Half of Connecticut Communities Now Participate in ‘Sustainable CT’

Sustainable CT, a statewide initiative that inspires and supports communities in Connecticut to become more efficient, resilient and inclusive, has registered its 85th Connecticut municipality, officially reaching a participation rate of 50 percent of the state’s cities and towns. These communities are working towards their own unique sustainability goals through this free voluntary certification program.

“We are excited and inspired by reaching this milestone,” said Lynn Stoddard, executive director of the program and director of the Institute for Sustainable Energy (ISE) at Eastern Connecticut State University.

“Half of Connecticut’s towns, home to 2.1 million residents representing more than 58 percent of our state’s population, are working to make our communities great places to live, work, and play,” continued Stoddard. “When towns register for Sustainable CT, they send a strong message to their residents and peers that they are committed to making their communities more sustainable, collaborative and forward-looking. We look forward to bringing more towns on board and working with communities across Connecticut to achieve their sustainability goals.”

With input from municipal leaders across the state, Sustainable CT was developed under ISE’s leadership in partnership with the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities. To achieve certification, registered Sustainable CT communities work to demonstrate significant achievements in actions in nine sustainability impact areas ranging from thriving local economies and vibrant arts and culture to clean transportation and diverse housing. As a core part of the program, towns must address diversity, equity and inclusion when completing their certification applications. Certification submissions go through a series of rigorous reviews by independent experts and Sustainable CT partners.

“It is inspiring to see such incredible momentum in the second year of the program, and the interest points to a bright future for the state of Connecticut,” said Katie Dykes, commissioner of Connecticut’s Department of Energy & Environmental Protection (DEEP) and member of the Sustainable CT board of directors. “As we work to achieve our ambitious state levels goals, Sustainable CT serves as a critical framework for engaging our municipalities and supporting local action.”

Fairfield, Glastonbury, Greenwich, Hartford, and Stamford achieved “silver” certification, the highest honor in the program, in 2018. Seventeen municipalities were recognized at the “bronze” certification level: Bristol, Coventry, Hebron, Madison, Middletown, Milford, New Haven, New London, New Milford, Old Saybrook, Ridgefield, Roxbury, South Windsor, West Hartford, Westport, Windham and Woodbridge. More communities are working towards certification in 2019, with an application deadline of Aug. 30.

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Sustainable CT is a voluntary certification program to recognize thriving and resilient Connecticut municipalities. An independently funded, grassroots, municipal effort, Sustainable CT provides a wide-ranging menu of best practices. Municipalities choose Sustainable CT actions, implement them, and earn points toward certification. Sustainable CT is independently funded, with support from the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation; the Hampshire Foundation; the Common Sense Fund; The Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut; and the Bristol Brass General Grant Fund, the Merriman Family Fund, and the James R. Parker Trust at the Main Street Community Foundation. For more information, visit www.sustainablect.org.

Written by Lynn Stoddard

Rachael Finch Studies Endangered Birds in Buzzards Bay

Rachael Finch used her Summer Research Fellowship to study the endangered roseate terns that nest on the islands of Buzzards Bay.

Rachael Finch, a biology major at Eastern Connecticut State University, has spent the past five weeks working with the endangered birds in Massachusetts’ Buzzards Bay. As the recipient of an Eastern Summer Research Fellowship, she is working to help restore the population of roseate terns — an endangered, migratory seabird that nests in the Northeast.

Biology Professor Patty Szczys and Finch are collaborating with Mass Wildlife on the project.

Under the supervision of Biology Professor Patty Szczys and in collaboration with Mass Wildlife, Finch’s field work occurred on Ram and Bird Islands in Buzzards Bay. Each morning, she’d take a boat ride to either of the islands and spend the day monitoring the birds.

“Being on the island every day is exhausting,” she said of the early mornings and long hours. “However, the work we’re doing for the birds is crucial to help their survival.”

Among her objectives, Finch is assessing whether leg banding — the traditional method of tracking and monitoring terns — is in fact harming the already endangered birds. “The bands may cause an increase in mortality on their wintering grounds, thus potentially contributing to their slow population growth,” said Finch, who is comparing survival rates in banded versus un-banded terns.  

She’s also conducting a pilot study on the effects of PIT tagging — a newer, subtler method of tracking, which involves inserting a very small “passive-integrated transponder” (PIT) under the skin, along the heel of the bird.

The fellowship began in mid-May with Finch and Szczys marking and monitoring nests on the islands. The pilot study commenced in late May, as they safely captured and tagged terns, recorded their behavior, collected blood samples and weighed chicks in their nest.

Finch’s research will continue for semesters to come. In the laboratory she’ll perform data analysis and work with blood samples to extract DNA. “Based on our initial observations, PIT tagging hasn’t had an effect on the behavior of roseate terns,” she said. “If this holds true, that would be great news because Mass Wildlife would no longer need to band the birds, which previous studies suggest cause increased mortality rates.”

Because the effects of PIT tagging seem favorable, Finch and Szczys plan to expand the study to a larger sample size. Next summer they’ll attempt to locate the experimental birds and determine difference in return rates based on the presence or absence of PIT tags.

“As an undergraduate, the opportunity to be a part of a long-term research project that includes both field and lab work is very rare,” said Finch. “This long-term project will allow me to continue to work toward a solution for tagging the engendered roseate tern.”

Finch and Szczys plan to present their research at the Roseate Tern Recovery Meeting this November in Massachusetts as well as the Waterbird Society meeting in Maryland. They also hope to publish their work in an academic journal.

Upon graduating from Eastern, Finch aspires to attend an advanced program in nursing or radiology.

Written by Michael Rouleau

Holmes Program Grows Pool of Minority Teachers

Ian Stygar, Sayantani Nandy and Faith Kioko present on their year in the Holmes Master’s Program at Eastern’s annual luncheon.

School districts across the nation continue to face a lack of minority teachers. Eastern Connecticut State University’s participation in the Holmes Master’s Program seeks to alleviate this problem. On June 28, Eastern celebrated three aspiring teachers from underrepresented backgrounds who will soon enter the teaching profession. Faith Kioko (Ashford), Ian Stygar (Lebanon) and Sayantani Nandy (Ellington) were honored at the annual Holmes Master’s Luncheon, hosted by the School of Education & Professional Studies and Graduate Division.

The American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education’s (AACTE) Holmes Program supports students from historically underrepresented groups who are pursuing careers in education. Eastern continued its partnership with Holmes, hosting its third cohort of Master’s students this year.

The Holmes Master’s students (podium) hosted a panel on educational leadership on April 4.

The 2019 cohort of full-time graduate students had a busy year in pursuit of teacher certification. In addition, they designed research proposals, worked in Eastern’s Center for Early Childhood Education, presented to classes and hosted forums on campus. They interviewed alumni teachers and gathered data for the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP). They also attended the AACTE’s annual Washington Week and advocated on educational policy.

“I believe all children are unique and must have a stimulating educational environment where they can grow and meet their full potential,” said Kioko, a candidate for teacher certification in early childhood education. “The Holmes Program helped me to pursue my career and has enriched me with professional training and mentorship.”

As part of her Holmes activities, Kioko wrote a research proposal titled “Dismantling Systemic Racism.” The project looked at the effects of race on access to opportunities; implicit bias and its influence on educational policy; and the disproportionate suspension rates for African American students.

Sayantani Nandy presents at Eastern’s CREATE conference on the university’s Education Preparation Program (EPP), which is in the process of being re-accredited by CAEP — the Council of Accreditation for Education Programs.

“To support our students’ social and emotional well-being, we must acknowledge and confront the legacy of racism and exclusion in our schools and communities,” said Kioko. As a teacher, she hopes to empower students, inspire lifelong learning and involve parents in the process.

A candidate for teacher certification in elementary education, Stygar looks forward to impacting the lives of young people from impoverished communities. “I specifically want to work with students from low-income areas because they are often the students who receive the least support,” he said. “Teaching allows me to work closely with students and hopefully help them understand the importance of being a lifelong learner as well as the importance of being a good person regardless of race or gender.”

Much of Stygar’s time in the program was spent interviewing undergraduate teacher candidates at Eastern. “This allowed me to see how the career of teaching is viewed from the perspective of freshman and sophomore students,” he said, noting that the teaching profession is not attracting enough males.

Eventually Stygar would like to move into administration, ultimately becoming a school principal. “It’s a dream of mine to develop a program that recruits males into the elementary education profession, as well as spread awareness of the importance of males in primary grades.”

Nandy has wanted to be a teacher ever since kindergarten. “I would come home and play ‘teacher,'” she said. “My English teacher in elementary school was a great motivator; I wanted to be someone like her.”

A candidate for teacher certification in early childhood education, Nandy originally wanted to teach at the post-secondary level. The birth of her son and the experience of substitute teaching younger children convinced her to shift focus to early childhood education.

Nandy would eventually like to further her studies in the areas of experiential learning and inclusive education. “Digging deep in the field would help me integrate my learnings into my teachings, and address the learning needs of my students,” she said.

The Holmes Program at Eastern is coordinated by Education Professor Tanya Moorehead, a Holmes Scholar herself. “Hosting the Holmes Program fits with the mission and vision of Eastern,” she said in a previous press release. “The education field as a whole is predominately white female, particularly in elementary school. This gives us a way to recruit and develop different faces and backgrounds in the teaching world, because the faces that we’re teaching aren’t always represented by the faces that are teaching them.”

Written by Michael Rouleau

SOAR Helps Incoming Students Transition to Eastern

Student orientation counselor (SOC) Tiffany Johnson (middle) guides a group of incoming students through the SOAR program.

SOC Lauryn White works with her SOAR group of incoming students.

Incoming students are getting their first taste of life at Eastern through the Summer Orientation, Advising and Registration (SOAR) program. From June 24–July 12, multiple SOAR sessions have been helping new students transition to college life, informing them of campus services and resources.

During the two-day sessions, students break up into groups and are guided through the SOAR orientation program by student orientation counselors (SOCs). SOCs are student leaders who have served as peer mentors, advisors and resident assistants. They’re well-informed members of the campus community who have the “inside scoop” of life at Eastern.

During SOAR, incoming students tour campus facilities and participate in group sessions. They also attend a presentation by a motivational speaker, stay overnight in a residence hall and dine on campus.

A key part of the SOAR program is informing new students of advising resources and the registration process for classes. SOAR participants meet with academic and student affairs staff and talk about the classes they’d like to take during the semester.

This summer’s SOCs, including head SOCs Kelsey Cunningham and Jaye Mendoza (red shirts), pose for a group photo.

SOAR helps incoming students with the academic as well as social aspects of college life. Past students often attribute many of their friendships and successes to the people they met and the guidance they received during the program.

“I absolutely loved my SOC,” said Kelsey Cunningham, who is serving as a head SOC this summer. “I still talk with her about my future; she continues to provide me guidance.” Jaye Mendoza, another head SOC, added, “My first friends were those I met in my SOAR group. In my new role, I continue to build friendships.” 

Written by Vania Galicia

Professor and Alumnus Join Forces in Augmented Reality Venture

When Eastern students graduate, they often stay in touch with faculty via e-mail. Benjamin Williams ’15, chief executive officer of ARsome Technology Group, a Manchester-based software company specializing in augmented reality (AR), went one step further. He went into business with his former Eastern instructor!

Williams, who studied business information systems and management at Eastern, is partners with David Oyanadel, former part-time Business Information Systems lecturer and ARsome Technology’s chief innovation officer.

“David worked closely with Business Information Systems Professor Alex Citurs for years,” said Williams. “We stayed in contact after the class and started the business, building augmented and virtual reality software.”

“We came together to start a business because of our friendship and shared interests in technology and innovation,” said Oyanadel. “We both have different skill sets. Ben is more business-like, and I am more tech-like, but we have great synergy.”

Augmented reality superimposes computer-generated images on the physical world using VR goggles, cell phones or tablets. The two entrepreneurs are using this new technology to provide services to educators, as well as for manufacturing, art, business and advertising organizations.

Williams and Oyanadel believe the interactive nature of AR will become the predominant method of teaching. “Picture a science class where a student can hold an iPad over a map of the solar system and planets begin to rotate,” explains their website.

The two entrepreneurs recently created a virtual statue of Mark Twain that stands on the sidewalk next to the real Twain statue in front of Hartford Public Library. When seen on an iPad screen showing the front of the library, Twain looks as natural as a live person until a passerby walks straight through him. Then he starts waving his arms and speaking in Twain’s famous Southern accent about the city of Hartford!

Oyanadel and Williams also have designed scavenger hunts for museums using AR and created menus that allow restaurant diners to view meals in front of them via cell phone before ordering.

ARSome Technology now has five employees and clients as far away as Brazil.We want people to really enjoy remembering what they experienced,” said Williams.  “Augmented Reality is a fun-filled way to make life experiences memorable.”

Written by Dwight Bachman

Photo Credit: Erik Ofgang, Connecticut Magazine

New Media Students Participate in Prague Quadrennial Festival

PQ was held at the Prague Industrial Palace and Exhibition Grounds.

A group of Eastern students traveled to the Czech Republic from June 3–17 for the Prague Quadrennial of Performance Design and Space (PQ). The global field course titled “Theatre on Tour” exposed New Media Studies and Theatre students to some of the ground-breaking developments happening in the world of performance space and design. The two-week course was led by Professors Kristen Morgan and Anya Sokolovskaya. 

PQ was established in 1967 to showcase the best in performance design, scenography and theatre architecture. This year’s festival took place at Prague’s Industrial Palace and Exhibition Grounds, where students watched and participated in performances, discussions, lectures and workshops with fellow artists from 79 countries.

The Eastern group poses for a photo by the John Lennon Wall.

A highlight for Olivia Wronka ’22 included the performance titled “Vertical Dance,” which consisted of choreographed dancers moving along the side of a building. “It was an awe-inspiring performance and the first to make me feel emotional,” she said. “This field course opened my eyes to the incredibly advanced artistry that is out there.”

Students attend the PQ Talk on the field of new media.

Cody Motivans ’19 was struck by the performance “Morning, Afternoon, Evening, Night,” which involved actors portraying a feuding couple. Viewers were given headsets with dialogue saying what the couple was thinking but not saying out loud. “It was fascinating to watch, and showed how we filter ourselves,” he said. “It would be an incredible element to incorporate into a show at Eastern.”

Certain performances left the students puzzled. For example, Denmark’s presentation of “The Virgin” consisted of a man spinning slowly in a glass box. At 2 p.m. each afternoon, blood was drawn from him and put up for raffle. “It was one of the most bizarre and unique art works I have ever witnessed,” said Motivans. “This study experience showed me that art doesn’t have any limits. I was left stunned with a reality check of what art means.”  

Monique Allen ’20 echoed that sentiment. “This field course showed me how far new media can be expanded. I will take what I learned to further my own experiences and future projects.”

The opening night of “Blue Hour,” which Eastern student Sierra Reynolds helped run.

Sierra Reynolds ’20 was able to volunteer behind the scenes on the production “PQ 360/Blue Hour.” The interactive virtual reality exhibition wound up being short staffed the night before its opening show. She eventually served as floor manager after volunteering for multiple days, and was presented with a certificate of exemplary service at the conclusion of the festival.  

“I decided to stick around to learn how to operate the system,” she said. “I was lucky to be a part of the production, especially considering my concentration is production/stage management — my skill set fit the bill of what they needed.”

Reynolds added, “This field course allowed me to see what professionals and students are bringing to the field. Also, my classmates and professors were there to ground me and push me forward. There was a support system that wouldn’t have been established if I had gone to Prague by myself.”

Professors Morgan and Sokolovskaya, along with Eastern Theatre Professor Alycia Bright-Holland, also presented at the festival. They discussed “Designing Thread City: Performance as Public Dialogue” at the PQ Talks session.

In addition to immersing in PQ and meeting industry peers and professionals from across the world, the Eastern group spent time exploring Prague’s sites and historical heritage. Highlights included the David Czerny sculpture walk, a guided tour of the Prague Palace and a tour of the Jewish Quarter.

Written by Vania Galicia and Michael Rouleau

Health Sciences Major Responds to Nation’s Healthcare Needs

With more than 360 students enrolled this past spring, Eastern Connecticut State University’s Health Sciences major is the fastest program on campus and unique among Connecticut’s four state universities. To better respond to healthcare industry needs, the faculty recently revised the curriculum, focusing on two concentrations in public health and allied health to provide a broader preparation for professional/graduate schools or entry-level positions.

In 2017, 37 Eastern students graduated with a health sciences degree; in May 2019, that number had increased to 70. Career opportunities for these graduates abound, as jobs in the healthcare field are projected to increase 18 percent through 2026, generating 2.4 million new jobs nationally. In Connecticut, healthcare jobs will increase 10 percent in that time, outpacing the overall rate of economic growth.

Health Sciences Professor Anita Lee received a certificate of merit from the National Academic Advising Association for her work in academic advising.

“We are preparing students for careers in nursing, physical therapy, occupational therapy, physician assistants, pharmacy, public health and other allied health and public health fields,” said Anita Lee, one of the program’s faculty members, “with strong, transferable intellectual and practical skills.”

All students take core courses such as medical terminology, genetics and healthcare informatics, while the allied health concentration includes additional courses such as microbiology and anatomy & physiology, and public health students take courses that include epidemiology, nutrition and a field internship.

“Our goal is that our students have a solid knowledge base in health sciences and public health, and top-notch skills in scientific inquiry,” said Health Sciences Department Chair Yaw Nsiah. “We also want them to learn ethical and social responsibility in a diverse world, communicate health information accurately and continue their pre-professional development.”

Health Sciences Department Chair Yaw Nsiah of Ghana, West Africa, founded Withrow University College in 2012 to educate healthcare professionals in his home country.

A native of Ghana, West Africa, Nsiah founded Withrow University College in 2012 to educate healthcare professionals in his home country. For the past four summers, Health Sciences students and faculty have visited the college and other health facilities in Ghana for what has been a life-changing internship. They spend time in hospitals, orphanages, health clinics and other public health facilities, while also touring local communities and cultural sites.

Rachel DiNatalie ’18 is pursuing a master’s degree in occupational therapy at Sacred Heart University. She went on the internship trip to Ghana in 2016. “It was during this life-changing experience that I learned about another culture and experienced a healthcare system in a developing country. . . The opportunities I’ve had at Eastern have affirmed my decision to pursue a career in the healthcare industry and prepared me for graduate school to become an occupational therapist.”

Students from the Health Sciences Program take an annual trip to Ghana, volunteering in hospitals, orphanages, health clinics and other public facilities.

Other off-campus health sciences internships take place at Windham and Backus Hospitals, municipal health departments, Planned Parenthood and other healthcare organizations in Connecticut.

Looking beyond the University to enhance graduates’ success, Eastern has articulation agreements with nursing programs at the University of Connecticut, Fairfield University and Southern Connecticut State University, and is pursuing similar agreements in physical therapy, occupational therapy, and other public and allied health programs.

Back on campus, students use state-of-the-art equipment to learn laboratory techniques as well as various therapies and other healthcare procedures. For instance, using an Anatomage virtual dissection table, students visualize and explore anatomy in 3-D without having to work with cadavers. “This technology allows students to discover the depth of the human body and apply that knowledge to relevant clinical studies,” said Professor Amy Bataille. “Our students exhibit better performance because of this wonderful equipment.”

Using an Anatomage virtual dissection table, students visualize and explore anatomy in 3-D without having to work with cadavers.

Bataille is also the faculty advisor for the Pre-Health Society, the Health Sciences student organization. Club activities include community awareness programs that range from skin cancer to diabetics.

In addition to Nsiah and Bataille, the Health Sciences program is blessed with other outstanding faculty members. Lee recently received a certificate of merit from the National Academic Advising Association for her work in academic advising. Mitchell Doucette’s study of firearm safety was recognized by the American Journal of Public Health as one of the “Best Papers of the Year” in 2018 and Paul Canavan led a team of student researchers in October 2018 that analyzed the biomechanics of baseball pitching, using Eastern athletes to analyze proper mechanics and how to avoid elbow and shoulder injuries. In addition to full-time faculty, part-time lecturers provide additional staffing for the Health Sciences Department. In addition, the interdisciplinary major draws on the expertise of professors in Biology, Psychology, Mathematics and Business Information Systems.

Rachel DiNatalie ’18 is pursuing a master’s degree in occupational therapy at Sacred Heart University.

Only five years old, the Health Sciences program is graduating students who are quickly making their mark in the world. Emmanuel Caicedo ’17, Alejandro Tobon ’17, Timothy Peterson ’18 and McKenzie Reimondo ’18 are studying for their Doctor of Physical Therapy degree at the University of Hartford. Kelsey Sullivan ’18 and Kaley Kennedy ’18 are attending Doctor of Occupational Therapy programs at the Massachusetts General Hospital Institute of Health Professions and Western New England University respectively. Augmenting her laboratory experiences at Eastern, Kennedy also worked in the special education department in the East Windsor public school system, as well as at Strong Foundations in Vernon to assist children diagnosed with autism, Asperger Syndrome, social communication disorder and other related disabilities.

Sullivan gained hands-on experience in Eastern’s Office of AccessAbility Services, as well as her local chiropractor. “My favorite thing about occupational therapy is not only the opportunity to help change someone’s life by helping them adapt to the world around them, but the opportunity for them to change my life as well,” said Sullivan. “This career, like the major at Eastern, is constantly adapting to best serve its clients, professionals, staff and students.”

Precious Baker ’17 is enrolled in the master’s degree in public health at the University of Connecticut, following a fellowship she received in 2016 from the Connecticut Children’s Injury Center as one of only six students to receive the honor. “I have a desire to continue working in the emergency medical environment,” said Baker, “and have a strong interest in environmental health and its relationship to health disparities.”

Precious Baker ’17 is enrolled in the master’s degree in public health at the University of Connecticut.

Another graduate, Marianna Serrano ’18, received a $7,500 scholarship from the Biomedical Science Careers Program at Harvard University to support her studies at Eastern. The scholarship, presented in April 2017, followed a summer 2016 internship at Harvard Medical School. “Being a Health Science major at Eastern has prepared me for seeing the health issues that are in our communities and has provided me with the tools I need to improve care for all that we serve,” said Serrano, who is currently working at Love146, a global anti-human trafficking agency.

Brendan Cullinane ’19 also went on the Ghana field trip and was active in other aspects of the program – as a peer mentor, as co-president of the Pre-Health Society and conducting undergraduate research. He recently was accepted into the prestigious Doctor of Physical Therapy program at the University of Delaware. “This program has provided me many experiences that I don’t think I would have been able to get anywhere else,” said Cullinane. “My greatest learning experiences while studying health sciences are the research I conducted and the global field course to Ghana. They both provided me with hands-on experience and allowed me to develop skills that I otherwise would not have.”

With an outstanding group of dedicated faculty members, modern facilities, and an urgent need for health care professionals in our nation, Eastern’s Health Sciences major is poised to continue its track record of progress and achievement. Graduates of the program are confident they are well prepared to excel in a variety of high-demand healthcare professions.

Written by Dwight Bachman

Eastern Alumna Publishes ‘Planet Earth is Blue’ with Penguin Random House

Thousands of children across the country gathered around the television on Jan. 28, 1986, to witness the Challenger Space Shuttle take the first schoolteacher into outer space. The joyous occasion quickly turned to tragedy as the shuttle exploded one minute into flight. Among the onlookers was Nova, the fictional main character in “Planet Earth is Blue,” the debut book by Eastern Connecticut State University alumna Nicole Panteleakos ’08.

Published by Penguin Random House and Wendy Lamb Books this past May, “Planet Earth is Blue” is the story of an often misunderstood character. Nova is a 12-year-old nonverbal autistic girl with a passion for astronomy. As the Challenger launch approaches, Nova finds herself living in a new foster home and worse, her big sister has gone missing — the one person who understands her.   

“Planet Earth is Blue” is a historical fiction for middle-grade readers. On that tragic day in 1986, classrooms across the country were tuned in to see Christa McAuliffe make history as the first teacher in space.

“It was traumatic,” said Panteleakos of the explosion. “Teachers didn’t know what to do. A lot of schools closed early. Kids didn’t know how to deal with it, which is something that Nova is dealing with in the book.”

Coping with life is especially hard for those who have difficulty communicating. Panteleakos has spent a good deal of time working and volunteering with people with autism and strives to bring a voice to this largely unheard community.

“There’s this pervasive belief that autistic people don’t have any imagination, which is just wrong,” she said. “But a lot of kids like Nova couldn’t express it—especially back in the ’80s when they didn’t have the assistive communication that we have today. So people didn’t know.”

Panteleakos’ first author talk talk occurred at Eastern this past April. Education Professor Susannah Richards welcomed her to speak with students enrolled in her course on middle-grade literature. The students read “Planet Earth is Blue” and devised creative ways to implement it in the middle school classroom setting.

Panteleakos also wants to show a different image of autism. “I wanted to show a more realistic autistic character than the characters, or caricatures, that are seen in the media. I wanted to get away from the trope where the autistic person is this academically brilliant, socially awkward, not very nice character who can’t relate to or love anybody. I wanted to show a more nuanced, realistic person.”

The title of the book recalls the famous David Bowie song “Space Oddity.” “It’s kind of like the Challenger,” said Panteleakos. Speaking of the song, she added: “There’s all this hype for this astronaut, then he goes up and gets jettisoned into space. There’s this line, ‘Planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do.’

“That’s what I was thinking when I wrote the whole book. These bad things happen to Nova and there’s nothing she can do about it. All you can do is metaphorically pick up the pieces and move on. You can’t go back and make it not blow up. You can’t go back and save those people. You can only go forward.”

Tragedy aside, Panteleakos says the themes of the book are hope, resilience, family and friendship. Being able to broach such difficult subject matter is the reason Panteleakos likes writing for the middle-grade age group, as it’s the transitional period between elementary school and the teenage years.

Panteleakos with Eastern student Jakira Wilson.

“It’s an age where kids have the freedom to start striking out on their own and standing out, but also have the comfort of going back home where somebody makes their dinner and takes care of them.”

Stories for this age group are more complex than early childhood literature, but stay away from teenage romance and “saving the world,” topics Panteleakos says often characterize young adult (YA) books — “stuff I’m not too keen on writing.”

“Middle-grade books are about the characters finding themselves or finding their place… figuring out where they belong and how they’re going to be the best version of themselves — which is the challenge for Nova.”

A 2008 graduate of Eastern’s performing arts program, with minors in English and theatre, Panteleakos was first focused on playwriting —and has had many scripts produced and performed. Those formative courses with Communication Professor Edmond Chibeau, who teaches script writing, helped her to master the craft of writing dialogue.

Her trajectory as a writer changed course upon returning to Eastern as a graduate to take a course with English Professor Lisa Fraustino. “I really liked her as an author,” said Panteleakos, “so I was excited to take her class and meet her.”

Fraustino convinced her to pursue a graduate program in children’s literature at Hollins University, which resulted in her landing an agent who got her a two-book deal with Wendy Lamb Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

Fittingly, the debut novelist’s first author talk occurred at Eastern this spring semester, speaking with Education Professor Susannah Richards’ class on middle-grade literature.

“It was very exciting,” she said. “A lot of the students had read the book and asked great questions. Questions about my characters I’d never considered. Insights that made me delve deeper into my own work. It showed that they’re really thinking deeply and connecting with the story, which is very exciting for me.”

“Planet Earth is Blue” was published in May 2019 and is available wherever books are sold.

Written by Michael Rouleau

Eastern Named a 2019-20 ‘College of Distinction’

Eastern Connecticut State University has been named a 2019-20 College of Distinction by the college-guide organization Colleges of Distinction. In addition to the university-wide accolade, Eastern’s business and education programs, as well as its career development center, were honored with badges of distinction.

Rather than rank schools on criteria such as selectivity and endowment size, Colleges of Distinction recognizes schools that incorporate high-impact practices and student-centered programs into every student’s undergraduate experience. Such practices include community-based learning and service-learning programs, study abroad opportunities, intensive writing courses, faculty mentorship, undergraduate research, living-learning communities and internships.

“We are so proud to see Eastern Connecticut State University walking the walk,” said Tyson Schritter, chief operating officer for Colleges of Distinction. “Colleges of Distinction knows that a truly valuable education can’t be measured by rank or reputation. Students learn and thrive best when they embrace hands-on learning in a vibrant, welcoming community. That’s why it’s so encouraging to find that Eastern takes an innovative approach with its curriculum, which ensures that the undergraduate experience is worthwhile and unique.”

Colleges of Distinction’s selection process consists of interviews and research of each institution’s freshman experience and retention efforts alongside its general education programs, career development, strategic plan, student satisfaction and more. Schools are accepted on the basis that they adhere to the Four Distinctions: Engaged Students, Great Teaching, Vibrant Community and Successful Outcomes.

“Colleges of Distinction doesn’t rank schools, because we know that every student is different in what they need to best learn, grow and succeed,” said Schritter. “Instead, we value schools that embrace those differences. Eastern Connecticut State University puts the student experience first, providing all the tools and opportunities they need to become lifelong learners who are ready to take on any challenge in today’s ever-evolving society.”

Written by Michael Rouleau

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Since 2000, the Colleges of Distinction website and guidebook have honored schools throughout the U.S. for their excellence in undergraduate-focused higher education. The cohort of schools in the Colleges of Distinction consortium distinguish themselves through their focus on the undergraduate experience. The website and annual guidebooks provide dynamic college profiles, customized tools and resources for students, parents and high school counselors. For more information, visit CollegesofDistinction.com.

Escoto Named Alumnus of the Year by Loma Linda University

Carlos Escoto, associate professor of psychology at Eastern Connecticut State University, was recently named 2019 Alumnus of the Year by Loma Linda University’s School of Behavioral Health. Escoto accepted the award on June 16 in Loma Linda, CA.

Born and raised in Orange County, CA, Escoto earned his bachelor’s degree in psychology from Chapman University and his master’s degree and Ph.D. in psychology from Loma Linda University.

He was recognized for outstanding performance in his roles as a researcher, administrator, educator and colleague. “Dr. Escoto, you honor us with your dedication to excellence,” said Bev Buckles, dean of Loma Linda’s School of Behavioral Health. “We look forward to the opportunity to present you with this award.”

Escoto moved to Connecticut and joined the Eastern faculty in 2002. With a primary focus on student success, Escoto has mentored many students through independent research projects. He received a teaching award in 2007 and has also published on the topic of pedagogy.

Professor Escoto (left of podium) accepts the Alumnus of the Year award at Loma Linda.

He’s served as chair of the University Curriculum and Faculty Development Committees as well co-chair of the Strategic Plan Implementation Committee. He’s served on search committees for the provost and dean of students positions. Currently he is chair of the Department of Psychological Sciences.

Dr. Escoto is also the coordinator of the Office of Undergraduate Research and Creative Activity, a position he’s held since 2013. During that time, research activities and opportunities for presenting at conferences have dramatically increased across Eastern’s undergraduate student body. Eastern was among the top 20 schools nationwide for participation at the National Conference on Undergraduate Research this past April in Georgia — the only school from New England to make the list. Eastern students routinely represent Connecticut at the highly selective Posters on the Hill conference in Washington, D.C. And this May, two students presented in Germany at the second annual World Conference on Undergraduate Research.

Off campus, Escoto has served as the associate editor for the Psi Chi Journal of Psychological Research. He is an elected councilor in the Psychology Division of the Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR), as well as an executive board member of the CUR at large.

Written by Michael Rouleau