Mother-Daughter Team Graduate CSI Together

Caren Fall and Christine McWatt at CSI's 2017 Commencement.

In spring 2017, Caren Fall and Christine McWatt had developed serious cases of senioritis.

Fall was returning to college after many years of being out of school.

McWatt was entering college as a freshman after graduating from Port Richmond High School.

It was a challenging road to graduation, but this mother-daughter team had plenty to celebrate at CSI’s Commencement in May 2017.

“Having the privilege to graduate with my mother was an honor. I was ecstatic when I found out that she was going to graduate with her degree with me,” said McWatt, who graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology.

“I was definitely honored and excited to graduate with my daughter,” Fall said, explaining that her college career began 31 years ago, but was halted due to migration to the U.S. from Guyana and health concerns.

“I made a vow that once my daughter became self-sufficient and independent, I would go back to college. So naturally I am excited and thrilled that I was able to go back to college after all these years and graduate with her,” said Fall, who received a Bachelor’s of Science Degree in Business Management. The Mariner’s Harbor resident, who maintained a 3.6 GPA, also received a faculty nomination to join the Sigma Beta Delta Honor Society for Business Management and Administration and the CSI Auxiliary Services Corporation Award for Academic Excellence in Management.

“My mother made so many sacrifices when she had me to make sure I became successful, and the fact that she was able to go back to school when I was a senior in high school and now earn her degree made me so proud of her and to have her as my mom,” said McWatt, a recipient of the Summer/Fall 2016 Dean’s Research Award, who conducted research with Dr. Ellen-ge Denton and Dr. Collette Chapman-Hilliard on African American students’ academic achievement.

A scholarly duo, Fall and McWatt, studied in their dining room together, helped and supported each other with classes, proofread each others’ papers, and swapped math formulas.  McWatt even delivered lunch to her mom when she was putting in long hours studying in the CSI Library.

McWatt, a Brooklyn native, notes that having her mother enrolled in college “gave me more motivation to complete my degree.”

“During my sophomore year of college, I was feeling really discouraged and thought that I would not finish college in four years like I planned. My mother really pushed me to stick it out and not give up,” said McWatt, also a Mariners Harbor resident, and a pharmacy technician at CVS. She is also a contestant in the 2017 Miss Black Staten Island/Richmond County Competition.

McWatt will be attending Brooklyn College as a NYC Teaching Fellow and working toward earning a Master’s in Education. Fall plans to continue working at Trinity School in Manhattan while pursuing a business venture.



68th Commencement Celebrates the Class of 2017

The 68th CSI Commencement took place on the Great Lawn.

Gray skies and cool temperatures could not quell the enthusiasm among the graduating Class of 2017, and their mentors, families, and friends as they all gathered on the Great Lawn of the College of Staten Island for the institution’s 68th Commencement. This year marked the largest graduating class in the school’s 60-year history with 2,994 January and June grads, and 297 August 2017 candidates.

After introductory remarks from CSI Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Gary Reichard, PhD, CSI President William J. Fritz, PhD, spoke about the College’s legacy of mission. Using comments from the first Commencement at Staten Island Community College in 1958 from then SICC President Walter Willig; Staten Island Borough President Albert V. Maniscalco; and College founder Arleigh B. Williamson, Dr. Fritz underscored the continuity of mission that has been an integral part of CSI from the beginning, “the opportunity to raise oneself through academic excellence; the opportunity to lift community; and the opportunity to advance society; in sum, the opportunity to ascend. From an initial student body of 111 to 14,000 today—our mission remains the same.”

Following remarks from CUNY Trustees Rita DiMartino and Jill O’Donnell-Tormey, as well as CUNY Vice Chancellor and University CIO Brian Cohen, Associate Professor of Philosophy Barbara Montero, PhD, offered words of encouragement to the graduates on behalf of the faculty. Dr. Montero used her comments to discuss the importance of neural plasticity, the brain’s natural ability to form new neural connections, thus strengthening and regenerating, as a way of encouraging the grads to continue in their intellectual pursuits to improve their brains throughout their lives. “Increasing your brain power doesn’t have to stop at graduation. It’s more than simply living up to your potential; you can, in a very good sense of the word, increase your potential. But it takes work,” she said.

This year’s valedictorian, Palwasha Syar, a Macaulay Honors College student, who received a Bachelor of Science degree in Biochemistry, spoke on behalf of the Class of 2017. After discussing the move from her native Pakistan to the U.S. when she was 12 and the often difficult transition that she had to make to life in the U.S., Syar offered stories of others who overcame adversity and challenges to get a CSI degree. She stated, “Our campus is full of diverse and tough students who went through many obstacles to sit here today and graduate. These challenges, on top of the stress from taking finals and pulling all-nighters to complete that 15-page paper, show that you are strong and that you are committed. It means that all of you today have perseverance and the tenacity to follow through with your goals.” Syar also offered some advice to her fellow grads to not be afraid of obstacles and failures, and to celebrate the people around them.

Also during the ceremony, the College bestowed four honorary degrees: Deirdre DeAngelis, Principal of New Dorp High School, as well as publishers and College benefactors Peter and Robin Jovanovich, received the degree of Doctoral of Humane Letters; Margaret Ricciardi, ’86, who is still attending art classes at CSI at age 103, received a Doctor of Arts degree; and a Doctor of Science degree went to Dr. Andy Shih, the Senior Vice President for Public Health and Inclusion at Autism Speaks.

Departmental Commencement exercises followed the main ceremony at various locations across campus.




Palwasha Syar ’17: CSI Valedictorian Never Loses

Palwasha Syar poses at Commencement.

During her speech at the College of Staten Island’s (CSI) 68th Commencement, Palwasaha Syar ’17, CSI’s valedictorian of the graduating Class of 2017, quoted Nelson Mandela: “I never lose. I either win, or I learn.” Her meaningful words were in reference to the life lessons she learned during her time as a student at CSI.

Syar graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry with plans to attend medical school.

“CSI was the place where I was accepted for who I was. … leaving it is like leaving my home… CSI has also shaped me into the strong woman that I am today,” she said, while also conveying her sentiments of challenge and triumph at CSI.

Syar shared the spotlight with several of her fellow graduates, relaying stories about their varying struggles to arrive at graduation. One student, Erin Richards, a single mother of four, while attending classes also had to manage the care of her children. Another, Andrea Dalzell, was diagnosed with Transverse Myelitis and is currently graduating from the Nursing program.

Syar further asked those in attendance to “celebrate the people around you… Learning about people’s lives and the struggles they go through will give you new perspective on your problems… Learning about others allows us to connect with them. Listening to others’ stories gives us courage and remind us that we are not alone in our struggles.”

Syar has an impressive track record of being active outside of the classroom. Along with a long list of internships, she volunteered with the CSI Emerging Leaders and also joined the CUNY Service Corps, volunteering at the Staten Island Youth Court.

Palwasha Syar delivering her Commencement speech.

“I think it is very important to get experiences outside of the classroom… since I have been blessed with so much, it is very important for me to give back. I would like to continue my service in the future, and take my medical degree to work in impoverished areas,” noted Syar, who emigrated from Pakistan to the U.S. when she was 12 years old.

Facing both social and financial challenges when she arrived, and moving several times within New York State, she found it hard to make friends. Coupling this with her challenge to master the English language, the young Syar felt “lonely and isolated.”

During her initial visits to New York City, she was in awe of her new surroundings. She noted, “the skyscrapers in the city were so high that my hat used to fall of my head when I used to look up at them.”

After her plans to attend medical school, Syar plans to continue to give back to the community. She intends to open her own medical practice in the U.S. and also volunteer in poor and underserved areas in Pakistan.

“I would like to take the skills and values I have learned here and apply them to my service in developing countries,” she commented.

Syar concluded her speech by thanking her parents, sisters, and aunt, who came from Pakistan to attend the Commencement. She also thanked the faculty and staff who supported her and her friends who made her experience at CSI so memorable.

Syar proudly exclaimed, “It has been an absolute honor standing here in front of you all giving this speech. I would like to thank you all and Congratulations, Class of 2017!”

Melissa Riggio Graduation Ceremony Celebrates Student Achievement

Ryan Mienert, Lisa Marie Loesch, and Christopher Siani at the Melissa Riggio Graduation Ceremony

Melissa Riggio once penned that, “Love is everything, Love is all around, Love is not hopeless, Love is a passion, Love is an ocean.” Riggio’s poem, “Love is a potion,” was aptly quoted by College of Staten Island (CSI) President William J. Fritz at the AHRC New York City and CSI Continuing Education Melissa Riggio Higher Education Program Graduation Ceremony on the CSI campus.

Certainly Riggio’s sentiments seemed to have carried on as three beaming students received certificates of completion at what became a standing-room-only event at CSI’s Lorraine and Gordon Di Paolo Boardroom.

Lisa Marie Loesch, Ryan Mienert, and Christopher Siani celebrated their accomplishments with family, friends, and CSI officials as part of the graduating class of 2017, the first group of students to complete the new four-year course of study, which includes a number of additional learning activities and more closely reflects the baccalaureate experience.

“We are here tonight to celebrate you Lisa, Ryan, and Chris. You worked hard,” said Executive Director of Continuing Education and Professional Development Chris Cruz Cullari, who detailed the unique qualities of each student.

“Lisa Marie has amazing presentation and communication skills. She truly owns the room, said Cruz Cullari, adding that he is confident that Loesch will find her niche in a leadership role.

“Ryan has a tremendous work ethic. Over the years, he has helped my office at a number of events here at the College and out in the community… and finally, Chris’ enthusiasm about what he is learning and about his career goals is a very relevant model for what engaged and forward looking college students should be in 2017,” noted Cruz Cullari.

“We have been talking a lot at the College about our legacy… We are also mindful that that our history includes our important role as the place where the rights, needs, and lives of people with disabilities were brought to the forefront of local, regional, and national discussion. This year, I am focusing on our legacy of mission and our 61-year history of providing access to the highest-quality education,” Dr. Fritz said.

Chris Cruz Cullari, Ife Okoh, Program graduates, Kenichi Iwama, and Dr. Fritz gather at the Ceremony.

The CSI President also noted that, “Many people view our place, our Willowbrook campus, as the beginning of the movement for the civil rights of people with developmental disabilities,” and outlined some of the “wonderful collaborations between the College and the Melissa Riggio Higher Education Program,” including a recent lecture presented by The Geraldo Rivera Fund for Social Work and Disability Studies, as well as The Willowbrook Memorial Lecture: “The Willowbrook Mile Experience.”

Vice President for Economic Development, Continuing Studies, and Government Relations Kenichi Iwama recalled the first Program’s graduation in 2013, a smaller event, which has grown over the four years since its inception. Iwama noted that this was the first graduation ceremony to take place in the Lorraine and Gordon Di Paolo Boardroom since its renaming this year, an occasion that “signifies the level of importance and value this Program brings to CSI.”

“The College celebrates its 60-year mission of changing lives, and the Melissa Riggio Program has certainly helped in that mission. The success of this Program and the students we celebrate this evening are incredibly meaningful and inspirational, and I am proud to be a small part of the Program’s success,” said Iwama, who thanked all faculty, staff, students, and family members for their efforts.

The Riggio Program also features a senior project wherein students are engaged in research about a local social challenge, work to positively affect the challenge through community service, and ultimately share their research and experience with the campus and the community, according to Cruz Cullari.

Program Director Ife Okoh acted as master of ceremonies and called the evening, “a monumental milestone in the lives of these graduates.”

Cruz Cullari also pointed out that the students in the Riggio Program are “not the only ones who are learning and growing.  The College is learning and growing,” as he detailed some of the ways in which the Melissa Riggio students, the Program, and Program staff are giving back to the campus. These include teaching all CSI students, as well as its faculty and staff, what a diverse and fully inclusive environment can look like, providing valuable jobs and internships to CSI students as mentors, and contributing to disability and Universal Design initiatives and other projects on campus.

“We are not only celebrating the graduates this evening. We are thanking the graduates and the Program more broadly for all that both have done,” Cruz Cullari pointed out.

The Melissa Riggio Higher Education Program at CSI is a fully inclusive college-based program designed to prepare people with intellectual disabilities for adult life through higher-education coursework, career exploration and preparation, self-awareness and personal improvement, community preparation, and socialization. Newly designed as a four-year certificate program, it provides individualized academic, vocational, community, and social experiences for young adults in a highly supportive, yet challenging, environment.



CSI Shines in CSTEP Competition

Monique Johnson and Norhan Sobhi at the CSTEP Conference

Three College of Staten Island (CSI) students and one alumna claimed impressive wins in the New York State Education Department’s (NYSED) 25th Annual Statewide Collegiate Science and Technology Entry Program (CSTEP) Student Science Competition. Jemima Kadima ’16, Monique Johnson ’18, Saleh Smadi ’17, and Norhan Sobhi ’17, all participants of the NYSED CSTEP program, were winners in oral and poster presentations.

The CSTEP competition attracts students from all over the state who compete in various categories relating to science and technology. CSI students took home three awards.

Debra Evans, Project Director for CSTEP, commented, “Our CSTEP students are truly amazing; watching their transformation from challenging their fears to witnessing the various levels of growth, is a reward in itself, and I am honored to have a part of their development.”

The students are mentored by Department of Biology Professors Abdeslem El Idrissi, PhD; Alejandra Alonso, PhD; and Nancy Liu-Sullivan.

Saleh Smadi stands beside his poster presentation.

Sobhi, a Verrazano School student, and Johnson, a Macaulay Honors College student, both placed first in the field of medicine in the oral research competition. Their project, “Exploring GBM-Targeting Drug Synergism Using 3D Cell Culture Model System,” took a look at Glioblastoma Multiforme (GBM), which is a form of brain cancer that has no known cure and a high mortality rate. They suspected that the signaling pathways that allowed the growth of GBM were the cause of the aggressiveness. Guided by Dr. Sullivan, their research aimed to try to block these signals using “a 3D cell structure system.” They also used two different methods and plan on reporting their findings on tumor growth and signal disruption soon.

Sobhi and Johnson are Medical Technology majors and Dean’s List students. Their findings will potentially help find possible solutions to manage GBM and decrease its high mortality rate.

Smadi placed second in the poster competition in the Biology 2 category. His project “Gestation Exposure to DBP in the Etiology of Autism” looked at the exposure of dibutyl phthalate (DBP) and its role among genes associated with autism. Preliminary findings suggest that “gestational exposure to low doses of DBP causes neuro behavioral abnormalities” as stated in the CSTEP Conference Journal. This abnormality causes a domino effect where the gestation inhibitors malfunction and the result is a developmental delay. Under the supervision of Dr. El Idrissi, Smadi hopes to link these findings from their laboratory test on mice to humans.

Jemima Kadima presenting at the Conference.

Kadima also placed second in the poster competition, but this time in the Biology 1 category. Her project was titled “Investigation of the behavioral effects of Alzheimer-like pseudophosrylated TAU in young mice.” Supervised by Dr. Alonso, the research was aimed at connecting  the reaction between two genes to TAU phosphorylation. These genes affect how severe or early Alzheimer’s can begin to. Currently, there have been no distinct differences between the genes. According to Kadima’s report in the CSTEP Conference Journal,  her research can help “lead to new treatments, which will aim to prevent or reduce the chances of an individual developing Alzheimer’s disease.”



MSW Student Chandra Keller ’17: Big Plans for Positive Change

Chandra Keller '17 (left) and her "bestie" on a cruise in 2016.

Chandra Keller ’17 has ambitious plans and a very workable strategy: The College of Staten Island (CSI) student wants to change the world, one life at a time. Keller will graduate this spring with a Master’s of Social Work as an advanced-standing student. 

“This degree that specializes in Disability Studies is the only one of its kind in the country, and I know that it will open so many doors for those of us who are fortunate enough to possess it. It will allow us to change the face of social work as we know it,” said Keller, who plans to explore the possibility of a PhD program as well as opening a clinic for people with disabilities that will be located near underserved communities.

“I desire to empower people to know that they can do and be better. I want to be that person that they can come to with their problems and together we can find solutions,” commented the Bronx native, who is a vice president with Local 420 for DC 37, a Local 420 Delegate, and a Behavioral Health Aide at Bellevue Hospital. She is also interning at New York Foundling, a foster care agency, while she finishes her degree. 

An active member in her church, The Love Fellowship Tabernacle, The Kingdom Church, located in Brooklyn under the leadership of Senior Pastor Bishop Hezekiah Walker, Keller sings in two choirs and is a member of the Steward committee, visiting sick and bereaved individuals in the community. Keller is also a member of the Women of Excellence and a street ministry team, The Crusaders for Christ. 

Keller (middle) at a picnic in 2016.

As vice president, Keller assists the 1,400 members of the union to resolve issues, and as a DC 37 Delegate for Local 420, she travels the country advocating for hospital workers. She received a Bachelor’s degree in Social Work from Lehman College in 2013.   

The dedicated student attributes much of her academic success to the faculty and staff at CSI. 

“I believe that we learn something from everyone who comes into our lives, and there are many people at CSI who have helped and encouraged me along the way. Some of them never knew it,” commented Keller, who, in particular, was greatly motivated by Vandana Chaudhry, PhD, who showed her “the true meaning of perseverance.” 

“Chandra is a determined and hard working person that never gives up. I am happy and proud for her accomplishments, and wish her all the best in her endeavors. She will make a fine contribution to disability and social justice causes,” said Dr. Chaudhry.

She is also grateful for the tutelage of Professor Constance Stafford for “having patience with our class and really making us think and put to use the things that you were being taught” and to her peer Ilyssa Silfen for “returning every phone call, always being there for me, and for going out of her way to always find any information that I requested.” 

“Chandra Keller encapsulates the essence of social work professionalism.  Ms. Keller’s professional identity ensued from her commitment to social justice and her educational undertaking to facilitate changes in the lives of children, families, birthmothers and foster parents through her internship at the Bronx Foundling agency.  After 12 years of employment as a Behavioral Health Aid at Bellevue Hospital forensic psychiatric unit, and now equipped with the core set of values underpinning social work, I welcome with confidence  Ms. Keller to the profession of social work,”  said Professor Stafford, Manager of Professional Student Services and Assistant Director of Field Education in the Department of Social Work.

Keller’s advice to college students is to, “stay focused, never give up, keep a positive attitude, ignore the distractions that keep us from moving forward, don’t be afraid to ask for help, keep pressing forward, live fearlessly, and shoot for the Moon. Even if you miss, you will land among the stars.”

CSI Students Teaching with Technology

Dean Gold (far left) and Dr. Lyublinskaya (far right) with CSI students holding their completion certificates.

While approximately 5,379 miles lie between the College of Staten Island (CSI) and Russia, that did not stop ten CSI students from collaborating with students at the Pedagogic Institute of Vladimir State University in Russia on the “Development of Elementary School Technology-based Geometry Curriculum and Field Testing of Materials with Pre-Service Elementary School Teachers” Project.

Made possible through a $40,000 grant from the Eurasia Foundation U.S.-Russia University Partnership Program funded by the U.S. Department of State, the project was comprised of several components. First, CSI Education students worked with their Russian counterparts via Skype on learning how to use and effectively teach with an app called GeoGebra. Once adequately trained through a series of Saturday workshops, students then applied their new skills, teaching elementary school children using the app at three Staten Island schools: PS 31, 45, and 48.

Led by Irina Lyublinskaya, PhD, Professor of Curriculum and Instruction at CSI, the initiative is a partnership between the School of Education at CSI and the Pedagogic Institute at the Vladimir State University. As part of the project goals, Dr. Lyublinskaya and Dr. Svetlana Tikhomirova, her counterpart at Vladimir State, also developed curriculum materials for an elective short course for pre-service teachers during their student teaching experience. This course provides professional development on teaching geometry with computer technology in elementary schools.

Dr. Lyublinskaya also provided the expertise in technology, integrating mathematics teaching and learning, with Dr. Tikhomirova, Professor of Mathematics at Vladimir State.

“While the U.S. education system is well known for the implementation of inquiry-based approaches to teaching and for using educational software for student explorations and learning, the Russian education system is well known for its rigorous approach to mathematics content starting as early as elementary school, and for strong foundations in mathematics teaching methods. Combining expertise from both countries will lead to an enhanced experience for pre-service teachers in both universities,” said Dr. Lyublinskaya.

The project culminated in a ceremony when participating students received completion certificates from Kenneth Gold, PhD, Founding Dean of the School of Education, and also small gifts that Dr. Lyublinskaya brought back from Russia. Professor Ruth Silverberg, Chair of the Department of Educational Studies; Deirdre Armitage, PhD, Director of Fieldwork; and Margaret Berci, PhD, Chair of the Department of Curriculum and Instruction were also present, engaging in introspective questions with the students regarding their confidence in teaching mathematics with technology.

“My students loved working with the iPads since they do not get to use technology too often in the classroom… Incorporating technology really made it a fun learning experience. I will definitely be using GeoGebra in my future lessons,” noted CSI student Ermina Dragovic ’17.

“Working with GeoGebra was a rewarding experience. Not only did I gain confidence in integrating technology into my lessons, but also feel more comfortable teaching mathematics. The students, with all different learning abilities, all did equally well on the activity. I am going to continue using this APP in future mathematic lessons, while also researching about other APPS to use for literacy, too!,” said Emily Arredondo.

“The most enjoyable aspects of the workshops were being able to collaborate with student teachers in another country, working together as a group to participate in this research, and learning more about the use of technology in the classroom though mathematics,” commented CSI student Gabriela Belfiore ‘17.

“I am so pleased that students benefitted from an outstanding exchange program without having to leave their home country.  This was very much a project of the 21st Century.  Through technology, Russian and U.S. students collaborated on the teaching of mathematics with technology,” noted Kenneth M. Gold, PhD, Founding Dean of the School of Education.

The U.S.-Russia University Partnership Program (UPP) is an initiative for mutual cultural and academic collaboration that connects higher education institutions in Russia and U.S. with one another, and supports the launch of new bilateral partnerships. UPP is implemented by the Eurasia Foundation (U.S.) and the National Training Foundation (Russian Federation) with funding from the U.S. Department of State.