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CCRI honors students earn opportunity
to present projects at national conference
April 4, 2014
The Honors Program at the Community College of Rhode Island offers students the valuable chance to explore their interests and passions outside the typical curricular constraints, broadening their horizons while at the same time attaining them academic distinction. But for three of these students, the honors projects that they have completed will offer them a chance to bring the knowledge they've acquired well beyond the classroom – beyond state lines, in fact.
Computer Science students Michael Fredrick and David Dos Santos, along with Paralegal Studies student Merrilee Welling, are in Niagara Falls, N.Y., this week to present their projects at the National Regional Honors Council Conference (NRHC). Their presentations were selected after a competitive application process featuring other two- and four-year college honors programs from around the region.
"It's a huge honor for our students," said Dr. Lynne Andreozzi-Fontaine, a professor in the Psychology department who coordinates the Honors Program alongside Dr. Karen Kortz. Andreozzi-Fontaine said that when she and Kortz attended the association's annual conference last year for the first time, it was "eye opening," and presented a clear opportunity for the students who pushed themselves through the college's rigorous Honors Program process.
"One of the goals that Karen and I have for our students is that they truly feel like honors students and be recognized for that. They will get to interact with honors students at other Northeast colleges, and to meet the advisers for the honors programs in those regional four-year schools," she said.
"It's also a wonderful way within CCRI for everyone to see that we have these students doing these great things, and that they can go above and beyond in doing high-level work. I'm really proud of them," she added.
Andreozzi-Fontaine and Kortz are joining the three students as they travel to the conference, where they will each make a poster presentation. Although all of the students have completed multiple honors projects, making a presentation at a national conference will be a first for each of them, a first that they say they feel excited and privileged to undertake.
Fredrick, Dos Santos and Welling are what some may call nontraditional students: They're all adult learners, all coming back to college to change the direction of their lives and supplement the skills they've attained in the workplace with new ones. At CCRI, the experiences that these students – and many of their peers – bring to the classroom are embraced and nurtured through opportunities such as the Honors Program.
Welling, for example, already had a bachelor's degree in marketing when she came to the college after suffering a back injury that meant she could no longer work in retail management. Now, she's poised to graduate this spring with her associate degree in Paralegal Studies and hopes to move on to law school shortly thereafter.
It was during a constitutional law class for that associate degree where Welling got the idea for the project she is presenting at NRHC. Professor Joseph Parys gave her a book on Judge Learned Hand, a judicial leader who was so well respected by his peers that he was referred to as the Supreme Court's "10th justice."
"He was a circuit judge in New York, and although he never became a Supreme Court Justice, the court referenced and used many of his decisions," said Welling, explaining why Hand's autobiography set its hooks into her right away. "But he grew up thinking he was never good enough, and was filled with insecurity and self-doubt. But yet, he was a great writer."
Welling said that she since has gone on to work on other honors projects, but that her 36-page paper and subsequent presentation on Hand really stuck with her. It stood out to Parys, too. "I've done many projects over the years," he said, "but hers was the best I've ever graded, by far. She's a top student."
Welling said she found Hand to be a fascinating person who became a leader of others, not by playing to the popular opinion, but by doing the right thing. To expand on her honors project for NRHC, Welling focused her poster on Hand's ancestry, exploring the long line of judges and lawyers from which he descended. She also traced the lineage of some of Hand's most influential court decisions and explained how those decisions are still used today.
"I think it's an awesome opportunity," said Welling of presenting. "I'll learn a great deal, because I've never been exposed to anything like this before."
As it happens, Hand's lineage isn't the only one that will be on display at the conference. Fredrick's presentation features a genealogy database program that he designed for his first honors project last year. It was databases that brought Fredrick to the college about eight years ago, when he was a department manager in distribution responsible, in part, for tracking exports to Canada. He used his knowledge of Microsoft Word and Excel to construct databases to identify the contents of those shipments for customs, but wanted to learn more sophisticated database programming tools, so he enrolled at CCRI and met Computer Studies Department Chairman Michael Kelly.
It was then that Fredrick's interest in databases merged with his longtime interest in genealogy. He explained that, as a teenager, he found he wanted to fill in the missing links in his family's history. He knew bits and pieces of the story: that his father's family was from Germany and that his mother's was from Scotland via Canada. But that's where it ended.
Fredrick's mind seems built for programming when one hears him speak of the detective work he undertook in his spare time to crack the code of his bloodline. In fact, it's this sort of forensic data analysis that Fredrick plans to pursue after he graduates with his associate degree this May; he's also pursuing a Homeland Security certificate and hopes to transfer to URI to study digital forensics.
"Knowing that you don't know something, trying to figure that out and gather information and decipher it ... that's what fascinates me," he said.
"It's a really neat, user-friendly program," said Kelly of Fredrick's work. "But beyond the credit he got for it in the Honors Program, it's really a passion of his."
Kelly described some of the work that Fredrick had to undertake to complete the program as "intricate" and "daunting," noting that his database covered more than simple familial connections, such as father-son, brother-sister or cousin-to-cousin and the like. "Exploring relationships in a database is not easy. It takes a lot to wrap your brain around it."
For Fredrick, the motivation lies in the answers that the connections provide, not just the individual pieces of data. That's what drove him to take the formidable stack of paper that he had amassed and put it into a more useable format in the first place, he explained.
By creating the database program, it enabled him to see the historical figures as people, as units of a family, rather than units of data. He gave the example of finding out that two women wanted to share their mother's anniversary, and so planned to marry on the same day on different years. "You never would have known that just looking at each piece on its own," he said.
While Fredrick said that he designed his program to be used by others so that they might get as much enjoyment out of it as he has, the program that Dos Santos will be presenting on is well out of beta and is now up and running – at the college, of all places.
"I had David for two classes, a database class and a SQL programming class. He was able to take a proposal and build a system that is now functional; the PACE program in the Center for Workforce and Community Education is using it. That is just really neat," said Kelly.
Dos Santos was a computer programmer in his native Venezuela, where he had also earned a computer science degree, but found that when he and his wife moved here seven years ago to start a family, he needed to upgrade his skills – as well as improve his English. He came to the college to do both after a brief stint in food service.
"I realized that wasn't going to be good for the long term. I needed to change my life. I worked with West Bay Community Action to test my English skills and prove to myself that I could move on to college here. They helped me with that and they have a partnership with CCRI, and so I came here. And I've succeeded," he said.
The project that Dos Santos completed for the PACE program is the user interface that staff uses on a daily basis to access and update employment, academic and other records. Dos Santos said his design made improvements to the old program, particularly in the area of efficiency and usability.
"I feel great," he said of the opportunity to present his work. "Coming to the college has opened so many doors for me, especially thanks to Professors Michael Kelly, Karen Allen, Margaret Burke and Bortie Teh. They improved my life with their knowledge."
Other than the much-deserved feeling of accomplishment that each presenting student expressed, Kelly noted that the presentations – and the projects completed through the Honors Program itself – allowed students to have demonstrable examples of their skills when it came time to seek employment. "In a technical discipline like computer studies, that makes a lot of sense," he said.
But overall, Kelly, Parys and Andreozzi-Fontaine said that the sense of pride they – and no doubt the rest of the college – had for the students is one of the primary rewards of participating in the honors program. "It's really nice to see people who work really hard gain some recognition other than us knowing it and they knowing it," said Kelly. "It represents the college well."
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