A group of mentees and mentors from the Building Bridges Project REACH Program, a mentorship program for neurodivergent students at CSI, celebrated their accomplishments this year with their first in-person pizza party since the beginning of the pandemic. The party was held on the patio of the Campus Center at the College of Staten Island on May 25, 2022.

All 18 attendees were very excited to meet each other in person, some for the first time, after meeting throughout the year (and for many since the beginning of the pandemic) through Zoom. The mentorship program provided pizza and attendees also brought their favorite snacks to share. Attendees were from all over CUNY. Although most students were from the College of Staten Island, some were from Brooklyn College, the Borough of Manhattan Community College, Lehman, and Kingsborough Community College. Some of the attendees were not able to come in person and they instead joined the party via Zoom, enjoying their own pizza from home. The joy the students felt connecting with one another in-person after so long apart demonstrates the importance of opportunities for in-person connection for students. The fact that some students preferred to join virtually highlights a key lesson we learned from the pandemic, that educators should provide flexible options that allow students to engage in the ways they feel most comfortable.  

Dr. Kristen Gillespie-Lynch, from the CSI Psychology Department, is the developer of the Building Bridges Project REACH Program at CSI. CSI’s Project REACH is unique within the broader CUNY Project REACH network in the degree to which it encourages neurodivergent students to take on leadership roles as mentors, public speakers, and researchers. CSI’s Project REACH has also led development of online autism trainings for students and faculty, which highlight the perspectives of neurodivergent students and scholars. A paper about an Autism and Universal Design training for Educators that Project REACH students and staff helped develop was published last week in the journal Autism. The Autism and UD Educator training is freely available for all to use online.

Alessandra (Lessa) Hayes, one of the star mentors of Project REACH (whose brother was a mentee in the program years ago), suggested staging Project REACH’s first in-person party since COVID-19 caused Project REACH to move online. She also volunteered to organize the party. Organization turned out to be quite a massive feat; Lessa brainstormed with students in REACH what the party should be like, helped students visiting from other campuses understand CSI’s COVID-19 testing protocols, ordered pizza, prepared goody bags for all the students, coordinated virtual opportunities to join, served the pizza, and acted as an all-around fantastic host throughout. She planned the wonderful party and guided students step-by-step in how come to the College since many of them had never been there and some were not from Staten Island. Sinead O’Brien, a scholar from Ireland who works virtually with Dr. Gillespie-Lynch on an NSF-funded study that aims to help autistic young people develop employment skills, came to the party from Pittsburgh to meet the students she’d been mentoring for the first time in person. Victoria Baker from the Psychology Department also lent a helping hand to this party. Louis Rotondo, an award-winning adjunct faculty member from the Psychology Department, who provides counseling services to autistic youth on Staten Island, made a surprise visit to the group. Winnie Brophy from the Center for Global Engagement (is far too modest to say this herself so this point only entered this story during editing) played a crucial role in finding a safe space outside to have the party, thus minimizing COVID-19 risk, and also brought beverages for everyone. All in all, the party was a truly heartwarming example of the strength, connectedness, and creativity of the students and staff of CSI and CUNY more generally.

Learn more about Project REACH across CUNY campuses.

Please email kristen.gillespie@csi.cuny.edu if you would like to become involved in Project REACH and/or would like information about Project REACH autism trainings.

By Winnie Brophy and Kristen Gillespie