Second-Generation Rowan Engineering Student Lives Her Legacy

Abigail Cassino sits in a daffodil patch.

September 1996: long before Abigail Cassino was even a thought in her parents’ minds, the foundation was laid for her future legacy. Her parents, Theresa (Gouker) and Chris, met as first-year students at Rowan, part of the first engineering class. Theresa lived in Evergreen Hall; Chris in Mimosa Hall. They met, fell in love, studied alongside one another and graduated with degrees in chemical engineering (Theresa) and civil engineering (Chris). 

September 2023: Abigail stepped on campus as a first-year student majoring in mechanical engineering, embarking on her legacy as only the second Rowan University second-generation engineering student.

Neither she, nor her parents, knew of Abigail’s unique distinction at that time. Abigail Cassino leans against a wall with a reflection of herself bouncing off the wall.

Almost one year ago, Abigail and her parents first toured Rowan, visiting from their home in Maryland. Her parents were wowed by the changes, namely the presence of Rowan Boulevard and the second engineering building, Rowan Hall. Neither existed when they graduated in 2000.

Rowan University was the clear choice for Abigail. “When we toured the engineering building my parents saw several professors they still knew, and the professors still remembered them. They said ‘see that’s what you get here, professors who actually know you for you and who care about your success.'”

Theresa and Abigail Cassino smile in front of a #RowanPROUD sign at Homecoming.
Abigail (right) and her mom, Theresa, being #RowanPROUD at Homecoming.

Though Abigail did not originally set out to major in engineering, having a mom who is your best friend – and also a Ph.D. chemical engineer – has a way of influencing you. “My mom is the one who started it all,” Abigail says. “She is my greatest role model. She is the one who said to give it a shot and apply. And I really do like it.”

Over Abigail’s childhood, she witnessed her parents’ careers grow and blossom from their Rowan roots. The family moved as Theresa and Chris pursued new opportunities. “It was hugely influential,” says Abigail. “I saw them go through tough times, and good times, and how to roll with those changes.”Abigail Cassino sniffs a daffodil in a field.

Being a woman studying in a field heavily dominated by men, Abigail understands it can be challenging for women starting out in STEM. “Women bring something to the table. We have a lot to say,” says Abigail. “Honestly, having more women in this environment makes it a little less intimidating. We really have to work to make our voices heard, which takes effort considering you’re outnumbered.” 

Abigail found that Rowan’s commitment to diversity and inclusion was also evident outside of the classroom. “There are a lot of groups centered around underrepresented groups in STEM,” she says. “I am in the Society of Women Engineers. It’s a good opportunity to talk with other people in the field and learn from them.” 

Abigail has found resources on campus that have helped her succeed. “My advisor in engineering has been amazing,” she says. “As well as being in the engineering learning community [in Holly Pointe Commons.] The engineering department in general is really good with providing resources if you’re having trouble with mental health or school. There is a really big support network here.”Abigail Cassino casually leans on stair railing while smiling.

As she wraps up her first year, Abigail is eager about what’s to come. This semester she joined her mother’s sorority, Theta Phi Alpha, continuing her Rowan legacy in a non-academic fashion. “There’s so much I am excited for,” she says. “I would like to study abroad and I’m really looking forward to my new position as co-sponsorship coordinator with Rowan After Hours (RAH).”

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Story by: Sean Humphrey, senior public relations major
Adeline McDonald

Photos by: Valentina Giannattasio

“Momma Bear” Cooper Nurse & Camden Native Keeps The Faith

Today, we feature Michelle Hackett, a student in Rowan Global’s master of science: nurse practitioner program. Here, she shares her story about her time at Cooper Hospital in Camden, NJ and offers insight on the reality of being a nurse.

Michelle sits on a bench outside Cooper Hospital.

I stayed in trauma med surg at Cooper Hospital in Camden for nine years. Loved it. I got through to a lot of these little young fellas out here who wanted to fight and gangbang and shoot. I’m a momma bear kind. I’m really not that afraid, because I grew up here in the city. So I’m not, “Oh, they’re going to shoot me! They’re going to come back and kill me!” and I’ve been threatened and all, but I’m not concerned. In the end, they know that I care about people. In the end, they are human.

My boys here in the city, sometimes when I’m off from work we run into each other and they’re, “Hey, Miss Michelle!” and I say, “Hey!”… but never speak of where we know each other. They are very protective. They turned around from being argumentative and threatening to embracing me like a family member. 

Some of them are repeat offenders. I had one kid who was on drugs, and he was a male prostitute who used to rob his clients. He would come in frequently. We met him when he was really young. I used to always tell this kid, “One of these days you’re not going to make it up here to the floor. You really need to stop.” He’d say, “Oh, Miss Michelle, I know what I’m doing. I’ve got this.” And, lo and behold, he came through trauma admitting one day. He was shot multiple times for robbing one of his guys … and he was killed by him. I thought, “Dammit, I told you this would happen.” 

So, all the outcomes aren’t good. I have to keep it all in perspective. My mom died when I was 13, so I’ve been on my own since I was 15. Even though I have a very large family, the social constructs of living in Camden are different — some things you hear about Camden are true, and some things are not. But I try to keep things very practical and try not to overthink things. Death is a part of life. I do cry, I do grieve my patients. There are people I will never, ever forget. But I just try to keep it in perspective and know that I did the best that I could for them while they were here. 

Michelle stands outside Cooper Hospital.

It can be traumatic if you are faint hearted as a nurse, because you’re seeing these broken bodies, you’re seeing these bodies that are mutilated. You’re seeing people die. It is not something that I shy away from, because I am a spiritual person and I do believe that there is a God and that there is something beyond this. My faith teaches me that this isn’t something to be afraid of. That’s what I give to my families, too, so I can inspire them through my faith to help them through the healing or grieving process. 

I love what I do, but I decided to get the master’s because I was working nights and crazy hours and I wanted to enjoy my kids, who I had late in life.  I knew I wanted to do a NP [nurse practitioner] program because I want to teach. I know there’s not a lot of money in teaching, but that’s my passion and that’s my heart’s desire. Earning the NP serves a dual purpose for me: one, I can teach; and two, I’m going to be cutting edge and still be abreast of what’s going on in practice, so I can share that with my students. 

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According to Karen: Advice for High School Seniors

Karen and her friends.

Today we feature Karen Lee, a junior marketing major with a minor in strategic communication. Karen is from Edison, NJ (Middlesex County), lives on campus in the Townhouses and is public relations chair of the Animal Advocacy Club. Karen shares her experiences with us today to help future students.  On graduating college early: I didn’t […]

Pandemic Profs: New to Anxiety? I’m Not.

Girl stares into the distance as we see the back of her head and ponytail.

Welcome to our series to give you a glimpse into Rowan University, our campus culture, and the lives of our students, while we’re practicing social distancing to protect society from the spread of COVID-19. Today’s story is from a student who would prefer to stay anonymous, given the personal nature of their blog post. 

So, you’re new to anxiety. Or, maybe you don’t even know the name of that feeling that you’re feeling yet. It’s unfamiliar to you. You’re struggling. You’re sleeping too much. Or not enough. You’re snapping at people. You’re fine, it’s just that they are so annoying – all. the. time. You just can’t stop reading the news about COVID-19. You haven’t showered in 2 days … OK 4 days. You’re eating like garbage. And you just don’t care. Your chest is tight, but only sometimes. Are you having a heart attack? Sometimes that feeling in your heart goes up to your jaw and your bottom teeth feel funny.  You feel like if you just had willpower, if you weren’t so lazy, all of this would go away. 

Welcome to my world. 

It’s not your fault. It’s not a lack of willpower. It’s not laziness. It’s anxiety. 

I’ve lived with this on and off since puberty, which is the typical age when anxiety or depression starts to kick in. Today I’ll share with you a few tricks that work for me. Try them. If they don’t work for you, or if your anxiety gets worse, please call your family doctor for an appointment. If you are in immediate danger, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255. 

Here are 5 things that work for me:

  1. No caffeine. Zip. Zero. Zilch. Ditch it. Caffeine is horrible for anxiety and can kick off anxiety attacks. Switch to decaf. Beware of hidden caffeine, like green tea and eating too much chocolate. 
  2. Keep a routine. Find a schedule and stick to it, even when you’re stuck inside like we are now. Wake up at the same time every day and go to sleep at the same time every day. Yeah, it sucks to not binge Netflix until 4 a.m., but – trust me – it’s better for your mental health if you don’t. 
  3. Reach out to people. Confide in friends and family – but, honestly? Only the ones you know who will support you. Nobody who has a “you have nothing to be depressed about, snap out of it” sort of attitude. 
  4. Exercise. Get off the couch. Find something that works for you. Exercise keeps the anxiety demons at bay. Start a Couch to 5K training program, follow a Zumba program online. Do something. 
  5. Sunshine and outside time. This is a must. Sunshine increases serotonin levels, which helps to reduce anxiety. Walk your dog. Sit outside, even if it’s to scroll Instagram on your phone. 

Most of the time, when I actually follow my own advice, these tips help me to manage my anxiety. Listen to your own body and its alarm bells. If anxiety is new for you, call your doctor for guidance. If you follow the advice above and it helps you, too, great! But if it doesn’t, it may be time for therapy or medicine — and there’s no shame in that, either. 

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From ‘Sister of Justice’ to Court Service Supervisor

concrete facade of Mercer County Court House with flag in background

The daughter of a welder/steamfitter father and a mother who did a little bit of everything, Kristen Cunningham knew she wanted to continue her education after high school, but wasn’t sure what she wanted to do. She also wanted to make her parents proud and be the first person in her family to go to college. Initially drawn to education and journalism, she shied away from those options when her hearing began to deteriorate as a young adult and she felt her hearing loss may hinder her in those areas. 

She completed her associate degree at Mercer County College, while working full-time as a cook in a restaurant. Her colleague there, Cheryl Buono, a waitress, told her about then-Glassboro State College and said, “You’ve got to come to this awesome school with me.” Kristen checked out a few options, including other state schools and an art school, but ultimately decided, “If Cheryl’s there, sure. That will make the transition to campus life much easier. I didn’t want to risk not getting a degree.”

Kristen Cunningham smiles outdoors, wearing a purple shirt while leaning against a concrete building.Once at Rowan, something just clicked with Kristen with criminology. “It blew my mind. I could still do the writing and the research that I enjoyed, but also focus on justice.” The law and justice studies alumna graduated in 1998, saying that the advice of her professors “saved” her. “I had one professor, Salerno, who asked me, ‘What do you want to do?’ We talked about it for a bit and he said, ‘I can see with your personality you’d be better at this, you’d be better at that.’ And he was right. He definitely geared me toward something that was a fit for me. He cared.”

Another professor taught her the importance of observation. “People never look up and that’s what criminals take advantage of. There’s a lot happening outside of your eyesight. To this day, when I’m walking down the street I always have eyes up. Those little nuggets, those were real-life experiences in that department. It was amazing and I loved it. We had people with years of experience in the field, being investigators, police officers and they were teaching these classes.”

Kristen also considers her involvement in Greek life to be paramount to her success at Rowan. “You went to classes and learned, but after class it was like family. Greek life made me feel like a part of the school.” Kristen affectionately earned the nickname “Sister of Justice” (something she is still sometimes called to this day) and led her sorority, Alpha Delta Epsilon, as president. 

Kristen Cunningham stands outside the concrete building of the Mercer County Courthouse on a sunny dayToday, Kristen is a 20-year employee of the judiciary within Mercer County. She started as an investigator, moving up to a probation officer after a year. She was voted Probation Worker of the Year in 2003. Two years later she was promoted to supervisor, a position she still holds today. As a court service supervisor in Probation/Child Support, she manages a team of six probation officers. “You get a lot of complaints. But as a civil servant you take the good with the bad. It’s rewarding because once in awhile I’ll get a letter that says that their lives changed for the better. That’s better than a bonus, when you hear that someone’s life has been bettered by an action you did – you go to bed that night feeling pretty good about yourself.”

As for her friend and waitress Cheryl? Successful in her own right as a leader in the marketing industry, she and Kristen are still dear friends 20+ years later.


Leading Camden Middle Schoolers to “All Pull Together”

Kasey DiSessa of Rowan University sits in the middle of a row of middle school students she teaches

“I’m never going to be afraid to do anything ever again,” says senior Kasey DiSessa. “If I can cheer and sing in front of judgmental sixth graders, I can do anything.”

The biological sciences and English double major lost her self-consciousness and found her voice this summer as an intern for the Children’s Defense Fund Freedom School in Camden. A Servant Leader (teacher) leading a classroom of 11 rambunctious 3rd to 5th graders, Kasey immersed herself in classroom teaching to support her goal of becoming a biology teacher dual-certified in English. 

Kasey DiSessa of Rowan University leans over a table with three students to teach them

Embracing the Kenyan tradition of Harambee, meaning “all pull together” in Swahili, each morning at the Freedom School Kasey, her four fellow Servant Leaders and approximately 50 students in the program got hyped for their day with upwards of eight special chants and songs. “It was a big deal for me to put myself out there like that,” Kasey says. 

A national program primarily focused on reading, the Camden location extends its reach into STEM education too, which suits Kasey well, given her two majors. “I have my two passions,” she says, “and I’ve been able to personalize my education at Rowan to blend both.” 

Kasey DiSessa of Rowan University leans over the shoulder of a girl student working on a computerKasey took classes in children’s and adolescent literature that helped her to prepare for her summer role. “I reached out to my professors and told them, ‘The books I read in your classes are in my curriculum — thank you! Your choices applied to my life in a way I was not expecting.’”

Toward the end of the summer program, Kasey led a two-week project on robotics. Stepping out of her comfort zone to do so, Kasey at first felt apprehensive — but then exhilarated at the project’s completion. “During the finale, parents came in to see their children’s final projects,” Kasey explains. “It was awesome. We had little robots from LocoRobo and we taught the students how to use an online app to drop and drag blocks of code and create shapes on the ground. 

“We all screamed at the tops of our lungs when the robot went through the gates at the maze. They had created the code, using a function they had never used before. We lost our minds we were so excited,” Kasey says. 

Kasey DiSessa of Rowan University stands in front of her decorated classroom door that says Welcome to Ms. Kasey's Forest!From Hackettstown, NJ (Warren County), Kasey stayed in South Jersey this summer solely to complete this internship. With she and her parents’ lacking familiarity with Camden — only knowing what they’ve seen on the news — at first Kasey’s parents had some trepidation about their daughter teaching in the city. “My dad is nervous about everything,” Kasey says. “But, the school was nice. The location was fine. I wasn’t nervous and the drive wasn’t bad at all.

“This program gives the students an edge they might not normally get in their regular school,” Kasey says. “It not just puts them on par with kids from schools with more resources, but also helps them to go beyond,” she says.

“I went in terrified and by the end I knew I wanted to come back and do this again,” Kasey says. “It was hard and there were days that it was emotionally taxing,” she continues. “But thanks to this program I feel more comfortable with teaching this age level and I would consider teaching in an urban setting, which is something I wouldn’t have considered before.”

Kasey will graduate this upcoming fall, a semester ahead of schedule, and plans to attend graduate school.

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