Senior Spotlight: Stephen

Author: Megan Schaffner, junior

The Student Spotlight Series is an opportunity for Rose Hill Honors students to interview their peers in the Program and share the conversations with the broader community.

For this article, Megan Schaffner, a current junior in the Program, interviewed graduating senior, Stephen Lebak. Stephen is majoring in Mathematics and minoring in Computer Science.  He has been a dedicated member of the Fordham Pep Band since his freshman year and will begin an exciting job with Boeing after graduation this May. Within the Honors community, Stephen has become well-known and loved for his incredible baking.

Megan: Was there something that drew you to your major and minor?

Stephen: I did come in as a math major, but just as a math major. I had little to no interest in computer science [originally.]  When Fordham made my first semester schedule, they put me in an introductory Computer Science course… I had a really good professor and she got me interested in the material. I felt like I understood it and enjoyed it, so I kept taking classes and tacked on the minor.  I nearly switched to the major, but a lot of what makes computers run is based on linear algebra and math in the first place, so it seemed more logical for me to follow the math major.

Megan: I hear you will be working with Boeing after graduation.  I am curious to hear more about that.

Stephen: [My interest in them] is something that’s come up over the past couple of years.  The team I’ll be working on specifically programs flight simulations, which are then used to train air-force pilots.  A lot of jobs in the contracting/defense industry are perhaps not as ethical as one might hope. So, especially after coming out of a Jesuit school [where there is an emphasis placed on ethics and justice], I was lucky to find [a job aligned with those values].

Megan: And where will you be?

Stephen:  The job is in St. Louis.

Megan: Are you from around here?  

Stephen: Yes, I’m originally from Queens; I went to high school in New York and lived with my grandparents then.  Before that, I was in Boston, where my parents still are.

Megan: So is the move to St. Louis a daunting task for you or is it not too big of a deal?

Stephen: It depends on the day.  I will certainly say that sometimes it’s really exciting—I get to go to a new city, start from scratch.  On other days, I’ll ask [myself], “What am I getting myself into?” It basically is a full overhaul. I do know one person there, but that’s really it, so it will be completely new.  It’s exciting though; it should be fun.

Megan:  I’ve also been told that you’re quite the popular baker, so I was wondering if you’d want to talk a bit about that?

Stephen: [laughs]  Who told you that? Okay, so this goes back to my late high school days.  Every now and then I would bake cookies, except I lived with my grandparents and my grandfather immediately would go on a diet and my grandmother wouldn’t eat them either! And then I’d have all of these cookies.  So I would bring them to school, feed my lunch table, all that kind of stuff. That carried over to Fordham, [especially] last year and this year, since I live in an apartment where I have my own kitchen. It’s the same logic: I’ll make a batch of cookies and I can’t eat all of them.  So I go around, distribute them to friends, many of whom I have met through Honors, one way or another. It’s also a great way to see people and catch up, talk—and then they get a cookie out of that.

Megan:   Do you have a signature baked item?

Stephen: Yes, chocolate chip cookies are my signature.  Not particularly fancy, but a classic.

Megan: And well-loved by all!  So, in terms of Honors, do you have either a favorite thing about the program, or a favorite memory, looking back now that you’re just about done?

Stephen:  There’s definitely a few!  I would say the fact that you’ve got 13 kids per class, really.  The fact that you can have really close discussions in basically every single class because of that [is really special].  Also, the nature of the class brings everyone together really fast. By the end of the first year, my [cohort] was very tight-knit.

Megan: Yeah, that’s really great!  Do you have a favorite Honors professor?

Stephen: I have different ones for different reasons.  First semester, I absolutely loved Dr. Harry Nasuti. He’s wonderful.  He would tell us about back in the day when he was the director [of the Honors Program].  He told our class the first day, “These are going to be your best friends” and I told him two years later, “Dr. Nasuti, you were 100% right.”   

All [of the Honors professors] have been good—we’re talking about the best of the best of the best.  I had Professor Nick Paul for Medieval History and no matter what the subject was, he was able to make it fascinating.  The way he talked about everything would make it seem so interesting and you would get just as invested as he was in the subject

Megan: What’s one thing you’ll miss most about Fordham?

Stephen: I have thought about that one a little bit because Pep Band season just wrapped up.  The [women’s basketball team] won the A10, so we went to the NCAA tournament in Syracuse and that was basically my last game.  Other than Honors, Pep Band was a really good group for me; I met a lot of my close friends there. I’ll also miss the Honors Program.  I’ll miss having a community around me of people of that caliber of intelligence and being able to hold discussions with them about virtually anything—that’s going to be something that I don’t think I’ll be able to find outside of Fordham or really anywhere.  So I’ll certainly miss that.

In terms of what I’m excited about, I’m moving out to St. Louis and I’m starting from scratch.  I’m excited to start over and build up a great group around me, or try to! I think it’s something that certainly daunting as a task, but it’s one of the most rewarding things.  I’ve done it twice now—once in high school and once at Fordham—and it really is just so rewarding. And I think Fordham prepares you well to do that by teaching you to care for the whole person, teaching you how to think and connect, and giving you the knowledge base to be able to connect with other people.  It all prepares you well, and I think it’s prepared me well to do that [in St. Louis].

Honors Summer Internship Fellow: Andrew

**This is the third post in a series of four posts written by the Summer 2018 Honors Internship Fellows. The students received a stipend that enabled them to work at non-profit organizations for the common good.**

Author: Andrew Seger, senior

I am grateful to have received the Honors Program Summer Fellowship, which afforded me the opportunity to learn from and work alongside some very hardworking journalists writing in the field of global affairs news and analysis at the Council on Foreign Relations. In this very consequential time for U.S. politics, our country’s role as a leader on the world stage is increasingly coming under question. As one of the world’s premier think-tanks, CFR is a rendezvous for scholars and diplomats who lead the charge at carefully analyzing, sometimes criticizing, and constantly learning from U.S. foreign policy actions and blunders.

As an intern with CFR’s editorial team, I worked with established journalists and writers who contributed news and analysis content to CFR’s website. As my capstone intern project, I worked throughout the summer on producing a published interview on the current state of Libyan politics with Frederic Wehrey, a senior fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

My internship at the Council on Foreign Relations was any political junkie’s dream summer job. As an International Political Economy major, the internship supplemented and built upon everything I’ve learned in three years of studying politics and global affairs. It was also complementary to my growing knowledge of world history and political philosophy, subjects the Honors Program first sparked my interest in years ago. Again, I am grateful to Dr. Keller and the Honors Program for affording me this opportunity to work and learn at the Council on Foreign Relations, and I look forward to building upon this experience in the future.  

Andrew Seger, 2018 Honors Summer Internship Fellow

Senior Spotlight: Katie DeFonzo

Katie DeFonzo is a graduating senior in the current Honors class who is incredibly involved on and off campus.  Double majoring in History and Spanish and minoring in Medieval Studies, Katie works as a research assistant for The Bronx African American History Project through Fordham’s history program.  She also gives tours of the Fraunces Tavern Museum in Manhattan, acts as an ESL tutor at St. Rita’s Immigration Center, works on both the Copy Editing and Peer Editing staffs of the Fordham Undergraduate Research Journal, leads retreats through Campus Ministry, plays second violin in the orchestra, and sings in the Schola Cantorum.  Finally, she has been involved with the Honors Service and Social Justice Committee since its beginning and has become one of the committee’s chairs, passionately helping to plan events that allow Honors students serve their community.

I had the chance to speak with her about Honors, her role in the Service and Social Justice Committee, and her post-graduation plans.


From your time in Honors, do you have a favorite event or a favorite thing about the program in general?
I really like sophomore year, being able to go to the [AJCU] Honors Conference.  In terms of my favorite part about the program in general, I like how cohesive it is and how you can see a lot of continuity between classes; I love when something we are talking about in literature comes up in my history class.  I’m really looking forward to the Last Lecture tomorrow and I love the community and the events we have, like the Christmas party and the barbeque. I like how it’s more than just a learning community — it’s a community of friends in a lot of ways.

So you mentioned that you’ve been a chair of the Service and Social Justice Committee basically since its beginning.  How did you become involved with that project?
Sophomore year when Dr. Keller became the director of the [Honors] program and started the Student Advisory Council, she asked us what we wanted to see, which was really nice.  Someone put forth the idea that there should be a committee for service and social justice and that seemed really interesting to me so I put my name on the list. My junior year I became a chair [of the committee] and started to help plan the events that we do.  It’s been really rewarding and I’m happy that I became involved with that subcommittee in particular.

What is your favorite event that you’ve done with that group?
We’ve done a lot of different things, but I really like one program we did earlier this year, which involved distributing food to residents in an apartment complex in the Bronx with Meals on Wheels.  That was really special because we got to meet and deliver food personally to each resident so we could see immediately where our help was going.

What are your post-grad plans?
I’m going to Catholic University in Washington, D.C. for their dual Masters degree program in history and library science.  I chose [that program] really because of the internship I had over the summer at the Museum of American History in D.C.; I realized how important not only a knowledge of history is, but also how being able to make that history accessible to people really matters.  I think that this dual Masters degree program will be a great way to do that.

Senior Spotlight: Bernadette Haig

Author: Megan Schaffner

Bernadette Haig, Honors Senior

Bernadette Haig is a Rose Hill Honors senior with a double major in Engineering Physics and Classical Civilizations. A woman of motivated curiosity with a clear love of learning, Bernadette has participated in many research projects in different areas of physics, while also studying Latin, Greek, and the ancient world. I had the opportunity to speak with Bernadette about her double major, her experiences inside and outside of Honors, and her plans for after graduation.

 Continue reading for an in-depth interview with Bernadette!



M: What made you decide to pursue a double major?

B: What really got me into the Classics major was the Honors Program.  Professor McGowan taught my first class in the Honors Program at 9:30 in the morning in Alpha House, Ancient Lit, and he just so clearly loved what he was teaching; that was probably one of my favorite [classes.]  He said that I should consider a minor in classics and I thought, “Well, why not!”  So I started taking a couple classes. Second semester freshman year I took Roman Art down at the Lincoln Center and loved it, and then sophomore year rolled around and I took a couple of classes in Latin and thought, “Wow this is amazing, I’m going to keep taking this!”  The classes started to add up and I had wanted to take Greek too because it was just on this strange bucket list of things I want to do over the course of my life – learn a little bit of Latin and Greek. By the time I got into junior year, I started Greek, kept taking Latin, and took the study abroad class Ancient Roman Cities. At that point, my advisor told me I was close to finishing a major so I decided to complete the requirements.

It’s been a lot of fun; it’s something different.  Obviously I adore physics, that’s what I’ll be doing with my life I hope, and I will probably never come back to this again in a concrete way. But I’ve just so enjoyed it — tackling ancient texts just for the purpose of doing so.


M: What is your favorite thing about the Honors Program?

B: I would say my favorite thing about Honors as a whole is the breadth of the curriculum because I’ve been exposed to things in Honors that I know for a fact I would never have taken on my own.  Even first semester taking art history, art was so not my thing, but the more we started to be in the class and learn about what art history really was, the more I started to love how peoples’ cultures are reflected through their art – their values, their customs – and how much you could learn from reading art if you knew what you were doing.  But I never would have taken that on my own, and [the same goes for] the few philosophy classes that I’ve taken through the Honors program – not that I don’t find them interesting, but as a physics major I probably never would have taken [these classes] on my own if I didn’t have to.

What I also love is the critical environment.  If you blurt something out in a seminar class, you better be ready to defend it.  You can’t have a half-formed opinion, which is kind of frustrating but also for me I’ve found that it forces me to have really fleshed out ideas, and that has carried over even outside of the Honors Program.  I find myself wanting to really engage with my own opinions critically, and this is something that I’ve really found to be beneficial.


M: What was your favorite internship/research project you did during your time at Fordham or one that taught you a lot?

B: The two major projects that come to mind are the ones that I’ve done this past summer and then the summer before.  The summer before my junior year I was here at Fordham doing research in the physics department and we were using Raman spectroscopy to look at cancerous tissue compared to healthy tissue to see if the signature looks different in healthy tissue as opposed to cancerous tissue.  We were working with Mt. Sinai Hospital in Manhattan and they essentially gave us people’s cancers to study.  They wanted to include the project that we were developing into a surgical robot so that if they were going to do robotic surgery, they could check to see that the margins were clear to make sure they removed all the cancer, and do that without excising the tissue and sending it to the lab; they have to do that all while the patient is still under anesthesia and it takes about 45 minutes.  So we developed a new probe that was much more precise than some of the other [tools] that my professor had worked with in the past.  That was really exciting because this was my first experience with “real” research, working on something that was going to matter.  Our research is going to be published in a journal called Review of Scientific Instruments and so the probe that we developed is really the focus of the research so that will be really cool; I don’t know when it will be published but it is still really exciting.

This past summer I was doing completely different work out at the Fermilab in the Chicago area.  It’s a particle physics lab and I was working on a piece of equipment in their neutrino beam line that was malfunctioning.  Basically I got there and they said to me, “Your project for the summer is going to be to figure out why this thing is not working and what we should do about it.”  It was a really cool project and I got a lot of training and got to go down into the ground 300 feet underground to work on this piece of equipment.  In order to look at it and install what we needed I had to take a huge elevator down and it was really exciting but also very frustrating because I had to deal with a lot of real workplace issues, like my supervisor was not the most helpful person and would sometimes disappear or did not know the project very well because he was new to the department.  Everyone was very nice and it was a great place to work because of the general atmosphere, but I did encounter a lot of those logistical issues. I would say that those taught me a lot about working in general outside of academia, which was again really frustrating but really cool.

Neither of those projects are in fields that I will be going into, so it has been neat to do research that’s a little outside of where I want to go because I will probably never get that chance again.


M: How do you think Honors has influenced your opportunities and decisions throughout college?  Is there anything that you learned in Honors (information or a skill) that you have seen specifically come into play in your non-Honors/work experiences thus far?

B: I would say the critical thinking has been the biggest chance that I’ve seen in myself in terms of when I evaluate myself as a student.  Being more critical about the information that I’m hearing or the things that I’m working on, and not just accepting things at face value and if I have an opinion formulating it really carefully and making sure that it’s something that I really do believe as opposed to something I’ve just always assumed.

I don’t know if I’ll ever come back to all of the interests that I’ve developed through Honors, but like I said about Classics, it’s been really great to just do something for the fun of it.  I’ll probably never come back to Latin or Greek, which on the one hand is kind of sad, but on the other hand has been really, really neat. I feel like that has made me a more curious person.  The fact that I have been exposed to all of these different things and found them very interesting everywhere I’ve gone has made me more inclined to try new things.  I knew coming into college I wanted a broader undergraduate experience and that I wanted to be exposed to things outside of my own field and so Honors has honestly been perfect for me – it’s everything I could have ever wanted out of a college experience.


M: What are you looking forward to?  What are your plans for after graduation?

B: I’m going to graduate school for a Masters degree in aerospace engineering and right now the best offer on the table is Stanford – I’m still waiting to hear back from a couple of other schools but I’ll be going out to visit Stanford next week and they have a lot of cool projects going on there.  They have an aerospace robotics laboratory, which is everything I could have ever wanted; it has my name written all over it.  But like I said, I’m still waiting on a couple of other schools so I just want to evaluate all my options and go out and visit to see the environment and make my decision based upon those factors also.

There are certain things that I’m a little worried about leaving Fordham — I’m really involved with Campus Ministry and I have experienced so much personal spiritual growth through that ministry so I’m a little concerned about what will happen to that part of me when I leave Fordham.  I will obviously miss Fordham a lot; it’s been such a great place for me and has ended up being exactly the place I needed to be.  I’m sure I won’t be gone for good!

Senior Spotlight: Santiago Sordo Palacios

Santiago is a Mathematics-Economics major from Chicago, Illinois. He will be working as an Associate Economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago after graduating in May. His Honors Senior Thesis explores whether there is a game theoretical model to explain political instability in Venezuela under Hugo Chávez.


Why Fordham/Why Honors?

Santiago chose Fordham because he was attracted to the Jesuit mission of the school, and because of two excellent campus visits. (On one visit, even though Fordham was closed, an admissions officer set Santiago up with a private tour of campus.) Santiago was excited to be invited to join the Honors Program because he knew its community and the experience of its curriculum would enrich his time in college. And they have!


Favorite Honors Class

Santiago’s favorite honors class was Religion in the Modern World with Dr. Kathryn Reklis. Analyzing what religion means in the modern world challenged his assumptions and pushed him to think in ways he considers “eye-opening.” Santiago believes that this analytic approach has helped him think more critically in his major classes, too. He seeks to assess, not merely accept, what he’s taught.


Other College Involvement

One of Santiago’s favorite extracurricular activities has been leading Fordham’s retreats. During these weekend trips, he’s been able to interact on a spiritual level with different kinds of people with whom he shares classes and a social life, and this, he feels, has both enriched and expanded his Fordham experience.


Feelings about Moving On

While Santiago will miss New York City, he is excited to be moving to his hometown and starting an engaging job with the knowledge that he is leaving college with a really strong and diverse set of skills. The strong liberal arts background of Fordham Honors will bolster his economics and mathematics skills, and he feels confident he’ll be able to apply all of this in his new job and professional future in Economic policy or research.

Senior Spotlight: Jennifer Rutishauser

Jennifer Rutishauser, a pre-med double major in biology and history, will be graduating in the spring as the Valedictorian of the Class of 2017 and is planning on working in the realm of pediatric oncology.  I had the opportunity to talk with her about her favorite moments in the Honors program, the research she has done for her senior thesis, and her plans for after graduation.

Jennifer Rutishauser, Class of 2017 Valedictorian

Q:What are some of your favorite things about Honors?  Do you have a favorite memory?

Jenn: I really like the social community you get with Honors; obviously, freshmen and sophomore year you’re in the same class with all the familiar faces but it also establishes who your best friends are.  For me, all of my best friends that I have now are people that are in Honors even though we don’t have classes together now.  It established my group for college.  I also just really like how Honors set me up to do better later in college; it gave me a really good foundation in terms of it being strenuous but giving me good writing and foundational skills.

My year of Honors we played a game of Assassin sophomore year.  At our interdisciplinary seminar it was down to three of us and we had this rule where if you were holding a spoon you were safe; so I was holding my spoon and one of my friends, Dom, who was also still in, was holding his spoon and Dr. Keller, who didn’t know me because I hadn’t been in her class, came up and we were explaining it to her.  She was like, “Oh so if I take Jenn’s spoon you win, Dom?” and he told her yes so all of a sudden she came up behind me and started attacking me to get the spoon.  This was basically my first interaction with Dr. Keller so that was pretty great.  It’s so hard to pick one favorite memory because I feel like there’s so many but that’s one that sticks out.

Q: What is your Senior Thesis about?

Jenn: I’m examining the role of a particular protein in the process of cell differentiation.  So differentiation is a process through which a cell becomes committed to a certain phase, and so I’m looking at skin cells.  The cells that we see as skin are terminally differentiated and I’m looking at the effect that this protein called PYK-2 has on differentiation.  The main way that I’m doing that is that I’m looking at a cell line that has this protein and then at another where this protein has been removed and then you differentiate the cell lines in tandem and see what the differences are between the two.

Q: What are your post-grad plans?

Jenn: I’m applying to medical school this June so I’m not going straight in but I definitely still feel very strongly and passionately about going into medicine.  I just recently got accepted into a gap-year program at Kuchnir Dermatology & Dermatologic Surgeon (KDDS), which is a private practice outside of Boston that has developed a program specially intended for students on their gap year between college and medical school.  I’ll be acting as a medical assistant, basically doing anything that you can do without a medical degree, so assisting the doctors and gaining clinical experience.  I’m really excited about that; I’ll be there from June through July 2018 so the idea is that’s what I’ll do while I’m applying and going into medical school.

Senior Spotlight: Monica Sobrin

Monica Sobrin, a Women’s Studies and English double major with a minor in history, was initially drawn to Fordham because of its focus on being “men and women for and with others.”  The emphasis that the university and its professors put on social justice and improving society strongly influenced her career path, allowing her to become the impressive advocate that she is today.

During her sophomore year, Monica was very involved in anti-sexual violence activism on campus.  in the middle of the fall semester, she joined student activists from all over New York City to found the Students United Organization.  This group collaborated with government representatives to change and advocate for the Enough is Enough legislation, which was passed in July 2015 with aspects of all four of the Students United Organizations’ main additions.

After being inspired by the students she met through Students United, Monica went on to become one of 28 Student Advisory Committee representatives for It’s On Us:

Monica Sobrin, pictured with Vice President Joe Biden, after speaking at the White House as part of her involvement with It’s On Us.

“I just had so many amazing mentors who were juniors and seniors, mostly from Columbia [University].  They mentored me and helped me build my network and my confidence about things that I was really passionate about.  I wanted to be this mentor for others.”  As the sole representative from New York and one of six in the northeast, Monica acts as a liaison between students, government offices, and national partners in order to help individuals enact change on their own campuses.

More recently, Monica worked in the New York office of U.S. Senator Kirsten E. Gillibrand, handling casework and interacting with constituents to aid them in connecting with federal agencies. She noted that her work in the office was bittersweet, being that they were able to save lives in some cases, but were also acutely aware of how many people they would not be able to help.

Looking forward, she is going to miss her time at Fordham, especially after looking back on fond memories of apple picking with Professor Jude Jones and Dr. Keller and attending the last interdisciplinary symposium in prom attire.  However, Monica is also eager to start making a difference on a larger scale: “I feel ready to move on.  Given the current socio-political climate, we need as many people on the ground as possible and I’m excited to go in and give my all to these issues that I care about at such an important time.  It will be a tough fight, but I feel like my time at Fordham prepared me for it and I am ready.”