additional 116 employees are on-campus on an interim basis.

Chart showing pre- and post-Covid remote learning accounts, participants, and sessions

Teaching Remotely:

Between mid-March and the end of the month, the Office of Online Learning held more than 70 webinars — including individual and group support sessions. The focus was on teaching/learning through the use of several platforms: WebEx (web conferencing), Teams (an online communication and collaboration platform), Kaltura (video), and Blackboard (educational technology). In April, the office also held a three-day online Teaching Academy, with all sessions filled to capacity. In addition to the staff from the Office of Online Learning, faculty volunteers have helped with training.

SCSU Academic Success Center has Coach Team Meeting online

Academic Support:

The Academic Success Center is working virtually to help students succeed. The center’s hours have stayed the same and its tutors, 100 PALS (Peer Academic Leaders who focus on gateway and foundational courses), Academic Success Coaches, and more than 200 student workers all mobilized online through Microsoft Teams. “The short answer is we’re here,” says Kathleen De Oliveira, director of the ASC. “We want them to succeed. Just like before, all they have to do is come and ask.”

Buley Library:

The building is closed, but the library is open for business, with 100 percent of staff working remotely. They’re a busy group. Between the shutdown and mid-May, they redesigned their web page to promote online resources and services (100,000 visitors), answered 180 questions from students, hosted numerous online events (including an online exhibit for National Poetry Month), and even used 3D printing to create mask components for health care workers at UConn Health. Since the shutdown, they’ve also activated 3,500-plus online resources, including thousands of ebooks and streaming videos.

A Global Issue:

The pandemic has been particularly challenging for students who were far from home. There were 13 Southern students studying abroad during the spring 2020 semester: 10 returned home in mid-March and three signed waivers after deciding to remain in their host countries. International students studying at Southern — both exchange students and those who are matriculated at SCSU — were helped by the Office of International Studies (OIS) and, when needed, Residence Life. (They coordinated flights and airport shuttles, ensured access to food and housing, and much more.) The 26 international exchange students studying at Southern this spring returned home by early April. But many of the 65 matriculated international students remained in the U.S., staying with extended family or in campus-sponsored accommodations at an extended stay hotel with other students.
Looking forward, Southern is holding strong to its long-term commitment to international education. Intercultural engagement and global diversity in the classroom “are the antidote to the isolationism and nationalism that the pandemic has fueled in some parts of the world,” says Erin Heidkamp, director of the Office of International Education.

SCSU student and Army National Guard member Renee Villarreal with baby
Renee Villarreal — parent, student, Army National Guard member
The Ties that Bind:

“The current situation is hard for students,” says Sal Rizza, director of New and Sophomore Programs, reflecting on the spring 2020 semester. “We’re trying to bring a little life and enjoyment. There are a ton of activities happening.” Among them: SCSU Music Trivia, The Dan Baronski Hour (peer mentor and orientation ambassador Baronski talks fashion and music), Cooking with Kyra, Coffee Chat with Student Involvement, and more.

Campus Recreation and Fitness held programs to get students moving, including a live-stream workout with President Joe Bertolino and his trainer, Hunter Fluegel, that drew about 300 viewers. Similarly, more than 200 students and 100 faculty and staff signed up for A Southern Strong Step Challenge. Many student clubs also met online, with Daphney Alston assistant director of Student Involvement, noting that the university is “really proud of how clubs and organizations have tried to figure out this new normal.”

SCSU President Joe Bertolino and volunteers deliver lawn signs to 2020 future graduates


With large gatherings prohibited, Southern is holding a virtual commencement ceremony for undergraduate and graduate students on Aug. 15 — and also found ways to immediately honor students safely. More than 1,000 celebratory yard signs were delivered to graduates; an emotional virtual pinning ceremony was held for graduating nursing majors; and seniors submitted photos and memories for a virtual yearbook and social media spotlights.

Helping Hands:

When the Southern campus closed suddenly in mid-March, Chartwells was left with an abundance of food. That’s when an existing food recovery program run by Southern’s Office of Sustainability and Chartwells sprang into action. Several students and Chartwells staff packaged more than 300 pounds of food for delivery to St. Anne’s Soup Kitchen in Hamden, Park Ridge Tower Affordable Senior Living in New Haven, and Monterey Place Senior Living in New Haven.
There were countless other outreach efforts. Southern police collected equipment from university labs/clinics to assist in relieving the PPE shortage, numerous community members made and donated face coverings, Buley Library staff 3D printed components for face masks, and more.

You helped, too:

Responding to students’ heightened need, more than 1,000 donors contributed over $500,000 during Southern’s Day of Caring, held on April 22.

SCSU Alumni collage during Covid-19 pandemic

Alumni Pride:

Thoughts are also with our alumni, many of whom are in the frontlines of fighting the pandemic. Among them are more than 11,000 graduates of the College of Health and Human Services. Similarly, as the largest educator of teachers and educational administrators in the state, Southern salutes its graduates of the College of Education — who have turned to technology to educate their young charges.

Through it all, our 93,500-plus alumni have remained a source of pride, strength, and optimism. Consider Fairfield, Conn., couple Maureen and Dan Rosa (3), both graduates of the Class of 2010, who met as Southern students in 2006. Tragically, Maureen’s father Gary Mazzone was among those killed in the crash of a World War II-era B-17 bomber plane on Oct. 2, 2019, at Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks, Conn. A year later, the couple faced the fear of welcoming their first child during the epicenter of the pandemic. And, yet, they persevered and triumphed — and the media heralded their joy on April 2 when they welcomed their new daughter: Cecilia Hope Rosa.

Cover of SCSU Southern Alumni Magazine Summer 2020Read more stories in the Summer ’20 issue of Southern Alumni Magazine.

The SCSU President’s Recognition Committee proudly presents our ninth group of SouthernStrong awardees. These awards shine a light on faculty, staff, and students who are lending a helping hand, with acts of kindness large and small, not only for their fellow Owls, but also for friends, neighbors, and strangers.

We recognize and celebrate Rondell Butler, Adam Cohen, Chelsea Harry, Debra Risisky, and Barbara Tinney for their commitment to making a difference and stepping up during the pandemic crisis. Their acts of kindness are making a positive impact during this difficult time.

Do you know an unsung hero who’s been making a difference during the pandemic? Please nominate them so their kindness can be celebrated!

Rondell Butler
Nominated by three staff colleagues, Rondell Butler is recognized as an exceptional member of the Registrar’s Office staff who goes above and beyond in demonstrating commitment to students and the community on a daily basis. His supervisor has many examples of Rondell responding to calls to speak to area high schools and student groups to share information about Southern, personally delivering transcripts to scholarship organizations on behalf of students, calming upset students and more. These activities are not part of Butler’s regular job description, but he does them because, in the words of his supervisor, “that’s just who he is.” Among his fellow administrative support employees, he is a leader they seek out for guidance and assistance with challenging student service situations because they trust him to bring grace, compassion, and respect to every interaction. “We’re grateful to have someone with Rondell’s integrity and service orientation on the Enrollment Management team,” wrote one nominator.

Another colleague noted in his nomination of Butler, “Rondell without question is an ambassador for the university. He does not hesitate to contribute above and beyond that which is required. His investment in the community on behalf of the university is remarkable. He not only volunteers as a presenter to youth and other community based groups, but also shares opportunities with other colleagues and coworkers encouraging their involvement. I recommend him without reservation.”

A third colleague wrote of Butler, “Mr. Butler is a major asset to SCSU. Knowledgeable, Hard working, fair, honest, loyal for starters. He solves problems, reviews all matters, Fantastic Human Being teammate.”

Rondell Butler

Adam Cohen
Adam Cohen, head women’s soccer coach, has been an outstanding source of leadership, guidance, and inspiration for the women’s soccer team and others during this pandemic, wrote his nominator, a fellow staff member. Cohen is in communication with the the student-athletes everyday on a variety of topics, including monitoring their academic involvement, checking on their families, sending motivational messages and COVID information, and keeping tabs on their overall well-being. Cohen’s nominator wrote that “He is providing the resources that show the student-athletes that they are cared for in a complete manner at SCSU. He has been accessible at all times for players to call or have video chats with so that they may discuss whatever is on their minds during this unprecedented time….and many have come to him and will continue to. Individually during this time he has continued to better himself by taking part in many webinars so that he may better serve the student-athletes of SCSU. The group is in a good place collectively as a result of Adam Cohen’s guidance.”

Adam Cohen

Chelsea Harry
Chelsea Harry, associate professor of philosophy, “has gone above and beyond in volunteering relative to food insecurity in the New Haven area during the pandemic,” wrote her nominator, a student. Her nominator explains that Harry has been on many food runs (picking up food from certain places and delivering them to people’s houses) and has worked with local soup kitchens many times to provide food for those in need. Most importantly, Harry’s nominator wrote, she “has extensively educated her students in her Honors 300 Service Learning course about what food insecurity is and how they can help in making a difference during this time of need by giving them the resources necessary to participate in food runs and volunteerism themselves, as well as discussions of the real effects that a lack of food has on society in such an unprecedented time.”

Chelsea Harry

Debra Risisky
Nominated by a student, Associate Professor of Public Health Debra Risisky is, the student wrote, “the person who opened my eyes to my white privilege as a white woman in America. Dr. Risisky taught me about equity, health disparities and social justice issues and how it is our responsibility to make change. Before I crossed paths with Dr. Risisky at Southern, I was blind to my privilege and had not put much thought into the struggles that BIPOC face every single day. Dr. Risisky encourages us to vote, march and demand justice. She’s an honorable woman and she has an incredible impact on students like me. During the outpour of Black Lives Matters and demanding justice for the lives lost due to racism and a broken system I decided to take direct action. This week I have sold vegan comfort meals out of my home to raise money for Black Lives Matter Global Network. As of today, I have raised $1,100 for the cause. I say this with my whole heart, if I did not cross paths with Dr. Risisky and open my eyes to the racial inequality and inequities, this money would not have been raised. Social justice is something I am very passionate about and will continue to speak out on for the rest my life and this is because of what Dr.Risisky taught me. Dr. Risisky has an incredible impact on her students and she is creating serious change for our generation.”

Debra Risisky

Barbara Tinney
Nominated by a student, Barbara Tinney, assistant professor of social work, was lauded for helping her students to stay on track after classes were moved online due to the pandemic. Her nominator wrote that Tinney “checked in with her each and every student at the beginning of each WebEx meeting. She also relaxed due dates at the beginning of the online transition, allowing us to plan ahead and lower the stress and anxiety that surfaced through this transition. She communicated consistently! For me, this was imperative to my academic success because I have an anxiety disorder and I felt my mind and body shutting down through this tough time. She made me feel that my learning was just as important to her as it was to myself! Thank you for providing a platform to recognize her efforts!”

Barbara Tinney

The SCSU President’s Recognition Committee proudly presents our eighth group of SouthernStrong awardees. These awards shine a light on faculty, staff, and students who are lending a helping hand, with acts of kindness large and small, not only for their fellow Owls, but also for friends, neighbors, and strangers.

We recognize and celebrate Jennifer Botwick, Alexander Grant, Rebecca Hedreen, Jamie Malaterra, and Deborah Weiss for their commitment to making a difference and stepping up during the pandemic crisis. Their acts of kindness are making a positive impact during this difficult time.

Do you know an unsung hero who’s been making a difference during the pandemic? Please nominate them so their kindness can be celebrated!

Jennifer Botwick
Nominated by a staff member, Jennifer Botwick is an adjunct faculty member who teaches in the Department of Public Health. Her nominator wrote that they initially met when Botwick asked to borrow some yoga mats to teach yoga to her Wellness class. When COVID hit, and Botwick was unable to practice yoga with her students in person, her nominator reached out to ask if Botwick would be able to host a live meditation, and, hr nominator wrote, “she contributed so much more! Not only did Dr. Jenn host several Instagram live meditations and other Q&A sessions focusing on different areas of student health, she also contributed recipes and tips and resources for our Recreation and Fitness team to share with our community to inspire continued well being at home. She made herself available at all times, while seeing her patients via telehealth and still teaching her Southern students online. As an adjunct faculty member, she didn’t have to contribute anything, but as a health practitioner and genuinely caring member of our community, she said ‘yes’ to all of our requests because of her genuine care for health, safety, and well being of our students. Dr. Jenn absolutely went above and beyond and we are so grateful for her talents and positivity to help our community.”

Jennifer Botwick

Alexander Grant
Nominated by a fellow student, Alexander Grant is a sophomore, majoring in political science, from Woodbury, Conn. He is also a Presidential Student Ambassador at Southern. His nominator reports that Grant has worked at his local grocery store, LaBonne’s, since high school and often talks about how great his co-workers are and how he has always enjoyed working there. His intentions to return to work there were only for the duration of spring break. However, due to the sudden shutdown of the campus, he was quick to return to work and start helping his community. “Now that he’s a part of one of the smaller populace of workers still working during this time,” wrote Grant’s nominator, “he’s been doing as much as possible to help those in need all while trying to balance coursework from classes. Alex recently has been making grocery runs for friends and family to help them and ensure that they continue to stay safe and get all the essentials they’ll need to remain at home.”

Grant’s nominator added that Grant is also actively involved with managing and controlling the long lines often seen at the grocery store, yet again ensuring that those coming to shop are staying sanitary and having a smooth experience. His nominator continued, “He underestimates the amount he’s contributing to his community and still is by continuing to work during these tough times.”

Alexander Grant

Rebecca Hedreen
Nominated by a faculty colleague, Rebecca Hedreen has been carrying out a multitude of tasks in Buley library as the Distance Librarian in charge of all of the library’s virtual services during the pandemic. Her nominator wrote that Hedreen “has been an exceptional colleague this time and the go-to person for students and faculty in anything related to library online resources and services. What is most admirable about Rebecca is her willingness to drop everything she is doing to help anyone who approaches her online anytime any day.”

Hedreen created the initial Virtual Library page, which was used as a template for the new Buley Library homepage, and participated actively in the decision making and design of the new page as a member of the Library Technology Committee. She has been a tremendous help to her colleagues in using the SpringShare suite of products library uses for remote services. Hedreen continues to participate actively in the university-wide Online Learning Team’s planning sessions, trainings, and drop-in times including a host of other committees. In addition, she manages the library’s social media presence (Instagram, Facebook, Twitter) with over 500 posts. She continues to participate in virtual desk services and online library instruction providing assistance to many students and faculty in her liaison subjects in biology, nursing, and psychology including distance learning assistance in all areas. “She is a remarkable and outstanding librarian and we want to appreciate her expertise and professionalism,” added her nominator.

Rebecca Hedreen

Jamie Malaterra
Nominated by a fellow student, Jamie Malaterra is a communication disorders major from Trumbull, Conn. Her nominator wrote, “I can’t think of a student more worthy of recognition than my good friend, Jamie Malaterra. Throughout this time of crisis, Jamie has been a shining light. There are so many examples of how she has been there for her community.”

In the very beginning of quarantine, her nominator wrote, Malaterra noticed her elderly neighbors were afraid to leave their homes and wanted to do something to brighten up her neighborhood. She wrote and delivered letters challenging all of the neighborhood children to decorate the neighborhood with colorful chalk messages of hope, and even supplied the chalk. That same day, the children filled the street with drawings and hopeful words.

Malaterra is also an essential healthcare worker. At the Kennedy Center, she works one-on-one with several adults with special needs. Her nominator said that one of Malaterra’s clients has been making incredible progress with her. Together they practice communication skills, occupational skills, and exercise. Currently, Malaterra is working with this client on learning to write his name, and he is making great strides.

Also, her nominator wrote, Malaterra is the older sister of a high school senior, and is planning a driveby graduation celebration for her sister, recruiting all of her friends to decorate their cars and drive by their house to celebrate her sister’s graduation. Her nominator added, “I couldn’t be more proud of Jamie. Southern is so lucky to have her as a part of our community.”

Jamie Malaterra

Deborah Weiss
Nominated by a faculty colleague,  Deborah Weiss is a professor in the Department of Communication Disorders, co-director of the Judaic Studies Program, and president of the SCSU Faculty Senate. Her nominator wrote, “Since the moment it was understood that our semester would be disrupted in an unprecedented way, Dr. Deborah Weiss, in her role as President of the Faculty Senate, bounded into action and has been at the center of developing and getting approval for policies that have been vital to enabling
students to succeed. At the same time, she has been instrumental in finding ways to ensure vital processes (e.g., faculty evaluation) would go forward in an orderly way, and has masterfully applied crisis-communication techniques to bring clarity to new options, revised procedures and altered expectations.

Under enormous pressure to “get it right the first time,” her nominator wrote, Weiss has been able to work harmoniously and productively with, and foster consensus among, key faculty, administration and staff leaders. Her accomplishments have served the university well, he writes, adding “in fact, they are awe inspiring, and worthy of a presidential medal of valor, were such a thing to exist. All of this was done at a tremendous personal cost of time and sleep, and in spite of the most difficult of family demands that were happening at the same time — which, of course, attests to Deb’s heroic dedication to Southern Connecticut State University and the members of our campus community. During times of crisis, clear thinking, full engagement with all affected parties, willingness to act, selflessness, compassion and smarts carry the day. Deb Weiss embodies all of those characteristics and has used every available ounce of energy to make Southern shine brightly during a dark period.”

Deborah Weiss


President Joe Bertolino on WTNH's CT Style program

In an interview with WTNH’s CT Style host Teresa Dufour, President Joe Bertolino addresses questions about public higher education during COVID-19, covering topics such as the challenges and opportunities presented when the university had to go fully online earlier this spring; how the university has operated during this time; how the university is preparing for a potential reopening of campus in the fall; and what that will look like.

The SCSU President’s Recognition Committee proudly presents our seventh group of SouthernStrong awardees. These awards shine a light on faculty, staff, and students who are lending a helping hand, with acts of kindness large and small, not only for their fellow Owls, but also for friends, neighbors, and strangers.

We recognize and celebrate Alan Bensen, Haroon Chaudhry, Diane Morgenthaler, Roland Regos, and Sue Zarnowski for their commitment to making a difference and stepping up during the pandemic crisis. Their acts of kindness are making a positive impact during this difficult time.

Do you know an unsung hero who’s been making a difference during the pandemic? Please nominate them so their kindness can be celebrated!

Alan Bensen
Nominated by a faculty member, Alan Bensen is a biology major who took Physics 201 this spring, a course designed for non-Physics majors. His professor wrote that Bensen was an excellent student and very responsible, but at some point during the semester, he requested some accommodation for an exam time change. At that point, Bensen’s nominator wrote, “I learned from him that he is a first responder, working in the EMS. And he had a very busy new schedule. At some point later, he told me that ten of his patients were confirmed with COVID-19. Even in such a situation, he still got a perfect grade for that exam. I asked him if there was anything I (we) could do to help. He said the best way for people to help was to stay home and practice social distancing. I have been truly touched by his service, his attitude, and his performance, and feel that he should be recognized.”
Alan Bensen

Haroon Chaudhry

Graduate student Haroon Chaudhry was nominated by a faculty member, who wanted to recognize Chaudhry for his offer of free resume and cover letter editing, and practice interviewing to students and recent graduates. “These are services for which he could be paid,” she wrote, “but is giving back to the community by offering these services for free.”

Chaudhry is an undergraduate alumnus (class of 2019) and a graduate student in the accelerated MBA program. He takes time from his own busy work and academic schedule to offer his time and skills to help ungraduated students and recent graduates. In Chaudhry’s Facebook post, where he offers his services, he writes, “This university has given me everything a student can ask for and now I want to give back to the community. I typically charge people for professional services but I’m offering free services to everyone. First, congratulations to the class of 2020.”

Chaudhry continues, “Currently, we are living in a global crisis and many of us are struggling. I know people who have been laid off or had internships cancelled due to the coronavirus outbreak and I know this is happening everywhere. I want to help out in any way I can and would love to edit resumes or cover letters, do a practice interview or provide career advice. Please don’t hesitate to reach out!”

Haroon Chaudhry
Diane Morgenthaler
Diane Morgenthaler, director of Student Health Services, was nominated by a student who recently graduated. This student had been hospitalized for three weeks with COVID-19, and when she was finally well enough to go home, she was told she needed to have a nebulizer to give herself breathing treatments. There were no nebulizers available anywhere in the state for her to have at home, and her breathing began to slowly deteriorate again. Roland Regos (see below), a member of President Bertolino’s staff and and an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Recreation, Tourism and Sport Management, asked this student to give him some time to make calls and send emails to try to get a nebulizer machine. Otherwise, she would have gone back to the hospital. “Then,” she wrote, “a miracle happened. I received a phone call from Diane Morgenthaler. She learned from Roland about my plight. Diane left her home in Old Saybrook and drove to the SCSU campus and picked up a nebulizer machine and medicine. She then drove to Waterbury to bring me this life-saving equipment. I couldn’t believe it! Diane stood in the parking lot and was showing me how to properly use the nebulizer. The teamwork that Roland and Diane performed truly saved my life.”
Dr. Diane Morgenthaler
Roland Regos

Roland Regos, nominated by the same recent graduate who nominated Morgenthaler, coordinates the Presidential Student Ambassadors program and served as a mentor to his nominator, who was an Ambassador. But, his nominator wrote, he “was more than a mentor to me . . . He encouraged me to do my best and to have a positive attitude in good and bad times. In March, I was admitted into Waterbury Hospital extremely ill from COVID-19. Every day I struggled to fight this virus. Roland called and allowed me to call him any time of the day. There were many days of pain, fear, and tears. Roland faithfully was there for me as I lost many family and friends to COVID-19. Often, I would tell Roland to just make me laugh. I was so exhausted from the struggle to breathe. Roland always found a way to make me want to fight on! The funny pictures and Snapchat memes of himself made me smile when I wanted to give up.”

His nominator reports that Regos still checks on her just about every day. “His dedication and commitment are priceless,” she wrote. “I will be forever grateful to one of the kindest, caring, and supportive people on earth.”

Roland Regos

Sue Zarnowski

Nominated by a colleague, Sue Zarnowski serves as case manager for the Dean of Student Affairs Office, where she supports students who encounter challenges of all types. Prior to quarantine, Zarnowski helped connect students to countless resources in the community and at Southern, from accessing financial resources to, as an example, working with hair salons to help students access free hair cuts for job interviews. Since the university moved online, Zarnowski has been integral to helping students find and access resources. Her nominator wrote, “She is often the person behind the scenes that is moving pieces into place so that students can be successful or sometimes, just receive some relief from the burdens of the world. She has worked tirelessly to identify ways to provide wifi, financial assistance, shelter, and other basic needs. She connects with countless students individually to help them to build a strategy, learn how to advocate for themselves, and sometimes just to listen. Going well beyond her role at the university, she has an unwavering commitment to Southern, students, and people in need.”
Sue Zarnowski

The SCSU President’s Recognition Committee proudly presents our sixth group of SouthernStrong awardees. These awards shine a light on faculty, staff, and students who are lending a helping hand, with acts of kindness large and small, not only for their fellow Owls, but also for friends, neighbors, and strangers.

We recognize and celebrate Parker Fruehan, Loida Reyes, Cara Richardson, Shuei Kozu, and Andrew Smyth for their commitment to making a difference and stepping up during the pandemic crisis. Their acts of kindness are making a positive impact during this difficult time.

Do you know an unsung hero who’s been making a difference during the pandemic? Please nominate them so their kindness can be celebrated!

Parker Fruehan

Parker Fruehan, systems librarian at Buley Library, was nominated by a colleague, who wrote that he “has been an instrumental part of Buley Library’s transition to being fully online and he’s making a difference beyond the Southern community during this pandemic.”

Fruehan’s nominator explains that as the systems librarian, Fruehan works with the technology needs of the library. When campus closed, he worked tirelessly to ensure all library faculty and staff had laptops and other any other technology needed to continue their services remotely. He worked with library employees to answer their questions and support them in any way needed. In addition to this, he updated the library website and catalog to highlight Buley’s virtual services and resources. These updates allow students, faculty, and the entire Southern community to find digital resources such as articles, e-books, and streaming videos, without sifting through physical items that are current inaccessible due to the building closure. All of this work has allowed the entire library to seamlessly switch to a virtual platform as it continues to provide support to all academic departments, students, faculty and more across the university’s now virtual campus.

Fruehan is also making a difference beyond Southern during the pandemic. His nominator wrote that he is working with UConn Health to print mask exoskeletons using the 3D printers from Buley Library’s Makerspace. The mask exoskeletons, which were highlighted on scsulibrary’s Instagram page on April 9, create a better seal for non-respirator masks. Fruehan and his student worker each brought home a 3D printer and the necessary filament before campus closed and have been printing the mask exoskeletons at home and sending the masks to Uconn Health.

His nominator continued, “I believe all of these reasons make Parker Fruehan an excellent candidate for the SouthernStrong Award. I’m proud to be able to call him my colleague and hope that his hard work can get recognized.”

Parker Fruehan

Shuei Kozu

Shuei Kozu, assistant professor of social work, was nominated by a graduate student, who wrote that she “has made the transition to online learning enjoyable rather than extremely stressful.” According to her nominator, Kozu was able to re-evaluate the course syllabus to adjust assignments and accommodate accordingly and “has reached out to the quiet students individually to address if they needed anything or if she can further support them in any way. She has went as far as to chat with her students on the phone.” Her nominator added that Kozu “has been extremely empathetic and accommodating to all students and had started a support group for social work staff. Her dissertation in crisis management has prepared her to handle situations like this in the most professional and supportive way. As a graduate student, I am extremely grateful and thankful to have had Dr. Shuei as a professor.”

Shuei Kozu

Loida Reyes

Loida Reyes, assistant professor of social work, was nominated by a student, who wrote that Reyes “has done a tremendous job of reminding her students that despite this difficult time, that we will get through this. Along with the rest of the SCSU class of 2020, my SWK 491 class expressed our feelings of sadness in regards to our graduation ceremony getting cancelled. Being the empathetic person that she is, she threw a graduation celebration for our class through Zoom. She played the graduation song, gave us each our own personalized speech about our achievements throughout the Social Work program, and recognized all of our hard work that we have put into this program. She also invited other faculty and their students in the program to join our Zoom session as well. Although this is not the graduation ceremony that we had all planned on having, she completely went out of her way to make sure that her students knew that their work would be recognized. This was the most thoughtful gift that she could have given us, and this act of kindness is something that I will always cherish, and never forget. Dr. Reyes is such a caring, compassionate, and inspiring teacher that deserves this recognition.”

Loida Reyes

Cara Richardson

Student Cara Richardson holds many leadership positions, both on and off campus. On campus, she is a Peer Mentor, a Presidential Student Ambassador, the Panhellenic Delegate of Alpha Sigma Alpha, the co-vice president of Psi Chi, and a Representative at Large for SGA and the class of 2021. Her nominator wrote that Richardson is “constantly reaching out to her peers to make sure they are okay during these trying times,” as well as making service efforts in her hometown. She is a volunteer for a local Girl Scout and Boy Scout troops, and she has been collecting food and clothing items to donate to her local shelter during the pandemic to help those who have been affected by this crisis.

Cara Richardson

Andrew Smyth

Andrew Smyth, chairman of the English Department, was nominated by four of his colleagues in the English Department, all of whom expressed deep gratitude for his exceptional leadership, kindness, and sensitivity during the pandemic and move to virtual classes.

One nominator wrote that Smyth has “juggled his many responsibilities with grace, skill, and — when needed — a sense of humor. His care for both students and colleagues is evident. He’s thorough and efficient in providing information, taking care to keep us up to date while also respecting our time. He’s responded to my questions with amazing speed and remarkable patience and thought, providing guidance that has allowed me to better serve my students.” Smyth has held regular office hours on Teams so faculty knew there was a time they could check in with questions, and he even started a weekly department happy hour via Teams to provide his colleagues “with much-needed time to chat and laugh together. He’s helped to lift the spirits of both students and colleagues.”

A second nominator added that Smyth has been “a model of thoughtful, helpful leadership, and our semester would have been much harder without his guidance.”

A third nominator wrote of Smyth, “In addition to answering any student and faculty questions and regularly addressing any concerns, I wanted to draw especial attention to his sincere and consistent efforts to provide resources and a voice of support for our part-time faculty colleagues. Andrew recognized the particularly vulnerable situations that many part-time faculty have found themselves in over the last couple of months, and has been outspoken in seeking to help them navigate this crisis. Somehow, he is able to offer this same level of support to full-time faculty, students, and staff both within and beyond the English department as well — I cannot see how he ever has time to sleep, given all that he does!”

His fourth nominator wrote that most of the many reasons for which she felt Smyth deserved to be recognized with a SouthernStrong Award “fall into two categories: advocating for students by modeling and urging empathy for what is actually happening in their lives right now; and communicating clearly and consistently with faculty and students in order to keep everyone as calm and focused as possible.” He was able to help a student who had become housing insecure and had her hours at work cut, and he supported his faculty even more than he usually does by responding quickly to emails, Teams chats, and phone calls, and doing all of this “with grace and good humor.”

She added, “The English Department is large, with over 60 full- and part-time faculty. What Andrew is doing for me, he is doing for all of us. He is definitely Southern Strong. I hope you will recognize his extraordinary efforts on behalf of our students.”

Andrew Smyth

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.


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