IN THE NEWS: Mount St. Dominic Academy Students Showcase Studies, Artwork, and Clubs

IN THE NEWS: Mount St. Dominic Academy Students Showcase Studies, Artwork, and Clubs
By ANTHONY GABBIANELLI Staff Writer, The Progress

CALDWELL - Seniors at Mount St. Dominic Academy (MSDA) presented their year-long capstone projects on Thursday, May 11.

The MSDA Academic Symposium for family and friends was held in the Athletic Center on campus with tables set up for each capstone project.

Prior to the symposium, each of the students was judged and graded on their work as well as their professionalism in presenting it.

MSDA Principal Laura Hollenbaugh said the school has hosted the symposium for the last six years or so and she has attended three throughout her tenure.

"They're really learning how to think independently and fine tune what their interests are,'' Hollenbaugh said. "It's a little bit intimidating to get up and present in front of a panel, but they all did a great job."

The judging panel consisted of four faculty members, according to Hollenbaugh. Of the four, three are teachers in different subjects, like Spanish, biology and social studies. The fourth and final judge was the capstone class teacher.

The capstone class, which is an elective at MSDA, has the students reflect on a particular subject of their choosing. Based off of their subjects, they get assigned to a mentor who guides them through the research for their project and provides help when needed. The mentors could be alumni of MSDA, teachers at MSDA or a professor from neighboring Caldwell University.

"The capstone class teaches the student to be inquisitive," Hollenbaugh said. "It's definitely a new experience for them because nobody is putting constraints around them. They have a great opportunity to learn how to ask a poignant question. They're learning how to think and how to really dig."

Alumnae Director Kate Sullivan helped connect students with their mentors.

"Part of the class is to learn how to have those meetings and to know how to reach out in a professional manner," Sullivan said. "Once we make the connection for them, it's really up to the students to create that relationship and get to know their mentors and schedule meetings when it's convenient for the mentor."

While the mentors are there for the students, the class itself strives to push the students to become independent and provide a sense of agency, Hollenbaugh said.

She said a majority of the projects she had seen in previous years focused on mental health and the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, though, most of the topics chosen were not related and each had a personal touch.

"I think that it's just really a testament to the talent and the drive and the determination, Hollenbaugh said. "I'm really proud of them. This is my favorite night of the year. I think for such a small school, what we pull off here is just really incredible."

Capstone Projects

Two semicircles of tables were set up on the basketball courts in the athletic center.

The inner semicircle was dedicated to the capstone projects while the outer semicircle featured art projects and club offerings at the school.

Reyna Gowie, a graduating senior at MSDA, focused on autism discrimination and classroom integration for her capstone project.

Photo by Anthony Gabbianelli - MSDA Senior Reyna Gowie, far left, speaks with symposium attendees about her study about the discrimination of autistic children in the classroom.

She said 60 percent of students with Autism in the U.S. experience bullying regularly by their classmates while the other 40 percent either have not experienced discrimination or have not reported it.

"Part of the have not reported it category includes nonverbal autistic students who can't report it," Gowie said.

During her research, she said she found that having autistic children in the classroom helped younger children become more comfortable around them and interact with them better. She also looked into how the teachers interacted with the autistic students to see how their treatment of the students could affect the neurotypical students.

"Due to the principle of modeling, teachers often discriminate against their autistic students, whether intentionally or unintentionally, just because sometimes students may not have an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) yet, or they may not have extra resources allocated to them," Gowie said.

"If teachers receive anti-bias trainings, before they enter the workforce and public education systems, or while they're still in college, then we can significantly reduce the rate of autism discrimination on a teacher to student level and peer to peer in the classroom," she added.

She said she works at a church in Passaic where she is a special needs buddy for neurodivergent kids. While there, she noticed some intentional and unintentional biases towards these children and the students at the church feel a need to discriminate against the autistic children.

Gowie's mentor for her capstone project was a Caldwell University professor and clinical supervisor at the Center for Applied Behavioral Analysis, who helped Gowie get a hold of the documents and database to complete her research.

Another presentation on display was Olivia Sasfai. Her capstone project focused on how parents could affect the political identity of their children.

Photo by Anthony Gabbianelli - Olivia Sasfai, a Mount St. Dominic Academy senior, poses with her capstone project where she studied the affect parents play in their children's political identity.

She said Maplewood, where she grew up, was very one-sided politically and it was a culture shock when she got to MSDA as a freshman.

"When I came to MSDA, there were a bunch of different viewpoints and a bunch of different people's ideas and political views," Sasfai said. "So I was kind of wondering, 'how did people get these views, did their parents influence them or did they get it on their own merit?'"

Maplewood, Sasfai said, is "very liberal" and being around so many students from other towns gave her a chance to see a different side of things she would not have.

"Here, you get all these different viewpoints, because you have people coming from South Georgia, some come from like an hour away," Sasfai said. "A lot of people I've talked to have had different opinions on different things. Whereas where I grew up, everyone sort of had the same view on politics."

Sasfai grew up in a home where she was very comfortable believing in whatever she wanted to. Talking about politics with children can be a hot topic of discussion, but through speaking with fellow students at MSDA and considering her own experiences growing up, Sasfai said she believes she was able to be bipartisan.

"I think my views have changed on things, having conversations with people, I've started to see the other side more learn how to have conversations with people and understand the other side, not just one side, especially because when you're reading and watching the news, it can be very one sided," she said.

Most of her research came from looking at the Google Analytics of websites, Sasfai said. She was also able to work with a member of the National Endowment for Democracy as her mentor, who showed her articles and books to help strengthen her project, as well.

Robotics Club And Art Exhibit

Three clubs and classes were available to learn about during the Academic Symposium.

The Robotics Club had tables set up where the students could interact with robots members of the club had built.

Gabriella Lipari, a sophomore, said the club is held jointly with Seton Hall Prep in West Orange.

"We work together with them to create a robot to participate in competitions and that happens through the month of March and April," Lipari said. "This year's challenge was to score cubes and cones into a grid and then balance on a charge station."

Lipari, a Cedar Grove resident, said she joined the Robotics Club at MSDA after doing some projects in her middle school STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) classes. In one of her projects, her class had to build an arm and have it pick up a cup.

Photo by Anthony Gabbianelli - Mount St. Dominic Academy sophomore Gabriella Lipari poses with a robot she helped build, code and design as a member of the robotics club at the school during the Academic Symposium on Thursday, May 11.

The art installation on display during the Academic Symposium featured hand-drawn works, photography, collages, and 3D piece, mostly created by seniors. There were a few made by some of the younger, aspiring student artists.

Morgan Brown, a graduating senior, had nearly a full table dedicated to her artwork. One of her pieces featured her in different phases of growing up, as well as other artworks made on the computer. Brown also had her capstone project where she studied the representation of black women in media and how that affects people's identity and sexuality.

Photo by Anthony Gabbianelli - MSDA senior Morgan Brown poses for a photo next to her artwork showcased during the Mount St. Dominic Academy Student Symposium on Thursday, May 11. Brown also presented her capstone project in which she studied the discrimination of Black women in media.

"Some of the artworks were from assignments. I have three here where I had to do an altered portrait of myself," Brown said. "I kind of altered the portraits using like nature and like different things like the mirror cracking and like the page flipping."

Her family was also on hand to see her work which showcased her versatility to use almost any art form thrown her way in the classroom. Brown used oil painting to create a picture of an avocado and used geometric photography to show an orange.

Brown's biggest project was her collection showing success and academic validation where she wanted to show how people can get lost in finding success while losing a part of their identity.

"I just felt like that was like a topic that's relatable to students since we're all in high school, most of us who were seeing it, I wanted them to be to relate to something in that portrait to say, 'I feel that way,' or maybe see themselves in it," Brown said. "But also give a form of a warning, like, it's okay to be not okay, or you don't have to be academically perfect."

Her pieces are all up for interpretation, Brown said. She said she likes having people find their own meaning in her work and finds it easier, in some ways, to make her artwork without a vision.

Contact Anthony Gabbianelli at

View the article on New Jersey Hills website.

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