It Says Love

August 24, 2010 by Dan Morrell  
Filed under Features

From a sketch on a napkin to a retail shop in Quincy

On a mild summer morning in South Boston, a group of 12- to 14-year-old boys pours into the steel-and-glass EpiCenter building, shouting over the snaps of a snare drum and the dull boom of bass coming from a DJ booth. They are here for the Beantown Breakdown, a hip-hop convention of sorts in South Boston highlighted by a breakdancing competition. “Yo, these shirts are hype,” says one of the boys, approaching a vendor table covered in rainbow stacks of t-shirts and staffed by Jonathan Mendez, BA ’08, and his sister Olivia Chamberland, BS ’99, MS ’01, CAGS ’02, collectively known as Zamforia Industries.

Behind the table, Zamforia’s full wares are displayed-a radiant collection of their signature t-shirts featuring designs built around the word love spelled out in different languages. There’s a bright, fire-engine-red number with an antique white eagle spreading its wings and sporting a crown-an adaptation of Poland’s coat of arms-beneath the Polish miłość. An electric collage of red, green, and gold surrounds bold, blocky Amharic lettering on Zamforia’s Ethiopian shirt. A light tan shirt with fine green stitching spells out gra in Celtic green, spread from the heart to the left shoulder over a bed of hops and wheat.

Each of the boys takes a cartoonish yellow-and-red ZAM! sticker from a stack on the table. One of them peels off the back of the sticker and carefully places it on his backpack, pressing it neatly down to iron out the bubbles. Another affixes it to his pantleg. Others follow suit. Suddenly, there is a small army walking through the Beantown Breakdown marketing Zamforia. Neither Olivia nor Jonathan asked them to do it-it just came about naturally. Which is exactly the way Zamforia would have it. They understand that sometimes, the more you push, the more the market shuts down. “It’s not just what we’re selling here,” says Jonathan, reaching up to clothespin a few more shirts to the rack behind the table. “It’s how we are selling it.”

Zam stickers spotted around Boston and beyond:

Tomorrow, Zamforia will travel to the SoWa (south of Washington) market in Boston’s South End, an upper-middle class neighborhood of upscale brownstones. The crowds at each event, understandably, differ greatly, and creating a piece of clothing that appeals to both high school hip-hoppers in Southie and professionals in the South End would seem impossible. But Zamforia’s shirts allow everyone who sees them to find something different. It may be cultural pride for some. Or the eye-catching designs, with their hidden messages and meanings. Or maybe, like love itself, the shirts’ appeal is universal, as Jonathan likes to say.

Looking back on it now, his current role as the creative mind behind Zamforia makes sense to Jonathan. He spent his childhood days creating, occupying full days building worlds from Legos and K’NEX. In high school, his interest in architecture resulted in a small scholarship for a project that included sketching and planning a new house using his current home’s foundation. As an undergraduate at Suffolk, his friends were a creative group, and when he, too, began sketching and drawing, he’d often receive compliments on his work.

But for all of Jonathan’s creative abilities, Zamforia began with a drawing by Olivia. In late 2004, at a mandatory team-building seminar she attended for her job as a social worker for the state Department of Social Services, she went off on her own for one of the exercises, charged with drawing a picture. “It was supposed to be anything that made you feel happy, loved, safe-something that just made you feel good,” says Olivia, who now works as a personal trainer. She sketched a picture of her mother’s living room, a fire in the fireplace and her brothers Jonathan and Alex playing guitar. It was an admittedly simple drawing. But she sent copies to her brothers, accompanied by a brief explanation of how much she loved them.

Looking to return the favor, Jonathan, then a cash-strapped freshman at Suffolk, took the picture and redrew it as a Christmas present. Olivia was floored by the result. “It was amazing,” says Olivia. “Now it wasn’t a stick figure sketch anymore. It was colors, and designs, and decorations.” Jonathan had also surrounded the living room scene by the word love written in different languages. She blew it up to poster-size and hung it on her wall in a frame. At her apartment, Olivia showed her brother the poster. “Jonathan, these are amazing,” she told him. “I want you to make a logo because we’re going to make t-shirts that say love on them in different languages.”

MA: Boston,SOWA,Zamphoria MA: Boston,SOWA,Zamphoria MA: Boston,SOWA,Zamphoria MA: Boston,SOWA,Zamphoria

The first version of the concept the duo produced was an olive shirt that spelled out love in Tibetan in yellow. To make sure they got the language and the feeling right, they visited a Tibetan restaurant in Cambridge one night in early 2005, camera and questions ready. They first approached the hostess, who called in the chef for help. The chef arrived, apron covered in food, to weigh in. Books were produced, and then a dictionary. Eventually six members of the restaurant staff joined in the discussion. Jonathan and Olivia walked away with notes on napkins, and pictures of pages from Tibetan dictionaries, confident that they had their first shirt.

For the first few years, there were just two: the one with love in Tibetan and one with the logo-the word love written as an ambigram, which reads the same way when turned upside down. While Jonathan spent a year studying in Spain, Olivia made displays for the shirts and carried them around to local holiday markets and high school fundraisers. “I figured I’d make a few shirts, just to make my sister happy,” says Jonathan. “But then she started really selling them.”

By 2007, the end of Jonathan’s junior year at Suffolk, he started taking the t-shirt business more seriously. He would stay in on Friday nights and work on designs for entire weekends at a time. “I’d wake up and all I would think about was the company.”

His breakthrough came after he designed the Polish version-the bright red shirt with the eagle-after heavy encouragement from Polish members of his family. “From afar, it is simple,” says Jonathan. “But when you look at it closely, it is completely abstract. These certain awkward shapes somehow make an eagle.” The shirts, Jonathan realized, could have more than one dimension. “That was the first time that I realized that the best way of doing this is to have very simple things [on the shirts], but within that simple thing, making it complicated and deep,” says Jonathan. “Just like love-simple and fun yet complicated and deep.”

Subsequent shirts offer subtle messages and hidden treasures-nods to narratives, to friends, to Boston. The shirts became more personal and more intricate as histories, cultures, and memories were woven throughout the designs.

CAS'09-1975 MA: Boston,SOWA,Zamphoria MA: Boston,SOWA,Zamphoria CAS'09-1937

On the Ethiopian shirt, a unicorn and lion-taken from the façade of Boston’s old state house-sit above the Amharic letters. The lion connects the shirt to both the city and Rastafarian culture, which reveres the lion as a symbol of former Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie, who is believed to be God incarnate. In between them, a small scroll reads “I and I,” a reference to the Rastafarian belief that God lives within everyone. The Irish shirt contains not only a hidden dedication to a deceased childhood friend but also references to Cross, Anthony, and Orange Streets-an intersection that was at the center of the old Five Points neighborhood in Manhattan in the mid-1800s, populated by a great number of poor Irish immigrants and made famous by the film Gangs of New York. There’s also a personal hidden message that appears above the crown held by two claddagh hands-icons borrowed from the ring of the same name that represent love and friendship. It reads, “BE EC,” which Jonathan says stands for “Be Eric Clapton.” It’s a note to his young cousin Zach, whom Jonathan encourages to chase his dream of becoming a legendary guitar player.

The designs have become stories, with layers of meaning and depth. People taken in by the lush colors and eye-catching designs are then invited to see the second side. “Once you dig deep enough into it,” says Jonathan, “a whole other level pops up.”

Bostonians who haven’t seen the shirts may have seen the “ZAM!” stickers. Fans of the company have affixed them everywhere from light poles on Massachusetts Avenue to street signs in Chicago. The word is out, allowing Jonathan to bask in a bit of celebrity. “It’s kind of cool when you hand somebody a sticker, and they say, ‘Oh that’s you?'” he says. As Zamforia grows into a more serious operation, there are more questions to answer. “We’re putting money into it, we’re doing well, people love the product. Now how are we going to maintain that?” says Olivia. The goal, she says, is to go nationwide. Who knows? Maybe even international.
But the next step is a tricky one, as expansion can be a blessing and a curse. The ethos of cool requires a very fine balance of sales and singularity, which means not just selling their inventory to the first place that cuts a check for a box of shirts.

CAS'09-1999 Zamforia store CAS'09-2019 CAS'09-1965

In October, 2009, four years after it all began, Zamforia opened a store at 188 Sea Street in Quincy, Massachusetts. “We have a command center,” says Jonathan. There is a lottery-winning kind of excitement in his voice as he ticks off all the wish list items that can now be fulfilled: “We have a shop, an office space, a studio for me, and storage.” He anticipates a Cheers-type atmosphere: “You know, where everyone knows your name.” A big, beautiful sign in the window reads: “Zamforia Industries-Home of the ‘It Says Love’ Shirts.” The new retail shop also coincides with a redesign of their web site,

Though he has the natural self-assurance of a seasoned merchant, Jonathan says his plan for Zamforia is still in its early stages. “The way I look at it, we’re just a year into this thing,” he says. “We’re only at the beginning of what we really want to do.”

The grand plan includes the tentatively titled Zamfest, an annual music festival featuring local artists performing in the spirit of Zamforia. Jonathan believes that eventually Zamforia could become not only a business, but also an organization that gives back. Maybe someday, there could be “Zamforia campers” sent to other countries to learn about other cultures and become global citizens, he says.
But all of that is years away. “Right now,” says Jonathan, “We have to sell t-shirts.”

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Urban Activist

August 23, 2010 by Dan Morrell  
Filed under Features

“A number of Midwestern communities suffer from population outmigration, declining tax revenues, and job loss. These problems have been exacerbated by an economic downturn that has resulted in massive foreclosures, blight, and the inability of cities to provide basic services. Cities like Cleveland, Ohio, as well as Flint and Detroit, Michigan, have adopted innovative strategies to address these challenges, including the extraordinary step of planned city shrinkage: residents are provided incentives to move from sparsely populated areas to denser neighborhoods, city services are no longer provided to the depopulated areas, and the land is held by a city land trust for future development.” –Assistant Professor of Government Teri Fair

The city of Flint, Michigan, is shrinking itself. Once one of the great production hubs of General Motors, with 80,000 locals working at the auto giant in the 1970s, today only about 8,000 Flint residents are employed at the struggling company. Flint has been hit particularly hard by the recent economic downturn; one-third of the city’s population lives in poverty, and more than one-quarter is unemployed. Some parts of the city are barely inhabited, which has led city officials to advocate shutting down abandoned sections and concentrating public services, such as police and fire patrols and garbage removal, on areas where people actually live.

Last spring, Assistant Professor of Government Teri Fair traveled to Flint to see the urban decline firsthand. As she drove around, all of the statistics and headlines became real. Just past City Hall, in a residential neighborhood five blocks long, every home was abandoned except one lone holdout. Many were boarded up; others were burned out. Old and weathered trash, dirty diapers, and ancient appliances covered the lawns. Even gang graffiti sprayed on the houses had faded, as if the gangs decided long ago that they had better places to be.

Three Houses in For Sale by Owner sign Flint, Michigan neighborhood Boarded up home Flint, Michigan neighborhood

Fair is researching how cities are dealing with the economic decline, and Flint provided her with one city’s answer. But it also raised new questions: What happens to the concept of community if neighborhoods disappear? How has the economic collapse affected voter turnout? What happens to political representation in a bankrupt city? How does a city with one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation get by with such reduced tax revenues?

“They’ve hit a bottom—if it’s the bottom, I don’t know,” says Fair. “But how did they get there? And what does this bottom look like? I want to look at the strategies they are trying in an effort to bounce back—and maybe be a part of the strategy at the same time.”

Answering these questions means collecting and analyzing a vast amount of information. It’s a massive, ambitious project—the kind of undertaking Fair’s colleagues and peers say she relishes. And the kind she has conquered throughout her career.

A political future revealed

Fair has seen community destruction like this before. Growing up in Dallas, Texas, her mother would pack Fair, her twin brother, and her older sister into the family’s bronze Ford Thunderbird to take a trip down to the South Dallas projects. “This is where your bad choices will lead you, right to these projects. And I’m not coming to visit you, because I don’t want to die,” her mother would say, gesturing to what Fair remembers as the toughest of the local public housing communities.

Her parents were strict, and the children grew up with restrictions on their entertainment. Fair didn’t have a telephone or a radio in her room and could only talk on the phone in the kitchen, where there was always an audience. The children were limited to an hour of television a week, although PBS and the news didn’t count, a rule which Fair credits for her early interest in politics.

Teri Fair, left, and Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA)

Both of Fair’s parents spent their early years working in the fields of Texas picking cotton, her father later making a career in the Navy. They worked tirelessly to support their family and wanted to make sure their daughter appreciated what she had. Life is about choices, her mother would tell her, and sometimes there are choices you just can’t undo: “I believe you’re going to be somebody. I’m investing in you right now. Don’t disappoint me.”

Fair knew a bad choice could be as simple as being in the wrong place at the wrong time. That mistake happened to a boy she knew growing up, costing him two years in jail. “That’s not going to be me,” she told herself. So she was careful and deliberate in her choices.

In 1993 Fair enrolled in Spelman College in Atlanta as a chemistry major, switching to English after two years. She took political science classes as a way to raise her GPA, and got hooked. During senior year, she interned for Robert Holmes, a longtime Georgia state representative and a professor at Clark Atlanta University, where she would go on to earn her master’s and doctorate degrees.

At the time, Georgia was developing a plan to deal with the new federal welfare reform policy, and Fair assisted Holmes’s office by tracking legislation, setting up public hearings on the new laws, and answering telephone calls from constituents personally affected by the legislation. “I felt like I really was a part of the dialogue and the discussion, even though it was just as his intern,” says Fair. “I would go on the floor and listen to how policy is impacting peoples’ lives,” she recalls. “It made policy real. It wasn’t just something that people talked about on television; it wasn’t something that I just read for my classes.” She began developing her own perspectives and formulating recommendations, and then decided to head to graduate school to put some credentials behind her ideas.

Active on campus at Clark Atlanta, Fair was impossible to ignore. Joseph P. Jones, a former classmate and current assistant professor at Johnson C. Smith University, remembers Fair cornering him in his first semester, telling him that one of the student organizations needed more men and that he was to show up for the next meeting. “It was quite striking,” says Jones with a laugh. Fair kept after Jones, and today he considers her a mentor and a big sister. “She’s very highly respected,” says Jones. “And very, very ambitious.”

William Boone, an assistant professor at Clark Atlanta and a longtime academic advisor to Fair, recalls her in similar terms, remembering how she preferred challenging research subjects. “She would choose topics that generally you wouldn’t think other folks would look at—especially if they were just trying to get their degree and move on,” says Boone. “That wasn’t her thing.” Boone recalls her master’s thesis—which looked at the influence of African-Americans and Latinos on Texas politics—as an example. “You could take an easier route on that same question of political involvement,” says Boone. “You could just take a look at African Americans and not worry about the conflicts between African Americans and Latinos. But she tackled it in a different way.”

Her energy at Clark Atlanta came from an epiphany. An early reading assignment in one of her very first classes was a speech given by famed political scientist Mack Jones that dealt with the responsibilities of a black political scientist. “I’ll never forget it,” says Fair. “There we were in the basement of a building that had been built by freed black slave labor, and I was in love.” The professor asked what the class thought of the piece, and Fair was ready with a response. “I said, ‘You know, people tell us what to think, and how to understand the world because they’re defining the concepts, they’re defining our reality.’ And I said, ‘This creates space for me to do that exact same thing. It gives me a charge. I’m not just creating or providing information simply just to provide information. I have a responsibility to give information that’s useful—not just to society as a whole but to a specific community that I dedicate myself to as a researcher, so that they can be empowered. And not just to exploit them for the day so I can get this journal article done, so I can get tenure. I have a larger responsibility.’”

She recalls her entire reply word-for-word, without a stumble or pause. And with that, Fair had an objective. Which for her, according to her academic peers, usually makes success a fait accompli. “Once the goal is established, she puts all her energy into it,” says Boone.

Empowering new civic leaders

On an early fall day in her One Beacon Street classroom, the mood in Teri Fair’s “Introduction to American Democracy” course is electric. Fair has divided the class into two groups, the federalists, who support a strong federal government, and the anti-federalists, who believe the states should have more power, and the two groups are recreating the debate over the Constitution and its merits. “Six years is way too long,” says one of the anti-federalists, referring to the length of a Senate term. When the federalists demand to know why, a member of the other team responds, “Because new ideas are what move things forward. Besides, you can lose touch with the people in six years.”

The argument ping-pongs back and forth for 30 minutes. The anti-federalists say the Constitution is vague. The federalists champion its ambiguity as a boon for future generations. The anti-federalists see a road to tyranny; the federalists point to the check of the judiciary. Students are raising their hands, straining to keep themselves from interrupting others. They argue with passion, and when they are through with their arguments, they smile and set down their pens with great satisfaction.

Teri Fair is beaming. It’s rare to see this kind of fervor in students, let alone everyone in the class. They are all engaged, prepared. Happy, even.

Suffolk University College of Arts and Science TeriFair Suffolk University College of Arts and Science 050309100days258

Such positive responses to Fair’s teaching are common. “Her class was one of the most highly rated,” says Alejandra St. Guillen, program manager of Initiative for Diversity in Civic Leadership (IDCL), a 16-week program designed to prepare people of color in Boston to run for office or seek political appointments. The program is a joint venture of Suffolk University, the voting rights group MassVOTE, and ¿Oíste?, the Latino civic education organization. Fair has worked with IDCL since its inception in 2007; she developed the curriculum and has taught the “Race and Public Policy” portion of the program. “We talk about race throughout the program, but her class on race and public policy really drives things home for people, and they see it as one of the highlights of the session,” says St. Guillen.

IDCL gained instant traction in the city. More than 300 people applied for just 30 open student slots in the first year, and the applicant pool represented a wide range of political ambitions and demographics. There were public policy wonks looking to run for office and community activists looking for political appointments. There were candidates as young as 18 and as old as 72. There were recently nationalized immigrants and those born and raised in the city. And there were those looking for a resume booster and those looking to make dramatic change in their neighborhoods. The program received financial backing from the Boston Foundation, one of the city’s most respected funders. Mayor Menino spoke at the launch. Governor Deval Patrick spoke at the graduation. And the graduates have reaped quick rewards, with inaugural IDCL graduate Tito Jackson placing fifth in a recent Boston City Council primary.

The cause is dear to Fair. “The incumbency advantage here in Boston is something that can’t be overlooked as a barrier to political representation,” she says. “We aren’t even seeing challengers in some cases.” Without challengers, incumbents don’t have to work as hard, a situation that Fair says hurts everyone. So while the stated goal—changing the face of politics in Boston—is an important one, Fair says the program has another positive consequence: “Even just facing a contested election will force an incumbent to reattach to his or her community. It only serves to help democracy.”

She teaches less for IDCL now than she did the first year, although she still works on assessing the program. But for the time being, the center of her focus has moved west.

Planned recovery, not shrinkage

If Fair is intimidated by the prospect of helping to raise Flint from the dead, her ambitions don’t show it.
It’s early still, but she has a plan. She has already met with some local organizations and wants to identify other effective groups, and then craft a strategy with them to make sure Flint doesn’t lose its sense of community. She is also drafting a grant proposal to create a program like the IDCL in Flint, working on the initiative with students from Wayne State University and the University of Michigan at Flint. “I want to help them become aware of the steps to community empowerment and how that can translate to some level of civic engagement and civic empowerment,” states Fair. “It’s important just to get some level of mobilization in a community that, right now, is in a position to be disengaged,  ignored, and seen as a problem in need of a solution.”

The work has an academic side, but Fair has an emotional stake in it. After all, the work is part of the larger responsibility that she realized in the basement that day at Clark Atlanta. “My heart really goes out to Flint and its residents,” she says. “They are poised for extreme exploitation.” With land and housing at rock-bottom prices and no restrictions on how much can be bought, corporate developers could swallow it all up and transform it into a dump. “It could be viewed as a choice spot for city waste,” notes Fair.

Plus, she says, the fall of Flint is particularly close to her heart because it takes with it the dreams of the generations of African Americans who migrated north to Flint and other parts of America’s Rust Belt in search of a better economy and racial equality. “There was a lot of hope connected to that move,” says Fair. “And today we are seeing the gradual erosion of that reality.” Once a symbol of long-term wealth and investment, the empty homes now signal a retreat. If it keeps up, Fair says, the city could literally die. With so much of the land now in the ownership of the county, Flint could be fully dismantled in 20 years.

But Fair thinks there is opportunity here and knows that innovation can be borne from desperation. Some of the best ideas, she notes, come when people’s backs are against the wall. With some help, Flint could be a much better place two decades from now and still has the opportunity to be beautiful. The city could work to develop more green spaces and concentrate efforts on urban farming programs. It could be a beacon for green communities; it could develop a diversified economy that is not wholly reliant on the auto industry; it may even be able to recruit corporate service centers to employ its residents. Flint could be a healthy, vibrant place, with new residents and new energy.

Or at least, that’s her goal. And given her history, that should offer Flint some hope.

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Beyond the Milky Way

August 23, 2010 by Raúl de la Fuente Marcos  
Filed under Features

Imagination Meets Science in New Astrophyics Program

Tenerife, Canary Islands, late September 2009: a small team of Suffolk University students huddles tensely around the camera control computer on the 0.5-meter telescope of the Teide Observatory, 2,500 meters (8,200 feet) above sea level.

To use the telescope effectively, students must consider a host of mechanical and external factors and conditions: Will the sky remain clear? What is the wind speed? Is the shutter open? Are all the instrument settings correct? Will they be able to measure the spectral lines in their target star and determine its composition by spectral analysis? Is the star normal or peculiar?

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This is not a scene from a postgraduate thesis project but from an undergraduate course in the new astrophysics track at Suffolk University. In collaboration with Spain’s Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC), the program gives physics majors firsthand experience in observing the skies at a major international observatory, located at a dark-sky site on the Spanish island of Tenerife just off the northwest coast of mainland Africa. Back in Madrid or Boston, students will spend several weeks reducing and analyzing the data and preparing papers. For some of them it may be a turning point in their lives, an inspiration to pursue a postgraduate research degree in astrophysics.

“Thanks to the success of new technology such as the Hubble Telescope, star-gazing has become more than just a hobby,” says physics professor Walter Johnson. “Astrophysics is a fascinating area that examines the universe from both micro and macro levels. Think quarks to the Milky Way.”

A recent report published by the Astronomy Education Review indicates that 61 US colleges and universities offer students a track or major in astrophysics/astronomy. Nearly 20% of the approximately 2,600 students beginning graduate work in US physics 
programs each year are choosing to do their research work in astrophysics, making it the largest subdiscipline in physics.

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The astrophysics program at Suffolk presents a solid introduction to both theoretical and observational astronomy, computational astrophysics modeling, and supercomputing. It also introduces physical science students to current knowledge about the nature of the universe and some of its most notable components. This content can be particularly useful for future high school physics and general science teachers.

The curriculum requires two semesters at Suffolk Madrid to complete most of the astrophysics coursework. Students will be learning in one of the most important commercial cities in Europe, as Madrid is the third most populous capital in the European Union and a major center for international business. Suffolk University has access to the Teide Observatory facility as the result of an agreement with the European Northern Observatory and its governing institution, the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC), the leading Spanish research center in the field of astronomy and astrophysics and host of the world’s largest fully orientable telescope currently in operation, the Gran Telescopio Canarias, also known as GranTeCan or GTC.

“The caliber of a resource such as Teide means that students will come out of the program with a much broader background in physics than is typical for most undergraduate physics majors,” says Johnson.

A major strength of the astrophysics program is its small size, making it possible for students to have one-on-one contact with faculty, thus emphasizing research-based learning. Its interdisciplinary approach to theory, observation, and simulation provides students with a strong background in relevant technology, programming, and mathematics as well as the science of astronomy. In addition, studying abroad exposes students to other cultures and potential employment opportunities. Inspired by the borderless skies they study, students can begin to look beyond national and cultural boundaries on earth and see the wider world as their home.

Raul and Carlos Marcos Suffolk University College of Arts and Science

Faculty members Raúl de la Fuente Marcos and Carlos de la Fuente Marcos in Madrid; assistant professor of physics Prashant Sharma and physics professor and department chair Walter Johnson in Boston.
by Raúl de la Fuente Marcos

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Capital City Classroom

August 20, 2010 by Sherri Miles  
Filed under Features

As part of a 10-day seminar in the nation’s capital sponsored by The Washington Center, 92 Suffolk University students came to know the one city in the country where the leading industry is politics. Traveling with five faculty instructors, they joined college students from 44 states and 11 countries for a political immersion experience in Washington, D.C. They met with liberal advocacy groups, conservative think tanks, and high-powered politicos. They heard differing voices and views, witnessed history in the making, and fell under the spell of this storied city.


The Washington Center

The Washington Center

The Washington Center for Internships and Academic Seminars (TWC), located six blocks from the White House, has been affiliated with Suffolk University since 1978, offering semester-long internships, one- and two-week programs, and, every four years, seminars at the Democratic National Convention, the Republican National Convention, and the inauguration.

“One of the major missions of The Washington Center is to inspire future political leaders,” says government professor and department chair John Berg, who himself spent time in Washington as a student when he interned for Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-WI) in the summers of 1964 and 1965. “It makes the study of government and politics more real; you understand that there is a point to what you’re doing in the classroom. People generally come back more motivated to study government.”

Suffolk typically sends students to TWC seminars each January and May. In January 2009, 92 students in Government 503 attended TWC’s Presidential Inauguration Seminar, which drew nearly 700 students from 135 schools to Washington. Suffolk was the largest contingent, representing one in seven students and five of 57 small groups. “Suffolk can be congratulated for its true commitment to experiential education and civic engagement in allowing so many students to participate,” says Gene Alpert, senior vice president of The Washington Center.

During the seminar, students attended speaker sessions, kept a daily journal of observations and activities, wrote a paper, reviewed a book, and met with faculty leaders in small groups led by government professors Roberto Domínguez, Teri Fair, and Brian Conley, government department coordinator Meri Power MSPS ’08, and graduate student Erin Cheuvront MSPS ’09.

Important people, historic places

The seminar began with a bus tour of Washington, stopping at the World War II, Iwo Jima, Vietnam War and Korean War Memorials as well as the Jefferson, Lincoln, and Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorials, and the U.S. Capitol Building. “It was a good overview of official Washington,” says assistant professor Brian Conley. “It gives the students context for where they are.”

In the mornings, students attended sessions with prominent political and media figures. “Part of the excitement is that students can talk to people who talk to the president. Or talk to people who talk to the president-elect,” says Alpert. “They can meet someone who sees the president every day, whose office is within steps of the Oval Office.”

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For example, the seminar theme was “The Media and the Presidency,” and speakers included Dana Bash, senior congressional correspondent for CNN; Special Agent David J. O’Connor of the U.S. Secret Service; USA Today columnists Cal Thomas and Bob Beckel; Ted Koppel, former host of ABC’s Nightline and senior news analyst for National Public Radio and the BBC; Clarence Page, columnist at the Chicago Tribune; His Excellency Ambassador Husain Haqqani of Pakistan; political humorist Mark Russell; Sam Donaldson of ABC News; a panel of members of the U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress; and Bob Schieffer, CBS News chief correspondent and moderator of Face the Nation.

“It was obvious that The Washington Center has been doing this for a long time,” says Conley. “They had the venue; they had the contacts; they had an extraordinary array of people.”

Students also participated in two live tapings of C-SPAN’s Washington Journal call-in show. On Tuesday, Jan. 13, they asked questions of NPR news analyst Juan Williams and Fox News anchor Brett Baier. On Wednesday, they took part in a discussion of  the Bush-Obama transition and the media. “There were so many Suffolk students asking questions that Brian Lamb, president and CEO of C-SPAN, stopped and acknowledged Suffolk University during a live broadcast because we were so active in the discussion,” says Conley. On Tuesday

Bridging academics and real world politics

“What’s unique about the program are the site visits-the intimate opportunity to go to an embassy, to go to a think tank, to go to a media organization or a political consulting organization and ask questions,” says Alpert. “Students can talk to these experts one-on-one, without cameras and sound recordings, and hear an honest assessment of their perspectives on the world.”

“We visited the Human Rights Campaign, which is the lead advocacy group in the United States for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender issues,” says Conley. “They had a very large building on the corner of M and 17th street, and they’re saying, like a lot of these groups, ‘We’re here; we have a presence.'”

“Advocacy work-like the Human Rights Campaign-happens here because they know they can be heard here,” says instructor Erin Cheuvront. “They believe so passionately in what they do and in their cause, whether it’s the green movement, the environment, or human rights, and all of them have a government relations department that lobbies Congress, or they may work with a lobbying firm on K Street, the breadbasket of lobbying, because if you want to be heard, that’s the street you go to.”

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At a visit to the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, experts in health care and economic policy presented the students with a conservative take on policies being formulated and debated.

“It was frustrating at first to listen to people who exist on the opposite end of the political spectrum from you,” says Mike Mandozzi, a political science student. “But we heard from Cal Thomas and Bob Beckel the day before about reaching across the table and finding common ground, so I tried to go in there with that mindset. It was amazing to see my fellow students drilling these people with questions; they were fighting them on everything they said. That made me optimistic, to see that at 20 and 21 years old, my fellow students have these beliefs that they’re willing to speak up about.”

Access to the process

Many students were interested in attending the confirmation hearings underway during the week on Capitol Hill. The schedule spread like wildfire in the mornings. “During our time in Washington, the students could literally charge over to the Hart Senate Building and have a chance at getting in the door,” says Conley. “And that’s exactly what we did.”

“We went to Senator Clinton’s confirmation hearing,” says economics student Colin Hansen. “Kerry was giving closing remarks, and people were excited to see Hillary Clinton as she was leaving. Politics is so abstract for us. I’d never really seen D.C. before and it’s kind of mythical if you haven’t, and then you see the room the Senate meets in-the Gallery-and it makes it very real.”

“The Gallery is the public viewing place where you can watch the government do what it does-it’s where members of Congress speak, give speeches, and take a vote,” says Cheuvront. “During a State of the Union address, it’s usually where the First Lady sits, as well as special guests of the press. There are seats reserved for the public to view every day.”

Cheuvront requested Gallery passes from her senator’s office and took her group to the House of Representatives office building. “I’d say half of the students were surprised that we were just allowed in the building. Many of them have said that when they are in D.C. they will always make a point to stop by their senator or representative’s office because now they know they can. Before they felt that they didn’t have that access to their government.”

Witnessing History

As the inauguration drew closer, students watched this city on the bank of the Potomac River and in the spotlight of the world get dressed for a party. Luminous limestone and marble buildings wore garlands of red, white, and blue bunting and wall-sized flags, the proud and customary attire for inaugural ceremonies in Washington.

“The day before, I was out on the Mall taking pictures,” says Cheuvront. “I ran into a few of the students when I was there-they were the Republican students. They were very funny. They just decided they were going to be Obama supporters for the next couple of days. They were jumping up and down, and I said, ‘What are you so excited about?’ They said, ‘We’ve decided to embrace all this happiness, Erin; what do you think?’ and I said, ‘Hey, knock yourself out!'”

Two Suffolk students, Megan Costello and Allison Brito appeared on MyFoxBoston’s evening news (at 0:01:45), interviewed about being in Washington for the Inauguration and having access to the ceremony.

At midnight that night, Hansen and some friends claimed a spot on 4th Street, the closest viewing area for those without tickets, and stayed there for the next 12 hours. “After the sun rose, one of my friends, who is kind of a big guy, held me up on his shoulders and I took people’s cameras from around me and took pictures of the crowd all the way back to the Washington Monument. There were that many people screaming and crying and cheering. I could have a conversation with anyone there, then. Maybe not any other time, afterward or before, but there, we were one people.”

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On this historic morning, attendance at a presidential inauguration reached an all-time high, with an estimated two million gathered at the Lincoln Memorial and along the length of the National Mall to the Capitol, cheering and waving flags as they watched Barack Obama shatter the ultimate whites-only glass ceiling and be sworn in as the first African-American president of the United States.

After the ceremony, Conley was interviewed about Obama’s speech by New England Cable News.

The end of the inauguration marked the end of the seminar, and students fell in line with others who walked back the way they came, hobbling down sidewalks and across streets, frozen by wind and cold and fatigue, yet carried forward with a shared sense of satisfaction and purpose. They had accomplished their goal, each of them, to be in Washington during this moment in America’s story.

“My hope for all the students is that in 5, 10, or 15 years they will have a really profound understanding of what they were able to witness as part of this seminar,” says Cheuvront. “That isn’t going to happen for a long time. But I think when they talk to their children, or talk to fellow colleagues or friends or family years from now, remembering that they were at this event and what it means in the overall perspective of U.S. history, I hope that they’re able to see that.”

The spell is cast

The Presidential Inauguration Seminar gave students a chance to be part of history. It also introduced them to the participatory side of politics: they saw the institutions at the center of government, and the surrounding network of advocacy groups, think tanks, embassies, the media, the secret service, and national and international nongovernmental organizations.

They learned that politics is made up of people, that their government is accessible to them, and that they have a right to be heard. These 92 Suffolk students became part of 40,000 TWC alumni, and for 10 short days, part of the community in the nation’s capital.

“D.C. is a special city,” says government student KyQuan Phong, president of the mock trial team. “Everywhere you go, you’re around senators and representatives. You’re meeting all these different people, and it’s an opportunity to expand your network whether they’re politicians or other students.”

“There’s nothing like Washington in that sense,” says Conley. “There’s almost something startling about that. They call it Potomac Fever. A lot of students picked up on that. I have a handful of students who are saying they want to come back here, work for the State Department, get various graduate degrees, and work on Capitol Hill. They want to be in Washington.”

“Students become familiar with the city,” says Alpert. “They feel that it’s their second home, and they’re not afraid to come back and look for a graduate school or a job. Some of them will catch Potomac Fever. Some of them already have. They say, ‘I want to be like that person I heard at such-and-such a think tank,’ or ‘A person I met, I want her to be a mentor to me.’ It’s really a life-changing experience for the students. I tell them on the first day they will never be the same.”


Info// The Washington Center for Internships and Academic Seminars is a nonprofit educational organization providing students with opportunities to work and learn in Washington, D.C. Visit TWC online at

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Infinity: A Play About Perception

April 19, 2009 by Sherri Miles  
Filed under Features

One by one, a small crowd assembled in front of the Parkman Bandstand on the Boston Common. People sat on the grass, taking in the April afternoon sun while a guitarist draped in an American flag strummed and strolled among them.

Six girls in gray t-shirts and jeans, and another with a bullhorn, walked slowly to the ‘stage’ in front of the pavilion and stood in formation facing the audience. “America…land of infinite possibility,” they chorused. “This land is your land, this land is my land. This land was made for you AND me. There are people who are lonely, people who are in pain, people who need a vision, a perspective for their lives and our world which is purposeful and life changing…”

Guitarist Adam Gosselin plays "America the Beautiful" during the performance

The actors, students from the Suffolk University Theatre Department, call out their lines above the city soundscape of sirens, barking dogs, an unexpected bagpipe nearby and planes overhead. And Infinity, the play, has begun.

“We have to do this”
The vision and mission of the outdoor performance is drawn from a semester of community service work, a daily awareness of the homeless population in Boston, and a personal connection two ambitious students, Rachel Kelsey ’08 and Purnima Baldwin ’08, have to those in homeless circumstances, and they have something to say about it. Theatre major seniors and friends, they developed the idea for Infinity to co-produce a play about homeless and non-homeless people finding a common ground. Read more

Perfect Form: The Coach & Suffolk U

April 19, 2009 by Dan Morrell  
Filed under Features

On Suffolk’s campus, Jim Nelson is “Coach.” It’s the name used by his assistant, the interns, the locksmith, and multitudes of athletes, colleagues, and staff. Though he retired from the head basketball coaching spot over a decade ago to take on the role of athletic director full time, the name sticks. It’s a familiar, welcoming title, earned by an engaging laugh, a self-deprecating wit, and an extended reach during Nelson’s more than four decades at the University.

Coach Jim Nelson, in the Suffolk gymnasium located underground in the Ridgeway building.

But he hasn’t always been Coach. In his corner office on the second floor of the Ridgeway Building, Nelson, 66, leans back in his chair with his arms folded across his chest, recalling a time when he went by another name: Dmitri Nestios. Nestios was Nelson’s alias, adopted six years after taking the assistant athletic director and assistant basketball coach jobs at Suffolk.

Nelson had been a standout guard at Boston College, and—after graduating and taking his first job at Suffolk­­—had been playing semi-professional basketball around Boston. When a friend brought a recruiter from a Greek league team to check out Nelson’s talents, Jim wowed the scout with his famous dribbling routine: Lying on his back, he dribbled with two hands, then with just one finger on each hand, then just the pinky, and then while doing situps. The team offered him a contract and renamed him Dmitri Nestios, which translated to “Jim from the Islands.” Because, as Nelson was told, you had to be Greek to play. Read more

Teaching & Mentoring: The 1-2 Punch

April 18, 2009 by Lauri Umansky  
Filed under Features

From the Civil War through the 1920s, Brockton, Massachusetts thrived as one of the world’s premier shoe manufacturing centers. By the 1950s, the hardscrabble city 30 miles south of Boston claimed bragging rights as the birthplace of undefeated heavyweight boxing champion Rocky Marciano. Twenty years later, when Marvelous Marvin Hagler entered the ring, the city added a middleweight champion to its scorecard.

Today, though the fight motif is still in full swing around the “City of Champions,” Brockton’s greatest boast is probably its high school—the largest in New England. A beige colossus flanking the road behind the Rocky Marciano Stadium, Brockton High School houses 4,358 students and a faculty of 331 women and men. Among these educators is history teacher Gregory Hazelwood BA ‘98.

Brockton High School history teacher Greg Hazelwood leads students in a warm up for Black History Month presentations with the song, "Lift Every Voice and Sing," also known as the "Negro National Anthem." "It's a very positive song. Some students know the first stanza, some know all the lyrics."

“I wish every kid in the school could have Mr. Hazelwood as a teacher during their career here,” says Brockton High School principal Dr. Susan Szachowicz. “He brings history to life. But the most important lessons he teaches are about character, how to treat other people. Greg uses every moment as a teachable moment.”

“Good afternoon!” Mr. Hazelwood greets the students heartily as they file into class. “Today we’re going to name stereotypes and we’re going to talk about how to counteract them.” Read more

Journey: Learning Beyond the Classroom in El Salvador

April 18, 2009 by Thomas Gearty  
Filed under Features

It’s hard to wrap your brain around El Salvador.

Even Lonely Planet, which has built an empire writing guides to less traveled roads, seems unsure what direction to take with this country. “Falcons and hawks fill the skies above fabulous food festivals and bomb craters,” the online guide states with awkward cheer. “Friendly locals like to chat, diverting your gaze from the gangs and refugees to beautiful broad valleys.”

On the way to work the last day in El Sitio. Pictured clockwise from left: Franciso Peguero, Jeff Pomponi (hidden), Luis Castillo, Yanitza Medina, Megan Cullen, Dean Grubb, Derek Lomba, Kaitlyn Winegardner, Valerie Gonzalez-Crisci.

Suffolk junior Jeff Pomponi wasn’t quite sure why he decided to go to El Salvador for S.O.U.L.S. Alternative Winter Break. “I just wanted to go somewhere different because I knew over the winter break there wouldn’t be anything to do, and I wanted a change,” he says. “Once I got to El Salvador, I realized I’m supposed to do this …. I had a reason to be there that I didn’t know going in.”

Inspired by a legacy

Over the first two weeks of 2008, Pomponi is one of a dozen Suffolk students and five faculty and staff members living and working in El Sitio, a poor rural town in El Salvador’s mountainous north, trading time at home between semesters for a service learning project far away. Their primary assignment is to complete construction of the Concha Acoustica (acoustic shell), an outdoor stage and arena for community gatherings, before El Sitio’s annual Festival for Peace and Social Justice. Read more

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