Many of Sacred Heart University’s incoming freshmen made friends and had life-changing experiences all before they stepped into their first class of the new academic year.
Sacred Heart offered 10 unique, week-long programs for the incoming class of 2021 to familiarize freshmen with their peers, school and community.
The freshmen joined 16 student-leaders, three staff members and three on-site graduate student assistants who volunteered around Bridgeport as part of Community Connections, a program run by the Office of Volunteer Programs & Service Learning. They assisted at local schools that were preparing for their September openings and distributed backpacks. They cleaned, gardened and talked about issues with residents at nonprofit centers and worked to complete a Habitat for Humanity home.
At Hall Neighborhood House in Bridgeport, professors from the College of Nursing worked with Community Connections to host a luncheon for senior citizens who participate in Hall’s recreational programs. Hall is a nonprofit site that provides services to educate, enrich and empower residents’ lives in the east side of Bridgeport and the surrounding community. Five students helped prepare African-American and Latino dishes, using the residents’ recipes. During lunch, students chatted with the guests and shared stories. They also discussed health inequity and disparity.
Linda Strong, associate professor and director of SHU’s programs for nurses seeking bachelor’s or master’s of science degrees in nursing, said the luncheon’s purpose was for students to get to know the seniors in the community, share a meal together and discuss the realities for many Bridgeport residents.
Robert Dzurenda, executive director for Hall Neighborhood House, said the students’ interaction with Hall’s residents was important because, “it brings people of all races together, which strengthens our community. The students bring energy to the center, especially to our senior citizens, who love telling their story to a new set of ears.”
Students also made minor improvements to Hall throughout the week. Dzurenda said having students work in and a see facility like Hall “raises their awareness of the needs of others. I see it on their faces; when one of our families thanks them for their help, you can see they feel good about themselves. They know they are making a difference. Also, I can see the compassion the students display when they see someone struggling to meet a basic need.”
Graduate assistant Jillian Gray, who is getting her master’s degree in communications, has been participating in Community Connections since her freshman year. “It’s a great program,” Gray said while working at the Habitat for Humanity site in Bridgeport—a duplex home where two families were getting ready to move in. Students pulled weeds, built a retaining wall for parking purposes and fixed a fence. “I’ve been able to show freshmen the Bridgeport community and show them it’s not a scary place.”
Gray said the program, which has been going on for 20 years, is a great way for students to get involved in the community, as well as make lifelong friendships. After spending their days volunteering, students passed the evenings discussing what they learned, along with important issues such as social justice, immigration and racism.
Freshman Jessica Teixeira, 18, from Bridgeport, shoveled gravel for the retaining wall at the Habitat site. “I really wanted to do a pre-fall program to meet new friends and get involved,” she said. She enjoyed volunteering at the Maggie Daly Arts Cooperative in downtown Bridgeport—a nonprofit where people with disabilities can learn, create and benefit by participating in the arts—and said she wants to go back there and volunteer more.
Sophomore Ally Plezia loved Community Connections so much last year, she decided to do it again, this time as a student leader. The Long Island native, who is majoring in communications, said she had a great time last summer and is happy to see the first-year students having the same experiences and emotions she did. “It’s really unbelievable what we do. Everyone just becomes immersed in volunteering and helping out in the community. It’s really an amazing week,” Plezia said.
The College of Health Professions’ pre-fall program, A Week of Wellness, brought 18 freshmen together to learn about physical, emotional and spiritual wellness.
“This is our first year doing this, and participation surpassed our expectations,” said Valerie Wherley, clinical assistant professor for exercise science. “All the students said this was the type of pre-fall program they were looking for, so we’re definitely fulfilling a need.”
In the beginning of the week, students sat outside the Chapel of the Holy Spirit as they listened to June-Ann Greeley, theology and religious studies professor, discuss spiritual wellness and what it means to have faith. Then they toured the chapel with Larry Carroll, executive director of pastoral services. In the evening, Wherley led a yoga class on the quad for the group. A Week of Wellness also featured didactic and interactive activities encompassing the Seven Dimensions of Wellness: physical, environmental, spiritual, social, emotional, intellectual and occupational. Students went to NYC to tour the Ellis Island Immigration Hospital and ended the week at Reservoir Community Farm in Bridgeport, assisting with the harvesting and planting of sustainable and affordable vegetables.
Freshmen with their eyes set on careers in the business field participated in the pre-fall program, Mind Your Business, which has been offered at SHU for the past seven years. Eighty-five students met with peers, faculty, employers and community partners. They explored program offerings at the Jack Welch College of Business (WCOB) and learned the necessary skills to get on the right business track, both professionally and personally. Students learned how to develop a résumé, toured new parts of the campus and participated in mock interviews. During one afternoon, students heard Sean Heffron, executive director of student success, deliver an engaging presentation on the skills needed to make an effective presentation. He reminded students to pay attention to their facial features, dress professionally and prepare smooth transitions when telling a story.
“It’s been a really exciting week,” said Rob Coloney, director of the WCOB’s Welch Experience. “The students learned a great deal and had a lot of experiences in this short amount of time. Being part of this program is a huge benefit; students are already settled and have a better understanding of the College of Business and what it expects from them.”
Thirteen incoming freshmen participated in the “Heart” in Ireland program, led by Marie Hulme, English and Catholic studies professor, and student assistant Eric Torrens. “Students had the opportunity to study at SHU’s beautiful campus in Dingle, Ireland, before they began their freshman fall semester. The program offers a foundational experience abroad in which students begin their academic careers, enjoy the natural beauty of the Dingle Peninsula and are immersed in Irish culture,” said Renee Cassidy Pang, associate director for global campus programs. “It is also a wonderful opportunity to connect with fellow incoming first-year students across disciplines, as well as SHU faculty and staff. For most of the participants, the pre-fall program in Ireland is just the beginning of their international journey, as they are inspired to explore the world and new cultures with further short-term and semester-long study-abroad programs throughout their time at SHU.”
The College of Arts & Sciences (CAS) hosted its first pre-fall program for the week called “What’s Your Story?” Nineteen incoming CAS freshmen spent the week focusing on their “onward and upward journey,” said Susan Gannon, psychology professor. “When students come to college there are so many uncertainties, this was a way for them to get out of their comfort zones.”
Each day students participated in something different such as a cooking class, a photography workshop, a day-trip to New York City to visit the Tenement Museum and a ropes course at the Discovery Museum in Bridgeport. Gannon said students handled challenges well and made the best out of every situation.
“They had so much fun,” Gannon said. “Everything was designed to tap into their own creativity.” The program was led by four upperclassmen, or student leaders, who were “hugely instrumental in how bonding was built,” Gannon said. The leaders told the group they are in charge of their own stories or futures.
Gannon is confident the group will remain close and due to the program’s positive outcomes, believes it will be offered again next year.
Other pre-fall programs included Behind the Curtain for students interested in theater arts; a pre-fall dance intensive for students in the dance program; Lights, Camera, Action for communications students; Navigating Leadership for students looking to develop their leadership skills; and Start Strong for students who want to perfect their time management and study strategies.
For more information on SHU’s pre-fall programs, click here.