SHU grads show they have heart

Commencement will be Sunday, May 16

On Sunday morning at Sacred Heart University, a sea of jubilant faces in caps and gowns will once again leave college life for the "real world." Along the way to their degrees, the graduates' knowledge grew. But that wasn't the only growth that took place, for many grew not only in stature, but in maturity as well.

While talking this week to graduating seniors -- from very different backgrounds -- the Fairfield Citizen discovered that many of them had something in common: They leave with a desire to help those less fortunate.

"Giving back to others is definitely something the school has instilled in us," said Monica Leisner, who will be delivering the invocation at the 44th undergraduate commencement. Leisner, during her four years, made multiple visits to the Gulf Coast helping to rebuild after the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina. Her most recent visit -- to Mississippi -- took place this past January.

This past year, Leisner was also the president of the Habitat for Humanity campus chapter, and the co-president of Sunshine Kids, a program where inner-city youth whose families are affected by HIV/AIDS are partnered up with college student mentors. The mentors do everything from providing help with homework, to assisting with arts and crafts to playing sports with their little buddy. Leisner got involved with Sunshine Kids as a freshman and has mentored one girl -- now 12 -- for four years.

"It's really rewarding," she said.

Ted Fifield said some of his greatest college memories are his spring break trips. However, those memories aren't of wild abandon in Cancun or Miami. They were helping to build homes in Wilmington, N.C., and Cape Girardeau, Mo.

"It opened up my eyes to what I can do with my own skills and with others to help change people's lives," Fifield said. "It's a pleasure to see the things you're working on come to life."

Katie Higgins, the president of this year's graduating class, has applied to be an AmeriCorps volunteer and more recently applied to do some work with the Peace Corps. Before she gets into the 9-to-5 groove she wants to do a "year of service."

Another example of a Sacred Heart graduate who wants to help make the world a better place is Mike Fazzino. He founded a non-profit, non-partisan advocacy group called The One Campaign, which strives to eliminate extreme poverty and disease. This is done by lobbying with political leaders at the local and national level. Fazzino, during his years at SHU, spoke with Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Sen. Christopher Dodd, Sen. John McCain, the mayor of Bridgeport, former Congressman Chris Shays and current Congressman Jim Himes.

"We had significant victories," Fazzino said. "Shays supported the Jubilee Act, which eliminated some of the debt in the world's 25 poorest countries."

These students are but a small sampling of young men and women coming from SHU who care about more than themselves. The university will bestow a total of 1,535 degrees this year, including 48 doctor of physical therapy (DPT) degrees, 551 master's degrees, 848 bachelor's degrees, 13 associate's degrees and 75 professional certificates.

Dick Ebersol, the chairman of NBC Universal Sports & Olympics, recently back from the Vancouver Olympic Games, will deliver the commencement address at Sacred Heart University's 44th Undergraduate Commencement on Sunday, May 16, at 11 a.m. on Campus Field. He will receive an honorary doctor of humane letters degree. Also receiving a doctor of humane letters degree at undergraduate commencement on Sunday will be Sidney Callahan, an author and a senior fellow at the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University, and Rev. Norberto Strotmann, M.S.C., bishop of the Diocese of Chosica, Peru.

Bill Conaty, senior vice president of human resources at GE from 1993 to 2007 and former SHU trustee, will address the university's graduate commencement on Saturday, May 15, at 1:30 p.m. in the William H. Pitt Health and Recreation Center. He will receive a doctor of humane letters degree.

A lot has changed in the four years since this year's graduating class began college life. The economy went into a tailspin and many who have looked for a job ahead of graduation came up empty-handed. Fazzino said it's been a challenge "going into a difficult market" but he's confident in his abilities and is hopeful something will come up in the near future. The two-degree graduate -- business administration and political science -- would be satisfied working for a nonprofit or a state or federal branch of the government.

While many graduates get nice gifts from their parents, Fazzino didn't ask his parents for anything special.

"I told them I don't really need a graduation present," he said. "The gift of helping me through school and the gift of an education was the most incredible thing that they could have done for me."

With the job market being what it is, many students have elected to do some traveling soon after graduation. Some, like Higgins, are looking to do volunteer work, while others, such as Fifield, will spend about a month in Europe, making sure to hit such spots as Dublin, London, Paris, Rome, Venice, Barcelona, Amsterdam, Berlin and Vienna. Fifield needs a little break. Come fall, he'll be back at school again, at the University of Denver working toward a master of arts in sports and performance psychology. His ideal job would be as a counseling psychologist with a professional sports team or a Division I sports program.

This past year, Fifield became a Student Union manager as well as vice president of the student body for student government. If he has one regret, it's that he didn't get involved in activities -- including Habitat for Humanity -- earlier than he did.

"These are experiences I cherish now and wish I had gotten involved when I was a freshman," he said. While there may be some nerves about leaving the familiarity of the last four years, Fifield said he's more excited than nervous -- excited "to see where life takes me next."

Leisner has a bit of an excited nervousness regarding delivering Sunday's invocation but her wishes for her class, her hopes for them, trump any sort of nervousness she might have. Leisner said she will touch on giving back to others during her minutes at the podium in front of all of her fellow grads, and will also note that they should have an "open mind" and an "open heart" as they go through life.

Higgins dual majored at SHU. The 22-year-old walks away with degrees in finance and economics. Like others, she switched majors during college. Initially, she wanted to be a doctor but working at a savings bank led to a change of plan. Making a trip to Biloxi, Miss., to help out in an area destroyed by hurricane Katrina really affected her.

"It changed my outlook on a lot of things," she said. "You gain more of a respect for those living in other parts of the United States. We're fortunate around here in the tri-state area. We have a lot of luxuries around here."

Many from this year's class will leave with many memories of their time at SHU. Among them: the mens indoor track team winning the Division I Northeast championship a couple of years ago; the men's basketball team competing for the NEC championship at the Pitt Center; hanging out at the Firehouse Deli and the beach; and their school getting a new mascot: "Big Red."

Back in early 2007, "Bucky," a Pioneer -- who had been sidelined for about four years -- was replaced by "Big Red," also a Pioneer. When "Big Red" made his debut at a women's basketball game versus Robert Morris College, "Bucky" had elbowed his way into one last appearance and was reportedly escorted away by public safety officers, according to university archives.

With the degrees that will be given out this year, the university will reach a few milestones -- exceeding 20,000 bachelor's degrees awarded over the years, as well as more than 10,000 master's degrees and more than 35,000 total degrees.