President’s Initiatives Fund projects create learning opportunities through diversity

From the United Nations headquarters in Geneva and the art museums of Madrid to the public schools of Danbury and the stage of the Ives Center, WestConn students are discovering that the university’s rich diversity of learning opportunities stretch far beyond the classroom — thanks in significant part to programs sponsored by the WCSU President’s Initiatives Fund.

“Clearly, the President’s Initiatives Fund provided the core funding to make this project happen,” observed Assistant Professor of Social Work Dr. Kathleen Hinga, who joined campus Catholic Chaplain Friar Michael Lasky to coordinate the “Step into the World in Geneva” program that brought 12 WestConn students to the UN Human Rights Council meetings in Switzerland in June 2008.

“The grant played a role in so many different ways in attracting additional funding that made it possible to organize this trip for our students,” Hinga said. “It opened all sorts of different opportunities for our student and faculty participants to deepen our understanding of our global world, and to learn how important it is to build bridges across our national and cultural differences.”

True to the theme for the 2008 President’s Initiatives Fund awards, “Learning Opportunities that Differences Can Create,” the 10 projects selected last year to receive grants totaling $116,000 have made an important contribution to educating WestConn students for the challenges of future work and citizenship in a diverse society and an interdependent world. President James W. Schmotter, who has approved a total of 22 project grants from the fund since 2006, emphasized in his announcement of the 2008 awards that the university is committed to carrying that educational experience far beyond its campus boundaries.

“Our students will not only grow academically,” Schmotter said, “but by learning more about communities beyond the campus, be they local or global, they will better understand the complexities and power of human diversity in our world.”

Here are some of the ways in which 2008 President’s Initiatives Fund projects have helped to deepen students’ appreciation of diversity in their community and their world:

“Step into the World in Geneva”: The 18-day program, scheduled to coincide with the UN’s 60th anniversary celebration of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, afforded the opportunity for students to supplement formal classes by attending a regular session of the UN Human Rights Council and meeting with an international array of diplomats and nongovernmental organization representatives in Geneva.

“Having the opportunity to hear the perspectives of people from all over the world on human rights, and the concrete challenges in defending human rights at the grassroots level, has helped our students to think about the next steps in their own professional lives,” Hinga observed. Since their return from Geneva, student participants have shown heightened awareness of human rights issues in many ways, from active engagement in political organizing and disability-access efforts at the community level to involvement in study-abroad programs and a yearlong social work student project exploring the issue of poverty. Hinga cited heightened interest among the students in careers related to international affairs and human rights concerns as further evidence that the Geneva program has proven a life-changing experience.

“Bridges of Peace and Hope”: This project, a collaborative WestConn venture with Danbury Public Schools under the supervision of Professor of Education Dr. Darla Shaw culminated with a concert on April 7 featuring children’s folksinger John Farrell and a cast of 280 community performers, including students from WCSU and Danbury schools as well as a Nigerian drumming group and singers from New Hope Baptist Church. Shaw has conducted workshops and consultations with teachers at participating Danbury schools during the current academic year to coordinate preparations for the April 7 performance, which also will feature readings, dance and a lobby exhibition of student art and writings on the theme of peace.

The concert is part of a comprehensive program to expand and enhance the continuing Peace Curriculum program in the Danbury school system, and to promote music literacy at all grade levels within the context of the “Bridges of Peace and Hope” initiative. “This performance will offer the children’s interpretation of what it takes to make this a more peaceful and better world,” Shaw noted. “It will be a very inspirational event.”      

“Diversity Lecture Series”: The seed planted by President’s Initiatives Fund support for the creation of a Diversity Lecture Series during the spring 2008 term has blossomed into a continuing program of speakers bringing unique perspectives on immigration, race relations, human rights, and other important cultural and public policy themes to the WestConn community. Recent lectures have featured Dr. Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, professor of globalization and education at New York University (NYU) and cofounder of the Harvard Immigration Project; Loung Ung, survivor of the Khmer Rouge reign of terror in the late 1970s and author of the book “First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers”; and Rev. DeForest Blake “Buster” Soaries Jr., former New Jersey secretary of state and chairman of the federal Election Assistance Commission. Kenji Yoshino, Chief Justice Earl Warren Professor of Constitutional Law at the NYU School of Law, discussed “Covering: The Hidden Attack on Civil Rights” in a lecture presented April 8 in the Student Center Theater on the WestConn Midtown campus.

“Each of these lectures has brought issues such as immigration and de-facto citizenship, civil rights and responsibility to the forefront, and provided our campus community an opportunity to expand our knowledge and understanding of these issues,” observed Dr. Bryan Samuel, WCSU director of multicultural affairs and affirmative action programs. “By providing activities with real-world applications, we make these diverse issues meaningful and capitalize on the learning opportunities that differences can create.”

“Capoeira Project with DanceBrazil”: Another example of the Fund’s success in bringing the world to WestConn was its sponsorship of the “Capoeira Project,” realized in collaboration with the Danbury newspaper Tribuna in spring 2008. The two-day celebration of the African-Brazilian cultural heritage featured professional performances, dance workshops and capoeira classes presented by Contra-Mestre Caxias from Grupo Capoeira Brazil and the DanceBrazil company, under the artistic direction of 2008 National Heritage Fellowship recipient Jelon Vieira.

Assistant Professor of History and Non-Western Cultures Dr. Joshua Rosenthal expressed optimism that the 2008 project will provide the foundation for future collaborations. “The purpose was to initiate a long-term relationship between WestConn and these performers and teachers of the Brazilian cultural form of capoeira,” Rosenthal said. “This relationship will help WestConn to forge deeper links with the Brazilian community of Danbury, and help students live the lesson of learning through difference.”

“WCSU Annual Jazz Festival”: Over the past 14 years, the WCSU Jazz Festival has established its place each spring as an enduring and popular annual tradition with its winning medley of professional and student performances, complemented by a full schedule of jazz clinics and workshops taught by world-class musicians. The President’s Initiatives Fund recognized the essential contribution of the festival’s teaching component in enriching the educational experience of WestConn music students by providing resources to attract outside professional clinicians to the 2008 event. The prestigious cast of instructors for the 2008 jazz clinics included trombonist Rick Ciccarone, pianist/composer D.D. Jackson, trumpet player Laurie Frink, saxophonist/composers Jimmy Greene and John Mastroianni, and University of Texas Director of Jazz Studies Jeff Hellmer

“Bringing in outside clinicians from New York City fits perfectly with the university’s strategic plan of exploiting our proximity to this cultural center,” noted Assistant Professor of Music Jamie Begian, coordinator of jazz studies in the WCSU music department. “Outside clinicians complement our own outstanding faculty and provide our students with fresh insights on ‘everything jazz,’ from performance tips and pedagogical techniques to career development. In jazz, much as in every other artistic discipline, exposure to a diversity of opinion and experiences is crucial to developing a well-rounded student and lifelong practitioner of the art form.”

“Joint Theatre Production with the Ives Authority”: Faculty, students and alumni from WestConn’s theatre arts department joined forces with community actors and the Ives Authority to stage a summer theatre presentation in July 2008 of William Shakespeare’s comedy “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” with support from the President’s Initiatives Fund. Produced by Professor of Theatre Arts Frank Herbert and directed by Associate Professor of Theatre Arts Pam McDaniel, the 90-minute adaptation took full advantage of the play’s knotted relationships, mistaken identities, mischievous fairies and farcical tradesmen-turned-actors to offer a family-oriented evening of entertainment and theatrical magic.

The production’s theme of engaging the general community in this collaborative WCSU-Ives project inspired planned activities in Ives Concert Park prior to the start of the performance that invited children to participate in creative dramatics crafts and games. Children from the community were offered the opportunity to become supporting players in the production.   

“Summer Study in Spain”:  Among the most enduring and successful study-abroad opportunities at WestConn is the annual Summer Study in Spain program, which introduces students to a rich diversity of artistic, historical and cultural experiences during four weeks of  intensive language immersion. The President’s Initiatives Fund, along with sponsorship from the WCSU International Center, provided essential support for the 2008 program conducted from May 29 to June 28. Fifteen WestConn students received classroom instruction in Spanish language and culture, arts history and drawing, complemented by opportunities to use written and spoken Spanish in their experiences of daily life in Madrid. Students also visited museums, architectural landmarks and historical sites, attended cultural events and music performances, and toured widely from the Basque country in the north to Valencia on the Mediterranean coast.

Assistant Professor of World Languages and Literature Dr. Galina Bakhtiarova noted that the department’s instructional philosophy holds “that teaching languages cannot be separated from learning about culture and arts.” In keeping with this approach, the formal classes in art, language and culture offered at a Madrid conference center were reinforced by opportunities “at museums, historic sites, outdoor cafes, parks and boulevards, where students used their developing language skills in an informal setting,” Bakhtiarova said. Similarly, each drawing student received a sketchbook at the beginning of their stay and was “expected to create a visual travelogue, filling the sketchbook over the course of the semester with drawings, writings and other items found in Spain.” Students responded well to this instructional approach, she added: “The program was unanimously evaluated as a most positive experience by all participants.”   

“Math Mentoring Enrichment Program”: Ten WestConn undergraduates currently participate in this math-enrichment program for students at Broadview Middle School and Roberts Avenue Elementary School in Danbury. Consistent with the theme for the 2008 Fund awards, “learning opportunities that differences can create,” the program seeks to use the inherent difference between the university and public school environments as an opportunity to provide a dynamic learning experience for both mentors and mentees. Coordinated by Associate Professor of Education and Educational Psychology Dr. Theresa Canada and Associate Professor of Psychology Dr. Robin Flanagan, the program’s activities require mentors and mentees to perceive mathematical principles in a different way as they apply these curriculum lessons to real-world problem solving.

“Mathematical thinking has seemed too ‘different’ for too many students for too long,” the project proposal said. “This program attempts to give students of all ages a safe environment, free from judgments, tests and grades, in which to learn from the differences they encounter in building, programming, designing and creating mathematically.”  

“Opening the World of Danbury to WCSU Students”: This project, introduced by the WCSU Division of Student Affairs, takes WestConn students out into the Greater Danbury community to learn from the wide-ranging social, economic and cultural diversity to be found in the area’s historical sites, neighborhoods, restaurants, shops and entertainment venues. Structured to provide opportunities for small student groups to explore selected locations in the area under the guidance of a WCSU faculty or staff member, the program offers an especially useful means to enable undergraduates at WestConn to gain a deeper appreciation for the community that surrounds the university.

“Project Bumpspark”:  This nonprofit television production project offers an example of how the President’s Initiatives Fund can help to create educational opportunities for a wider community. Professor of Writing, Linguistics and Creative Process Dr. Brian Clements, coordinator of the Master of Fine Arts in Professional Writing program at WestConn, sponsored the project submission for Fund support in order to advance the creation of a pilot episode for the proposed Bumpspark series to air on Connecticut Public Television and Radio. The series concept is to bring professionals from starkly different fields of endeavor together for informal one-on-one conversations filmed at a variety of relevant locations, for the purpose of “cross-pollinating our increasingly divided centers of knowledge and documenting the uncelebrated modern intellectual voice,” the program’s mission statement noted. MFA program graduate Robert Kalm has played a central role in planning and development of the series.

“The president’s grant has been absolutely essential in getting the project off the ground with equipment and with enhancement of the project’s ability to promote the series further and raise additional funds for the pilot,” Clements said. He noted purchase of camera and audio equipment for production, as well as preparations to film brief interviews to be used in promoting the series, have laid the groundwork for the additional technical work and fundraising required to produce the pilot show. CPTV has agreed to air the pilot, and expressed interest in developing it as a national PBS and NPR series. Additional background on the project is available at www.bumpspark.org.

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