Jessica Gagnon ’20, HDFS Alumni Spotlight, February 2024

Jessica Gagnon, HDFS Alumni Spotlight, Feb 2024Jess Gagnon graduated from UConn in 2020 with a B.A. double major in HDFS and Psychology. While studying at UConn, Jess was involved with grassroots organizing through UConn Public Interest Research Group (UConnPIRG) and worked with first year students through the Honors office. Although initially unsure of her career path, Jess was inspired by the introductory HDFS class she took as a first-year student that introduced her to the broad range of possibilities within the helping professions.

Through HDFS, Jess gained an incredibly valuable foundation in human development that prepared her for a career in social work. During her senior year, Jess used her HDFS Honors thesis to conduct interviews with activists at UConn, eventually focusing on the diverse pathways that lead people to volunteer their time to causes that matter to them, as well as the factors that can so often to burnout.

After graduating from UConn in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Jess moved to Boston to pursue her Master of Social Work from Boston College. She interned with Project Place, where she worked as a case manager with clients in South Boston who were facing homelessness, addiction, and mental illness during the pandemic. This experience, combined with her HDFS background, led Jess to focus the rest of her education on public health and healthcare.

When Jess graduated from Boston College, she was hired by her second-year internship placement, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, to rebuild an onsite volunteer program amid the pressures that the pandemic has placed on healthcare facilities.

Since starting her career at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Jess has had the privilege of developing and implementing programs with 100+ volunteers per week. Now a Licensed Certified Social Worker (LCSW), Jess is passionate about building impactful programs and welcoming communities where people can use their authentic selves to help others.
She works closely with healthcare professionals throughout the Institute to identify opportunities for volunteers to contribute to Dana-Farber’s mission of providing supportive, patient-centered care to people with cancer and their families. Jess credits her time at UConn with helping her develop the knowledge and drive to build a career in healthcare.

Michael Munoz (’01), HDFS Alumni Spotlight, January 2024

Michael Munoz ('01)Michael knew at a young age he wanted to work to create greater access and opportunity to corporate America for individuals from underrepresented groups. Through his previous work with the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) of Connecticut and their various Diversity and Inclusion training programs, Michael saw the importance of creating spaces of belonging and inclusion for all. While at UConn, Michael was able to engage in classes that taught the sociological and anthropological components of Human Development in underrepresented communities that became the backbone of his career in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

While at UConn, Michael was active with UConn Hillel, the ADL, and the Puerto Rican and Latin American Cultural Center. In his senior year, Michael secured an internship in Diversity & Inclusion at the Phoenix Wealth Management Company in Hartford. Upon graduating from UConn in 2001 with a bachelor’s degree in HDFS, Michael was able to leverage his degree and his internship at the Phoenix to land a job as a Diversity & Inclusion Coordinator at ESPN where he helped to build ESPN’s D&I programs from the ground up. Michael helped launch various employee resource groups, ran the Women’s Leadership Development Program and various hiring, mentoring, and retention initiatives for the company.

Michael has maintained a focus on building greater inclusion and equitable systems within large companies like MassMutual, EY, and Aetna. Today, Michael leads Global DEI efforts for the Marketing organization at Google. Michael’s focus is to ensure leaders are held accountable for real change; Google Marketing builds a team that looks like its users and fosters belonging for all; and builds a body of work that challenges the status quo. Michael also holds an Executive Masters in Human Resource Management from Cornell (‘17) and serves on the Board of Directors for UConn Hillel and the ADCOLOR organization.

Waterbury HDFS students organize community outreach project

Laura Donorfio

Students in Laura Donorfio’s HDFS 4007W organized UConn Waterbury’s first “Career Closet” event on November 14th. Over 100 students attended the free event to pick out several articles of professional clothing for future interviews/careers. All clothing was donated by community partners.

Two HDFS alumni were involved and worked closely with the class: Heather Price (2016 graduate), Assistant Director of Academic Affairs at UConn Waterbury and Ali DeGirolamo (2020 graduate), Mayoral Aide for the city of Waterbury.

Lenette Azzi-Lessing, HDFS Alumni Spotlight, December 2023

Lenette Azzi-LessingAfter graduating in 1996 with a PhD in HDFS, Lenette Azzi-Lessing continued her leadership as Executive Director of Children’s Friend, a child-and-family-serving organization in Rhode Island. She and her team built a broad range of services to meet the needs of marginalized children and families, particularly those in poverty. During her time there they developed one of the nation’s first programs for child-welfare-involved families affected by parental substance use and Rhode Island’s first comprehensive family support center. Under Dr. Azzi-Lessing’s leadership, Children’s Friend also pioneered an organizational equity and inclusion initiative to support its antiracist, anti-oppressive approach to service delivery.

In 2007, Dr. Azzi-Lessing left agency work to accept a faculty position in the Master of Social Work (MSW) program at Wheelock College in Boston, where she became a tenured, full professor. She founded Wheelock’s Graduate Certificate Program in Early Childhood Mental Health and served as faculty leader of Wheelock’s partnership with the University of Fort Hare (UFH) in South Africa to promote the wellbeing of young children and their families. Her work with UFH included co-conducting a community assessment and co-developing a Graduate Certificate Program in Early Childhood Development and Family Support in the South African Context.

In 2018, Dr. Azzi-Lessing joined Boston University (BU) School of Social Work. She serves as department chair and coordinator of the school’s Specialization in Children, Youth, and Families. Building on her relationships with the South African early childhood development community, Dr. Azzi-Lessing initiated a partnership between BU and the Children’s Institute at the University of Cape Town, focused on preventing violence against young children in South Africa and other low-and-middle-income countries. This work engages experts from the Global South, including community members with lived experience, to identify effective violence-prevention strategies.

Dr. Azzi-Lessing is a Senior Fellow at the Child Welfare League of America and a founding member of its Research Equity Committee. She is the author of numerous publications, including the book, “Behind from the Start: How America’s War on the Poor is Harming Our Most Vulnerable Children.”

Dr. Azzi-Lessing notes that her learning at UConn School of Family Studies (now HDFS) was the ideal complement to her social work education, enabling her to leverage a deep understanding of child and family development in fighting the systemic inequities that threaten the life chances of millions of children in the U.S. and globally.

Sara K. Johnson, HDFS Alumni Spotlight, November 2023

Sara K. JohnsonSara K. Johnson received a Master’s in HDFS from UConn in 2008; in 2012 she received her Ph.D. in HDFS as well as a Graduate Certificate in College Instruction and a Certificate in Quantitative Research Methods. She was drawn to the program because of its individualized nature, reflected in the variety of experiences she had during her time at UConn. For instance, she served as the Editorial Assistant for the Journal of Primary Prevention (now the Journal of Prevention), a graduate research assistant at Center for Applied Research in Human Development, a teaching assistant for the HDFS Undergraduate Honors Program, and an instructor of record for several courses. For her dissertation research, she partnered with UConn’s Office of Community Outreach to conduct a study of how service-learning experiences might promote undergraduate students’ civic attitudes and identity development.

After graduating, Sara became a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute of Applied Research in Youth Development at Tufts University under the mentorship of Dr. Richard Lerner. She was promoted to Research Assistant Professor in 2013 and held that position until 2016, when she began a new position at Tufts as Assistant Professor in the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development. Sara received tenure and promotion to Associate Professor in July 2023. Since 2021, she has also served as the Director of Graduate Studies in her department, where she oversees both the Master’s and Doctoral Programs.

Sara’s research group is called the Development of Identity and Community Engagement (DICE) Lab. At DICE, she works with undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral level research assistants to continue pursuing the interests she developed while at UConn. As an applied developmental scientist and methodologist, her research emphasizes understanding how young people become involved in the world beyond themselves and how to research these processes in ways that promote equity and methodological rigor. Her substantive scholarship considers variation in how young people think about contribution and in what they do, and shows how different individual and contextual factors relate to these ideologies and actions. Sara’s methodological work includes developing new measurement techniques and illustrating how to identify subgroups of participants within a dataset. Finally, her work addresses the systemically unequal and inequitable contexts in which young people live by investigating how we can measure and promote young people’s involvement in equity-focused contribution.

Sara is an active member of several professional societies, including the International Society for Research on Identity (where she served as Conference Committee Chair from 2017 to 2021) and the Society for Research on Adolescence. She serves on the editorial boards of several journals (including the Journal of Research on Adolescence and the Journal of Youth and Adolescence), as a Statistical Consulting Editor for Child Development, and as Associate Editor of the Methods and Measures section of Applied Developmental Science.

Sara and her husband live in Somerville, Massachusetts. They are temporarily cat-less but plan to adopt two new feline family members soon. In their spare time, they enjoy reading on their porch, exploring the natural environment around their neighborhood, and traveling.

Blake Brandes, HDFS Alumni Spotlight, October 2023

Blake BrandesBlake Brandes graduated from UConn in 2016 with a B.A. in Human Development and Family Studies and a concentration in Early Childhood Development and Education. Upon completion of the early childhood program, supervised practicum, and student teaching placements in the UConn Child Labs, Blake earned the State of Connecticut Early Childhood Teacher Credential (ECTC) through the Office of Early Childhood.

During her time at UConn, Blake devoted 300 hours of service to local preschoolers through the Jumpstart program as an AmeriCorps Member. She also was involved with UConn Hillel, serving as the Vice President of Tzedek (Social Justice) in 2015. In addition, Blake was a student worker at the Child Labs after completing her student teaching practicum course.

After graduating from UConn, Blake began her career with a private child care program as a Lead Infant Teacher for one year, and then became a Preschool Teacher at Stony Brook University’s child care center, Stony Brook Child Care Services (SBCC), for two years. Her education and hands-on experiences from the HDFS and early childhood programs greatly influenced her teaching philosophy and prepared her to be an effective early childhood teacher. Blake completed her M.A. in Liberal Studies at Stony Brook University with specializations in Child Development and Leadership Studies in 2021.

During her time at SBCC, Blake developed an unexpected enthusiasm for mentoring young adults, as SBCC serves as a practicum site for an undergraduate psychology internship course at Stony Brook University. Blake assisted in leading a seminar course for the interns and supervised their placement hours in the classroom she co-led.

Blake’s new interest in mentoring young adults led her back to Jumpstart, the program that ignited her passion for early childhood care and education. She has been working with Jumpstart since January 2020 as the Site Manager at Southern Connecticut State University (SCSU). Jumpstart’s mission is to ensure every child enters kindergarten prepared to succeed, and specifically focuses their efforts to benefit children who come from underserved communities. In her role at Jumpstart, Blake recruits, trains, and coaches 35-40 SCSU students each year to implement high-quality supplemental curricula in preschool classrooms in the New Haven community. Her education and experiences in the HDFS and ECDE programs are still relevant and valuable in this work, as she is able to share her knowledge of child development and early education best practices with the college students she supervises and coaches in Jumpstart.

Blake lives with her boyfriend of 6 years, Dan, and their cat, Lexi, in Newington, Connecticut. Outside of work, she enjoys reality television, musical theater, and spending time with loved ones. She is extremely grateful for her undergraduate experience in the HDFS program and with the UConn Child Labs!

Jennifer Cecarelli, BS ’91, HDFS Alumni Spotlight, September 2023

Jennifer CecarelliJennifer Cecarelli graduated from UConn in 1991 with a BS in HDFR, and a concentration in Early Childhood Education and Development. As a passionate educator, Jennifer was excited about working with young learners and their families at the beginning of their educational journeys. After graduating from UConn, Jennifer began her career as a well-prepared early childhood educator (thanks to an amazing experience with the UConn Child Labs), while pursuing an MS and certification in Elementary Education at Southern Connecticut State University (SCSU). While working toward her MS, Jennifer was the Assistant Director of the Yale Law School Early Learning Center (YLSELC) in New Haven, and her thesis project was to lead the YLSELC through their inaugural NAEYC accreditation.

After receiving her MS from SCSU, Jennifer simultaneously began her elementary teaching career with the Middletown Public Schools and worked as an Early Childhood Education Consultant for over 20 childcare centers across Connecticut. As a consultant, Jennifer worked with early childhood programs on staff development, enhancing curricula and adult/child interactions, and providing workshops for families raising children. For the past 27 years Jennifer has worked as an elementary educator in the Middletown Public Schools, earned her National Board Certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS), and her Sixth Year Certificate from SCSU. Jennifer has also served the Middletown Public Schools as a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) coach, a TEAM Mentor for new teachers, and a cooperating teacher, fostering the development of many student teachers and interns in her classroom. Jennifer was recognized as the Connecticut PTA Elementary Educator of the Year in 2020.

Jennifer had the honor and privilege of serving her community as a member of the North Haven Board of Education from 2013-2022. Her experience as both an educator and a parent brought a unique perspective to the Board, as did her unwavering commitment to equity and inclusion in all areas of the educational experience.

In 2022, after an intensive year long program, Jennifer earned her Parent Coach Certification from the Parent Coaching Institute. Working with families raising children has been at the heart of Jennifer’s work since her time at UConn, and to date remains one of her greatest joys and privileges.

Jennifer credits her time in the UConn School of Family Studies with helping her to discover her lifelong passion and hone her skills so that she may always be of service to others as an educator, coach, and collaborator.

Jessica Dunn, HDFS Alumni Spotlight, August 2023

Jessica DunnJessica graduated Magna Cum Laude from UConn in 2012 with a B.A. double major in HDFS and Sociology. While studying at UConn, Jessica was involved in Community Outreach activities such as Habitat for Humanity, volunteering with the American Red Cross, serving as an active student member of the Office of Early College Programs Advisory Board, and a student employee in the UConn Early College Experience (ECE) Office. During high school, Jessica enrolled in a UConn HDFS course through the UConn ECE Program which sparked her interest in the field and provided her a head start on her degree. Not only did her experience through UConn ECE guide her to choose HDFS as a major, but it was also the foundation for her future and career in providing equitable access to higher education.

After graduating, Jessica was hired as the Registration Coordinator for UConn ECE where she developed and maintained student registration processes for over 11,000 students annually who were enrolled in UConn courses during high school. After 5 years in this role, Jessica was hired as the Assistant Director in the Office of Early College Programs and the Director of Student Enrichment for UConn ECE. Jessica continues to oversee student registration for the program and develops and implements engaging academic enrichment opportunities for high school students. Jessica is committed to promoting enrollment growth and accessibility through development of new academic opportunities and financial support to CT high schools and students in need. Jessica has presented at national conferences and to the Connecticut State Department of Education, as well as represented UConn ECE at regional conferences, high school forums, and educator workshops. Jessica is dedicated to the mission of providing access to, and preparation for, higher education. She attributes her drive and passion to her UConn HDFS background and the opportunities she was given with the UConn ECE Program.

Outside of her work at UConn, Jessica is a member of a Connecticut high school residential boarding program which serves a diverse population of teenagers from more than 17 states and 28 countries. Jessica is an on-campus dorm parent where she lives with her husband and three children. She is fortunate to be able to work with high school students in multiple capacities across her roles, and values providing direct care, support, mentorship, and most importantly an educational experience outside of the classroom to the students she lives with. Teaching students tolerance, the value of diversity, and interpersonal skills are included in the high school mission and align strongly with Jessica’s core values and goals in life.