News

News about the program and our honorees

UConn Students Chosen as Alma Exley Scholars

Two UConn students have been chosen as the 2022 Alma Exley Scholars. They are Saraya Lewis, a junior majoring in secondary English education, and Tamashi Hettiarachchi, who is pursuing a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction. She majored in chemistry education as an undergraduate at UConn.

The program was able to offer two scholarships this year because of the growth of the endowment at the Community Foundation of Greater New Britain. The growth was achieved thanks to substantial contributions as well as solid investment gains.

Saraya Lewis

Ms. Lewis, a graduate of Stratford (CT) High School, is active in UConn’s Leadership in Diversity (LID), a student-led support group which promotes equity, justice, and diversity in education and in the community. She has studied the impact of the lack of diversity among teachers in Connecticut and how this has affected the way students of color train to become teachers.

“During this semester, especially in my Multicultural Education, Equity and Social Justice class, there was an emphasis on the lack of educators of color,” she said. “We learned that the biases of administrators and teachers toward young children of color severely impact the number of individuals of color who enter the field of education.

“These discussions were extremely relatable as I had only two Black teachers during my academic career before college. The conversations would always tie back into how we as educators can create safe spaces for our students of color in a society that is not always welcoming.”

As part of her LID activities, she participated in campus workshops on the school-to-prison pipeline and critical race theory. Sponsoring these sessions were the Connecticut Education Association, the UConn’s Neag School of Education, and UConn Community Outreach.

Ms. Lewis has extensive experience as a tutor for elementary and secondary students, and she is a team captain in Huskython, which raises funds for children at Connecticut Children’s hospital.

As a member of the UConn Future Educators club, she participated (pre-Covid) in STEM and literacy events at high schools in Eastern Connecticut. “These events gave us experience in school environments prior to applying to Neag,” she said. “For literacy night, we read to elementary-aged students in different classrooms. For STEM night, I led math activities with secondary students.”

The Neag faculty chose her for the 2021 Neag Hearst Scholarship in recognition of her outstanding achievements in the teacher-preparation program.

Tamashi Hettiarachchi

Ms. Hettiarachchi, a graduate of Glastonbury (CT) High School, has been active in efforts to improve science teaching and to bring issues of social justice into the science curriculum. She is collaborating with teachers in Connecticut and New York to identify justice-centered science teaching practices as part of a project funded by the National Science Foundation.

She has lent her talents to the Mentor Teacher Collaborative, which is increasing access to high-quality science teaching in Connecticut. She also hosts a podcast called NGSNavigators, which offers high-quality professional development to educators.

She collaborated with UConn faculty in the development of a curriculum based on the complex biological systems in a nest of two million army ants. In connection with this project, she was the lead author of a peer-reviewed article published in the National Science Teaching Association’s Science Scope journal for middle-school teachers. In a related effort, she co-designed and co-led a professional-development program for middle-school science teachers.

As president of Leadership in Diversity, she has strengthened the organization’s mission of supporting and encouraging future teachers of color. She received the Outstanding Senior Women Academic Achievement Award in May 2021 in recognition of high achievement in research and service at UConn.

These outstanding students join a remarkable network of Alma Exley Scholars honored over the past 26 years. Our honorees are making a difference as outstanding teachers and distinguished educational leaders at the local, state, and national levels.

Cardona Shares Honor with Family, Community

U.S Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona was inducted into the Meriden Hall of Fame on Sunday. His acceptance speech was a love letter to his family and the city of Meriden.

Secretary Cardona with Marissa, Miguel Jr., and Celine

Prior to joining President Biden’s cabinet last year, Dr. Cardona served as a teacher, principal, and district leader in Meriden and as state commissioner of education for Connecticut.

U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal, congratulating Dr. Cardona at the ceremony, said, “There is nobody in the president’s cabinet right now who is doing more to advance the agenda of the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity we have today to rebuild America.”

Secretary Cardona began his eloquent, emotional, and passionate speech by recalling the fear and trepidation he experienced on his first day of kindergarten.

A Daunting Start to His Educational Career

“My first day of school is memorable,” he said. “I wore a cocoa brown, three-piece suit to school. I remember that day as one of my first life memories. I remember seeing all those big kids, and an overwhelming fear came over me. I thought to myself, ‘I cannot do this.’

“I remember crying so much on my first day that the nurse had to call my mom to come and pick me up. As I sat in the nurse’s office, I was nauseous. My stomach was in knots. I was dejected and confused. I submitted to the fact that I wasn’t cut out for this school thing. At that moment, I made the decision that I was never going back. As I went home with my mami, I was thankful for two things: one that I had a cocoa brown suit on and two, that my mom quickly gave me a bath. You do the math. Put a pin in this story; I’ll come back to it later.”

He thanked the Meriden Historical Society and the Meriden Hall of Fame and said he was honored to share the recognition with the other honorees, Bruce Burchsted, Rose Cignatta, Larry Pelletier, and the late Philip Handel.

Sharing the Honor with Family

“This award is special,” he said, “because it acknowledges my lived experiences. It’s a culmination of who I am, and I cannot accept this without sharing it with the people who shaped those experiences.”

Of his wife, Marissa, and children, Miguel Jr. and Celine, he said, “You give me purpose. Just thinking of the three of you pushes me to do my best.” He went on to thank his extended family and friends, saying, “You shaped my life so significantly that without you I wouldn’t be here.”

Following are excerpts from the rest of the speech:

“Sarah and Hector (Miguel’s mother and father), you taught me to treat everyone with the same level of dignity and respect, regardless of whether it’s the person cleaning my office or the president of the United States. Mami, since day one, you taught me service, humility, and sacrifice. You never complained. You persevered. Papi, I have the honor of being the second most well-known Cardona in Meriden. One of my greatest titles to this day is to be referred to as Hector’s kid. To my family, this honor is as much yours as it is mine.

Community: A Profound Influence

“When thinking about who I should thank, I couldn’t help but go back to a person who has been with me since day one. Someone who has had my back when I did well, but who was also there for me when I failed. This is someone who I relied on and always felt comfortable around no matter what I was experiencing. This person accepted me for me and made me feel like I was not less than anyone else.

“The only issue here is that this person isn’t actually a person. It’s a place. It’s Meriden. In preparing my remarks, I felt that I had to personify the city because of its impact on me. Like the influence of my family, my entrance into the Hall of Fame is because I learned life lessons from Meriden. In fact, I embody qualities as a person that Meriden has as a city. The city of Meriden and what it represents permeated into my DNA and shaped me to be the person who is being honored.

“You see, from Meriden I learned grittiness. I learned you can go from Washington Middle School to Washington, D.C. You can translate your passion for equity by celebrating Puerto Rican festivals with Papi or talking safe school reopening with POTUS. It’s the same grittiness and the same passion that I got from these streets here in Meriden. And from Meriden I got resilience and never giving up. I wouldn’t trade this blue-collar community for any other life.

Never Give Up

“I would say I was born rich. No silver spoon growing up, but I lacked nothing. Meriden taught me that when things get tough you get tougher. And you never give up. We don’t give up on ourselves. We don’t give up on our families. And we don’t give up on our community.

“From Meriden I learned to lead with a chip on my shoulder. To be fueled by the doubters and those who have lowered their expectations for me. Meriden taught me that. Throughout my life, like Meriden, when surrounded by others that may have a sense of superiority or question my potential, I rise and I exceed expectations, like Meriden.

“Part of the reason why I have a remote office here. . . is to make sure that when I’m having bi-lateral conversations with people in other countries or forgiving billions of dollars in student loans or standing up for transgender students, I’m doing it from downtown Meriden and nowhere else.

‘I’m Nothing Without Community’

“Don’t bet against me, and don’t bet against Meriden. From Meriden I learned to lead with a greater purpose. My experience as a teacher, a principal, assistant superintendent, and life-long resident taught me that I’m nothing without community. That this community has given me more than I have ever given it. That its people who are different colors, come from different backgrounds, and have different abilities and beliefs make up this beautiful tapestry that allowed me to expand my understanding.

“You see, whether I’m talking to a parent or someone who wants to share a story with me at the farmers’ market, or discussing diplomacy with the King of Spain, Meriden taught me to see the person and not the title. That’s why I say I’m the same from the barrio to the briefing room. Meriden taught me that.

“I accept this honor on behalf of all of us who recognize how important this community is. Meriden, you’re as much a part of my success as my family and my education. You are a piece of me, and I am a piece of you. Your virtues became my virtues. Your attribute of grittiness, that chip on your shoulder, that resilience — they became my attributes because of Meriden.

A Journey Propelled by Grit

“And that is why that scared five-year-old kid who didn’t make it through his first day of school got back up and went back. He went back to school on day two. And then he went back on day three. And then he kept going. Then he went to Washington Middle School. He went to Wilcox Tech. And because of that grittiness, that resilience, that chip on his shoulder, he wanted to go to college, get his master’s, get his doctorate, be a teacher, a principal, a district leader, lead the state. And like Meriden, people questioned and wondered if he would make it, but he just kept going. And because of Meriden, that scared five-year-old is now humbled to serve as the top educator in the best country in the world.

“There’s nothing special about me, and there’s nothing special about my story. I’m just a goofy little kid born at Yale Acres, lived on Lewis Ave, Newton Street, came from a great family and a wonderful community. So when my picture hangs in the hallway of our City Hall or you see me on a plaque or you see me on TV, think of Meriden and how there are thousands of quiet and maybe even scared little kids like I was who are being shaped by our beautiful city and remember in those kids there lies potential to change the world.”

Orlando Valentin ‘Sent to the Office’ — In a Good Way

More than 20 years ago, Orlando Valentin Jr. entered kindergarten at Hanover Elementary School. This month, he returned to Hanover as assistant principal.

Orlando Valentin Jr. is back where it all began: Hanover Elementary School. — Meriden Record-Journal photo

“As a school leader, it’s the best feeling being able to return to these same halls where I began my educational career,” he said. “I already know many of the teachers, students, and families in the Hanover community which makes this transition that much easier.”

2016 Alma Exley Scholar

Mr. Valentin, whom we honored with a scholarship in 2016, began his career as a fourth-grade teacher at Casimir Pulaski School in his hometown of Meriden, Connecticut. He had earned his master’s degree in the five-year integrated bachelor’s/master’s degree program at the University of Connecticut. This year he completed the two-year Administrator Preparation Program at UConn.

Meriden has a large Hispanic population. Mr. Valentin is proud of his Puerto Rican roots, and he sees himself as a role model to his students. He is a first-generation college graduate who grew up like many of his students in a single-parent household.

Equity Leader

While teaching at Pulaski, he also served in a leadership role in promoting the recruitment and retention of teachers of color in Meriden. He was one of 12 equity leaders in the school system.

The Meriden schools’ leadership for years has placed a high priority on increasing the diversity of its educator workforce. This year, 35 percent of the district’s new hires are persons of color.

Mr. Valentin’s equity work also has extended beyond Meriden. He established an affinity group for educational professionals of color in Central Connecticut.

“The affinity group gives the professionals the opportunity to network with their colleagues of color who likely have shared life experiences,” he said. “The group also has had various professional development opportunities such as a book study group and training with an equity consultant.”

Active as a Community Leader

He also has been active in the community as a coach of a youth football team and as a martial-arts instructor.

Speaking for the Alma Exley scholarship family, I can say that we are delighted that Mr. Valentin has joined the leadership ranks in his hometown school system. Best wishes for success and satisfaction, Orlando, in this next leg of your educational journey.

  • Woody Exley