University honors members of campus community at third annual MLK Awards Ceremony


Graphic courtesy of Charger Bulletin/Andrea Rojas and Erick Cuatzo.

Awards from the MLK ceremony placed on a table, West Haven, Jan. 25, 2023.

The University of New Haven remains committed to fostering a climate which prioritizes the ideals of diversity, equity, inclusion, access and belonging. The university hosted their third annual Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration and Recognition Awards Ceremony in the Beckerman Recreation Center this past Wednesday. This event sought to commemorate the life of the late reverend, and offered an opportunity to honor those from our campus community who continuously go above and beyond to practice what King preached decades ago.

The theme for this year’s celebration was “This is Our Hope: Celebrating Achievement and Hope for the Future,” a reminder that the fight for social justice is a constant and collective one; that only through a shared vision may we accomplish the goal of true equity for all.

The ceremony began with a welcome address from Dean of Students and Chief Diversity Officer Ophelie Rowe-Allen. Following that was an acknowledgement of the program cover designer, Eyosias Teka— a junior business management major— by Assistant Provost for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Alvin Tran. Opening remarks came from Interim President Sheahon Zenger, along with a celebration of life and moment of silence for the recently passed psychology professor, Dr. Kento Yasuhara, conducted by Tran.

A performance of the Black National Anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing” was delivered by Maudjeani Pelissier, a freshman music and sound recording major, after which campus chaplain and fire science professor Martin O’Connor delivered the invocation.

Jason Howell Jr., coordinator for the Office of Graduate and International Student Life, kicked off the awards portion of the night by acknowledging the winner of the University’s inaugural MLK essay contest–– a partnership with high schools within New Haven County as well as Bridgeport–– with this year’s winner being Linayah Aquino, a junior at Kolbe Cathedral High School in Bridgeport.

This year’s Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship Award was given to Kaelian Barrionuevo, a freshman criminal justice major. In the words of presenter Linda Copney-Okeke, director of the Accessibility Resources Center, this scholarship is “presented annually to outstanding minority students who achieve academic success, and who embody the values of equality, justice and nonviolent activism espoused by the late Dr. King,” and amounts to $1,631.

Next were the Martin Luther King Jr. Vision Awards, which Tran described as recognizing “individuals who demonstrate a commitment to the ideals and values of Dr. King… and can be considered unsung heroes here at the University.” The faculty recipient Yanice Mendez-Fernandez is the associate dean of the School of Health Sciences, and was hailed by her nominator, Director of the Master of Public Health Program Karl Minges, as “a tireless advocate for health equity and reducing disparities in public health, and her research focuses on educational resiliency in the face of natural disasters.” Some of her credentials include her work as the inaugural chair of the School of Health Sciences’ Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, Access and Belonging Committee and the 2021 honoree for the Stella S. Simpson Leadership award for her work at Trevecca Nazarene University.

The staff award was given to David Schroeder, Associate Dean of the Henry C. Lee College of Criminal Justice and Forensic Sciences, as he was nominated by fellow dean Mario Gaboury. Schroeder began working at the university after ten years of experience in the New York Museum of Tolerance. His most famous contribution to the University of New Haven has been his spearheading the creation of “The UNCommon Course,” a three credit class which “is designed to allow students to understand that ‘traits’ are characteristics of people that they did not choose… and to highlight the process by which people often assign social value to those traits.”

Two students were also bestowed with the Vision Award. Undergraduate student Peri Alexander, a senior health sciences major with a minor in Spanish, was nominated by university alumna Selena Chom. Alexander currently serves as a Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (JEDI) ambassador for the university and co-founded a student-integrated mentorship program to help new students, specifically global students, adapt to a campus climate. Alexander used her speech to pose multiple thought-provoking questions to the audience, such as “When do we start to initiate diversity and inclusivity in the classroom? How can we make our dreams of equity and belonging come to fruition?”

Graduate student Azza Hussein, who earned her Bachelor of Science in psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University and is pursuing a master’s degree in community psychology with a concentration in community research and evaluation here at the University of New Haven, was honored with the second student Vision Award by her nominator Melissa Whitson. Hussein possesses plenty of experience in working to help underserved populations, such as being a founder and Director of Programs and Services for Moving Forward Sudan to volunteering and working at Integrated Refugee Immigration Services. On the refugees which she works with, Hussein says, “Young people are an incredibly vulnerable population, and the added barrier of being an immigrant or refugee multiplies the difficulties that many of these teens I work with experience. Through my work, I try to empower them and remind them that they have agency.”

Also recognized were three honorable mentions: faculty recipient Zelda Roland, staff recipient Michael Rossi and Leo Levine-Aquino, a senior forensic science major.

The final award of the night was the Philip H. and Susan S. Bartels Advocacy, Leadership and Service Award, which was presented by nominator Senior Associate Dean of Students Ric Baker to Linda Copney-Okeke, whom Baker recognized as someone who “may not be the most outspoken voice at the table, but her passion, knowledge, service and experience run deep. People who take the time to engage her are rewarded with a wealth of insight and inspiration.” Okeke has worked at the university for nearly 40 years, and in that time has served as advisor for the Black Student Union and our chapter of the NAACP, helped to found Black and Latino Alumni Weekend, among countless other accolades. At the conclusion of her acceptance speech Okeke made a call to action, beckoning for all who would hear to “not only celebrate our victories, but lock arms with one another and push forward to ensure that there is always a hope for the future for everyone. I encourage each of you to be an advocate, to be a leader and to be that voice for change.”

All nominations and honorable mentions were voted upon by the 2023 Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Committee–– a coalition of leaders on campus consisting of faculty, staff and students, and headed by Dean Rowe-Allen and Tran.

A keynote was delivered by Lamond Daniels, LCSW, MPA, a graduate of the University of New Haven who currently works as the Chief of Community Services in the City of Norwalk. In his deliverance, Daniels touched on a variety of topics, ranging from the inequities of the COVID-19 pandemic felt by African Americans, to mass shootings remaining a prevalent focus in our current news cycle, to the importance of not being an idle bystander. More specifically, he calls upon the common adage “if you see something, say something,” and posed to the audience, “If we’re [going to] talk about Martin Luther King [Jr.] we have to walk away today and say ‘what am I willing to challenge, not with someone else but within myself?’”

This resounding celebration of life, each other and all of the differences which we work so hard to amplify, was concluded with closing remarks from Dean Rowe-Allen.