Inclusive Programs Show Resilience

Inclusive Programs Show Resilience

Students with disabilities, staff adjust to remote learning amid coronavirus

| Photos courtesy of Lizzy Phillips, Melissa Gatti and Igbal Attaelmanan

Melissa Gatti misses the Green.

“I loved walking around campus, seeing the activities going on,” said the first-year computer and information sciences major, who is part of the University of Delaware Center for Disabilities Studies’ Spectrum Scholars program for undergraduates with autism. However, with her daily commute to campus replaced by instant connection via Zoom and Canvas, Gatti found an unexpected space in her schedule for a social skills workshop she had been previously unable to attend.

Lizzy Phillips is also creating silver linings. In her first year of CDS’s Career and Life Studies Certificate (CLSC) program for students with intellectual disabilities, Phillips is keeping up with her clubs, including Support Our Troops and the Native American Student Alliance. She’s even organizing her own events, like a digital “Mary Poppins Returns” screening for several friends.

Remote learning in the era of coronavirus is “less than ideal,” said CLSC Program Manager Jay Sellers, but “we approach the experience as a uniquely valuable one.” As they navigate their new digital reality, students and staff in CDS’s two college transition programs are honing an essential skill: adaptability.

“That’s the whole point of the transition program,” Sellers said. “Learning how to enter new environments and carry your transferable skills with you.”


Melissa Gatti, a first-year UD student in CDS’s Spectrum Scholars program, appears on a Zoom call with her peer mentor, senior Sofia Mazza (inset).

Spectrum Scholars, a collaboration between UD and JPMorgan Chase, offers a system of support and career exploration opportunities to select undergraduates with autism. These include weekly get-togethers with peer mentors and twice-weekly one-on-one meetings with a point coach to reflect and set goals. Gatti has found her goals barely changed — she’s still aiming to make the dean’s list, find scholarships to apply for and reach out to professors with questions or concerns.

Spectrum Scholars Program Manager Pam Lubbers said that students’ self-advocacy, along with clear, direct communication from professors, is helping to smooth the adjustment. Even acts viewed as “easy” by some, such as emailing a professor or calling IT for tech support, can represent important learning opportunities. “Every college student has to have that ability to bounce back when things don’t go exactly as planned,” said Lubbers.

Phillips, who was homeschooled in grades 3–12, said the skills she developed then are helping her handle remote learning. While staying on top of classwork was “a little bit hard at first,” her bigger concern was “going a little bit into panic mode when I heard about the coronavirus hitting UD. But I learned to stay calm,” she said.


Igbal Attaelmanan is a Career and Life Studies Certificate program assistant for academic and career exploration.

CLSC students take several undergraduate classes during their time on campus as part of a curriculum that also includes learning job skills and daily living skills, as well as engaging as part of the campus community. Igbal Attaelmanan, the CLSC program assistant for academic and career exploration, said that shifting coursework online was a challenge.

“The first few weeks were really hard,” said Attaelmanan, “and all [the CLSC staff] did was try to maintain consistency, keeping a routine. But even when we are struggling, we do our best to maintain a ‘push forward’ attitude.’ Our students really took that to heart.”

A majority of CLSC students had to push forward when UD closed its campus. They were living in residence halls – an option that has been available to CLSC students for several years – but like the vast majority of UD students, they moved back home.

CLSC’s approach to career preparation has seen big changes, too. Usually, students start an internship in the spring semester of their first year, which continues through the second year. By the time they graduate, students will have applied for a job — either the same they held as interns or another that’s an even better fit. However, during the coronavirus pandemic, students do not have the opportunity to get first-hand experience on job sites. Instead they are doing more reflection and research on the career paths that interest them. They are also brushing up on job search skills, including sitting for mock interviews conducted over Zoom by staff from across the UD campus.

Spectrum Scholars is working with campus partners as well. Instructional coach Wes Garton and consultant Vince Varrassi are collaborating with the Office of Academic Enrichment on virtual note-taking and time management workshops open to the general student body. Program staff have also worked with the Center for Counseling and Student Development to present the Program for the Education and Enrichment of Relational Skills (PEERS) — the social relationships workshop Gatti was able to join — for students with autism.

Lubbers said these cross-campus collaborations “ensure that each Spectrum Scholar continues to be served comprehensively, while we continue to promote autism acceptance and inclusion across campus. We didn’t want any of those benefits to stop just because of the coronavirus.”

Sofia Mazza, a UD senior, said she feels those benefits acutely during the lockdown. Mazza is Gatti’s peer mentor and her PEERS social coach, which means they chat over Zoom every few days.

“Talking to Melissa is one of the highlights of my week,” said Mazza. “We talk about things she’s discovered. It’s a little pick-me-up throughout these weird times.”

Attaelmanan recalls getting a pick-me-up of her own on a gloomy morning a couple weeks ago: “I had a student lecture me on, ‘Let’s not think about the negatives right now. Let’s just get through this.’ ”

“Moments like that are what will keep us going,” Attaelmanan said.


Redding Lecture 2020

Redding Lecture 2020

The event on March 3 featured interactive courtroom drama, ‘Defamation’

 Photo and illustration courtesy of The Defamation Experience  

The Defamation Experience will headline the University of Delaware’s annual Louis L. Redding Lecture on Tuesday, March 3, at 5:30 p.m. in Mitchell Hall on UD’s campus in Newark.

The three-part experience features a live performance of Defamation, a riveting courtroom drama by award-winning playwright Todd Logan that explores the highly charged issues of race, class, religion, gender and the law. The premise is a civil suit in which an African American business owner is suing a Jewish real estate developer for defamation. The twist: the audience is part of the performance, playing the jury in the case. A facilitated discussion follows the show.

The show’s website describes Defamation as a 75-minute trial that “holds our prejudices and assumptions under a powerful lens, and does not let go except by way of an unsettling self-examination.”

Logan said that the experience is intended to generate honest conversation and challenge people’s preconceived notions about race, class and religion, leading to greater empathy.

The event is free and open to the public. Those interested in attending should register at Reserve seats for a class or group by emailing

Sponsored by the Office of the Vice Provost for Diversity, the Louis L. Redding Lecture honors the late civil rights pioneer, a prominent lawyer in Wilmington, Delaware, whose work led to educational opportunities for African American students in the state and nation.

In addition to the performance, Michael Vaughan, interim vice provost for diversity and inclusion, will recognize the recipients of the Louis L. Redding Diversity Award and the Louis L. Redding Scholar Award at the event. More information about the awards and the nomination process is available on the University’s diversity website.

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National Diversity Award

National Diversity Award

The University of Delaware has been presented the Higher Education Excellence in Diversity (HEED) Award from INSIGHT Into Diversity magazine, the oldest and largest diversity-focused publication in higher education. The annual HEED Award is a national honor recognizing U.S. colleges and universities that demonstrate an outstanding commitment to diversity and inclusion. This is the second year UD has been named as a HEED Award recipient.

“The University of Delaware is proud to be recognized once again for the diligent and ongoing efforts of our faculty and staff to build a more diverse and inclusive community,” said UD President Dennis Assanis. “We are dedicated to welcoming all students and providing them with the opportunities and resources they need to succeed here and throughout their lives.”

UD was selected for its dedication to enhancing diversity and inclusion in all aspects of the campus community. This commitment has been demonstrated through creation of new staff positions, new programming, training, scholarships and community-based partnerships focused on attracting, retaining and valuing underrepresented staff, faculty and students.

Specific areas of progress include:

  • Since 2012, the representation of underrepresented minority students and students of color at UD has consistently increased among Associate in Arts, undergraduate, graduate, and Professional and Continuing Studies students.
  • The percentage of women with STEM majors has steadily increased almost yearly at UD since 2012. The percentage of underrepresented minority undergraduate and graduate students with STEM majors has also increased since 2012.
  • Since 2012, UD’s four-year graduation rates rose for most groups pursuing bachelor’s degrees. The University’s four-year graduation rate is consistently above the graduation rates of AAU public institutions for Hispanic/Latino(a)s and women pursuing bachelor’s degrees.
  • Women faculty have increased in representation over the past five years, constituting 44 percent of all UD faculty in 2017. Faculty racial/ethnic diversity has also increased since 2012, with the largest gains occurring for Asian tenured/tenure track and Black/African American non-tenure track faculty.

Carol Henderson, vice provost for diversity at UD, said, “It is encouraging to see the University’s steady progress and engagement in creating a more diverse and inclusive campus. Though there is still much work to be done, the dedication of so many staff, faculty and students in this effort is truly inspiring.”

UD will be featured along with 95 other award recipients in the November 2018 issue of INSIGHT Into Diversity magazine.

According to Lenore Pearlstein, publisher of INSIGHT Into Diversity magazine, the HEED Award process consists of a “comprehensive and rigorous application” that includes questions relating to the recruitment and retention of students and employees — and best practices for both — continued leadership support for diversity, and other aspects of campus diversity and inclusion.

“We take a detailed approach to reviewing each application in deciding who will be named a HEED Award recipient,” Pearlstein said. “Our standards are high, and we look for institutions where diversity and inclusion are woven into the work being accomplished every day across their campus.”

To learn more about the University’s plans for and progress toward advancing inclusive excellence, visit

For more information about INSIGHT Into Diversity and the HEED Award, visit The full list of 2018 HEED Award recipients can be found here.

 | Photo by Evan Krape | 

Persistence through the Ph.D.

Persistence through the Ph.D.

Dedication to mentoring others leads to success

Asia Dowtin’s Ph.D. research examined rainfall in five woodland sites from Wilmington, Delaware, to Fair Hill, Maryland.

Looking back on her graduate student career at University of Delaware, Asia Dowtin sees two themes that enabled her success: persistence and community engagement.

Early in her work here, she had to overcome a switch in advisers, and the research that would underpin her Ph.D. studies almost ended before it began. But for the entire six years she spent studying the hydrology of urban forests, Dowtin surmounted the obstacles and actively worked to engage younger students, both undergraduates and K-12, in the work she loves. That student engagement was one of the factors that helped her land a tenure-track faculty position at Michigan State University starting this summer.

Dowtin and her adviser, Department of Geography Chair Del Levia, Professor of Ecohydrology, collaborated on a piece published in Science today, June 8, that addresses some of the challenges she faced, including the way her doctoral research was imperiled by a non-uniformed officer in an unmarked car stopping her and two undergraduate assistants in the forest in Wilmington, Delaware’s Rockford Park on the first day of her fieldwork. Dowtin’s attempts to address the unexpected concerns from officials garnered no response, and the research was in question until Levia stepped in.

The incident was such a turning point for Dowtin’s work and the way the two of them work together that they thought it could be beneficial to share with their scholarly community. Levia thought it would be good to share how Dowtin was able to persevere with the support of the mentor-mentee relationship the two of them had built on common vision and open communication.

“The ‘Working Life’ section of Science is of critical importance as it provides a beacon of hope for many in science,” Levia said. “It is a place where people can go to learn about the experiences of others and to benefit from them.”

When he brought the idea for a “Working Life” story to Dowtin, she agreed.

“I also wanted to highlight the fact that students of color do face these challenges,” Dowtin said, adding that she wants to help advisers from different backgrounds realize they need to listen to their graduate students’ experiences or even draw them out when they notice students may be struggling. “There are going to be a bunch of challenges that come at you regardless of what you look like, and there are going to be challenges that come at you because of what you look like.”

Asia Dowtin’s research took her to woodland sites in Delaware and Maryland.

Dowtin’s time at UD’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment was defined by both her persistence and the way she proactively worked for an inclusive community and provided opportunities for younger students.

Her research involved more than 150 collectors and gauges spread across five sites in two states, from Fair Hill in Maryland to Alapocas Woods in Wilmington. There was no way she could collect all the data herself, but that was an opportunity, not a problem. Over two and a half years, Dowtin had 17 undergraduates from four UD colleges help with data collection, and those students received course credits, with some even using data for their own research.

Beyond incorporating undergraduates in her research, Dowtin also embraced many opportunities to mentor high schoolers during her time at UD. She led students in the Delaware Chapter of the Nature Conservancy’s Leaders in Environmental Action for the Future program in a project mapping the trails behind the Delaware Museum of Natural History. She spoke at elementary schools and public libraries.

And nearly every summer she was at UD, Dowtin brought teenagers from the city of Wilmington’s Green Jobs program to campus, teaching them about topics like forest hydrology and urban forestry, but also just making a point to get them to the University, to emphasize that UD is for Delawareans, including them.

“I feel a personal obligation to make sure that as I come up in this academic world that I help people up who look like me,” Dowtin said. “It is important to me to be a role model for black and brown kids. There are not a lot of people of color in this department or this field.”

Dowtin said her experience reaching into the community and working with undergraduates were attractive to Michigan State, where her new position as assistant professor in urban and community forestry combines teaching, research and extension work, in which she will help community members address urban forestry problems and opportunities in East Lansing and Detroit.

“This job is literally the fulfillment of dreams I had kept to myself for many years,” Dowtin said. “None of this would have been possible if I hadn’t had all of the experiences I did here, the good and the bad.”

Del Levia (left) congratulates his Ph.D. student Asia Dowtin during the College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment’s Honors Day ceremony this spring.


 Photos by Judy Rolfe and Leah Dodd | 

Success grants financial literacy

Success grants financial literacy

Program offers financial support, literacy programming.

Success grants financial literacy

Senior Sarah Bencivenga was one of many students awarded a Blue Hen Success Grant, which made all the difference in keeping alive her dream for a UD diploma.

It didn’t take long for Sarah Bencivenga to know the University of Delaware was the right fit for her. The Toms River, New Jersey, native was recruited in 2013 to play softball, and by sophomore year, her bio had already included selection to the Dean’s List, Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) All-Rookie team, the CAA Academic Honor Roll and the All-CAA Second Team.

“This was where I wanted to be,” said Bencivenga.

Then Bencivenga got an offer for a softball scholarship at Florida Atlantic University that was too good to pass up, so she transferred. UD was always tugging at her heart, though, and by her senior year at FAU, she realized how much she missed the University’s high-quality academics and yearned to complete her degree as a Blue Hen.

“It wasn’t until I was in Florida that I recognized the value of the education at UD,” Bencivenga said.

She transferred back to campus, which meant having to work hard to catch up on credits—and the costs that came with them. She was close to the finish line, but not having an athletic scholarship, she didn’t know how she would fill the gap financially and graduate.

“I am financially independent and all I had was some money saved up from jobs I held during high school and breaks,” Bencivenga said. “My first semester back at UD, I was taking 17 credits and working to pay expenses. With the combination of savings and my current job, I was able to make it work, but knew that my savings would be exhausted and the next semester may not be possible.”

She then discovered the University’s Blue Hen Success Grant. She applied and got the award, which made all the difference in keeping alive her dream for a UD diploma.

“I’m not sure how I would be graduating this spring from UD without the Blue Hen Success Grant,” Bencivenga said, who will finish in May with degrees in psychology and interpersonal communications.

The Blue Hen Success Grant program provides small awards, ranging from $300 to $3,000, to eligible students like Bencivenga who are nearing graduation but facing minor shortfalls in paying their tuition or fees. Also known as a retention grant, it provides emergency funding so that financial circumstances do not become barriers to graduation.

“The Blue Hen Success Grant program speaks volumes to the direction, purpose and responsibility the University takes to ensure students graduate,” said Carla Lord-Powalski, coordinator of the program, which is managed by the Student Financial Services office.

Give a man a fish, says the well-known proverb, and you have fed him for a day. Teach him to fish and you have fed him for a lifetime. In that spirit, the Blue Hen Success Grants program serves as a resource for developing lifelong financial skills. Prior to getting a grant, students must take a free course on budgeting and responsible spending. The program also guides students to the myriad scholarships available and offers workshops throughout the year aimed at increasing students’ fiscal knowledge and responsibility during their academic career and after graduation.

In partnership with various departments and groups on campus, Powalski has counseled over 550 students since the program launched in February 2017. Nearly 30 students have been awarded grants totaling $48,586, keeping them on the path to graduation. Powalksi is also partnering with the University’s Office of Development and Alumni Relations to encourage donations to the program. To date, 337 donors have contributed over $73,000, allowing Blue Hen Success Grants to expand its efforts.

“UD has given me all the tools I need to positively impact the lives of others,” Bencivenga said. “My education and experience will be lasting. Something significant will come from this work.”

 | Photo by Evan Krape | 

Financial Literacy Month events

The Blue Hen Success Grants program will be hosting the following special events for students in April in recognition of Financial Literacy Month.

Financial Wellness Fair: Tuesday, April 10, from 10 a.m.-2 p.m., in the Gallery of the Perkins Student Center. Students will enjoy games, food and entertainment as they visit kiosks to learn financial skills. Participants will be able to check loan balances and repayment options, learn what their credit score means and how to improve it, and receive budgeting tools. Experts from Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics, Stand By Me, and Sallie Mae will be on hand to present tips and information. Participating students will be given a financial literacy passport, which comes with a chance to win prizes including a Dell laptop, $100 Visa gift card, ice skating passes, bookstore swag and more.

Financial Literacy Mini-Series: Monday, April 23, and Wednesday, April 25, in the Student Financial Services Building lobby. Morning sessions are at 10 a.m.; afternoon sessions are at 12:30 p.m. Students will be introduced to Cash Course, a free online money management resource. Students who complete at least one online activity will be eligible to win a $25 Visa gift card. Refreshments will be provided.

Grad Fair: Wednesday through Friday, April 18-20, from 11 a.m.-3 p.m., at the Barnes and Noble UD Bookstore, 83 East Main St. Graduating students will receive information and tools on student loan repayment. Each student who meets with Carla Lord-Powalksi and completes a short quiz will be eligible to win a $50 Visa gift card.

Combating Food Waste

Combating Food Waste

UD students, faculty and Dining Services pitch in to fight waste, hunger.

Food waste is an extremely frustrating concept. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, approximately 40 percent of food in the U.S. is never eaten; simultaneously, one in eight Americans struggles to put enough food on the table.

The state of Delaware is no exception, so University of Delaware students, faculty and staff are pitching in to combat food waste. We highlight their efforts during National Nutrition Month and its 2018 theme “Go Further with Food.”

UD students

Junior Lauren Burkett (left) and senior Kristen Mathieson (right) are members of Nutrition and Dietetics Club at UD.

The student-run Nutrition and Dietetics Club at UD is educating the Newark and surrounding communities on food waste and insecurity.

“Making people aware of food waste is the first step in preventing it,” said UD senior Sarah Russel. “I personally decided to get involved with the club to extend my knowledge outside of class and into the Delaware community.”

The group will set up shop at Trabant Kiosk A throughout the month of March, providing education on topics such as smarter grocery buying, planning leftovers and portion sizes.

The Food Recovery Network, another student-run organization, carries the goal of reducing food waste by collecting excess food from the dining halls and donating the food to local food pantries. The students hold multiple food drives each semester; for Thanksgiving, these Blue Hens collected more than 200 pounds of canned goods.

“Food insecurity and food waste are major issues in our country and across the world,” said sophomore dietetics student Nicole Boylan. “These issues overlap with nutrition as an inability to access food and maintain an adequate diet can lead to nutritional deficiencies and many other health issues.”

UD faculty

Behavioral Health & Nutrition (BHAN) instructor Kristin Wiens teaches Sustainability and Food, a course that discusses strategies to shrink your personal food footprint such as reducing food and packaging waste. In the Food & Nutrition Education Lab in Willard Hall, Wiens lays out leftover food and items close to their “use by” date for the students to take home.

When The Tower at STAR Campus opens this fall, Wiens will help run the Demonstration Kitchen — a unique experiential learning space that doubles as a catering kitchen. In addition to classes, the space will host community members for sessions on topics like sustainability.

Wiens is also working with the Mike Popovich (College of Agriculture & Natural Resources) on the UD Farm. In addition to sourcing ingredients from the farm for classes, Wiens and Popovich collaborate on a farm-to-table healthy recipe video series showcasing seasonal produce grown on campus.

“We have people who are hungry. We have extra food. But the two things aren’t connecting to help solve the problem,” Wiens said.

BHAN adjunct professor Jennifer Linton is extremely active in nonprofit circles, working with groups like the Salvation Army’s soup kitchen. A few years ago, she started calling restaurants to ask about their excess food. Most said they threw food away out of fear of being sued. Concerned about this issue, Linton began investigating federal legislation and discovered the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act; it encourages donation of excess food to non-profit organizations for distribution to individuals in need and protects organizations from liability when donating to a non-profit. The Federal Food Donation Act of 2008 later built on this legislation, encouraging federal agencies to donate excess food.

Many large organizations have systems in place to put excess food to good use compared to smaller entities. For example, Sam’s Club works with Feeding America to rescue food from stores and redirect it to families facing hunger.

“Most businesses don’t know about these laws, know who to give to, or even consider donating,” said Linton.

Linton points to educating business owners on the donation legislation and looking at how other countries and cities are addressing the food waste issue.

France passed a law in 2016 that, if a store throws out food, it can be prosecuted. According to a recent NPR story, stores can be fined $4,500 for each infraction. While the law has gone through growing pains towards effectiveness, Linton said it’s an important step in the right direction.

She would also like to see the establishment of organizations like Philabundance in Delaware.

Philabundance, Linton said, is “doing everything to combat food waste including gleaning (harvesting leftover crops and produce from fields and orchards). As individuals we can do our part to help prevent food waste — not over-purchasing food and donating excess food to local pantries.”

UD Dining Services

UD Dining Services is combating food waste via its sustainability platform “Green Thread.” In partnership with Aramark, it weaves waste minimization into Dining Services across all 16 on-campus dining locations.

“As we help to minimize food waste, there are efforts our guests can take like being mindful of portion sizes and only filling your plate with amounts that are right for you,” said Debra Miller, Dining Services’ registered dietician.

Each semester, Dining Services partners with the Food Recovery Network. Since last spring semester, over 500 pounds of unused food has been recovered and donated to local, community food pantries.

UD Dining Services reduces, reuses and recycles throughout the food production and service processes. Examples include:

  • The Caesar Rodney Dining Fresh Food Company breaks down and diverts food waste from landfills through two mechanical bio-digesters, averting potent greenhouse gas emissions
  • All locations participate in the University’s single-stream recycling program, as well as Recyclemania
  • Perishable food is donated to the Food Bank of Delaware
  • Dining locations collect and recycle used cooking oil

About Community Engagement

The University of Delaware cultivates civic-minded, engaged citizens through partnerships that impact communities’ needs. Community-based experiences are woven into UD’s teaching, research and service activities where students, faculty and staff apply knowledge and creativity to the critical challenges facing communities — in Delaware and around the world. In 2015, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching recognized this commitment, designating UD as a community engaged university, an honor awarded to less than 10% of U.S. colleges and universities.

UDaily Article by Dante LaPenta | Photos by Kathy F. Atkinson | Courtesy of Jennifer Linton and UD Dining Services | March 21, 2018