Not So Little Achievements

A diverse team at CSI works on the LittleFe project.

The LittleFe project is surely a misnomer as the efforts spent on building this mega-computer are anything but little.  The initiative, which is lead by Vice President of Technology Systems Dr. Michael Kress along with professional staff from the Division of Student Affairs, involves seven young adults at CSI who are actually building a parallel processing computer. These diverse individuals meet in the Center for Student Accessibility’s Multimedia Resource Center at CSI every weekend and work together seamlessly on a collaborative project that will result in the grouping of six computers to form one that will perform with much better speed and efficiency than other traditional systems.

“LittleFe provides an opportunity for this CSI team to learn key concepts of parallel and distributed computing such as speed up, efficiency, and load balancing, which are more effectively done on a parallel platform,” explained Dr. Kress.

The LittleFe team members are CSI students Michael Costantino, Daniel Kurzweil, Jonathan Parziale, Christopher Savo, and Brian Wong; McKee Technical High School student Alaric Hyland; and CSI College Assistant Timothy Smolka.  Center for Student Accessibility staff members Nicole Dory and Maryellen Smolka supervise the group.

“This project is as much about the team as it is about the supercomputer and autonomous robot it is building. The team is comprised of some of CSI’s best students, technical staff, and an exceptionally talented high school student,” said dr. Kress, adding that the diverse group members include students with and without disabilities.

LittleFe weighs less than 50 pounds and can be set up in about ten minutes, making it possible to have a powerful ready-to-run computational science and HPC educational platform for less than $3,000.

Future utilization of LittleFe at CSI has not been completely determined yet, although the CSI supercomputer will be featured at the Supercomputing Conference in Salt Lake City, UT this November. This International Conference for High-Performance Computing, Networking, Storage, and Analysis will feature the “best and brightest minds in supercomputing” with unparalleled technical papers, tutorials, posters, and speakers.

Little Fe was also a major attraction at this year’s Undergraduate Research Conference, and team members were filmed for NY1.

Celebrating the Inclusion of Students with Disabilities

The 20th Annual Willowbrook Memorial Event, held at the College of Staten Island last month, honored those who suffered due to the harsh conditions at the Willowbrook State School,  raised awareness of people with disabilities, and called for further reforms in the rights of people with disabilities.

With the help of the Center for Student Accessibility and the Office of Technology Systems, this was the first time the event was student led, with CSI seniors Erica Zito and Lisa LaManna hosting.

“We’ve got the best students in the world,” said CSI President Tomás D. Morales as he referred to the efforts put forth by some of CSI’s best and brightest. He also called the event a chance to “reflect on, honor, and celebrate the Willowbrook decree.”

Other speakers at the event included Henry Kennedy Esq., who presented a legal and historical perspective on the Willowbrook Consent Decree; Professor Edward F. Meehan, who discussed the challenges that diversity creates for society from a psychological framework and why and how inclusion and compassion enter the curriculum; and Dr. Michael Kress, who fielded questions from the audience.

The Willowbrook Consent Decree, published on April 30, 1975, was the first step of many that led to major reform in the treatment of people with disabilities. President Morales reiterated the importance of the CSI community to celebrate the decree by saying, “We sit on ground zero of the disabilities civil rights movement.”

David Goode, Professor of Sociology, Anthropology, and Social Work, was thrilled to see CSI students take over the reins of such a special event. “Having students speaking at this lecture has and will change this event for the good,” he said.  He also pointed out the many other students who participated including James Marlow, who built a very detailed storyboard about Willowbrook and the several students (some of whom are students with disabilities) who recently built “Little Fe,” a six-cluster super computer capable of running several programs at once.

The highlight of the event was the 30-minute multimedia presentation, introduced and produced by Zito and LaManna entitled “Inclusion: Far-Reaching Benefits for Social Growth.” The video included many CUNY students and honored their accomplishments with an eye toward the future of increasing the graduation rate of students with disabilities. “We wanted to show that this event was about inclusion—inclusion of people with disabilities into mainstream society,” said Zito, who had been working on the presentation for several months. The purpose of having students headline the event was to show that people (such as Zito and LaManna) did not have to “live and remember Willowbrook in order to care about people with disabilities. It is already included within the cultural web in which we’ve grown up.”

The packed auditorium was filled with CSI students, faculty, and staff, all sharing a space that was once associated with terrible neglect and exclusion.

As Professor Goode put it, the Willowbrook Decree is about “common people who banded together to defeat evil.”  At CSI, that is a battle everyone is willing to fight.

Willowbrook State School

The College of Staten Island collects items that document the history of the Willowbrook State School, which occupied from 1948 to 1987 the campus now owned by CSI. The Archives & Special Collections do not hold any administrative or medical records from the Willowbrook State School, but rather archival materials of historical significance. Researchers have access to a wealth of printed material concerning the operation of the Willowbrook State School, including: Giraldo Rivera’s book and television report on Willowbrook, oral histories, dissertations, reports, and other published material. For further information, please see the Guide to Willowbrook State School Resources at the CSI Library, located under Research Assistance.   Read more from the CSI Archives and Special Collections>

Standing Room Only For “My Story” Celebration

The Center for Student Accessibility at CSI provides services to a wide variety of students.

There were 12 students and 12 stories, and although the stage in the Center for the Arts Lecture Hall on April 5 appeared to hold very different individuals, there was a very common thread that linked them. The students all have a disability.

From Ryan LaMarche, a student with Asperger’s Syndrome, to Sean Thatcher, a student who is quadriplegic, to Marybeth Melendez, a graduate student who is blind, high-achieving students with disabilities presented their different, compelling, and candid stories at the annual Center for Student Accessibility (CSA) “My Story” event.

It was standing room only as brave students with disabilities presented their stories of challenge and triumph in college and in life to an audience of more than 150 students, faculty, staff, friends, and family. The presentation served as the kick-off event for CUNY Disability Awareness Month and is one of 15 events that the CSA is sponsoring in honor of the Month.

Organized by CSA Director Chris Cruz Cullari and Assistant Director Sara Paul, “My Story” is one of the biggest and most significant events that the Center coordinates. The purpose of the annual event is to both educate individuals with and without disabilities and to diffuse some of the stereotypes surrounding college students with disabilities.

“People see that I’m in a wheelchair, and suddenly they start speaking really slowly, as if I cannot understand simple English,” remarked Thatcher, a CSI student with a 4.0 GPA. “When this happens, I usually throw a bunch of big, fancy words in a sentence and then they realize that they were being insensitive.”

Thatcher was injured in June 2009 at Swartswood Lake in New Jersey when he lunged into a lake and fractured his C4, C5, and C6 vertebras leaving him a quadriplegic. The lake was thoroughly examined with no discovery of a rock or other object that he could have hit. It is hypothesized that he hit something moving, like a turtle. While the accident was devastating for a young man in college, Thatcher continued to pursue his education and now also serves as a tutor in the CSA Tutoring Institute.

His story and the stories of his peers moved and captivated audience members, many of whom left with very different ideas of what it means to be a college student with a disability.

“I learned a lot, and the students on stage really made me think about how I view people with disabilities,” commented audience member, Cynthia Schaffer.

Other CSI student panelists included Melendez; LaMarche; Ying Yu, with a physical disability called spondylolisthesis; George Vega, another graduate student with Multiple Sclerosis; Brigette Jara, who is deaf; Chris Williams, who is an amputee; Stephanie Pietropaolo, who has cerebral palsy and a learning disability; Michael Anselmi, who has Marfan’s Syndrome; Maria Palazzo, who is hard of hearing; Nick Pucciarelli, who is deaf; and Danny Bocchiccio, who is dyslexic.

The afternoon program began with remarks from Cruz Cullari as well as Vice President for Student Affairs Dr. A Ramona Brown, an active supporter of CSA initiatives and efforts. A brief video montage created by CSA staff highlighted CSA milestones and gave general information about students with disabilities on the national level. Cruz Cullari also articulated some interesting reflections on students with disabilities. In addition, his introductory comments gave context to the event and to the issues surrounding students with disabilities and disability service provision in higher education today. In addition, the Director included some insight on common misconceptions on specific disabilities.

“It’s important to note that, for example, a college student with a learning disability diagnosis has at least average intelligence and in many cases superior intelligence,” noted Cruz Cullari.  “The accomplishments of these particular students on stage today are truly commendable.”

CSI Today will continue to profile “My Story” panelists in the upcoming months.  The Center for Student Accessibility is a part of the Division of Student Affairs.

AI, CPU, DSLR, ASD: A Center for Student Accessibility Spotlight

Computer Science major Brian Wong is pursuing a number of interests at CSI, including photography.

This semester, Brian Wong is researching artificial intelligence, building a computer, and volunteering as a student photographer, all while maintaining a 3.82 grade point average.

The College of Staten Island sophomore is a Computer Science major with the Verrazano School honors program who plans to attend graduate school to pursue a Master’s of Science degree in Computer Science and even a PhD so that he can continue research in the field of natural language processing and voice recognition, which enables computers to interface better with humans. His career goals include becoming a computer programmer and technician and a part-time professional photographer.

Mr. Wong does not struggle academically; however, in the social arena, he does have some difficulty.

“I tend to be isolated, and I find it difficult to communicate with peers,” he commented, adding that he is not ashamed of his disability: Asperger’s Syndrome.

Asperger’s Sydrome (AS) is an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) that is characterized by difficulties navigating social situations. Individuals with AS often significantly excel in specific areas of interest.

This particular student finds it challenging to stay focused and “on task.”

“Self-control is hard in general, though things have improved somewhat in college. I find myself more confident when talking with others,” he said. “The CSA (Center for Student Accessibility) has allowed me to make the most of my existing abilities and helps me cope with my problems. There’s a real sense of support there.”

The photography enthusiast, who has also fostered connections with the Communications Office, has found a role as a volunteer student photographer for the College’s online magazine, “CSI Today,” working closely with Director Ken Bach.

The tech savvy student also spends weekends collaborating on a special project with Vice President Michael Kress’s office. The project, which is lead by Center staff members Maryellen Smolka and Nicole Dory, involves building a cluster of six motherboards that will culminate in one high-performance computer, dubbed “Little Fe.”

Wong notes that he enjoys these connections and opportunities in which he is engaged at CSI.

“Being a CSI college student means being part of a vast community. I have access to a huge, beautiful campus with loads of great resources like state-of-the-art labs and sports facilities and excellent professors,” commented Wong, who is also an ALPHA Club member.

Wong recalled that one of his favorite professors has been his Computer Science professor, Emile Chi, who is “very understanding and helpful” and also has interest in photography.

Indeed, many of this student’s professors are working closely with Wong to support his efforts as he approaches graduation and eventually graduate school.

Faculty and staff who are interested in more information about ASDs can contact Sara Paul at the Center for Student Accessibility at 718.982.2513. She will provide information about workshops and seminars that can help in working with students with Asperger’s Syndrome and other ASDs.

As part of the Center for Student Accessibility’s (CSA) “My Story” campaign, the Center will regularly highlight high-achieving students who have overcome challenges and exhibit student success, including academic advancement, co-curricular engagement, and pre-professional training. The Center for Student Accessibility is a part of the Division of Student Affairs.

Center for Student Accessibility to Showcase Two Presentations at This Year’s AHEAD Conference

CSI students participate in the CSA Summer Institute, part of the First Year Connections Program.
CSI students participate in the CSA Summer Institute, part of the First Year Connections Program.
CSI students participate in the CSA Summer Institute, part of the First Year Connections Program.

This summer, staff from the College of Staten Island’s (CSI) Center for Student for Accessibility (CSA) will be presenting at the national Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD) Conference. AHEAD invited Center staff to present on not just one, but two sessions at the July Conference, which will take place in New Orleans, LA. AHEAD is the premiere national organization guiding best practices for disability service provision in higher education. Many of the Center’s programs are based on standards developed by AHEAD.

“I’m inspired that the accomplishments of the Center over the past few years are being recognized on the national stage,” commented Cruz Cullari, who has been the Director since December 2009. “I’m looking forward to representing the College and our Center and also to see what other colleges and universities will share at the Conference.”

Assistant Director Sara Paul also played a key role in drafting the Conference proposals as well as in the creation and management of these initiatives.

“To share our work at such a major event and network with other higher education professionals is an honor, and I am very excited to showcase the efforts of the Center and all our staff,” said Paul.

During a three-hour preconference session “First-Year Connections: Holistic Student Support Programming for Students with Disabilities,” presenters Cruz Cullari and Paul will focus on the Center’s First-Year Connections (FYC) Program, which celebrated 90% retention last year. The Connections Program helps students transition into the college and is guided by four desired learning outcomes. Academic counselors meet with students regularly and report to the Director and Assistant Director on the progress and needs of each student.

The Program is highlighted by the CSA Summer Institute, a series of full-day workshops that introduce incoming first-year students to such crucial topics as the differences between high school and college and choosing a major. The FYC culminates in a campus-wide student panel event, entitled “My Story,” in which students with disabilities describe their challenges and triumphs in high school and college. Panelists also focus on their transitioning experiences into college.

In another session, “Curricular Universal Design: Creating Accessible Writing Assignments for Students with Invisible Disabilities,” participants will learn how to prepare a collaborative curriculum project with faculty and staff at their respective institutions in the spirit of Universal Design.  This session will also look specifically at efforts like Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC), a collaborative endeavor on which Center staff worked with the English Writing Fellows and Professor Hildegard Hoeller. In particular, the session will showcase one of the collaborative WAC publications, a faculty guide for introducing writing assignments.

Cruz Cullari explains, “More than anything else, these programs are about our students. Our sharing at the 2012 AHEAD Conference reflects hard work of the Center’s staff and their passion for student success.”

The Center for Student Accessibility (CSA) provides academic advancement, co-curricular commitment and pre-professional training to the CSI community. The CSA is a part of the Division of Student Affairs.

Ying Yu: Maintaining a 4.0 GPA, 30 Minutes at a Time: A Center for Student Accessibility Spotlight

Although she faces obstacles, CSI Math major Ying Yu has a 4.0 GPA.

Ying Yu cannot sit, stand, or lay in one position for more than 30 minutes at a time. Remaining in one position is so painful for this student that she must shift her position during all of her daily activities, which includes her movements at school. Naturally, she has trouble sleeping, waking up repeatedly during the night to shift her body. Yet Yu, who is also a student from China learning English as her second language, somehow manages to maintain no less than a 4.0 grade point average.

Yu suffers from displacement of her vertebral column, a condition called spondylolisthesis, with which she was diagnosed in 2009 after a back injury at her former job as a nurse’s aide. Since then, she must visit a chiropractor, neurologist, and physical therapist four times a week.

A student with a physical disability, a language barrier, and very little family in the United States, Yu still keeps up both her spirits and her grades. Using the services and accommodations of the Center for Student Accessibility (CSA), she is able to attend classes, take her tests, and receive tutoring with a bit more comfort. Additional large chairs are provided for her so that she can shift her body as needed, giving her more flexibility in the classroom, for example.

“I cannot imagine if I didn’t get support from the CSA. It would be impossible to fulfill my dreams. The staff at the CSA helps me with my physical problems, but they also help me emotionally because I know they care about me, and I know they are there to make sure I have the tools to succeed in college,” said Yu, a Math major who is slated to graduate in May 2013. Yu is also the recipient of multiple scholarships, including one from STEAM (Science & Technology Expansion via Applied Mathematics), a CSI Student Scholarship, and another from the Rickel Foundation.

She plans to attend graduate school to obtain a PhD, applying to such schools as the CUNY Graduate Center, New York University, and Columbia University. Her goal is to work in higher education as a professor of mathematics. She also looks forward to volunteering her time to help people with disabilities, as well as Chinese people in the community who have trouble transitioning to life in the United States.

“The language barrier is a big problem. I have trouble in my classes because I have to look up so many words,” commented Yu, adding that she sometimes studies 16 hours a day.

“I have this opportunity to study at a college that I never thought I would have when I was in China. It was always my dream to go to college, and now CSI is making that dream come true,” said the student who arrived in the United States in 2006.

As part of the Center for Student Accessibility’s (CSA) “My Story” campaign, the Center will regularly highlight high-achieving students who have overcome challenges and exhibit student success, including academic advancement, co-curricular commitment and pre-professional training. The CSA is a part of the Division of Student Affairs.

Brigette Jara Travels the World: a Center for Student Accessibility Spotlight

Brigette Jara is a Cinema Studies major at CSI.

Brigette Jara has big aspirations and high standards for herself.  The Cinema Studies major travels the globe in her spare time and dreams of teaching film production courses at the college level.

“I want to see everything and go everywhere!” said Jara who has recently been to Ecuador, Spain, and Italy, to name a few.  She is also a regular participant in filmmaking festivals for both people who are hard of hearing and deaf. She has also directed, produced, edited, and worked lights, sound, and other equipment for her films.

In her global travels, the College of Staten Island (CSI) student also makes it a point to visit the deaf schools in the area.  This is because Brigette Jara is a student who is deaf.

Jara began her studies at CSI in fall 2008, and she admits that in the beginning she did feel a bit nervous and isolated.

“When I first came to college, it was a struggle. I really didn’t think I was going to stay,” said Jara, who now carries a grade point average higher than 3.0 and has been involved in numerous CSI clubs such as the Japanese Visual Culture Club, American Sign Language Club, and the ALPHA Club.

Her first stop at CSI was the Center for Student Accessibility where she was able to request American Sign Language interpreters and connect with an academic counselor.

“The Center helped me so much. There, I met my first interpreter and she encouraged me to stay in college. Now, my academic counselor, Maria, helps me with my academics and accommodations, and lets me know I’m on the right path. The Center is wonderful,” commented the student who also utilizes the Center’s note-taking services.

As the first woman in her family to go to college, the native of Ecuador also wanted to be a good role model for her sister.

“I knew it was important for me to go to college, both for myself and so that I could be an example to my younger sister. I wanted her to see me succeed so that she would know that she could as well,” said Jara.  Her sister, Stephanie Michelle Jara, has just been accepted to CSI and is pursuing studies in social work.

Jara arrived in the United States from Ecuador when she was eight years old.  At the time, there was little to no education for deaf students in Ecuador.  She could not sign in English or Spanish, although she attempted to read lips. In the U.S., she was able to obtain an education and learn to sign. She attended the Lexington School for the Deaf and graduated from Susan Wagner High School.

Jara continues to work hard in college to independently navigate the academics as well as the social avenues.

“There are so many people here that it can be overwhelming. I have my own method. I sit in the front so I can see the teacher and the interpreter. I usually ask one student for their email address and phone number in case I miss a class. I try to chat with the other students, too.”

Jara observed that sometimes it seems that “students are afraid of me,” adding that they tend to text only and maybe connect on Facebook. “I try to help them learn signs, and they can certainly communicate with me using the interpreter,” she said, reflecting that one of her biggest accomplishments at CSI has been to gain confidence.

Her confidence was of particular use recently when she participated in the Mayor’s Disability Mentoring Day where she was placed at NBC in Manhattan for the day. (The CSA has worked collaboratively for several years with the Mayor’s Office in arranging internships for students with disabilities with much success.)

Jara is graduating with an Associate’s degree in Liberal Arts in June and is continuing on for her Bachelor’s degree in Cinema Studies. She is also completing the requirements for the Modern China Studies Certificate so that she can study in China; there she will launch her new film project about China’s deaf culture.

Ms. Jara plans to pursue her graduate degree in Cinema Studies at New York University.

The Center for Student Accessibility is a part of the Division of Student Affairs.

As part of the Center for Student Accessibility’s (CSA) “My Story” campaign, the Center will regularly highlight high-achieving students who have overcome challenges and exhibit student success, including academic advancement, co-curricular commitment, and pre-professional training.



CSI Center for Student Accessibility Receives Award for Pioneering CART Services

Andrew Petron, a graduate student seeking to obtain a degree in Physical Therapy, is joined by CART provider Annmargaret Shea during a recent Winter Session Anatomy and Physiology course.

The Center for Student Accessibility at the College of Staten Island was recently the recipient of the first-ever CUNY Productivity Award for its Communication Real-Time Translation Service (CART) program at the 2011 CUNY Financial Management Conference.

CSI’s nationally recognized CART program received the award, which honors members within the CUNY family for their commitment to providing exceptional contribution to the University in an economical manner.  The individual recipients of the award were Christopher Cruz Cullari, Director of the Center for Student Accessibility; Maryellen Smolka, CART Coordinator and Trainer; and Nicole Dory, Technology Assistant and CART Trainer.

The program is the result of a collaboration between the Center for Student Accessibility, which is a part of the Division of Student Affairs, led by Vice President A. Ramona Brown, and the Office of Technology Systems under Vice President Michael Kress.

The CART program, which is housed in the Center for Student Accessibility’s Resource Center for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Students, offers verbatim, real-time transcripts of classroom lectures and discussions for students who are deaf or hard-of-hearing. Trained CART providers either accompany the student to class or remotely access the class via Web conferencing software and the use of an omni-directional microphone that a student attaches to a laptop. The CART provider transcribes all of the words spoken in the classroom using speech-to-text software to the student’s laptop screen.

During the 2010-2011 academic year, CSI’s Center for Student Accessibility provided CART service at 20 percent of the cost of the average agency, approximately $100,000 versus over $500,000, if CSI used an outside agency’s services.  The savings were calculated using the average cost of four local agencies used by other CUNY colleges.

“We are honored to be recognized for our hard work that is rooted in best practices,” said Director Cruz Cullari, who earned his award for providing a structure where the program can operate effectively. The CSI Cart program, which was honored for its ability to provide first-class service to CSI students who are hard-of-hearing as well as saving CSI approximately $400,000, is home to the CUNY CART Initiative. “In our view, it is all about excellent service,” said Cruz Cullari. “Our CART service is the best service that a student who is hard-of-hearing can receive.”

CSI has set the standard for CART services throughout the country specifically due to the training that the CART providers receive. Each CART provider is trained particularly for a higher education setting and is closely supervised by CART Program Coordinator, Maryellen Smolka. CSI’s CART service is so ahead of the curve, in fact, that the Center for Student Accessibility is working on creating a certificate program that other universities will use to train their CART providers.

Cruz Cullari credits the Division of Student Affairs as well as the Division of Technology Systems with providing equipment such as laptops and the essential speech-to-text software as well as a space to train the CART providers. “It was because of the hard work of many people that the three of us (Cruz Cullari, Smolka, and Dory) were able to come together and create a highly effective and affordable system,” said Cruz Cullari.

The fact that the program was designed to help students who are hard-of-hearing participate in classroom discussions was not lost on the award recipients as they discussed CSI undergrad Antoinette Noah. Smolka refers to Noah as the “poster child” for Remote CART. Before the program was designed for CSI students, Noah, who is hard-of-hearing, “just sat in a classroom to be marked present and just read the textbook at home,” Smolka recounted. Once the CART program was implemented by CSI, Noah took to the program quickly and now claims that she “never knew what I was missing.”

The Center for Student Accessibility has enabled many students like Noah, who would otherwise be unable to take advantage of the education being afforded to them by CSI, to fully participate in the classroom environment and take back control of their learning experiences.

More information about CART is available online.