Eastern Named a ‘Great College to Work For’ for Eighth Time

Written by Michael Rouleau

2013GCWF_4CsingularWILLIMANTIC, CT (07/17/2017) Eastern Connecticut State University has again been named a “Great College to Work For” by The Chronicle of Higher Education, a top trade publication for colleges and universities. Released today by The Chronicle, the results are based on a survey of 232 colleges and universities. This is the eighth time Eastern has received “Great Colleges” distinction since it first began participating in the program in 2009.

Only 79 of the institutions that applied for the program achieved “Great College to Work For” recognition this year. Eastern was also named to the national Great Colleges “Honor Roll,” one of only 42 institutions named to this exclusive club. This is the third year in a row that Eastern has been named to the honor roll. Eastern was also the only public four-year university or college in New England to gain “Great Colleges” distinction.

The Chronicle’s Great Colleges to Work For survey is the largest and most comprehensive workplace study in higher education. Now in its 10th year, it recognizes the colleges that get top ratings from their employees on workforce practices and policies.

The survey results are based on a two-part assessment process: an institutional audit that captured demographics and workplace policies, and a survey administered to faculty, administrators, and professional support staff. The primary factor in deciding whether an institution received recognition was employee feedback.

Eastern won honors in six survey categories this year: Collaborative Governance; Compensation and Benefits; Facilities, Workspaces, and Security; Confidence in Senior Leadership; Teaching Environment; and Tenure Clarity and Process.

“It is gratifying to know that our employees continue to value the positive working atmosphere we share on our campus,” said Eastern President Elsa Núñez. “The ‘Great Colleges to Work For’ recognition is not only a symbol of the common purpose found among our faculty and staff, it represents the welcoming and supportive environment that our students experience every day.

“To know that Eastern has consistently received this honor – winning ‘Great Colleges’ recognition in each of the eight years we have participated – is an indication that our commitment to campus unity is an enduring value firmly embedded in our culture.”

“Ten years in, the ‘Great Colleges to Work For’ distinction is well-known by academic jobseekers as a sign that an institution’s employees are valued and given opportunities for growth even when they face financial constraints,” said Liz McMillen, editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. “Any college or university that’s on the list is showing that they emphasize one of their most valuable assets: their faculty and staff.”

To administer the survey and analyze the results, The Chronicle worked with ModernThink LLC, a strategic human capital consulting firm that has conducted numerous “Best Places to Work” programs, surveying hundreds of thousands of employees nationwide. “It’s easier to be a great workplace during good times, but it’s when times are tough that the commitment to workplace quality really gets tested,” said Richard K. Boyer, principal and managing partner of ModernThink LLC. “Those institutions that measure up during times of economic hardship reinforce their already strong cultures and put even more distance between them and their peer institutions for whom they compete for talent.”


About Eastern Connecticut State University

Eastern Connecticut State University is the state of Connecticut’s public liberal arts university, serving more than 5,300 students annually at its Willimantic campus and satellite locations. In addition to attracting students from 163 of Connecticut’s 169 towns, Eastern also draws students from 23 other states and 20 other countries. A residential campus offering 39 majors and 64 minors, Eastern offers students a strong liberal art foundation grounded in an array of applied learning opportunities. Ranked the 26th top public university in the North Region by U.S. News and World Report in its 2017 Best College ratings, Eastern has also been awarded “Green Campus” status by the U.S. Green Building Council seven years in a row. For more information, visit www.easternct.edu.

About The Chronicle of Higher Education

The Chronicle of Higher Education is dedicated to serving the higher-education community with insights, understanding, and intellectual engagement. Academic leaders and professionals from around the world trust The Chronicle’s analysis and in-depth exploration to make informed decisions.

About ModernThink LLC

As a research and consulting leader in workplace issues, ModernThink has supported a wide variety of “Best Place to Work” initiatives. Through these programs, the firm has gained substantial survey and industry expertise, including specific insight into higher education. ModernThink knows what it takes to build a great place to work and shares that know-how with its clients. The ModernThink team of organizational development experts is dedicated to helping colleges follow through and capitalize on feedback from employees and benchmark data from peers to drive meaningful change at their institutions. Learn more at http://www.modernthink.com.

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Former Washington Post Publisher Addresses Eastern Graduates

Written by Ed Osborn

                                                     Eastern Graduates 1,238 at XL Center

David Graham

David Graham

Hartford, CT — Former Washington Post Publisher Donald Graham told the graduates at Eastern Connecticut State University’s 127th Commencement exercises to “treasure this college. Eastern has given you a wonderful education . . . once you are making a living, give something back so that you can help Eastern continue to be great in the future.”

The annual graduation ceremony was held at the XL Center in Hartford on May 17, with more than 12,000 family members and friends cheering on their sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, as 1,180 undergraduates and 58 graduate students received their diplomas.

Graham also told the graduates, “Throughout our history, American leaders have stood up in times of peril — during the American Revolution, during the Civil War, confronting Hitler, standing up to Communism, and advancing civil and women’s rights.  At some time in your life, you will be asked to stand up for what is right, and I know you will answer the call.” Noting that the American political system has worked very well for more than 200 years, Graham said, “Future politicians will say, ‘I will fight for you.’  That’s fine. But ask them, ‘What will you do when you are done fighting?’”

Commencement 2017 Crowd_7167The commencement speaker also received an honorary degree from Eastern in a special hooding ceremony during the graduation exercises. Graham is chairman of Graham Holdings Co., formerly the Washington Post Co. A graduate of Harvard College, he is a veteran of the Vietnam War, serving as an information specialist with the First Cavalry Division from 1967-68.  He later served as a patrolman on the Washington, D.C., police force before joining the staff at the Washington Post in 1971 as a reporter.  Graham assumed the position of publisher of the Washington Post in 1979, following in the footsteps of his mother, Katherine Graham, who led the newspaper following her husband Philip Graham’s passing in 1963. In 1991, Donald Graham took over leadership as chief executive officer of the Washington Post Co.

Commencement 2017 Nunez and BabyIn 2013, Graham and his wife, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Amanda Bennett, joined Carlos Gutierrez, former U.S. Secretary of Commerce, and Henry R. Munoz III, chairman of Munoz & Company, to co-found TheDream.US, a national scholarship fund that helps undocumented immigrant youth get access to a college education. Since its founding, TheDream.US has raised $91 million in scholarship funds, providing financial support to 1,700 college students nationwide. Graham also co-founded and served as chairman of the District of Columbia College Access Program; he remains a member of the board.  The program has helped double the number of District of Columbia public high school students going on to college and has helped triple the number graduating from college.

Commencement 2017 Nunez Shakes HandOther speakers at the Commencement Exercises included Eastern President Elsa Nunez; Matt Fleury, chair of the Board of Regents for Higher Education; Mark Ojakian, president of the Connecticut State Colleges and University System; and Senior Class President Abigail Caselli, who delivered the Senior Class Address. Other members of the platform party included Willimantic Mayor Ernie Eldridge; Justin Murphy ’98, president of the ECSU Foundation; Ellen Lang ’81, president of the ECSU Alumni Association; Father Larry LaPointe; and other Eastern officials.

Commencement 2017 BEST BalloonNunez told the graduates she was confident they would impact the world in three ways,  first as professionals in the workforce, equipped with “. . . a highly desired set of skills” sought by the majority of American employers — “analytical thinking, teamwork and communication skills, the broad intellectual and social competencies available through a liberal arts education.” Nunez also urged the graduates to give back to their communities, quoting Children’s Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman, who once said, “Service is the rent we pay for being. It is the very purpose of life, and not something you do in your spare time.”

Waving BESTLastly, Nunez encouraged the Eastern seniors to “. . . exercise your duties and rights as American citizens. Our nation remains a beacon of freedom and a guiding light for other nations to follow, not because of our military might or our economic power, but because of the political, religious and personal freedoms we enjoy.”

Commencement 2017 Four LadiesNoting those freedoms must be protected, Eastern’s president went on to say, “Being a citizen of this great nation is clearly an investment of time, but it is the only way we can protect the freedoms we hold dear. Never abdicate your responsibilities as a citizen to someone else.  Be willing to question the status quo.  And stand up for the values you believe in.”

Commencement 2017 FamiliesMore than 40 percent of the graduates were the first in their families to earn a bachelor’s degree. As Connecticut’s only public liberal arts university, Eastern draws students from 163 of the state’s 169 towns. Approximately 85 percent of graduates stay in Connecticut to launch their careers, contribute to their communities and raise their families.

Commencement 2017 Student PresidentSenior Class President Abigail Caselli presented the Senior Class Gift to President Nunez — an annual Class of 2017 scholarship — and thanked her classmates’ families, friends and faculty for supporting the senior class in its journey. “To a room filled with the next great doctors, nurses, actors and actresses, genetic counselors, presidents of universities, human resource managers and professors, just to name a few of the success stories to be written about my fellow graduates, I encourage you to use the opportunities that Eastern has given you and make the world around you better.  As someone once said, ‘Service is the highest form of leadership.’ May each of you find and share that leadership within you.”

Matt Fleury, president and CEO of the Connecticut Science Center, spoke on behalf of the Board of Regents for Higher Education. “Today is a significant milestone for you,” he said. “We are proud of your accomplishments and applaud the many sacrifices you have made to get here. Your journey to this point was not easy, but for that reason, it is so much more satisfying. Whatever path you have chosen, you can make a difference.”Commencement 2017 SelfiesMark Ojakian, president of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities System, also spoke to the graduates. “You have come a very long way since the first day you arrived at Eastern,” said Ojakian. “Life will take you in many different directions after you leave here tonight. The road in front of you is undefined. But I am hopeful that our state and our nation will be in a better place — as you become your future.”Commencement 2017 Christina

Commencement 2017 Foot GuardFrom the Governor’s Foot Guard Color Guard in attendance, to the plaintive sound of the bagpipes of the St. Patrick’s Pipe Band and the pre-event music of the Thread City Brass Quintet, this year’s graduation ceremonies again reflected Eastern’s Commencement traditions.

Commencemetn 2017 SingersUniversity Senate President Maryanne Clifford presided over the commencement exercises; seniors Abigail Perreira and Kristin Uschkureit sang “America the Beautiful”; Senior Leigha Grushkin gave the invocation; and Environmental Earth Science Professor Peter Drzewiecki was recognized as the 2017 Distinguished Professor Award recipient.

Eastern Presents Inclusive Excellence Awards to ALANA Students

Written by Dwight Bachman

Inclusive Excellence Award winners with keynote speaker Natasha Stephens

Inclusive Excellence Award winners with keynote speaker Natasha Stephens

 Eastern Connecticut State University recognized the academic achievements of African, Latino, Asian and Native American (ALANA) students on May 5 during its Fifth Annual Inclusive Excellence Awards ceremony. Nine awards were given and 165 students were recognized for achieving GPAs of 3.5 or higher.

Eastern presented Melat Assefa and Christina Perez the Advisor’s Choice Award; Deja Seawright the Inspirational Leadership Award; and Chisolm Sunny Uduputa the International Student Award. The Resilient Warrior Award to AnnRichelle Akko, Daniel Costillo, Adrian Lopez Diaz and Yineira Lopez. Taylor Hemphill was named recipient of the Social Justice Advocacy Award, and the Volunteer Service Award went to Destiny Hartmann.

Eastern President Elsa Núñez

Eastern President Elsa Núñez

Eastern President Elsa Núñez told those in attendance that the awards ceremony was not just about inclusion. “It also speaks to Eastern’s other core values of academic excellence, integrity, Social Responsibility, Engagement, and Empowerment. Today, we show respect and celebrate the accomplishments of students who too often have been forgotten in the past.  We are very proud of you! We are doing everything we can to promote the success of students of color. We know that having an inclusive, diverse, and culturally rich campus is good for all our students — in the end, we all must learn to live together in today’s global society.”

Natasha Stephens

Natasha Stephens

Alumna Natasha Stephens, who graduated from Eastern in 2003 and is the Title IX Coordinator at Wichita State University in Kansas, delivered the keynote address. She told the honorees she was honored to come back to campus. “While you have breath in your body, thank those who helped you, took time to meet with you, who gave you an opportunity and took a chance on you.  Never forget your roots and where you came from — no matter how high you go in life, give back of your time to someone else.”

She concluded by telling students that they can always change their plans. “Don’t limit yourself or your abilities — challenge yourself to new things. Believe in yourself, and give someone the wings to fly.”

MEDIA ADVISORY: 300 Students to Participate in Eastern Research Conference

WILLIMANTIC, CT — The Third Annual CREATE Conference at Eastern Connecticut State University will take place this Friday, April 21, from 8:45 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. CREATE stands for “Celebrating Research Excellence and Artistic Talent at Eastern,” and is the University’s premier conference showcasing student research and creative activity.

All activities take place in the Student Center except for an exhibit of student art taking place in room 223 of the Wood Support Services Center from 3:30-4:30 p.m.

From art to zoology, Shakespeare to social media, tax law to terrorism, Eastern students of all majors explore important concepts and produce exemplary research and creative work; the culmination of their work this academic year will be on display at CREATE. The one-day conference will feature more than 300 Eastern undergraduates, who will present talks, professional posters, live music, dance performances, art and photography exhibits, documentary films and panel discussions.

“CREATE is a reaffirmation of Eastern’s commitment to undergraduate research as Connecticut’s only public liberal arts university,” said Niti Pandey, business administration professor and conference co-chair. Reflecting on this year’s record number of participants, she added, “There is a wonderful variety of presentations and performances for people to see. CREATE 2017 showcases the hard work and talent of our students and demonstrates the dedication of their faculty mentors. We look forward to an excellent event!”

Members of the Eastern campus and surrounding communities are invited to browse the conference’s many cultural and academic offerings. “CREATE will be a superb learning experience for all who participate and a true celebration of our student’s achievements,” said Patricia Szczys, biology professor and conference co-chair.

Registration takes place at 8:15 a.m. in the Student Center Café, and the opening ceremony will begin at 8:45 a.m. in the Student Center Theatre. Those interested in the event but unable to attend the whole conference can view the schedule and presentation details at www.easternct.edu/create. Ample parking is available in the University’s two parking garages.

NOTE TO NEWS MEDIA:  The news media is invited to attend and cover the conference. This event is a marvelous collection of academic presentations, plays, musical performances, art on exhibit, and other student work — more than 300 students in all. Students and faculty mentors are available for interviews, and there will be host of photography opportunities. Come and see how undergraduates at Eastern are doing research commonly found only in graduate programs at larger institutions!

Strong Showing for Eastern at Northeast COPLAC Conference

Madeleine Haynes ’17, an environmental earth science major, presents "A Comparison of Arsenic Distributions in Groundwater for Study Sites with Similar Hydrogeologic Conditions" at the conference.

Madeleine Haynes ’17, an environmental earth science major from Willimantic, presented “A Comparison of Arsenic Distributions in Groundwater for Study Sites with Similar Hydrogeologic Conditions” at the conference.

Written by Michael Rouleau

North Adams, MA — Twelve students from Eastern Connecticut State University presented their research and creative activity at the Northeast Regional Research Conference of the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges (COPLAC) on Oct. 21–22. Hosted by the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (MCLA), eight colleges in the COPLAC consortium participated in the undergraduate conference.

Eastern at COPLAC (002)“We are here to showcase and celebrate the talent, insight, collaborative spirit and inquiry of students from our COPLAC campuses in the Northeast and to recognize the support and guidance they receive from their dedicated faculty,” said MCLA President James Birge. “This conference provides a supportive venue at which students can present and discuss the results of their undergraduate research with their peers and faculty members from other COPLAC institutions.”

Eastern students represented a variety of majors, including biology, psychology, visual arts, theatre and education. Their research topics spanned antibiotic discovery, gender and attitudes toward casual sex, optimism and heart rate, the role of those with siblings who have disabilities, and more.

“Undergraduate research is one of the best aspects of an Eastern liberal arts education,” said Carmen Cid, dean of Eastern’s School of Arts and Sciences. “It provides our students the ability to develop their talents in a meaningful and successful career path. Those who present at COPLAC represent the leaders of tomorrow for Connecticut.”

Established in 1987, COPLAC is dedicated to the advancement of high-quality liberal arts education in a public college setting. COPLAC represents a distinguished sector in higher education consisting of 30 colleges and universities in 28 states and one Canadian province. Eastern is Connecticut’s designated public liberal arts university and joined COPLAC in 2004.

Eastern Connecticut State University Dominates Charger Startup Weekend

Written by Christina Rossomando

Left to right: Maria Silva '17, Michael Lauer, business information systems major, Rebecca Eisch, graduate student majoring in accounting and Candice Deal, faculty advisor.

Left to right: Maria Silva ’17, Michael Lauer, business information systems major, Rebecca Eisch, graduate student majoring in accounting and Candice Deal, faculty advisor.

Willimantic CT- A team of three Eastern Connecticut State University students, supported by faculty advisor Candice Deal, assistant professor of business administration, took home first place in the University of New Haven’s first “Charger Startup Weekend Challenge” on Sept. 16-18.

Charger Startup Weekend is a three-day weekend experience that gives students the opportunity to apply what they know and solve real problems. An entrepreneurial workshop empowered students from a variety of majors to identify a problem and then generate a business plan to provide a solution.   Students pitched their business ideas to a larger group of students, and then a panel of judges narrowed the ideas it down to eight ideas that students picked to work on.

Charger Startup Weekend Logo_RevRebecca Eisch, a student in Eastern’s master’s program in accounting, pitched her idea “Interview4u” to the group. “To watch people fall in love with my original idea was great,” said Eisch.

Eastern students Maria Silva and Michael Lauer joined Eisch’s team and conducted surveys and prepared financials and business proposals. “After three days of hard work we had four minutes to pitch the idea,” said Eisch, “followed by a four-minute question and answer session with the judges.”

Eastern students pitch their business idea, “Interview4u” to judges’ panel in New Haven, CT.

Eastern students pitch their business idea, “Interview4u” to judges’ panel in New Haven, CT.

Judges for the event were experts in entrepreneurship, medical services, investments and engineering. Receiving the first place award “was the most rewarding part,” said Lauer, “especially because of all the hard work and effort we put into our project.”

“The main idea for the weekend was to learn the steps to be able to start our own business,” said Silva. “Coming in first place was amazing but this is just the beginning of our journey.”

“The hardest part was listening,” said Eisch. “You don’t go into ‘Shark Tank’ to outsmart the venture capitalist. You play by their rules to get the best outcome for your business.”

The Courant Names Eastern a 2016 Top Workplace

Written by Michael Rouleau

Top Places LogoWillimantic, CT — For the fifth time in the past six years, the Hartford Courant has recognized Eastern Connecticut State University in its “Top Workplaces” survey. With 961 employees, Eastern ranked fourth in the “large” category, and was the only higher education institution to be recognized among 61 organizations in Hartford, Middlesex, Tolland, Windham and New London counties. Results were published on Sept. 18 in the Hartford Courant.

Surveys were administered on behalf of the Courant by WorkplaceDynamics LLP, a research and consulting firm that has compiled top employer lists for some of the nation’s largest media outlets. Rankings were based on confidential survey results completed by employees of the participating organizations.
The survey included 24 statements, with employees asked to assess each one on a scale from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree.” Topics included organizational direction, workplace conditions, effectiveness, managers and compensation. Each company was assigned a score based on a formula.
Survey statements included: “This company operates by strong values and ethics”; “I have confidence in the leader of this company”; “I have the flexibility I need to balance my work and personal life”; for example.

“We are honored to be recognized as a top workplace in Connecticut,” said Eastern President Elsa Núñez. “While Eastern was recognized in the large organization category, our campus has always prided itself on its sense of community and for being a welcoming, inclusive environment for students, their families and the community-at-large. This announcement is a wonderful reminder that Eastern is a great workplace for our faculty and staff and I am delighted that we were among those recognized.”

Eastern Jumps Seven Places in U.S. News and World Report Rankings

Written by Ed Osborn
US News and World Report-FlagsEastern Connecticut State University moved up seven places among regional universities in the North in this year’s U.S. News and World Report’s 2017 edition of “Best Colleges” to 85th overall; Eastern was also tied for 26th place among public universities on the list. The annual rankings were released on Sept. 13.

Eastern was the highest ranked university among the four Connecticut state universities, and this year’s ranking was Eastern’s best ever.

Regional universities such as Eastern are ranked on the basis of 16 criteria that include peer assessment, graduation and retention rates, faculty resources, admissions selectivity, financial resources and alumni giving. The North Region includes colleges and universities from New England, New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland.

US News and World Report-Campus Scene“I am gratified to see Eastern achieve its highest ranking ever in this year’s U.S. News and World Report’s 2017 Best Colleges report,” said Eastern President Elsa Nunez. “Our commitment to academic excellence, our focus on student engagement and the introduction of new majors have resulted in strong scores for such criteria as academic reputation, student selectivity, faculty resources and alumni giving. Students and their families turn to the Best Colleges rankings to help decide where to attend college.  These new rankings reaffirm that Eastern is providing a quality, affordable liberal arts education on our beautiful residential campus.”
US News and World Report- Residential Halls ExteriorThis year’s U.S. News and World Report rankings included reviews of 1,374 schools nationwide and are available at www.usnews.com/colleges. They will also be published in the Best Colleges 2017 Guidebook, published by U.S. News & World Report and available on newsstands on Oct. 4.

Eastern Named a 2016-17 College of Distinction


Innovative application of high impact educational practices at Eastern Connecticut State University has earned the school recognition among the nation’s Colleges of Distinction. Eastern students earned college credit and valuable life experience while participating in study abroad programs in 17 countries, as well as through service learning, undergraduate research, and internships.

“We’re so happy to recognize Eastern for developing skills relevant to graduates’ lives,” said Tyson Schritter, executive editor for Colleges of Distinction. “High student engagement in college is one of the keys to a successful undergraduate education. With an increasing emphasis on hands-on learning techniques, Colleges of Distinction applauds Eastern for practicing methodologies that prepare students for their futures.”

Schools must demonstrate results across four distinctions—Engaged Students, Great Teaching, Vibrant Community, and Successful Outcomes. High school counselors and educators make nominations, and each school is evaluated on key indicators including student engagement, student empowerment and curricular innovation. Colleges that have distinguished themselves in each of the four distinctions and that have demonstrated dedication to enriching student outcomes through innovative learning opportunities are then invited to join Colleges of Distinction.

The annual process to select the nation’s Colleges of Distinction also includes a review of each institution’s freshman experience, as well as its general education program, strategic plan, and alumni success and satisfaction measures.

“Colleges of Distinction is more than an annual ranking of colleges and universities. We only include colleges that offer every student a holistic and valuable experience,” said Schritter. “The Colleges of Distinction have earned solid reputations for serving their students and nurturing success. Like Eastern, our member schools provide the affirming undergraduate experience every student deserves.”

To view Eastern’s profile or to find more information about the innovative learning experiences it offers, visit CollegesofDistinction.com.



Accounting Students Help ‘Make Ends Meet’ through VITA Program

-Psychology major Christopher Brown ’17, an IRS-certified volunteer with VITA, preparing a taxpayer’s income taxes at the ACCESS Agency in Willimantic.

Psychology major Christopher Brown ’17, an IRS-certified volunteer with VITA (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance), preparing a taxpayer’s income taxes at the ACCESS Agency in Willimantic.

Written by Michael Rouleau

On a cold February evening in Willimantic, an anxious, middle-aged woman sits beside Nicole Brooks. The woman opens a folder and nervously spreads out an assortment of tax forms, pay stubs and medical bills upon the table. After navigating the paperwork and plugging numbers into a computer program, Brooks turns to the woman and reveals a large, positive number on the screen. The woman’s expression lights up as she gives Brooks a hug and begins to cry.

This was two years ago, when Brooks ’15 was an Eastern Connecticut State University student volunteering with the VITA (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance) program. Brooks is now a staff accountant at a local Connecticut-based firm, but Eastern accounting students continue this work.

Eastern graduate Nicole Brooks ’15 at Eastern’s Accounting Banquet in 2014, where she won a scholarship from the CT Society of CPAs (certified public accountants). Brooks’ VITA experience helped land her job with Nicola, Yester and Company P.C.

Eastern graduate Nicole Brooks ’15 at Eastern’s Accounting Banquet in 2014, where she won a scholarship from the CT Society of CPAs (certified public accountants). Brooks’ VITA experience helped land her a job with Nicola, Yester and Company P.C.

For 17 years, Eastern has championed the VITA program in northeast Connecticut. Through VITA, IRS-certified volunteers prepare income taxes free of charge for low- and moderate-income individuals and families. This season, more than 30 student volunteers and interns are staffing four sites in northeast Connecticut — the ACCESS Agency in Willimantic, Putnam Library, Stafford Library and KIDSAFE in Vernon —  as well as several pop-up sites at area hospitals and housing developments.

“Eastern has the only academic program in this region of Connecticut involved with VITA,” said Accounting Professor Mohd RuJoub, who brought the program to Eastern in 1998 when he joined the faculty. “Our students run the program and provide all the time and effort. They invest thousands of hours in the program yearly.”

VITA offers a major economic boost to the lower-income families who may not properly file their taxes or take advantage of the credits and deductions they are entitled to, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). Last year, more than one quarter of the filers in the Windham region (who used VITA) were eligible for this credit, receiving an average of $1,334 from the EITC alone.

“In our state, one in three families is struggling to make ends meet,” said Maura Cook of United Way, a partner with VITA that provides funding and recruits volunteers. “Tax refunds can be a huge boost to financial security. That’s why we feel so passionate about VITA. Communities are better off when families are secure.”

“We don’t want families to spend hundreds of dollars for paid preparers when they don’t have that money to spend, trying to make ends meet,” said Laura O’Keefe, family financial stability coordinator with The Village, the VITA partner that trains and certifies volunteers. “Tax season is a perfect opportunity for families to start saving and make steps toward their financial goals.”

While their volunteer time supports grateful families, Eastern students also benefit from the experience. “I will never forget the gratitude expressed by our clients,” said Brooks, reflecting on that woman two years ago. “She made very little money; it was amazing to be able to help ease some of her financial stress.” Brooks is now a staff accountant with the Glastonbury firm Nicola, Yester and Company P.C.

-Eastern graduate Chris Gardella ’15 (right) works as an accountant at KPMG and also volunteers with VITA as a site coordinator of the ACCESS Agency. Lining the room are taxpayers paired with Eastern student volunteers and interns, who are IRS-certified through VITA.

Eastern graduate Chris Gardella ’15 (right) works as an accountant at KPMG and also volunteers with VITA as a site coordinator of the ACCESS Agency. Lining the room are taxpayers paired with Eastern student volunteers and interns, who are IRS-certified through VITA.

For Chris Gardella ’15, a recurrent volunteer with the program, “VITA impacted my life in two major ways,” he said. “Professionally, VITA impacted my career as an accountant and opened the door for me at KPMG (the firm he now works at full time). The program also impacted my life personally.

“The reactions and gratitude you get from clients definitely leaves a mark on you. That alone is what keeps me coming back to work with VITA and what drives me to continue working with the program for years to come.”

This tax season, Gardella is serving as coordinator of the ACCESS site, where he oversees the site in a managerial role. “This consists of ensuring we have volunteers for every shift, identifying and settling any issues that may arise, and checking over each tax return for quality.”

Helping Gardella and other volunteers to reach their level of competency was O’Keefe, who brought the training to Eastern. The multi-day, 14-hour training briefs the students in tax law, acquaints them with the software Tax Wise, and requires them to pass several tests.

“The biggest thing is the customer service experience; the soft skills part of the program,” said O’Keefe. “In school, students do mock returns and learn textbook knowledge. That whole situation is changed when you add the human element. When you’re actually sitting across from someone in need, seeing how grateful they are, realizing the impact. A lot of people are really intimidated at first, but once they do it, they love it.”

This season, seven students have elected to participate in the VITA internship for course credit. To complete the internship, students work 16 hours a week and complete 224 hours during the season, and “they tend to be excellent tax preparers,” added Cook.

-John Michael ’16, an accounting major and VITA volunteer, reviewing a taxpayer’s forms before preparing her income taxes.

John Michael ’16, an accounting major and VITA volunteer, reviewing a taxpayer’s forms before preparing her income taxes.

The dedication of the Eastern students participating in the program is noteworthy. Christine Gaumond ’16 is a nontraditional student who works full time, is a mother and still finds time to volunteer. “Last year I put in all the sick and vacation time I had; I volunteered six days a week.” On top of that, she commutes nearly an hour from Killingly to volunteer at KIDSAFE in Vernon. “When you love to do something, I guess it doesn’t really matter.

“As a single parent, I know how hard it can be to make ends meet. It’s awesome to help those people out. I feel bad because many of our clients who just found out about VITA come in to our sites and talk about how they paid hundreds of dollars to do their taxes in the past.”

This year, Gaumond is serving as the site coordinator at KIDSAFE. “Our biggest downfall is not enough people know about VITA.” To get the word out, Gaumond designs and distributes flyers around town. “Even if someone doesn’t qualify, hopefully they’ll have the information to pass on the word.”

Accounting professor RuJoub teaching students.

Accounting Professor Mohd RuJoub brought the VITA program to Eastern 17 years ago when he joined the Eastern faculty in 1998.

Gaumond also promotes her site on social media. “I feel that strongly about the program. I’m constantly talking about it; I’ll be at the grocery store saying, ‘Hey, if you know anyone that meets these income requirements, they can get their taxes done for free!’”

The benefits of VITA are significant for all parties involved — from the clients who receive the refunds to the local economies that are enriched to the students who prepare and file the returns.

“This amazing opportunity allows our students to gain valuable experience and IRS tax certification, as well as the skills to communicate with clients and interact with a variety of people from all walks of life,” said RuJoub, who also points out the resume building and networking opportunities with certified public accountants. “We plan to participate in this marvelous program for many years to come!”

“We always get a tremendous group of students from Eastern,” said O’Keefe. “They’re very responsible, engaged and interested in learning more. They provide an excellent caliber of students.”

Cook adds, “Those students are the reason the numbers are so high in Windham County. The participation grows every year, that’s a testament to Dr. RuJoub; he really cares about this program.”

For the full list of VITA sites and hours of operation, visit https://unitedwayinc.org/2016VITASites. To schedule an appointment, call 2-1-1