“My Story” Panel Reflects on College Life

Brigette Jara was a panelist at last semester's My Story event.

“People seem nervous about communicating with me, but they really shouldn’t be,” urged College of Staten Island senior, Brigette Jara, a student who is deaf. The Cinema Studies major was one of 11 students with disabilities who spoke at the Center for Student Accessibility’s (CSA) third annual “My Story” event last semester.

Presenting their candid stories of challenge and triumph in college to an audience of more than 125 students, faculty, staff, friends, and family, the panelists were proud to share their feelings and experiences.  The April 10 presentation in the Recital Hall served as the kick-off event for CUNY Disability Awareness Month and is one of a dozen events that the CSA sponsored in honor of the month. Organized by CSA Director Chris Cruz Cullari, Assistant Director Joanne D’Onofrio, and Project Manager Sara Paul, “My Story” is one of the biggest and most significant events that the Center coordinates. The purpose of the annual event is to both educate individuals with and without disabilities and to diffuse some of the stereotypes surrounding college students with disabilities.

Jara says, for example, she encounters many CSI students who don’t attempt to communicate with her. “My peers can text or Facebook me, communicate with me through an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter, or simply write things down,” stressed Jara, who plans to become a film professor.

Other CSI student panelists included Annemarie Cantasano, a student with a learning disability; Andrew Petrone, a student who is deaf; Chris Williams, a student with a physical disability; Stephanie Pietropaolo, a student who has cerebral palsy and a learning disability; Lauren Butler (Glennon), a student who has Marfan’s Syndrome; John Campione, a student who has cerebral palsy; Rob Holminski, a student who has social anxiety disorder and a learning disability; Marybeth Melendez, a graduate student who is blind; Ryan LaMarche, a student who has Asperger’s Syndrome; and Sean Thatcher, a student who is a quadriplegic.

The afternoon program began with remarks from Cruz Cullari, D’Onofrio, and Vice Presidentfor Student Affairs Dr. A Ramona Brown, an active supporter of CSA initiatives and efforts. A brief video montage created by Center staff highlighted CSA milestones and gave general information about students with disabilities on the national level. Cruz Cullari also articulated some interesting reflections on students with disabilities. His introductory comments also gave context to the event and to the issues surrounding students with disabilities and disability service provision in higher education today.

“It’s powerful to hear the candid stories of perseverance from our students,” noted Cruz Cullari.  “This event, in a very real way, captures the importance of our work.”

The two-hour program captivated audience members, many of whom left with very different ideas of what it means to be a college student with a disability. From Thatcher, who was injured in June 2009 when he lunged into a lake and fractured his C4, C5, and C6 vertebras leaving him a quadriplegic, to Williams, who bravely rushed to save his sister from harassment and was shot nine times by a gang member, the panelists did not leave out any of the sometimes painful and emotional details of their lives. The impact on the audience was evident.

“People don’t understand how strong and intelligent students with disabilities are. If these amazing individuals can achieve their goals, there is really no excuse for those individuals who do not have a disability,” commented Vincent DiCristo, a CSI freshman who plans to apply to the Nursing program.

“It’s people like Chris Williams who give the world hope as well as give strength to addressing this taboo topic openly,” commented Hadeel Ayesh, a CSI freshman.

Indeed, the “My Story” speakers agree that the event is a necessary staple in the CSI events calendar.

“I think it was and will continue to be a great learning experience for those who share their story and for all who come to listen,” commented Campione, a senior who was accepted into CSI’s Mental Health Counseling program.

“‘My Story’ allows for a parallel process of the teaching and learning experience to occur in a holistic way at a venue where it is relaxed, yet informative at the same.

“We, the panelists, have a responsibility to the campus community and to our peers to leave our footprints and to educate the new student body. We are taking this opportunity to be out of the classroom and to have a thinking moment, a human moment,” said Melendez, who is graduating in January 2014 with a Master’s Degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. “You are learning about real people with real challenges and how they were able to overcome. That is something that anyone can embrace and incorporate into their own lives whether they have a disability or not.”

The Center for Student Accessibility is a part of the Division of Student Affairs.

Macaulay Alumna Kanika Khanna to Pursue Public Policy Master’s Degree at Brown University


Macaulay Honors College graduate Khanika Khanna is heading to Brown University.

Kanika Khanna ’13, a graduate of the College of Staten Island and the Macaulay Honors College, has always had a passion for public service. Now she’s ready to take the next step as a graduate student at Brown University, pursuing a Master’s degree in Public Policy.

She credits her positive undergraduate experience at CSI for laying the groundwork for her success. “As a Political Science major at CSI, I was fortunate to have such wonderful professors, who only want the best for their students. There were so many opportunities to get involved on campus, be it academically like undergraduate research, or in an extracurricular club or publication.”

Kanika is working this summer for the CUNY Interdisciplinary High-Performance Computing Center (HPCC), conducting Hurricane Sandy research with the support of Vice President for Information Technology and Economic Development, and Executive Director of the HPCC Dr. Michael Kress. This follows several years as a political science research assistant focusing on public opinion as it relates to the New York City mayoralty. In both cases, she has been mentored by Professor Richard Flanagan of CSI’s Department of Political Science.

She was the founder and editor-in-chief of The Macaulay Messenger online newspaper, a publication that represented the eight Macaulay schools within CUNY, and won recognition as a National Collegiate Honors Council Newsletter Contest Winner. Kanika also served in a number of functions for Macaulay, including Junior Mentor, Volunteer English and Seminar Tutor, and Student Ambassador. She also received the Laura Schwartz Memorial Award for Excellence in Political Science and the Macaulay Eportfolio Expo Judge’s Choice Award, and was a Lisa Goldberg/Revson Scholar and a member of the Pi Sigma Alpha political science honors society.

Kanika’s foray into public service began when she landed a grant-writing internship with A. Larovere Consulting, a firm that builds supportive housing for the homeless in New York. “I was able to learn about urban issues as they affect our city’s most vulnerable populations and recommend services that would keep them off the streets. There is no better feeling than giving a disabled veteran an accommodating home, or connecting a mentally ill person with the medical care they need.”

Her experience in public service led to a summer opportunity with the Harvard Kennedy Center, Latino Leadership Initiative where she received intensive training in community organizing, leadership, negotiating, and public speaking. Kanika returned to New York City and joined with her fellow cohort at CUNY to establish the John Jay Sophomore Leadership Program, which aims to improve college success rates for first-generation college students. Kanika is currently on the Board of Directors and serves as the Media Outreach Manager for this program.

Kanika’s future plans include working on alleviating problems that plague metropolitan cities, like poverty, homelessness, and access to education.

“As a CSI and Macaulay student, I’ve had countless opportunities and supportive mentors to help me reach my goals. Public service is about improving the lives of others, who may not be able to do so themselves. The challenge of public service is daunting, but the prospect of serving my community and country is worth it.”

CSI Graduate Amelia Sanchez Offers Valuable Advice During High School Graduation Keynote

CSI alumna Amelia Sanchez recently gave the keynote address at the graduation ceremony at Concord High School.

Amelia Sanchez gave the keynote address at Concord High School’s graduation ceremony this year.  What makes this an amazing story is that she graduated from the College of Staten Island only weeks earlier.

Amelia worked as a student teacher at Concord, a public transfer high school for students who have struggled in traditional high schools, while earning her degree in Adolescence English Education at CSI.

Amelia’s achievements may perhaps be the best way to highlight the importance of transfer schools and CSI’s commitment to student teaching and community outreach because not only has Amelia taught at Concord, she is also a graduate. “Amelia is a wonderful example of how teachers can give back to the communities from which they come and she has served as such a fabulous role model for the students at Concord that Principal Ron Gorsky saw it was fitting that she be the one to address the graduates,” said CSI Higher Education Associate Deirdre Armitage, commenting on the impact Sanchez has had on her students.

“Students like Amelia thrive in our supportive culture that students call their family,” added Concord High School Principal Gorsky. He also went on to discuss why he chose Amelia to be this year’s keynote speaker. “Amelia had been an inspiration to many students this year. Working individually, in small groups, and teaching whole-class lessons in her ELA classroom, she was always sharing a piece of her story. She became a role model for future success.”

In her address, Amelia, who was accepted into CSI’s fast-track program in special education for adolescence, admitted to being a “rebellious teenager who would get dropped off at school and sneak out the back door. Mom would receive a call from the school that I was missing yet again and by the time I got home I was in a world of trouble.”  She went on to talk about how she never planned on returning to high school after graduating and credited her mother for being her biggest supporter, who “never once gave up on helping me discover my full potential.”

“Concord High School not only saved me, it framed me,” she added. “I know and understand more than anyone the struggles and challenges that you have faced in making it to where you are today.  Some people have looked down on you and perhaps even lost faith in you. What is most important for you to realize is that you are here today because you have faith in yourself.”

Amelia’s own road to graduation was not straightforward. She struggled through her first semester at CSI and decided, after discussing it with her mother, that working as a full-time health aide was her best course of action. After three years of attending CSI, Amelia realized that nursing was not what she wanted to pursue. After much soul searching, she switched her major to English and decided to pursue a career in education.

“At first, I laughed at the irony of choosing education as my field,” she joked, admitting that going back to school was the last thing she expected herself to do. But, after taking her Foundation courses and reaching out to Principal Gorsky, who invited her to observe and student teach at Concord, she was grateful for “the confidence Concord gave me to succeed and believe in myself.” She is now preparing to complete her master’s degree at the College and become dual certified.

Amelia concluded her heartfelt speech by offering some advice to the graduates. “Recall a time when you thought that you would never succeed…but did. As scary as that moment in time was, you overcame it by buckling down, doing what you had to do. Think of this as you are challenged by future obstacles.”

CSI Collaboration Earns Mia Curovic First Place in NYC, Spot at the International Science and Engineering Fair

Fatmira (Mia) Curovic poses with her prize-winning poster.

Staten Island Tech Junior Fatmira (Mia) Curovic won first place at this year’s New York City Science and Engineering Fair (NYCSEF) thanks to the help of her mentor, Dr. Sarah Berger, Associate Professor of Psychology at the College of Staten Island.

Mia’s research, which was also awarded with special recognition from the American Psychological Society, has earned her a trip to Arizona this month to compete in the International Science and Engineering Fair.

“The NYCSEF is a great opportunity for high school students to get involved in research before entering college,” notes Dr. Berger of this annual CUNY-sponsored event, which is the largest high school research competition in NYC with hundreds of New York City-area students participating and presenting their work in the fields of science and engineering.

Mia is the third student to be mentored by Dr. Berger and quickly impressed the judges with her poster, “The Effect of Sleep on Cognition and Motor Development of Infants.”

Mia’s research centered on examining the relationship between sleep and consolidation of memory—a project that Dr. Berger and her colleague, Dr. Anat Scher from the University of Haifa in Israel, had been working on in the Child Development Lab at CSI.  They invited several families to participate in the study, testing the motor memory formation in newly walking infants by studying the effects of napping on their ability to crawl through a tunnel. The objectives of the study were to observe the relationship between sleep and naptime since, according to Mia, “the effect of sleep on cognition and motor development in infants has rarely been studied.”

“I’ve learned so much over the course of two years,” Mia said of her work in the Child Development Lab. “I wouldn’t be here without the help and guidance of my mentor, Dr. Sarah Berger. She dedicated her time and effort into allowing this success to happen.” 

What most impressed Dr. Berger about Mia’s work was her “initiative, responsibility, and maturity.” “Mia was so poised as she practiced her presentation, it was fantastic to see her initiative rewarded,” said Dr. Berger of Mia’s high level of confidence and aptitude. During the mentorship, which took place over two summers, Dr. Berger trained Mia to perform data collection and analysis, and use the lab’s video-coding software.”  Dr. Berger credits Mia’s experience in her high school research class, which gave students the opportunity to get feedback and support from their peers. “It was truly a collaborative effort,” said Berger of the work done for the NYCSEF. 

Mia feels that her work in the CSI Child Development Lab has “definitely strengthened my interests to be involved with the field of psychology and neuroscience.” 

Dr. Berger also remarked on the importance of CSI professors collaborating with their students in order to help them acquire a useful set of skills that will help them in college. She calls it “one of the most important aspects of my job.” She points out that the students she has mentored “select themselves,” meaning that they take the initiative to seek out CSI professors for help with their research. She is also proud of her and Mia’s work because it draws attention to the science of psychology, which she says, “does not receive as much attention as biology or chemistry.” 

“I am proud to be representing New York as the only psychology project chosen for this category, said Mia, reiterating the significance of her award. “At NYCSEF, Behavioral Sciences is the largest category of the competition…it’s definitely great to be representing the scientific community as a high school student.”

For the Love of Japan

Manami Shirai, left, and a friend raise funds for Japan at their College of Staten Island, New York, last week

The devastating images left in the wake of the 9.0 magnitude earthquake which struck Japan on March 11, will, no doubt, linger in our minds for a very long time. For the Japanese people, however, those images are an everyday reality. Officials say over 10,000 people are confirmed dead, and more than 17,000 are missing. They warn that the final toll can reach almost 20,000. But, what continues to stand out amidst the growing tragedy is the resilient spirit of the Japanese. While engineers still do not know the full extent of damage to the country’s infrastructure— brick by brick, the Japanese have started to rebuild their own communities. With helping hands and willing hearts, they stand together, united to the cause.

Japanese Manami Shirai is living proof that the bond they share is indeed unbreakable. Mere days after the earthquake, Shirai, who’s currently on a one-year exchange programme at New York’s College of Staten Island, began organising fund-raising ventures on campus to help Japan. So far, she’s been able to raise more than US$800. “Japanese people don’t show their stress in front of everybody. They can endure anything. If there is a store, no one will steal from that store. Teenagers are becoming volunteers for the elderly and children. Women and wives cook and share with their neighbours,” said the Ueda-Shi, Nagano native. “Even refugees are helping out.” When the T&T Guardian spoke to the 22-year-old last week, she was in the process of wrapping up yet another fund-raiser which she held in the school’s cafeteria. Officials say it will take up to five years and about 25 trillion yen ($309 billion) to rebuild Japan, but Shirai was happy to help, albeit a little. “Every dollar counts,” she told us. “I know students don’t have a lot of money. If I get $1 I’m glad because any amount of money can help right now.”

Something dark
Although Shirai’s family and close friends have survived the disaster, life continues to be an uphill battle. There are renewed fears of a nuclear crisis and simple necessities like water and food are fast becoming scarce commodities. And then there are the aftershocks—officials say Japan has been jolted by record number of aftershocks since the initial quake. “Everything has changed. My dad said our family restaurant is suffering. Because of the tsunami, fishermen cannot get fresh fish. He says his income is about a quarter of what it once was,” she lamented. “I still can’t imagine that that disaster ever happened in Japan. The number of people who are already dead and still missing is the biggest number in our history. It’s more than World War one and two. “My youngest brother tells me that the atmosphere is not what it used to be. He feels something dark is in his life…”

Need to survive

The Elementary Education major will be back in Japan in July, as her exchange programme comes to an end. She noted that she had “mixed feelings” about returning to her country. “I want to go back to Japan as soon as possible but on the other hand, in Staten Island there are only a few Japanese people and if I leave, there will be less Japanese to spread the word and organise activities to help,” she explained. Still, Shirai remains optimistic that her homeland will recover from this latest adversity. But for now, she’s being practical. “Japan is a country which has helped all other countries for many years. Right now we need help. “I know the smaller countries may not be able to do much but I want to ask developed countries like America and Canada to do a little more to assist us,” she said. “My people are still suffering. They need money for food. They need water. They need electricity and gas. They just need to survive.”

This story originally appeared in the Trinidad & Tobago Guardian Online, and is reprinted here with permission.