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Mark Kulaga Jr.
At 12 years old, Mark Kulaga (East Haddam) experienced a chronic injury that prevented him from learning at his local public school. Instead, he attended Options Educational Services in Hartford for a one-on-one education program. At 21 years old, he earned a high school diploma.
Mark’s goal was always to attend college. He had friends who attended Middlesex Community College, so before he finished high school, he enrolled in a class to see what the experience was like. That was in Spring 2020, right when the pandemic hit and forced classes to go online.
What Mark thought would be another challenge on top of his existing one actually turned out to be in his favor. Online classes worked well for him and after two years, he is a 4.0 student and valedictorian of the class of 2023. He earned an associate in liberal arts and science, the Pritchett-Taylor Award for highest GPA (at least two semesters and 30 credits at Middlesex), and the Academic Excellence Award (4.0 GPA and at least 50% requirements at Middlesex).
Mark said he enjoys exploring the forests and trails around his hometown and the Connecticut shoreline.
“I feel a strong connection to nature that motivates my desire to work in the conservation and restoration of the environment,” he said.
Mark plans to attend UConn to study environmental science in the fall. In his free time, he enjoys playing the guitar, studying history and leatherworking.
“I make things like belts, bags and keychains. Plenty of people around campus have samples of my keychains that I gave away at this year’s Smoothie Challenge,” said Mark, referring to the Middlesex marketing class fundraiser, one of his favorite memories during college. “My team supported the Association for the Recovery of Children. They have a 100% success rate in finding kids.”
Even as a member of the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society chapter at Middlesex, Mark had to improve his math skills. He said the Math Fast-track class did the trick.
“Middlesex helped me to gain some confidence. It taught me to work hard or crash and burn,” said Mark. “Here, I found I had the talent for education and discovered that part of myself.”
Academic Excellence Award
A couple of years ago, Olivia Merlini’s father saw an advertisement about Middlesex’s Enroll-in-a-Day admissions event. However, at that time, Olivia’s sister, Isabella, was the one looking to attend college. Isabella graduated from Middlesex last year and because of her incredible experience, Olivia is now carrying on their outstanding legacy.
Living in Chester, Olivia was a homeschooled student prior to coming to Middlesex. She said she had limited interactions with students of her own age during that time and also because her first Middlesex classes were online.
“Having that first conversation with Katherine [Tocto Quituisaca] in an in-person honors class is my best memory at Middlesex. Getting to know more students was really important to me,” said Olivia.
She became involved in student groups and served as president of the Student Senate and president of the college’s Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society (PTK) chapter, Beta Gamma Xi.
Under her leadership, the chapter was recognized with multiple regional and national awards. Olivia earned the first place award as the Most Distinguished Chapter Officer in New England.
PTK’s award-winning projects focused on using the Montessori method and its benefits by working with seniors with dementia at a local assisted-living center.
The chapter also worked on a project to assist the college’s administration by creating a bridge for continued communication with the student body. “Our college project focused on developing a better understanding of the student experience and ways in which it can be improved,” said Olivia.
Her toughest course was Calculus II. “That in-person class was challenging because of problem solving and physics concepts,” she said.
Olivia earned an associate degree in liberal arts and science. As a 4.0 student, Olivia received the Academic Excellence Award during the Commencement ceremony.
Just this week, she was accepted at UConn to study pathobiology, a pre-vet program. She hopes to continue her education in the Northeast and become a veterinarian.
“My advice to new students is to make the most of your time here and get to know other students. Also, introduce yourself to your professors. Once they get to know you, they can open up more opportunities,” Olivia said.
Katherine Tocto Quituisaca
Student Commencement Speaker
As a child, Katherine Tocto Quituisaca wanted to be an architect. She had good grades but wasn’t thinking about going to college until years later.
Her family moved from Ecuador to Meriden in 2021, where she attended Maloney High School. While she understood English, she had to learn how to speak the language as well as adapt to new culture and food.
“School is much different than what I was expecting,” said Katherine. “It is much better here. I have the freedom to choose classes and what I want to study.”
Her high school guidance counselor suggested she look into Middlesex. “The professors are so nice,” she said. “The college is not the same as a four-year school—it’s so diverse.”
Katherine is grateful for the support she received in the Honors Program. She gave a presentation about gender roles and stereotypes at the annual academic Convivium, her most proud and favorite moment during college.
She is the current president of Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society chapter at Middlesex, Beta Gamma Xi. Earlier this year, she was recognized with the second place award for the Most Distinguished Chapter Officer in the New England region, when she previously served as the chapter’s vice president.
Other clubs and organizations Katherine joined include the Organization of Latin American Students, the Math Club and the Business Club, in which she served in different leadership roles. She was a student representative for the MxCC Foundation Board of Directors and for the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Council, where she served as a communication channel for students and their needs. She also was secretary of the Student Senate.
Katherine gave the student address at the college’s Commencement ceremony. She received an associate in liberal arts and science degree. With a focus on business, she is continuing to pursue an associate in business administration next year. Specifically, she is interested in business analytics, so she can apply data to company business plans and also work in accounting. In the future, she hopes to study at the University of Hartford, UConn or Quinnipiac.
Instead of building structures as an architect, Katherine has built a solid educational foundation for herself during her time at Middlesex.
Katherine Dole and Briana Jump
National Anthem Singers
Originally from Westbrook, Briana Jump attended Berklee College of Music for two semesters before moving to California for her job. After moving back to Connecticut, she transferred her Berklee credits to Middlesex.
“The teachers are amazing,” said Briana, a liberal arts major. “And the online teachers have a strong presence and are motivating and understanding. Everyone does a great job here.”
A month before graduation, Briana decided to apply her musical background and auditioned to sing the national anthem at the Middlesex graduation ceremony. When she arrived, Katherine Dole, a Middlesex student from Haddam, was also about to audition.
CEO Kim Hogan suggested they sing it together as their audition. Even though they had never met before, Briana sang in soprano and Katherine harmonized with her for a perfect rendition of the anthem.
“It really clicked,” recalled Briana. She and Katherine have been great friends ever since.
Katherine took a science class at Middlesex in 2016. Later, she remembered how much professors cared that you actually learned something in class.
“When I was deciding to return to college, I knew I wanted to do it here,” Katherine said. “It’s even better the second time around.”
Katherine credits the Academic Success Center for helping disillusioned students. “They are incredible people. They get to know you and remind you of your strengths and don’t let you give up,” she said.
She earned a general studies associate degree and is continuing her education through the CT State system to become a physical therapy assistant in the fall.
After graduation, Briana plans to study holistic healing and music therapy at Central or Southern and eventually work as a certified sound healer, a form of guided meditation.
“Middlesex has been a wonderful place to learn, and I have loved my time here,” added Katherine.
Digital Media Production
At Haddam-Killingworth High School, Patrick Boots discovered an interest in radio and broadcasting, a passion he continues to develop as a new graduate from Middlesex Community College.
Because Middlesex partners with many area high schools, including Haddam-Killingworth, eligible high school students can take select college courses. For Patrick, that was the Digital Media Production course.
Before his high school graduation in 2021, Patrick looked at a few of the state universities, but the new media production program at Middlesex was his top choice.
“Middlesex is a great place. It opens up so many opportunities for students,” said Patrick, who earned an associate in applied science in digital media production.
As a full-time student, Patrick was involved with the college’s Radio Club and later served as president of the Student Senate. He also worked at the college’s Tech Center as a tutor for the Center for New Media.
In Spring 2023, he had a key role in producing and appearing in the center’s year-end video that features AI and Chat GPT tools.
“There’s a lot of community at Middlesex. It’s a small campus but it has a big heart,” said Patrick. “Maybe I can teach at Middlesex one day. I’d like to give back to the future generation of media professionals.”
This fall, Patrick is headed to UConn to study communications and digital media.
Lyman Hall High School graduate Brianna Robison (Meriden) knew Middlesex Community College was close to her home, but she also benefitted by enrolling through the state’s PACT program (Connecticut’s free tuition initiative).
Brianna received an associate in arts degree in biology studies, a CSCU pathway transfer degree, and plans to attend to Central Connecticut State University to study biology.
She enjoyed working in the lab with Professor Mark Busa and became close to the students in her Physics I and II courses, both during class and outside of school.
Another way Brianna completed program requirements more quickly was by attending online classes during the winter intersession and summer session.