The CUNY Peer Leaders (CPL) 2022-2023 cohort held their kick-off community-building meeting on Thursday, August 11, 2022. We began the meeting with welcome messages from Lauren Melendez, CUNY Peer Leaders Program Director and Administrative Specialist of the Futures Initiative. As well as Kelsey Milian (CUNY Peer Leaders Facilitator) and Jackie Cahill (Interim Program Coordinator). Cathy Davidson, Founding Director of The Futures Initiative, Distinguished Professor of English, and Senior Advisor to the Chancellor on Transformation also sent a video message to the group, sharing her trust and excitement for this year’s cohort and team. She sent well wishes and is excited to see what is in store! CUNY Peer Leaders facilitator Kelsey then shared CPL’S dedication to providing a safe space for all students regarding COVID-19 safety. With the rapid changes in the city and environment, CPL is staying updated on current health protocols within CUNY and New York City more broadly, to ensure the program continues and remains healthy and safe for all participants.
Jackie began the session by having students give brief introductions. Various academic disciplines are represented in the cohort this year, ranging from forensic psychology to special education, sociology, English literature, Anthropology, and Law. The cohort gathered around to take a quick group photo and began to have a discussion on what Leadership in Higher Education looks like with Lauren. Lauren asked the cohort their motivations for applying and joining CPL. Several members mentioned their excitement to network with other students from diverse backgrounds, identities, and disciplines. Some members shared excitement to get out of their comfort zones and engage in more social activities with a social transformative intention. Lauren spoke on the differences between conventional and unconventional leadership journeys. She highlighted the importance of leadership’s path that might not always be clear-cut. However, having a drive and passion to grow is essential. Several cohort members shared a little about their journeys into leadership, such as finding a passion for mental health by being active listeners in their home community. Another student shared their passion for leadership by describing their path into breaking gendered expectations for women in finance and creating programs that engage participants to dive into creative avenues. Lauren also had testimonial videos from two alum FI Undergraduate Leadership program students; Cherishe Cumma and Steven Pacheco who had conventional and unconventional paths before, during, and after their time at CUNY. Both scholars still have had their own respective successes nonetheless.
One of the continuing CUNY Peer Leaders from last year’s inaugural cohort Sam Ascencio, led our Community Agreements for the kick-off this year. Our inaugural CUNY Peer Leader, Sam , led an exercise on what “presentness” looks like for our hybrid style meetings of in-person and zoom this year. Groups formed to discuss “presentness” and came up with insightful suggestions. These include using emojis and reactions on zoom during meetings and even creating engaging hand signals that create a collective shared experience. Simultaneously, members shared the importance of emotional and mental “presentness” at meetings. This means, not just showing up, but showing out and engaging with their fellow cohort members. Others stressed the importance of communication and mentioning to members of the team when they can or cannot make it to a meeting. Sam also shared the CUNY Peer Leaders Yearbook for each of the students to create a profile page to begin the year! Sam ended the session by asking everyone what safety means to them. Many shared ideas about creating a space to be their full authentic selves. At the same time, someone suggested the idea of establishing trust first before safety and letting people know how they are feeling by simply communicating it.
Co-director Kashema Hutchinson (Co-Director of the CUNY Peer Leaders Program)) led her Leadership in practice presentation by sharing an example of a leader she looks up to, Lauren Melendez! Kashema conveyed the importance of creating a space of love, especially in academia. She encouraged the cohort to write down someone who makes them feel special and like they belong. For Kashema, Lauren is a perfect example because of her active listening and care. Kashema stressed our duty in showing gratitude to the people in our lives who are there for us.
After a lunch break, the CPL team introduced the CUNY Humanities Alliance(HA) members. Ph.D., Humanities Director Luis Henao Uribe introduced himself and fellow Humanities Alliance Graduate Fellows. He stressed a shared love for CUNY as an institution and HA’s exploration in humanities to prepare students for success after school and improve the university, guided by principles of equity and social justice. Addressing the cohort, he stated that “This is an opportunity for you – but you are also a person who makes CUNY better – what you bring to the table is important!” Our Futures Initiative Executive Director, Adashima Oyo Ph.D., followed and introduced The Future Initiative. With a collective goal towards trying to change higher education, she knows this work and opportunity will help members network and interact with people from various disciplines and backgrounds. Humanities Fellows took this time to introduce themselves as well.
Lauren took this time to go over the expectations for the year such as meetings, blogging, and the humanities-based project. With an almost unanimous vote, the cohort decided on a theme for the year: Mental Health! CPL meetings will center around this theme as we build different programs and workshops. To close out the kick-off, Kelsey led the group in reflecting on quotes about leadership by Audre Lorde and Gloria Anzaldúa. CUNY Peer Leaders discussed these quotes and leaders who they also look up to. They offered their own quotes about leadership that resonated with them. These are a few examples of quotes fellow leaders shared: “You can stop swimming now, you’ve finally reached the shore” and “I don’t know whether the bird you are holding is dead or alive, but what I do know is that it is in your hands” – Toni Morrison. It was an exhilarating kick-off, to say the least!