Sima Petilli, a preschool special-needs educator and participant in SLU’s LEAP-to-Teacher program who recently earned her master’s degree at Lehman College, was not going to let anything stand in her way of becoming a certified teacher – not even the sudden, mid-semester transition to working, studying, and full-time parenting from home in response to COVID-19, all while also preparing for the edTPA, a challenging certification exam requiring prospective teachers to submit a portfolio of lesson plans, videos, and written responses.

“It’s very easy to get confused and overwhelmed, but in reality, the edTPA is like a wave. You ride from one wave to another,” Sima said of her experience tackling the different portions of the test. Read More

Originally from Russia, Sima first came to the U.S. when she was 13 years old and then moved to Israel to complete her undergraduate studies. She returned to the States afterward to pursue a career in public relations as a Conference Director. But when the company went bankrupt, she realized she wanted a completely different lifestyle. For the past three years, Sima has worked as a special needs pre-school teacher in Manhattan, and loves it.

“You never know what could happen during a lesson!” she exclaimed gleefully. “This was a big shift in my career and I’m very happy with my decision.”

But in order to remain in her newfound dream job, Sima had to earn a master’s degree and pass the New York State certification exams.

“I’m a full-time working teacher, I have two kids and a house, and I was in grad school full-time. It’s a lot,” she admitted. “But I was very prepared because I had a lot of support from Professor [Jamel] Holmes. He always said, ‘Make a plan, work the plan.’ This really resonated with me.”

Sima didn’t just work her plan; she crushed it. In order to pass the edTPA and become a certified teacher, students must earn a 38. Sima scored a 50, six points higher than the national average.

“I was just so like, ‘I need to pass, I need to pass.’ I wasn’t concentrating on a specific number,” she said with a sheepish smile.

In addition to Professor Holmes’s class, Sima credited her success to consistent hard work. “When you take big breaks, you lose momentum. But if you stay on task, work every day, and keep going, you keep the momentum.”

Last but not least, Sima also gave a heartfelt shout-out to her partner. “My husband played a huge role. I was able to do this with a lot of his support.” And now that she has earned her master’s, passed the exams, and wrapped up the semester of teaching?

“My kids were very excited when I finished, they said, ‘No more college for Mommy!’” Sima laughed.

Gena-Fae Fillingham was born and raised in a small farm town in Nebraska, where her mother taught her to care about the most vulnerable in her community. She worked as a certified nurses’ aide throughout her senior year in high school, and later attended nursing school where she graduated with honors and was certified as an LPN. She worked as a charge nurse in a nursing home in Brooklyn, and simultaneously volunteered for the charity “Hope for Kids,” which seeks to raise awareness and increase the number of children receiving up to date immunizations. Read More

Gena-Fae later changed her career path and worked as a legal secretary in the corporate sector, then decided to return to a field of work that would allow her to engage more with the community and serve others. Gena-Fae found the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies a perfect fit for her ambitions. After completing her coursework at SLU in December of 2019, she completed an online TEFL certification course in April 2020, and was officially certified as an ESL teacher in May. Her internship took her to lower Manhattan, where she worked with Chinese immigrants and tutored a Chinese student online. Gena-Fae plans to move to Asia and work as an ESL teacher.

Here’s what Gena-Fae has to say about SLU:

“SLU’s Urban and Community Studies program changed my entire understanding of society and the massive needs and disparities in the world. Learning how public transportation actually helps raise families out of poverty because they are able to commute to higher paying jobs elsewhere was a revelation. It helped me to have a better understanding of why there are more public transportation options in Asia, where I plan on being an ESL teacher in the future. I developed a deeper understanding and respect for community-based charities, such as the New Americans Welcome Centers based in YMCA’s throughout NYC, and it has inspired me to continue volunteering to teach English to the immigrant community. After starting my studies at SLU I learned how to help friends of mine research and apply for affordable housing when they did not realize they even qualified for it. I gained more knowledge about the economy—such as the democratic economy, cooperatives, and capitalism—after only three weeks during a summer course than I did in all my years working in the corporate world. It will shape how I understand community businesses when I move to Asia and begin exchanging knowledge about how community-based businesses function there compared to American businesses.”

Gena-Fae says one of the greatest lessons she has learned in life can be summed up by one of her heroes, Maya Angelou. “We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.”

Tracy Rogers (MA/Urban Studies) is a frontline health care worker at an area hospital in Brooklyn, a hot zone for the coronavirus outbreak. The hospital opened a supply depot to support the newly created COVID units, and Tracy runs it. Her job is to track the equipment—blood pressure machines, IV pumps, etc.—and make sure everything is working,
cleaned and ready for the next patient who needs it. She also outfits staff with PPE and other necessary supplies. Read More

Tracy says that seeing the refrigerator trucks arrive to store the bodies of the dead was life-changing. “When I saw that, Iknew what all the experts were saying was true. Every day I am so thankful for the people who listened, who are staying home and social distancing.” She is also grateful for the measures the hospital is taking to provide some respite and comfort for its workers. “They give us free meals and care packages with toothpaste and soap. They’re also offering counseling and prayer sessions. And they gave us a ‘curb app’ to help us commute—I usually drive, but when I’m really tired, the curb app is a blessing.”

Tracy works 12-hour shifts, six days a week. How does she manage to attend her classes with such a heavy work schedule? “I’m usually still at work, muted and wearing my mask and scrubs, when I go on Zoom with Professor Howard Carlson,” she admitted. In addition, Tracy has three children at home: a 6-year-old, a 10-year-old, and a 15-year-old. “I’m really lucky—my mom is there to supervise my kids while I’m at work. The older ones are doing their schoolwork on Zoom, like me. So when I get home—usually around midnight—I check their homework, and then I work on my own papers for school.”

Asked how her studies at SLU have helped her in her current role, Tracy had a ready response. “My urban management course last fall with Professor Anushay Said taught me some skills that really help me to accomplish my work,” she said. “For example, how important it is to learn about your players. Everyone’s skillset is
different. I was able to assign tasks to members of my team that suited their skills. It made things easier to complete in a timely manner—and time is of the essence right now.”

The lessons of the pandemic, coupled with her urban studies at SLU, have illuminated many issues for Tracy. “I’ve been in the health care profession for 17 years, and I see things now that can be changed, new policies that could be implemented to make the system work better,” she said. “Inner city and minority groups have been hit particularly hard by this virus because of their underlying health issues and lack of primary care. New perspectives and policies are needed. I’m going to study health care disparities
next fall—using my boots-on-the-ground experience.”

Tracy shared some aspects of her profession’s response to the virus that inspire her. “Everyone is joining together: doctors, nurses and staff are all members of the same team. We approach everything as ‘we,’ not ‘us and them.’ We’re all part of something larger than just doing a job. We’re warriors going into battle every day against a common enemy. It’s not about a paycheck. It’s about saving and restoring lives.”

She’s also grateful for her learning experience at SLU. “SLU has taught me so much. And my professors and advisors really care about what I’m going through. They have been so supportive. That is so much appreciated. It really makes a difference.”

It’s a tough time to be in journalism. Revenue sources are dwindling and new layoffs seem to be announced every day — and the COVID-19 pandemic sent another shockwave through the industry. That’s where Nastaran Mohit comes in. As organizing director of the NewsGuild of New York, Mohit works to unionize the staff at newspapers, magazines and online publications, so that reporters, editors and social media staff have access to the benefits and protections they so sorely need. The NewsGuild, a sector of the Communications Workers of America, represents more than 24,000 journalists and other media workers across the U.S. and Canada. Mohit has led successful campaigns to unionize publications including The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times, New York Magazine and BuzzFeed. Here’s a window into the life of a busy union organizer.

Read the rest of ALLEGRA KIRKLAND’s piece on Nastaran Mohit in Teen Vogue.

Liam Lynch (M.A. Labor Studies 2015) is on the front lines of the COVID-19 response. Not in a hospital, but in a classroom. Not wielding a stethoscope and a thermometer, but a Powerpoint presentation and the law. Liam works as a Safety & Health Specialist with the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH), a non-profit comprised of workers, unions, community-based organizations, workers’ rights activists, and health and safety professionals committed to defending every individual’s right to a safe and healthy workplace. Read More

The trajectory of Liam’s journey to his current mission has been continuous. After earning an undergraduate degree in social thought and political economy at the University of Massachusetts/Amherst, he took some graduate courses in labor studies and tried his hand at student organizing. It clicked. Then, “I followed a girlfriend to New York City,” Liam chuckled, “and she steered me to The Murphy Institute. I completed my Union Semester in 2013, and went on to finish my M.A. in Labor Studies in 2015.”

Liam credits Professors Stephanie Luce and Penny Lewis, along with former adjunct instructor Michael Murphy, for supporting his interest in public safety and health. His Union Semester internship was at SSEU Local 371, DC37, and he subsequently spent a year in the Council’s health and safety department, where he received on-the-job training as well as mentoring from DC37 Health & Safety Director Deborah Williams (shown above with Liam).

In 2015 Liam joined NYCOSH, which helped him get credentialed as an OSHA-authorized trainer. NYCOSH also sent him to the Rutgers School of Public Health to acquire expertise in hazardous waste education, which he provides for transit workers.

In non-crisis times, Liam provides a variety of trainings across the city, but now his mandate has shifted to educating workers about COVID-19 as an occupational safety and health hazard. He has been providing bi-weekly trainings to workers and their union reps on how to stay safe, and what employers are supposed to be doing to keep workers safe in accordance with CDC and OSHA guidelines.

“The goal of our training is to increase awareness for workers with an increased risk of exposure to COVID. We teach them what the modes of transmission are, what the symptoms are, and what should they do if they have been exposed,” Liam said. “But more than that, we want them to actively identify methods to prevent exposure to COVID in their workplaces.”

Liam is troubled by the lack of testing for COVID, in New York and around the country. “Members of the public, and health care workers in particular, are often not tested after being exposed and developing symptoms. They’re just told to go home and self-quarantine,” he said. “But if you don’t test people, you don’t have data. This happened after 9/11, too, with the World Trade Center Registry. We need the data—we need to know who you are if we are to take care of you in the future.”

He is also appalled by the lack of access to personal protective equipment (PPE). “It’s like going to war without armor. We need to have access to the federal stockpile. Good grief, nail salon and construction workers have been donating PPE to health care workers. The federal government needs to do a better job at dispensing this crucial equipment to our frontline workers.”

Liam noted that a lot of the efforts to tame COVID-19 are emanating from nongovernment entities. “SSEU-UHW of California was able to locate and distribute 39 million N95 masks, when the government seemingly couldn’t. (Read about it here) And Mount Sinai Hospital has developed a process to extract antibodies from the plasma of people who have recovered from coronavirus that might be used to treat critically ill patients.”

“Employers like to tell workers they have to assume risk,” said Liam. “Many of these at risk workers are considered ‘essential’—grocery clerks, for example—and they are literally on the front lines of this struggle. Their last line of defense is PPE—we are working to give them access to PPE and training them how to use it to protect themselves.” He added, “OSHA has issued guidance on how to best protect workers.

Unions like RWDSU are working to implement that guidance by ensuring workplaces utilize engineering controls, such as providing sneeze guards, or administrative controls, such as staggering work schedules so people don’t commute at the same time.”

Liam observed that the recently passed federal legislation to address the COVID-19 crisis has major shortfalls. “We also need to protect gig economy workers. A lot of the legislation doesn’t cover the ‘precarious workforce,’ especially with regard to paid sick leave.”

Noting that March 25th marked the 109th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, Liam said, “Like Triangle, this can be a turning point for the labor movement. Organized labor should rally around this critical moment to propose and pass protections that we don’t currently have for workers, such as an infectious disease control standard at OSHA. If we take advantage of this key opportunity, we can accomplish something monumental.”

Student KenDell Jackson holding his CUNY USS certificate

KenDell Jackson is a graduate candidate in the URB MA program, and recipient of a 2019 University Student Senate Graduate Peer Mentor Scholarship. KenDell was interviewed by SLU Advisor Samina Shahidi.

What is the University Student Senate Graduate Peer Mentor Scholarship, and how did you get involved with it?

The University Student Senate Graduate Peer Mentor Scholarship is a recognition for students that have shown academic excellence, scholastic dedication and overall contributions to the improvement of student life. The CUNY SLU advisement team provides frequent updates on upcoming activities and opportunities. Like many of us being so busy, I ignored many of the previous emails suggesting that students apply for Graduate Mentor Scholarship opportunities. I hadn’t considered the Scholarship as a viable option. I was certainly wrong. I decided to submit an essay describing my journey and how working with youth via Track & Field is my unique contribution to improving my community. It started with just training my daughter and it blossomed into working with over 50 young people in the Bronx. Mentoring youth while enrolled in a Graduate program has helped shape my perspective on community and urban needs. It’s also great to inspire both youths and their parents that if Coach K. can manage work, school and coaching, they can too. Just a few months later I received notice that I had been selected as a scholarship recipient. I recommend to my fellow students: don’t be fearful of taking a chance on yourself. Read More

Talk about your coaching relationship with your daughter.

I have been a Track & Field coach for the past five years with Velocity Track Club in the Bronx. During that time I have had the pleasure of working with over 50 young athletes. Among the athletes is my daughter, Tiarra Jackson, a six-time Track & Field Youth All-American. Its been extremely fulfilling to act as a mentor to my community’s youngsters. Many of the kids I have encountered have started with a very low level of physical fitness, and its been wonderful to see them improve. As a coach I have a responsibility to not only help develop them physically but mentally. I constantly remind my athletes on the importance of education, and looking at me as an example of someone that has to multi-task. My daughter has been extremely successful with Track & Field and she has stated much of it is based on how she is able to multi-task and develop her mental toughness.

Why should students connect to coaching and peer mentoring scholarships, in contrast to other kinds of scholarships?

Coaching and peer mentoring of any kind develops a way to engage with people in a much more grounded way. We all should take the time to utilize this gift we have from our education, a chance to put what we have learned into practice. The greatest thing you can give someone is your time.

What advantages and benefits does the peer mentoring relationship impart to the mentee, and—a surprise for some—the mentor?

Some of the greatest advantages and benefits are being challenged on things that we think we know. At times we are so sure about a community or people based on what we may have studied or heard, but it’s a refreshing shock to the system to be surprised. For me, I was shocked with the amount of positive community support that my track team has received, in terms of local politicians, local news and even now the Amateur Athletic Association has named Velocity Track Club on of the Top 100 teams in the Nation.

What advice would you give a SLU student who might be interested in applying for this program?

Mentoring comes in many forms, don’t feel intimidated in sharing your contributions. It’s important that fellow students are aware of the social impact that we can have as graduate students. The process is completely online, so no stamp required.

URB MA graduate candidate KenDell Jackson is working on his Capstone thesis this semester.

To learn more about the University Student Senate Peer Mentorship Scholarship, click here.