Center for Housing Equity and Opportunity in Eastern Connecticut launches with inaugural gathering at Conn
Catja Christensen ’23 grew up immersed in the performing arts: Her father is a musician, she and her brother are dancers, her sisters make music and her mother sings. But it was an image she saw in a dance history class at Connecticut College, of a bird with its feet facing forward and head looking backward, that inspired her to spend four years studying communication across disciplines—from dance performance to non-fiction writing. She analyzed the preservation of multicultural societies and explored her animating question: How does reporting on arts and cultural events reflect and influence societal values?
“The image of the bird is called the Sankofa, a Swahili word that means ‘learning from the past to ensure a stronger future,’” Christensen told faculty, staff and students gathered to hear her presentation at Conn’s fourth-annual All-College Symposium on Nov. 3. “It struck me as a perfect example of how careful preservation of artistic and cultural artifacts is important in order to progress more equitably in modern society.”
A dance and English double major and scholar in the Media, Rhetoric and Communication Pathway, Christensen was one of 240 seniors who presented at the day-long Symposium, the culminating Connections conference highlighting students’ integrative learning through four years. In talks, panels and poster sessions, the student presenters showcased the connections they have made among their courses and research, their jobs and internships, and their work in local communities and around the globe—along with the questions that animated their choices.
Christensen is working on a dance honors thesis exploring her family’s history immigrating from the Philippines, performing gender roles and surviving adversity, as well as replicating one of her grandmother’s dresses as a way of reconstructing and preserving her own cultural past. She’s also applying to graduate schools in the United Kingdom, where she plans to study reinterpretations of classical dance works in the 21st century.
“Preservation and progress seem like opposing ideas, but they’re intrinsically linked. Ethical preservation of the past includes critically thinking about what messages and cultural artifacts communicate to modern audiences,” she said. “In trying to answer my animating question, I began a lifelong journey of always questioning the status quo, always reflecting on paths and always being conscious of privilege and power in written and artistic communication.”
In their presentations, Christensen’s fellow seniors covered a range of topics, including racial and gender disparities in health care, cultural xenophilia in the context of war, the anthropological evolution of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, bias in machine learning algorithms, the economics of food access, inequities in the American foster care system, the role of women in the IRA, the future of addiction recovery and COVID’s impact on plastic waste in the world’s oceans.
President Katherine Bergeron, who attended more than 30 of the presentations, said she was moved by “all the smart ideas, the thoughtful presentations, the beautiful visuals and the kindness and generosity of this amazing community.”
Bergeron praised the seniors for persevering in the midst of a global pandemic to make important connections among all of their coursework, research, internships and experiences on campus and in communities around the world.
“The idea that everything is connected is something that I felt all through the day. It is the reason why this College and this curriculum are so special,” she said.
Dean of the College Erika Smith said it was “truly extraordinary” to see how seniors had leveraged their studies.
“In partnership with your faculty mentors, you were encouraged and guided, both in intellectual and interpersonal ways, to examine yourselves, explore your convictions and find new ways to embrace and celebrate your cultures and identities,” she said. “This is the exquisite beauty of the education you are getting here.”
Ted Brown ’23, an architectural studies and environmental studies double major, said it was through his work in the Entrepreneurship Pathway that he discovered a passion for sustainable real estate development.
“The incubator-like atmosphere taught me to think with an entrepreneurial mindset and forced me to think about my future in a new light,” he said.
Brown completed three internships during his time at Conn, working with an environmental NGO, an architecture firm and a real estate developer to explore his interests in sustainable development. At the Symposium, he presented case studies on a new 17-story residential building in White Plains, New York, and a second 17-story building under construction In Stamford, Connecticut.
“Our ability to self-design so much of our academic experience should not be taken for granted,” Brown told his fellow students at a celebratory gathering at the end of the Symposium. “I have met great friends within this cohort who have pushed my way of thinking. And I have found a place where I can integrate all my interests. When I connect with alums or other professionals in real estate, I feel confident in telling my story.”
Hannah Gonzalez ’23, who also spoke at the celebratory event, recalled attending the inaugural All-College Symposium as a first-year student in the fall of 2019.
“My First-Year Seminar traveled as a pack that day, curiously exploring the various presentation panels and poster sessions showcasing the work of our upperclass peers. I was inspired by the way these students had taken their academic interests outside of the classroom and begun meaningful work in their fields of interest,” she said.
A government major and philosophy minor, Gonzalez joined the Holleran Center for Community Action and Public Policy. She was initially interested in police reform based on her experience growing up in a low-income, predominantly immigrant neighborhood in Chicago. But she soon realized “the social problems that had plagued the neighborhood I grew up in were part of a global question about which countries can or should integrate and accept people from outside of their own borders.”
She studied U.S. refugee policy and international human rights and served as a policy and advocacy fellow for the International Rescue Committee, assisting one of the world’s leading refugee resettlement and humanitarian development organizations with research projects and policy recommendations. She is now completing a capstone project and applying to law school to pursue a career in human rights law.
“With the support of Holleran Center students and staff, I have cultivated a clear vision of the kind of changemaker I want to be,” Gonzalez said. “There are hundreds of seniors here today who share this experience of personal evolution through a Connecticut College education. I am endlessly proud of all we have accomplished in our four years here, and I look forward to seeing the impact we will make on the world.”