Author: Michael

Photography and Health

Marissa at work with camera

When I started searching for a career path, the one thing I knew was my love for healthcare. I researched a number of different professions, from physician’s assistant to nurse to psychotherapist. But I also have an interest in photography, and, after discovering the field of art therapy, I decided that I would combine my dream of working in healthcare with my passion for the arts. Through the Individualized Major program, I created a major called Health and Wellness through Visual Arts, which merges courses in psychology and Human Development and Family Studies with photography courses in Fine Arts. I intend to use art therapy to help patients cope with their illnesses through creativity and expression.

This summer I interned at The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, founded by Paul Newman, which provides a safe and enjoyable environment for children who are living with chronic illness. For eight weeks my job was to capture the special moments these children have at camp and present them in a slideshow at the end of each week. In addition, I created a media program that gives campers a chance to make a project of their own.

Marissa (left) and her colleague Sarah Luft

My experience at camp brought with it self-realization and a deeper insight into my career goals. The universal feeling of euphoria was contagious and made me want to be the best version of myself. I learned a lot working alongside people who are very different from me, people who sincerely cared how my day was going, who wanted to learn more about me, and who were thankful for their roles at camp. It would have been easy to get caught up in rules and scheduling, forgetting to be in the moment, but I managed to balance responsibility and fun (what we refer to at camp as “raising a little hell”). I learned how to create simple entertainment out of little things and how to communicate in an empathetic way with children and adults who were having a tough time.

This experience has given me a purpose: to do work that transforms peoples’ lives. I look forward to taking these lessons into more environments, applying what I’ve learned, and learning even more in the process.

By Marissa Aldieri
IMJR: Health and Wellness through Visual Arts

Alumna Report: Serious Fun

Four years ago I stood on the third floor of Rowe, unsure of what I wanted to dedicate the next three years to learning about. I’d spent my first year at UConn exploring disciplines—and just when I’d hoped it would clarify my choices, it did the opposite. Instead, I was intrigued by the different lenses sociology, psychology, English literature, human development, and anthropology applied to the same subjects. How did family systems theory, Faulkner’s and Morrison’s fictional characters, and social determinants of well-being overlap? How did they differ? With these questions in mind I set out to study Cultural Influence on Youth Development.

My individualized major focused on the ways cultural narratives, circumstance, and media shape human development. I left UConn understanding the power of narrative – its ability to affect everything from which sneaker we buy to what we remember most easily, and, of course, our values and worldview. Stories, language, and people, and their intersection, were at the heart of it. Now, as a young professional in digital marketing, these three remain at the core of my work.

Through the Newman’s Own Foundation Fellowship I landed at SeriousFun Children’s Network, a global community of 30 camps and programs serving children living with serious illnesses and their families free of charge. At the Network support center, I manage social media channels and develop content. In short, I craft and tell stories about the life-changing work done at camp. A few years ago, I’d never imagined that content marketing, not seemingly like English literature, would be rooted in meaningful storytelling and relationship building, but by image and post rather than character and chapter. I’ve come to appreciate the layers of psychology and strategy that go into creating effective digital communications.

Sarah at the SeriousFun Support Center

My time at SeriousFun continues to deepen my understanding of youth development as well. From my experience as a volunteer at SeriousFun camps in Michigan, North Carolina, and Connecticut, such as The Hole in The Wall Gang Camp, I can tell you that camp really is life-changing. The effects of health challenges on kids and their families can be serious and far-reaching. Fear, stigma, and isolation strain identity, work-life balance, relationships with others, and family dynamics, taking a toll on overall health. Under such trying circumstances, camp serves as a haven. In its fully-accessible and all-inclusive glory, it is a place to reclaim joy, restore confidence, renew hope, and rediscover possibility. Shared laughter and free play is some powerful stuff!

When I designed my major, I didn’t know where it would take me or just how much my daily work would relate! Now two years out of school, I’m still not sure what the future will hold. But I’ve realized that’s par for the course. Thankfully, I am more confident about a few things. And that’s just how important looking between disciplines, reaching across silos, and staying curious can be. I’m grateful everyday for the interdisciplinary perspectives I gained through my major. I think there are few things as applicable as those perspectives—no matter your profession—in today’s world.

By Sarah Luft
IMJR: Cultural Influence on Youth Development

A New Growth: Majors in CAHNR

Until recently, the vast majority of individualized majors have been in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS). The last few years, however, have seen a new growth in the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources (CAHNR), largely driven by students’ interest in sustainable agriculture and applied health sciences. Majors devoted to health usually include courses in allied health, nutritional science, and kinesiology; those devoted to sustainable agriculture usually include courses in agriculture and resource economics, natural resources and the environment, and plant science. The new growth in majors in CAHNR mirrors a broader trend that we have seen in students’ interest in the well being of humans and the planet, either directly, through the health professions, or indirectly, by promoting sustainable systems in agriculture, manufacturing, and energy production.

Recent major titles in CAHNR that reflect this new growth include:

  • Health, Nutrition, and Wellness
  • Aquaculture and Fisheries
  • Community Health
  • Livestock Management and Policy
  • Nutrition and Exercise Physiology
  • Sustainable Agriculture and Global Development

A good example of this trend is recent graduate Tierney Lawlor (’17), whose major, Sustainable Farm and Ranch Management, included courses such as Principles of Animal Genetics, Environmental Soil Science, and Business Management. Tierney’s long-term goal is to operate her own farm, and to that end she has done some internships that have allowed her to work with cattle. For more on her story, please see the recent UConn Magazine article on farming in which Tierney was featured.

Horsebarn Hill
A dairy cow on Horsebarn Hill.

If our most recent round of applications, which included a record high six majors in CAHNR, is any indication, we expect that this new growth will continue for the foreseeable future. We look forward to working with more students in health and agriculture and are excited to see what type of imaginative majors they create!

Alumnus Report: Ben Simmons-Telep

I am a proud graduate of the Individualized Major Program, and about four months ago, I made the difficult decision to leave a successful stint at my current job to pursue a graduate degree. I have submitted applications to a number of Master’s Degree programs in International Development Studies, all of which focus on preparing students with the technical skills and context to solve global issues of human well-being. As I await my admissions decisions, I have found myself reflecting on the confluence of events that have led me down this particular career path.

After graduating high school, I moved to Lima, Peru as part of a student exchange program where I attended university classes, built a new community of friends, and became fluent in Spanish. During my time there, I was involved in several humanitarian aid projects which included working with local chapters of Rotary International to deliver hundreds of donated wheelchairs to remote Andean communities.

Ben with a friend
Ben with a friend

I returned home inspired, with a newfound commitment to humanitarian service and eager to create a project of my own that could help to alleviate the poverty and suffering that I had witnessed. I founded an aid project, which I called Project Peru. Over the course of two years, I raised over $8,000 to purchase school supplies, commodity baskets, and Christmas presents for over 300 families. Leveraging the network that I had formed in Peru, I worked closely with a number of local partners to distribute the supplies to rural Peruvian schools and orphanages during the holiday seasons of 2011 and 2012.

However, something was wrong. Despite the project’s objective success, I became disenchanted with its mission. I became aware of a dark side to humanitarian aid, characterized by oppressive power dynamics, class tensions, and patronage. In addition, the project’s impact was superficial, unsustainable and its whole premise lacked a strong empirical foundation. Gifting Christmas presents did not tangibly improve anyone’s condition and presumed a diagnosis that was not based on evidence. This realization led me down a line of questioning that ultimately shaped the trajectory of my career and studies during the ensuing years. I found myself asking questions such as, “How might I have used the money differently? Are there sustainable models for development that genuinely increase human well-being?”

In an effort to answer these questions, I turned to academics. At the University of Connecticut, I declared an individualized major in international relations with a focus on economic development and built an interdisciplinary curriculum designed to explore poverty through several diverse lenses, including anthropology, sociology, human rights, and microeconomics. I gravitated toward the structure provided by economic analysis and declared a second major in economics and a minor in human rights. My studies provided me with a solid foundation in economic analysis, but I struggled to reconcile classical economic theory with what I observed to be true with respect to the nature of human well-being – a condition that seemed to be less a function of consumption and income, and more a product of opportunities, freedoms, and communal relationships. This conflict was reflected in my senior capstone project which offered an interdisciplinary critique of economic interpretations of happiness.

Ben Simmons Telep at work
Ben at work

I became fascinated by the disruptive potential of social enterprise in the field of development, and after graduating I began working for a social enterprise start-up incubator. In my current role as Director of Programs, I have designed and implemented several successful high impact entrepreneurial programs, including a nationally awarded accelerator that has been associated with the creation of over 50 jobs and 3.5 million dollars of private investment.

I am pursuing a graduate degree in International Development Studies because I am ready to take the next step in my career. I believe that social innovation may play a major role in shaping the next chapter of global development, but in order to explore its application, I must first equip myself with a deep technical and theoretical understanding of current development practices and methodologies. As I reflect on my path over the past ten years, I am grateful to the IMJR program for providing me with both the support and latitude to pursue my interest in this field. The interdisciplinary approach was not only highly relevant to my professional experience after graduation, but it has provided me with a well-rounded academic foundation, and I am thrilled by the opportunity to continue my studies at the graduate level.

By Ben Simmons-Telep
IMJR: International Relations

Studies in Switzerland

My name is Aaron Plotke, and I am a senior at the University of Connecticut with a dual degree in Nutritional Science and Health Policy (my IMJR). For the fall semester, I decided to study abroad in Geneva, Switzerland. The program I am participating in focuses on Global Health and Development Policy. We are covering a wide range of topics from global governance systems and health to food security and international health regulations.

Aaron Plotke and colleagues
The students in the program. Aaron is in the back row, second from the right.

The program has been (and continues to be) an incredible academic and cultural experience. We are conducting multiple research projects from local case studies focusing on health issues in Switzerland and Morocco to a final month-long independent study project on a topic of our choosing. Geneva is home to many experts in global health and development who work for international organizations; we attend lectures by them, network with them, and interview them for our independent research projects. In addition, as part of the program’s goal of cultural immersion, three times a week we are taking classes in French, the primary language in Geneva. We have also taken a few short field trips to other cities in Switzerland, such as Bern to visit the Swiss Development and Cooperation Program, and a week-long excursion to Morocco. This was one of my favorite parts of the program. We lived with host families in the old city of Rabat (called Medinas) while hearing experts from local non-government organizations (NGOs). We were as integrated into the local culture as one week allowed. The first time we walked into my host families building, I found myself in the midst of a four-day celebration for their new born cousin, in which they immediately invited my roommate and me to join. This was definitely a highlight of our trip to Morocco.

As I reflect on my study abroad experience, I couldn’t have picked a better program to complement my majors in Nutritional Science and Health Policy. The School for International Training’s program in global health and development policy has expanded my knowledge into the global arena and has also given me a better idea of what my future career may look like. Studying the work of international and non-governmental organizations has certainly made an impact on what I will do after graduation. Networking with experts in the global health and development sectors may lead to internships and work opportunities in the future!

by Aaron Plotke
IMJR: Health Policy

Emily Roller: User Experience Intern

I’m a senior majoring in Digital User Behavior. What’s that you ask? Digital User Behavior combines two of my passions: understanding human behavior (psychology) and web design (visual communication and digital media design). I’m interested in the field of Usability Research, which tests software products with users to see whether they are usable and how they can be improved to better meet users’ needs and requirements.

This summer I was a User Experience Intern with Tyler Technologies, a company that develops software solutions for the public sector (municipal governments, schools, and utilities). Through networking with another IMJR at UConn (now graduated), a Human Resources representative at Tyler actually found me on LinkedIn based on my university and stated interests.

Tyler Techologies building
Tyler Technologies building

My major uniquely prepared me for this opportunity. Through the psychology and communication portions of my IMJR, I learned about the drivers of human behavior, how habits are formed, common mental shortcuts, paths to persuasion and how people perceive visual information. Additionally, I learned to design and analyze participant studies as well as conduct research in the Judgment and Decision Making lab on campus. I applied these skills to usability testing in the lab, which involves testing new and existing products with users to see how they can be improved.

I took what I learned from my observations to conduct my own usability tests on products throughout the summer at Tyler, both internally with employees and externally with clients. We tracked the number of user clicks, task completion rates, and overall user impressions. I created my own prototypes using clickable mockups or interactive demos created using the code I’d learned in my web design class. I also worked on designing new screens for two existing programs, giving them an updated look and making them easier to use. Finally, a colleague and I conducted ethnographic research with clients, in the form of unstructured interviews, which looks specifically at user goals instead of product features.

The internship this summer taught me three key lessons. The first is the importance of asking for help. As an intern, I wanted to look competent and prove to my colleagues I could do the tasks on my own. Further, I didn’t want to annoy my new colleagues with questions. I was working on a specific project in Javascript, attempting to recreate an app a fellow developer had created. I spent about three days on this before finally caving and asking him for help. In just an hour, he explained to me his app, his thinking, and how to adapt it for my purposes. I learned more from him in that hour than I could have in my own struggling. As I began to ask colleagues for help, I came to understand the importance of other ideas and perspectives. Often others can pick up on things you may never notice. Second, I learned that you don’t know what you don’t know. I found that in early kickoff meetings, I felt confident that I had a handle on the design issue at hand and it wasn’t until conversations with clients, developers, and colleagues that I began to uncover the layers inherent to the problem. I’ve learned that when I feel confident, I should keep digging in to the problem. Finally, I’ve learned that learning doesn’t stop at school. At a technology company like Tyler, we are always learning new updates, methods, and technologies. I’ve seen that the difference between successful and unsuccessful programmers seems to be adaptability and excitement to learn; without these key traits it can be easy to be frustrated by the changes inherent in this type of work.

I’m excited to take what I’ve learned this summer and apply it to my next projects this semester – working on my thesis, working in the UITS Web Development lab, and working as the Digital Communications Director for Community Outreach.

by Emily Roller
IMJR: Digital User Behavior

A Peruvian Experience

This summer I lived in Lima, Peru and interned with the Volunteer Affairs department of MEDLIFE, a non-profit organization that works with low income families in developing countries. Its main goals are to bring medical services to those in poverty and to build relationships with their communities.

Alexa Friedman (bottom center) at work
Alexa Friedman (bottom center) at work

In the United States, one often doesn’t see the gap between rich and poor. In Peru, wealth disparities are clearly evident. Thirty percent of the Peruvian population live in Lima, which creates a very concentrated mass of people. To be considered below the poverty line in Peru one has to make less than 348 Sol a month (approximately $116 US dollars), and the poverty rate is about 22% (which is a sharp decline from about 55% in 2005). The poor usually lack basic services such as clean water, electricity and sanitary facilitates.

Although the government provides some health care, called Seguro Integral de Salud (SIS), it is difficult to access. I have seen first hand what a patient’s hospital experience can look like: the wait is usually about 4-8 hours, with no waiting rooms and no guarantee you will see a doctor. To even get an appointment, one has to go to the hospital in person (early if one expects to be seen) for an appointment that will likely be 4-6 weeks later.

As a Volunteer Affairs Intern, I had many different responsibilities. Throughout the week I would be either in the office, in the field, or on a patient follow up. Some of my daily tasks in the office included developing curriculum, coordinating volunteer trips, answering incoming communications and meetings with other departments. One major project I worked on was developing a fundraiser for a school in Kirua, Tanzania. This school is nothing more than a simple room with no bathroom, no kitchen, and insufficient desks for all the students. Many deaths due to diarrhea or parasites are caused by the lack of sanitation facilities. MEDLIFE is working to raise $11,500 to build a bathroom, a kitchen and to donate 29 desks.

Lima, Peru
Lima, Peru

On days in the field, I supervised a clinic or worked on a project. If I were supervising a clinic I helped set up the mobile clinics, helped guide volunteers and translated. The projects we worked on were negotiated between MEDLIFE and the community. The community told us what they need most and we helped them build it. The community participation facilitates community pride, which makes our work more sustainable. After our patients checked in to our mobile clinics, if our doctors and nurses determined they needed more continuous care, they were enrolled in our patient follow up program. A MEDLIFE staff member or intern would accompany a MEDLIFE nurse to the patients’ homes to do checkups, deliver medicine, or complete socioeconomic assessments. MEDLIFE covers anywhere from 50-90% of the patients’ costs for however long is necessary.

I also worked on a developmental project for Jorge, one our patients. Jorge suffers from brain atrophy, which means as time goes on, his motor and cognitive abilities diminish. Because of this, he has lost is ability to walk. We provided him with a wheelchair, but even so he was not able to leave his home. We asked his family what we could do, and his wife asked us to build a ramp so he could go outside and play with his children. His son asked us to please help make his dad happy again. As a team we raised $700 in 7 hours! Below is a photo of the before and after when we finished our project.

Over the course of the past three months, I have learned so much about health, public health, myself and the world around me. One of the most important lessons I have learned is the importance of having an interdisciplinary perspective. Approaching the inequalities in health requires some knowledge of human development, human rights, economics, history, sociology and much more. I found that I was most successful in my work when I applied knowledge from an array of different courses. In addition, I solidified my passion for the study of global health. This Peruvian experience has most definitely been a step towards a future in which I work for more equal access to healthcare and for health as a human right.

by Alexa Friedman
Individualized major: Human Health Sciences and Development

Jorge's house before
Jorge’s house before
Jorge's house after
Jorge’s house after

A Barcelona Experience

“I’m in love with cities I’ve never seen and people I’ve never met.”
-Melody Truong

My name is Asha Chowdhury, and I am a senior at the University of Connecticut with a major in International Media and Promotion. This summer I traveled to Barcelona, Spain, for an internship that changed my life.

Asha in Barcelona
Asha in Barcelona

The internship was with YouBarcelona, a marketing and public relations agency that works with the biggest and most well-known nightlife venues in Barcelona: Opium, Bling Bling, Pacha, Hotel W, Shoko, Otto Zutz, etc. I cannot express how excited I was to learn more about this young and lively company. As YouBarcelona’s marketing and social media intern, my tasks included managing a number of their social media accounts, creating content for their website and translating it into other languages, and reviewing venues on Trip Advisor. This was both exciting and scary, because while I had a gut feeling this was where I was supposed to be, I was very afraid of not being happy.  Fortunately, I fell in love with my work the moment I stepped into the office.

YouBarcelona meeting room
YouBarcelona meeting room

I had two amazing supervisors, Eric and Jorge, who assigned me a number of Instagram accounts and a fake Facebook, where I was constantly promoting venues and responding to customers.  This task was one of the easier ones, but it is vital for the venues to gain recognition and brand loyalty. Customers were very engaged with the social media accounts, and, by the end of my internship, I gained ten thousand followers. This was the most the company had seen in that short an amount of time. Secondly, I created landing pages and blog posts for the English version of YouBarcelona’s website at least three times a week. The goal was to increase our visibility on Google, drive more traffic to our websites, create more brand recognition, and improve our customer relationships. This task allowed me to be innovative in ways I didn’t know I could. Lastly, and this was one of the most tedious tasks, I translated web content for each day in English, Spanish, Catalan, German, French, and Italian. Since tourism is extremely important in Barcelona, it is crucial that we have a multilingual website that can build international relationships. I have little knowledge of these languages, however, which proved very difficult in the beginning.  By doing the translations I gained some basic knowledge of each language and more experience for the international aspect of my major.

Upon returning to the United States, I can honestly say I created the perfect major for myself. I was able to integrate my internship with my major and found that work wasn’t work anymore. I found myself enjoying the whole process. And through writing for social media, blogs, and the web, I enhanced my professional skills. In the future I can only grow more.

by Asha Chowdhury
Individualized Major: International Media and Promotion

Capstone: Emma Sifre

Thesis: Committed to Inequality? How Learning about Inequality Changes Preferences for Redistribution

Thesis Supervisor: Thomas Hayes, Political Science

Over the past forty years, economic inequality in the United States has increased to such extreme levels that it has distorted the American economy and the health of American Democracy. Research on the effects of inequality on our economic and political institutions has been comprehensive, but recent events have shed light on the importance of studying public opinion on economic inequality as well. The Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011, for example, was a grassroots campaign focused on inequality. Although division along class lines in politics is not new, this year’s election cycle has mobilized huge groups of American voters around the issue of economic inequality. It has tapped into deeply rooted sentiments about how much people have and what they feel they deserve. The significant consequences of economic inequality, and the newfound vigor with which people are mobilizing around the issue, has prompted me to focus my Honors thesis on public opinion about it.

I used a survey to test how participants’ beliefs about the fairness of the economic system affects their preferences for inequality-reducing policies. I then tested whether increasing the saliency of inequality by prompting participants to engage in learning tasks has a long-term effect on preferences. One major problem with designing a survey experiment is that public opinion is easily swayed by inflammatory rhetoric or trigger words. It was important that, in testing preferences, I used very carefully selected language to ensure that the results were not skewed by emotionally-charged reactions to words like “welfare” or “socialism.” Creating the survey required intensive research into public opinion data and a pilot study using different variations of words.

Emma Sifre at Frontiers
Emma Sifre at Frontiers

I found that participants who held meritocratic beliefs were slightly more supportive of programs intended to reduce inequality, but that the effect of learning tasks was only significant in the short-term. This finding was particularly interesting in a time when economic inequality has become a highly visible issue; it indicates that increasing the saliency of the issue may not follow citizens into the polling booths.

by Emma Sifre
Individualized Major: The Interdisciplinary Study of Economic Inequality

Capstone: Jessica Topper

Jessica Topper
Jessica Topper

“What is at stake is nothing less than the survival and well-being of a generation of innocents.”
– Antonio Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

Throughout my final year at the University of Connecticut, I have dedicated my Honors senior thesis to researching the latest crisis in the Middle East. The political and economic ramifications of oppressive regimes and the emergence of extremist non-state actors are important, but it’s the dire position of the Syrian people that is the focal point of my thesis.

The Middle East, as a region, has overwhelming numbers of displaced people due to political instability and its resulting terror and destruction. At the beginning of 2016, for example, over half of the Syrian population had been forced to flee their homes in search of safety. Unfortunately, it is all too common for those who have fled to end up in limbo. Their lost identity and sense of not belonging is difficult enough, but refugees are often objects of sluggish bureaucratic processes and incoherent immigration policies in the nations in which they are seeking asylum. My thesis will explore the refugees’ migration patterns and the ramifications of their arrival in other nations. A vital aspect of this research will be a comparative study of how the United States and countries in Europe and the Middle East grant refugee status and asylum to people from Syria.

The violence and oppression utilized by the Syrian government has escalated a domestic issue to one of international scope. Countries concerned with their interests in the region, and with threats to their security, must balance military response with isolationism, and judge the political consequences associated with accepting the victims of this crisis. This problem has been at the forefront of leaders’ agendas around the world. As each country responds to this crisis, the range in immigration policies has become increasingly polarized. What are the actualities of Syrian immigration? Is the heightened concern over Syrian refugees and asylum seekers just a wave of paranoia? How does the United States compare to Europe and the Middle East when it comes to assisting those displaced? This thesis will explore the realities of the Syrian civil war in terms of statistical data, policy changes, and the impact on countries involved in the conflict. It is inarguable that the Syrian civil war has caused the people of this country trauma many cannot imagine. With much confusion around the world over Bashar al-Assad’s regime, the development of proxy wars within the country, and how these refugees will actually affect other nations, it is imperative to understand the entirety of this international crisis.

by Jessica Topper
Individualized Major: International Relations (focus on the Middle East)

NOTE: Jessica’s work has been featured on the CLAS website.