December 2021

In this Issue:

- Eyeglasses for All at MxCC
NAACP Names CCSU Leadership Among 100 Most Influential Blacks in Connecticut


Eyeglasses for All at MxCC

Aarlan Aceto, MxCC’s program coordinator and associate professor of Ophthalmic Design and Dispensing (last row, second from right); MxCC Professor Emeritus Ray Dennis (front row, right); and students assisted at the Native Eyes 2021 clinic to provide free eye care and eyeglasses to tribal members in southeastern Connecticut.
MxCC students run the Vision Center eye clinic and get hands-on experience as they fit eyewear and turn prescription lenses into eyeglasses.

When Artists for World Peace hosted the Native Eyes 2021 clinic to provide free eye care and eyeglasses to tribal members in Mashantucket, Conn., Middlesex Community College’s (MxCC) Aarlan Aceto and his students were there to help.

In October, Aceto, MxCC’s program coordinator and associate professor of Ophthalmic Design and Dispensing (OD&D), and his students worked with MxCC Professor Emeritus Ray Dennis at the clinic.  Native Eyes is a signature program of the Middletown based nonprofit organization Artists for World Peace, which provides free eye exams, prescription lenses and free eyeglasses to underserved populations, especially Native Americans. 

Aceto said that many people around the world don’t have regular access to an eye doctor’s office, so service missions provide students with a hands-on experience that helps fulfill a critical community need. These missions complement MxCC’s two-year OD&D associate degree program that prepares students for work as nationally certified and Connecticut state licensed opticians.

“This work makes a positive impact on people we serve who would otherwise not have access to eye care and prescription eyeglasses,” Aceto said.

At Native Eyes 2021, the MxCC group helped provide eyecare services to more than 150 members of the Eastern Pequot, Mashantucket Pequot, Narragansett and Nipmuc tribal nations in southeastern Connecticut and Rhode Island.

Dennis, the founding coordinator of MxCC’s OD&D program until his retirement from MxCC with 30 years of service, was the medical lead for this service project. In years past, he has worked with Artists for World Peace to bring eyecare to people in Tanzania, South Dakota, and southeastern Connecticut, and with numerous other non-profit groups to volunteer on missions in Peru, Ecuador, Costa Rica, and Haiti.
In 2019, Aceto and Dennis — along with students and faculty — traveled to the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota where they helped provide eyecare to about 1,200 members of the Lakota Sioux nation. Next June, the group plans to travel to South Dakota with two to four students, and they hope to announce more local service missions in the near future.

These service missions, said Aceto, are collaborative efforts. “Partners provide ophthalmologists and optometrists, and we supply the faculty and students to supplement and work with them as an eye care group,” said Aceto.

Aceto said his students also make a local impact with the student run Vision Center eye clinic located in the lower level of Chapman Hall on the campus of the MxCC campus. There, students serve faculty, staff, and the public who have an eyeglass or contact lens prescription from an ophthalmologist or optometrist. 
Students get a hands-on experience as they run the clinic, learn business skills, fit eyewear, and turn prescription lenses into eyeglasses with high-tech equipment. Eyeglasses and contact lenses are available for purchase and the clinic is open by appointment. The center also offers free adjustments, cleanings, and reasonable pricing on repairs. 

“We don’t offer eye exams at our optical clinic currently, but once you have a valid prescription, you can look through our selection and be fitted with eyeglasses or contact lenses to fit your needs,” said Aceto. “It’s a real-world, hands-on clinic with real patients and real prescription devices provided by our students and overseen by experienced faculty.”

Aceto said that MxCC Is the only public college in the state and only CSCU college that trains people to become licensed opticians, and one of only two nationally accredited programs by the Commission on Opticianry Accreditation in New England.  

Students do very well on licensure exams, he said, pointing to the fact that 100 percent of the program’s graduates from the 2020 class passed the rigorous Connecticut licensing requirements to practice in the state as licensed healthcare professionals.  

“It is the longest running opticianry program in Connecticut, running more than 30 years,” said Aceto. “Full-time faculty are graduates of the program. They get the experience and want to come back and contribute to the program.”   

Students who graduate from MxCC’s two-year program and become licensed opticians in Connecticut, can earn an average annual salary of $55,000 after successful licensure according to the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the program historically has a job placement rate upon graduation of 100 percent due the current demand for opticians.  

The program did feel the effects of the COVID pandemic in early 2020 with a short-term decline in enrollment and increased attrition, but due to outreach efforts by program faculty, including Assistant Professor Bryan Goh, and the increased efforts of MxCC’s Enrollment Services, opticianry program enrollment has increased by over 50 percent for the class of 2023.  

“We have more requests on a daily, weekly and monthly basis for help wanted in different areas than we can fill,” Aceto said. “There is higher demand than we have supply of students.”

“A key goal of our program is to increase the opportunity for our students, and we transitioned our fully on-campus model to a partially online, or hybrid delivery, which has allowed for more flexibility for our prospective students.”, said Aceto.  “This has allowed a significantly higher level of flexibility for students, especially those with current employment or other obligations, while still maintaining a very robust and rigorous clinical program.”

Aceto has always been interested in eyecare, including opticianry and optometry, and is currently president of National Federation of Opticianry Schools that helps existing and new schools with opticianry education. He is also active in numerous state and national groups related to eyecare, including the Connecticut Association of Optometrists, the Society of Connecticut Opticians, the American Optometry Association and the Opticians Association of America.

Aceto is a 1995 graduate of the OD&D program and studied under Professor Emeritus Dennis. He then worked in the industry and graduated magna cum laude from the University of Connecticut. He earned his Doctor of Optometry degree from the New England College of Optometry in Boston and served as externship director and assistant professor for optometry programs at MCPHS University and Midwestern University Chicago College of Optometry. But when Dennis retired from MxCC, Aceto jumped at the opportunity to fill his shoes and never looked back.

Now, he hopes that with external funding, the MxCC Vision Center could expand services with more facilities, equipment, and an adjunct faculty member on staff, as prescription eyeglasses, sunglasses and specially designed computer eyeglasses are the rage.

But most importantly, the OD&D program is there to nurture students in a burgeoning field with opportunities ranging from working as opticians in a private or corporate setting to becoming industry sales reps or teachers.

“There’s no limit to what a student can do, and it’s a great health care field to get into,” Aceto said. “It’s an opportunity to get students into a blossoming industry and give them the tools, knowledge and background to be immediately be valuable to a practice.”

NAACP Names CCSU Leadership Among
100 Most Influential Blacks in Connecticut

The Connecticut Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in October named several leaders throughout the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities (CSCU) system as being among the 100 Most Influential Blacks in the State of Connecticut. They were celebrated as “renowned influencers and trailblazers who often go unrecognized for their exceptional work in the community,” and honored at an awards ceremony at Foxwoods Casino.

Those recognized were Dr. Jane Gates, CSCU Provost and Senior Vice President Academic and Student Affairs; Dr. Thomas Coley, Shoreline-West Regional President; Dr. William Terry Brown, CEO, Gateway Community College (GCC); Cheryl C. De Vonish, J.D., CEO, Norwalk Community College (NCC); Dr. G. Duncan Harris, CEO, Capital Community College (CCC); and Dr. Dwayne Smith, CEO, Housatonic Community College (HCC).

Dr. Jane Gates
Provost and Senior Vice President Academic and Student Affairs 
Connecticut State Colleges and Universities
Dr. Gates served as CSCU Provost and Senior Vice President Academic and Student Affairs since 2016 until her retirement in December 2021. In 2020, she was appointed the system’s interim president, where she continued her duties as provost. Dr. Gates began her career in the CSCU system in 2011 as provost and vice president for Academic Affairs at Western Connecticut State University. She was previously dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences and professor of political science at Savannah State University and interim vice president for Academic Affairs. Dr. Gates was interim associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Arkansas State University and served as chair of the Department of Political Sciences.

“Being named one of the 100 most influential blacks in Connecticut was a distinct honor because of the intersectionality of the mission and vision of the NAACP with accessible quality education and innovation,” said Dr. Gates. “Although founded in 1909, the NAACP remains relevant in addressing racial and social justice, inclusive economy, environmental and climate justice, and health and wellness disparity.”
Dr. Thomas Coley
President, Shoreline-West
Dr. Thomas Coley became president of Shoreline-West — which consists of Gateway, Housatonic, and Norwalk Community Colleges — in 2019. He was previously chancellor of the South Bend-Elkhart campus of Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana and has more than 30 years of educational and administrative experience.  Over the past two years, Dr. Coley and Shoreline West CEOs De Vonish, Brown and Smith worked tirelessly to assure continuity of access and equity during the pandemic, rallying faculty, staff and community partners to assure that students continued to receive the instruction and support required as their institutions managed the intricacies of online learning to overcome the digital divide.

“I am grateful to the NAACP for this recognition,” said Dr. Coley. “One of the most important aspects of our work as academic leaders is to assure that students have access to the education that we promise.

Dr. William T. Brown
CEO, Gateway Community College 

Dr. Brown was appointed Chief Executive Officer of Gateway Community College in 2020 and serves with a keen focus on ushering Gateway Community College into a new era as Connecticut State Community College’s largest campus. His commitment to equity, integrity and inclusiveness defines his leadership and contributes to the institution’s success as a leader in workforce development and fundamental higher education.  He also served in various administrative roles at Housatonic, Norwalk, and Naugatuck Valley Community Colleges, and was vice president for Academic and Student Affairs at Nashville State Community College and special assistant to the president for Strategic Initiatives.     

“I am honored and grateful to be recognized by the Connecticut NAACP,” said Dr. Brown. “I am also grateful to the GCC faculty, staff, and our Foundation Board, who work tirelessly to support our students and break down the barriers that may prevent them from realizing their goals.”  

Cheryl De Vonish, JD
CEO, Norwalk Community College

Before her appointment as CEO of Norwalk Community College, Cheryl De Vonish she served as chief operating officer, which included the portfolio of dean of Administration and director of Human Resources. She was also the college’s Chief Diversity & Equity Officer, and special advisor to the president. DeVonish is committed to issues of equity, social justice, and partnership with community organizations to advance diversity and inclusion at NCC. She has partnered with CT Students for a Dream to promote the Unafraid Educators initiative and worked with the Fairfield County’s Community Foundation Fund for Women and Girls to support the launch of NCC’s Sister Circle initiative. She served as a volunteer attorney for the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center and serves on the Board of Directors for Family & Children’s Agency and the Greater Norwalk Chamber of Commerce.

“It’s an honor to be recognized among this year’s NAACP Honorees,” said De Vonish. “For over 100 years, the NAACP’s mission to ensure educational and political equality, and remove the barriers of racial discrimination through the democratic process, has been at the core of each civil rights milestone. I am grateful to the Connecticut NAACP for acknowledging my work, and for advancing the mission of achieving equity for all.”

Dr. G. Duncan Harris
CEO, Capital Community College

Dr. G. Duncan Harris, CEO of Capital Community College, was previously dean of Student Affairs at Manchester Community College where he also served as acting dean of academic affairs, associate dean of Academic Affairs, counselor/coordinator of Academic Advising, and interim director of the Center for Student Development. He is recognized as an expert in student affairs and served as a NECHE evaluator. In 2014, he launched the CSCU Student Success Center as the founding executive director. Dr. Harris is affiliated with several state and national organizations and serves on the board of the National Council on Black American Affairs, FoodShare, Windsor Federal Savings Bank, Community Health Resources, and the BSL Education Foundation.

“My father was very involved in the NAACP in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s and I grew up in a NAACP household, so this award means a lot to me.  I am uniquely aware of the legacy of the work of this organization and the role it has played, and continues to play, in American society.  When I shared I was receiving the award with my father, who is now 88, he was extremely proud that I was keeping our familial connection to the NAACP alive and well. I’m truly honored and humbled by the recognition.”

Dr. Dwayne Smith
CEO, Housatonic Community College

Since his appointment as CEO of Housatonic Community College in 2020, Dr. Smith’s focus on equity and student success has resulted in several initiatives designed to help students from under-represented communities to persist and achieve successful outcomes. `In the spring of 2020, The Equity Project was founded in partnership with the HCC Foundation and seeded with a substantial donation from Dr. Smith himself. Dr. Smith also started the HCC Cares initiative that encourages faculty, staff, and students to donate their time in the community. He previously served as interim president of Harris-Stowe State University in St. Louis.

“I am honored to be named among the NAACP’s roster of Most Influential Blacks in Connecticut and align my own work with their mission to eradicate inequity for people of color,” said Dr. Smith. “My greatest satisfaction, however, is knowing that we are making a difference one scholar at a time.”

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