‘The Sky’s the Limit’ at USJ Gala Celebrating Educators

From left: USJ Board Chair Brewster Perkins, Connecticut Education Commissioner Charlene Russell-Tucker, U.S. Secretary of Education Dr. Miguel Cardona, USJ President Rhona Free, Commissioner for the Connecticut Office of Early Childhood Beth Bye, and Dennis House of WTNH-News 8. Courtesy photo

West Hartford’s University of Saint Joseph held its annual gala on June 2, with the U.S. Secretary of Education as guest of honor.

Dr. Miguel Cardona, U.S. Secretary of Education, speaks the USJ gala. Courtesy photo


The University of Saint Joseph welcomed Connecticut’s own Dr. Miguel Cardona, U.S. Secretary of Education as guest of honor at “Imagine…The Sky’s the Limit” Gala celebrating educators at the Connecticut Convention Center on June 2.

More than 400 USJ supporters were on hand at the annual gala which raised approximately $250,000 for USJ students pursuing teacher licensure and for upgraded educational technology.

And the evening was indeed all about the educators.

This was the first gala ever for USJ graduate Noreaga Davis ‘22.

Davis, who teaches sixth grade math and science at Park City Magnet School in Bridgeport, was one of 150 educators being celebrated at the event.

As a University of Saint Joseph freshman, Davis played basketball for the Blue Jays, but stepped away from the court in 2019 to concentrate on academics and his dream of becoming a teacher. He was one of the first full-time, four-year male students to graduate from USJ.

“I feel honored to be here tonight,” said Davis, who was looking forward to hearing Secretary Cardona address the crowd. “I have some big dreams and aspirations, so being in a room with someone like him inspires me and makes me strive for more because that’s where I see myself down the road. If I could talk to him, I’d like to pick his brain. I’m a sponge and I think that is what you need to be to absorb as much in life as possible.”

This was also the first University of Saint Joseph gala for Michelle Rodriquez, M’15. One of the finalists for 2023 Connecticut Teacher of the Year, Rodriguez spent time with fellow finalists Lisa Abel, a teacher at Simsbury High School, John Allen a teacher at Putnam Elementary School, and Connecticut Teacher of the Year Carolyn Kielma.

“[The gala] is a great opportunity to get dressed up, hang out with friends and support a wonderful university which is a staple of our university system, especially for the teaching program here in Connecticut,” Rodriguez said.

“It’s an amazing honor to be recognized and to be celebrated,” added Kielma, a teacher at Bristol Eastern High School, who was also a finalist for 2023 National Teacher of the Year. “It’s really nice — in a climate that for teachers is very difficult right now — to take a moment to relax and honor educators and the hard work that we do. As the school year comes to a close, it is a perfect time to say, ‘Kudos’ to our colleagues for working so hard.”

Shakira Perez ‘00, M’08, 2020 Hartford Teacher of the Year received both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education from University of Saint Joseph. Perez reminisced about her time as a student at USJ as she took in the celebratory atmosphere of the gala.

“I was thinking about my experience not long ago and just thinking about how well prepared I was to go into the teaching field and about the women that taught me,” Perez said. “I remember their classes and I remember their passion for their subjects. That really stayed with me. I carry it with me in my own classroom. So, it’s very exciting to be here; I feel like I’ve come full circle.”

Teachers, faculty, staff and trustees as well as community supporters spent the early part of the gala socializing and browsing the evening’s silent auction, with items ranging from children’s toys to electronics; jewelry to golf outings; and several trips to tropical destinations like Antiqua, Barbados, and Panama.

Dennis House of WTNH-News 8, a USJ visiting fellow in digital media, served as Master of Ceremonies for the dinner and program.

“Teachers are essential!” House said. “They set us on the right path, and they see us to the finish line. So, let’s do all we can to support the next generation of teachers!”

After a blessing offered by Sister Mary Alice Synkewecz, M’85, a USJ Trustee, gala co-chairs and USJ Trustees Dr. John Rodis and Joe Spalluto revved up the crowd to invest in the future of educators.

“Let me share a couple of quick points on how [USJ] is making a difference,” Rodis said. “Each year, we graduate about 100 new teachers. Did you know that student teachers have to pay for fingerprinting, certification fees, assessment tests and licensing exams? This is in addition to their tuition. Fortunately, USJ undergrads receive an average of more than $25,000 per year in financial aid – and those dollars come from all of us.

“Each year, USJ has about 200 students pursuing their master’s degree in education, adding experience and depth in classrooms across the state. Our student teaching program focuses on working with high-need districts and building partnerships where we can have the greatest impact.”

Rodis finished by sharing the cost of upgrading the technology in a USJ classroom – $7,500.

“Our goal right now is to take care of three classrooms – and add some support for scholarships,” Rodis said.

Spalluto began his remarks with a few statistics.

“This January in Connecticut, the state reported a shortage of 1,200 teachers – with 200 vacancies in Hartford alone,” he said. “St. Joe’s has been preparing teachers for the past 90 years and we have the capacity to respond to this need. But it costs real money to become a teacher and our students need help.”

As supporters pledged generous donations of $500, $1,000, and $5,000, Spalluto announced that an anonymous individual had pledged $100,000 to create “the Golden Dome Endowed Teaching Scholarship” in Education.

After that announcement, President Rhona Free took the stage to welcome the guests and to thank University of Saint Joseph supporters.

“Since our founding in 1932, USJ has been preparing teachers who exemplify the highest professional standards, and approach education with compassion,” President Free said. “So, it is fitting that this year, in recognition of our 90th Anniversary, we are celebrating our roots and building on our tradition of innovation.

President Free announced several innovative new programs that USJ will be offering this fall, including a BA in Child Study with a Concentration in Inclusive Early Childhood Education; a Certificate of Advanced Graduate Study in Dyslexia and Reading Disabilities; and a Master’s in Education with a Concentration in Personalized Professional Pathways.

A highlight of the evening was President Free’s recognition of USJ Board Chair Brewster Perkins, who after serving on the board since 2008, and as chair since 2020, will be retiring from the board in July.

“As my tenure on the Board comes to a close, I want to say how honored I am to have served USJ,” Perkins said. “I know that there are many great chapters still to be written about USJ, and I can’t wait to see the story unfold.”

Perkins praised Free for her dedication to USJ and announced that she has agreed to another three-year contract in her role as University president.

“For eight years Rhona has led USJ through monumental challenges and great opportunities. Her direction assured that we emerged from the COVID pandemic on solid financial footing, and with a strategic plan that will assure another 90 years of providing education to those who are committed to meeting the needs of society.”

Charlene Russell-Tucker ‘85, commissioner of Connecticut’s Department of Education, a graduate of University of Saint Joseph and a past member of USJ’s Women’s Leadership Center Steering Council, was on hand to celebrate her fellow educators.

“Tonight, we gather to celebrate the transformative power of education and to recognize the unwavering dedication of those who have the spark, inkling or idea to become a teacher and those who help to fan the flame for those who want to work in this noble profession every single day,” Russell-Tucker said.

Four hours before arriving in Hartford, Secretary Miguel Cardona had been at a school safety event in Virginia with Vice President Kamala Harris. He made it just in time to address the gala and to celebrate USJ and its educators.

“The last time I was here, I had the chance to engage with teachers on campus and let me tell you, that was food for my soul,” Secretary Cardona said. “I’ve been told there are around 150 teachers in this room. Tonight, I want to celebrate you.”

With his local ties and noted background in education, it was befitting that Secretary Cardona should serve as the gala’s guest speaker.

Born in Meriden, CT, Cardona received his doctor of education from the University of Connecticut. He was the youngest principal in the state’s history while at Hanover Elementary School in Hamden, CT, and was appointed Connecticut Commissioner of Education in 2019.  Dr. Cardona was sworn in as the 12th U.S. Secretary of Education on March 2, 2021.

In his remarks Secretary Cardona addressed the nation’s teacher shortage issue, calling it a “symptom of a teacher respect issue in our country.”

“So many teachers are feeling unrecognized, underplayed, underappreciated and unsupported. That has to change,” he said. “We need to keep our collective foot on the gas pedal to evolve teacher preparation while keeping quality high, like you do at the University of Saint Joseph.”

Secretary Cardona stated the need to “Double down on what I call the ‘ABC’s of teaching:’ to provide teachers with more agency, better working conditions and competitive salaries.” Besides fighting for more federal funding for teachers, he said that it is just as important to promote the importance of the teaching profession.

“Name another profession that could take a shy, English-learner who lived below the threshold of poverty and turn him into Secretary of Education to the President of the United States of America!”

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