Nature journaling class educates and inspires

Mitchell College students in Professor Diane Barcelo’s “Naturalist Journal” class recently spent time at Alewife Cove with members of the Alewife Conservancy, who talked about the cove’s history and importance, as well as the need for dredging to maintain the health of the ecosystem there.

With so many beautiful and interesting natural environments located right in Mitchell’s backyard, the class has had the opportunity to visit several other New London area destinations:

  • Connecticut College Arboretum
  • Lyman Allyn Museum and grounds
  • Waterford Beach
  • Ocean Beach
  • Mitchell Beach
  • Mitchell Woods

Professor Barcelo said her focus for the class is on connecting to the natural environment through observation by drawing, writing and poetry readings and discussion.

In addition to those from the Alewife Conservancy, guest speakers have included professionals from different fields. A biological illustrator from the Smithsonian Institution talked about her career in science and art. A scientist from Save the Sound discussed invasive species in the marshland and explained their effects on the health of native flora and fauna, water rise, and the future of coastal wetlands and communities. Mitchell adjunct professor Peggy Morgenstern talked about invasive plant life at Mitchell Beach and efforts to remediate the problem.

The semester culminates with independent projects that require the students to reflect on their experiences over the duration of the course.

A truly hands-on internship at the aquarium

It was all hands on deck during Dev Surprenant’s internship at the Mystic Aquarium. Just two days into working there, he had the opportunity to assist with and learn about “backwash,” the process of changing water in the huge tanks that are home to the marine life.

A senior environmental studies major who started at Mitchell in the Thames program and was drawn to the college for its accessibility services, Dev worked in his top-choice area at the aquarium — the Fish and Invertebrates department — during his 200-hour internship.

“I worked with the sting rays and sea turtles and several other animals, groupers and sharks. I am more familiar with them than with the belugas, sea lions and penguins that are also at the aquarium,” he said.

Student intern Dev Surprenant at Mystic Aquarium doing some testing  Student intern Dev Surprenant at Mystic Aquarium feeding some small sharks

“My favorite part of my internship was getting to learn about the animals, their behavioral aspects and water quality. I was able to apply some of what I learned in math and chemistry classes. It was also interesting for me to learn about the job of an aquarist, who handles the animals and does what needs to be done to keep them healthy.”

Dev said that the work done at his internship varied and piqued his interest for possibly pursuing work in an aquarium after graduation.

“First it was a lot of learning, knowing what to do when and where and what was okay to touch. After the first month, I was trusted enough to do things on my own. My job was to help with the overall goal of making the aquarium run as efficiently as possible without sacrificing manpower.”

The most common thing that Dev did was clean the algae off of the inside of the tanks, but he also had the opportunity to feed the animals, including his favorite, the sting rays.

What else did he learn?

“I watched and did target feeds on a bunch of different animals, and I bonded a lot with some of them. The challenge of my internship was learning many things very quickly, but it helped with the understanding to put my hands on something and figure out how to apply it. I was able to understand how something works by looking at it instead of seeing a diagram.”

Dance and Cheer: Playing to our strengths

When junior Brittney Tougas (third from right) visited Mitchell College in 2018 as a prospective student, she learned there wasn’t a dance team.

“They said if I could find enough members, I could start one,” Brittney said. “I made that my mission when I started at Mitchell. I was confident in the fact that people would want to do it. We had an involvement fair and had 20 signups. While not all ended up staying, the interest was there with room to grow.”

A cheerleader in middle school and high school, Brittney said that Mitchell had a small cheer team when she arrived on campus, but it didn’t perform very much. The team agreed to participate in a dance showcase that Brittney planned, and she helped them with practice structure and stunts. Eventually the dance and cheer teams conjoined, and Brittney took on both teams.

Now, the team performs at a variety of venues around campus, including athletics events, fall cabaret and dance showcase at the conclusion of each semester. Jono Babbitt is the faculty advisor, but Brittney does most of the choreography, music editing, light planning, and the layout of the shows.

Self-taught in dance, Brittney’s lifelong dream is to become a choreographer. She reflects on her journey: “I have done dance all my life but taught myself by watching Disney movies and YouTube videos. I copied the dances because I couldn’t afford studio classes. I was told that I wasn’t good enough because I haven’t been trained. But I always value passion over talent,” she said.

“Now it is the most amazing feeling in the world being part of something bigger than myself. Everyone comes from different backgrounds. Some have money, some don’t. Some struggle with mental health, some have learning disabilities, some have life struggles in general. To watch all of that leave and see them pull off something that three weeks before they told me they couldn’t do is the most rewarding thing ever.”

“One of the teammates said a few weeks ago that since being on this team her confidence has gone up. Those little moments might be passing, but to me it’s everything. It’s all I ever wanted to do. I told my dad I wanted to be choreographer and people would be so happy to dance because they love it, and they don’t have to be a size 2 to do it and all the stereotypes that come with being a dancer. I try to play to everybody’s strength, and I think that’s probably the most rewarding thing — being able to see them shine and do things that they didn’t think they could do.”

Select Chorus: Exercising mind and passion

Students who join Select Chorus at Mitchell College participate in an activity they love and get academic credit for it at the same time. Established in 2017, Select Chorus at Mitchell College is both auditioned and curricular, with 1 academic credit granted per semester.

According to Jono Babbitt, assistant professor of leadership and business management who oversees Mitchell College performing arts, incoming freshmen can potentially participate for 4 years and earn 8 credits towards graduation.

“There are no other courses at Mitchell that allow for that level of repetition,” he said.

Christian Benesh, a junior who joined Select Chorus as a freshman, after having performed in a chorus since middle school, not only finds a place to exercise his passion but also to expand his mind.

“We have sung music in different languages, like German and Latin. It’s nice to know the history of the music, and some of the songs are very beautiful,” Christian said.

“Music has opened something up in me, a steady emotive,” he said. “It’s nice to be part of a group of people with different backgrounds who work together as friends. When it’s time for a concert, it’s great to see people enjoy our talent and have fun. That’s all that counts….I am really excited to have a live audience at our concert this year.”

Mitchell College Players: A stage for growth

The Mitchell College Players present two productions each year — a fall play and a spring musical. Owen Murphy, in his first semester at Mitchell, jumped into the group this spring after seeing an ad for auditions on social media.

“I said to myself, ‘I am just going to do this, and if I don’t get cast it’s no big deal. If I do, I’ll have a lot of fun and grow as an actor and vocal musician.’”

Owen was cast, and it’s his first time performing in a theatrical production. A seasoned singer who has sung all of his life, he looks forward to a different kind of performance.

“I thought about doing theater in high school but decided not to. When I came to Mitchell I heard about Jono and how his dynamics worked, and I thought I could work with him as a director. He takes the time and effort to tell you how to do something and explains to a level you can comprehend. That’s what makes the productions here so fantastic. He is putting in 150%, and he challenges us as a cast. He knows we can do it, and he gives us the motivation to actually succeed.”

Owen, who is playing the role of Hero in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” said his biggest challenge is remembering the vocabulary of the sheet music, such as the crescendos, and the pitches.

“I haven’t done these things since March 2020, and the stage directions are new to me. I’m used to being on risers and not being in the spotlight.”

Owen said his participation in the Mitchell College Players has already helped him grow socially.

“In high school no one would come to me with their problems because they’d say I was too immature. Here, I have noticed people come to me with their problems and tell me I’ve been a good friend and have helped them so much. I think my involvement in theater has helped with that – you have to be well spoken and confident about what you’re going to say. Working on that has helped me be a better friend and helped me socially.”

Taking bold steps in life and work

As a Mitchell College student, Angel Graham ’16 once said, “I want to make a difference and put my footprint on the world.”

Today she is doing just that. She credits Mitchell with preparing her to be a critical thinker and develop ways to give back to her community.

Angel volunteers for three non-profit organizations in the greater Philadelphia area. She is a board member for The Arc of Philadelphia and is a member of the Montgomery County Anti-Human Trafficking Coalition, where she serves on the education team.

She also volunteers as a forensic education outreach assistant for the Association of Women in Forensics and recently hosted a webinar on disabilities and forensics as part of Women in Forensics’ “Beyond Autopsies and Crime Scenes” speaker series. Angel, who has cerebral palsy, earned her master’s degree in forensic medicine from the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine in Philadelphia in 2021. She aspires to use her degree to work for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children or the Innocence Project. 

As an environmental studies major at Mitchell, not only did her coursework prepare her for graduate school, but it also taught her transferrable skills. She uses them daily in her job as a customer service representative in an IT Call Center, helping individuals apply for state benefits.

I knew I wanted to major in a branch of science that was interdisciplinary and would help me to become well-versed in an array of topics. In my current job, I often use tactics from both creative psychology and psychology and abilities like problem solving and communication. Resolving a person’s temperament when they might not get a certain response, reassuring them that they have taken the first step in their process, remaining professional at all times and being clear and direct are things I must do in my work every day.

She says that, when considering colleges, she was drawn to Mitchell for its campus, individualized attention and diverse community. 

The campus was visually stunning with its own beach, but it was also a perfect fit for me because, as someone with cerebral palsy, I was able to maneuver around easily with my crutches. I also succeeded in my classes through the one-on-one attention with professors and small class size. Plus, I had the opportunity to meet so many peers from various backgrounds and cultures.