From the Classroom to the Workplace: CUNY Alumni Speak on their Experiences TLH Event Recap

Our event (fellows Alcira Forero-Pena, Ted Gordon, Bertie Ferdman, Jessica Yood and Lori Ungemah) pulled CUNY alumni from BMCC, Baruch, Guttman, and Lehman to serve on a panel entitled “From the Classroom to the Workplace: CUNY Alumni Speak on their Experiences” and was held via Zoom on Thursday, December 1st, from 4-5pm. We wanted to hear from students how their educational experiences across CUNY campuses had informed/translated to their professional lives. Given the many conversations on the value of a college degree in the “real world,” we were curious what the students had to say about their time in our classrooms and in our colleges, and how they could reflect on their time at CUNY.

We gave the alumni panel three questions ahead of time so that they could come to the panel prepared (and so they wouldn’t feel that this was an interrogation!). These questions were:

1. How did college—and specifically CUNY—prepare you for your professional experiences? What expectations going into college did you have about what your education should do, and did your education meet those expectations?

2. What advice would you give to undergraduates about getting the most of their education while at CUNY?

3. What advice would you give to faculty about teaching and learning in preparation for the workplace?

It will come as no surprise that the students’ answers were heartfelt, honest, thoughtful, and intelligent. We will summarize their responses for you:

Q1: Alumni reported that the mentorship they received at their respective CUNY institutions are what most prepared them for professional life. They said they were encouraged to explore, to volunteer, and were advised by their faculty who forged personal relationships with them. That the intimacy they felt with their faculty—that their faculty saw them for who they really were—was what pushed them into new spaces (clubs, classes, majors) that prepared them for work. One student mentioned that the advising from their department and by departmental faculty had made the biggest impact.

They also valued opportunities to be leaders on their respective campuses, and in these leadership roles to be involved and to be heard both by peers and faculty.

The appreciated CUNY for the second chances they felt like they received from our colleges—regardless of past academic failures, documentation status, accents—they felt CUNY welcomed them and valued them for exactly who they were.

Q2: All alumni encouraged current students to GET INVOLVED. Recognize your own agency. Ask for what you want. Get to know your faculty. Everyone is a commuter at CUNY, so you must create a community for yourself. Don’t limit yourself to what you have done before, try something new. Make college fun because the work is hard. Be your best academic self (this might be our favorite quote from the event!).

Q3: Alumni asked that faculty be more inclusive in their teaching methods; that sometimes how they teach excludes students from certain backgrounds who aren’t familiar with how to learn that way. The asked faculty to extend the hand, to mentor students, to form relationships with the students they connect with and support them. They asked for explicit reminders to come to office hours (constant reminders!) and to say that you can come to office hours just to talk, it doesn’t have to be for help or because you are not doing well. They reminded faculty that many students are nervous or scared of us because we are adults and their faculty, and that we need to find what we share with students so we can advise and mentor them effectively.

If you are picking up the overall theme to this event, it was that FACULTY MENTORSHIP was the greatest asset for student success professionally. It wasn’t any one subject we taught, or any sort of skill, or any type of pedagogy—it was the human relationships that we forged with our students that made the biggest impact. They noted that they loved feeling supported by us, but they also appreciated feeling celebrated by us as they left CUNY and went on and were successful in life. They loved knowing we were still in their corner and cheering.

As we all recalibrate post (ish)-Covid, we appreciated hearing that what students want from us is simply for us to see and support them as mentors. They want that human connection. That is what prepared them most to be successful in the world of work.

Ajay Kalladeen (he/him) is from rural Guyana, South America, and came to the United States by himself in his early 20’s. He is a graduate of BMCC and Baruch College and worked at Apple for eight years before switching to the public sector to work for New York Empire State Development Corporation where he provides IT support to all levels of the organization. He says he is the true example of BMCC’s motto “Start Here. Go Anywhere.”

Leo Gonzalez Dominguez (they/them) is a Mexican Indigenous Queer playwright and performer who began their education at BMCC and transferred to NYU where they are pursuing their BFA in Dramatic Writing. They are also an Artistic Fellow at the Signature Theatre. Their most recent work, Parole In Place,received a public reading in collaboration with PEN America, New York Theatre Workshop, and the National Queer Theatre for the World Voices Festival.

Neisha-Anne S. Green is Director of Academic Student Support Services and The Writing Center at American University in Washington, DC and is a PhD candidate in Language, Literacy, and Culture at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She has been the keynote speaker at multiple international and national conferences, in talks addressing writing center work, literacy, antiracist pedagogy, and multilingualism. Neisha is a multidialectal orator and author, proud of her roots in Barbados and Yonkers, NY and as a CUNY grad! An accomplice always interrogating and exploring the use of everyone’s language as a resource, Neisha continues to collaborate on workshops and publish on anti-racism and anti-racist pedagogy and is working on her book Songs From A Caged Bird.

Hector Carvajal (he/him) is a graduate of Guttman Community College and student at the University of Rochester, and he is the founder of Don Carvajal Café, a coffee business that pulls from his Dominican roots to build a business model that is both fair to producers and inclusive to customers. In just two years, he’s taken the brand from operating out of his dorm room to a city-wide distribution network.

Jennifer Cachola (she/her) is a higher education professional who has earned an Associate of Arts in Communication Studies from CUNY’s Borough of Manhattan Community College; a Bachelor of Science in Media, Culture, and Communication from NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development; and a Master of Arts in Youth Studies from CUNY’s School of Professional Studies. Prior to her path in higher education as an academic advisor, Jennifer worked in retail/customer service for 15+ years and was super grateful for the opportunity to start her career and pay it forward to the institution where she earned her first degree and now six years later, has recently advanced to a senior academic advisor role at BMCC.

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