On August 23, 2023, the CUNY Peer Leaders (CPL) convened in the Graduate Center’s Skylight Room to kick off the 2023-2024 academic year. CPL Director Lauren Melendez began the day by making brief introductions, reminding students of how special they are to have been selected for this competitive program, and infused the room with a sense of confidence and belonging at CUNY and at the CPL program. Opening remarks were made by Dr. Cathy N. Davidson, who is the Founding Director of the Futures Initiative at the GC, and Dr. Adashima Oyo, who is the Executive Director of the Futures Initiative and Co-Director of the CUNY Humanities Alliance, of which CPL is a part. Drs. Davidson and Oyo talked about taking advantage of this opportunity to meet with students from different campuses and backgrounds, the diverse community of people at CUNY, and the unique opportunity to have devoted mentors committed to their success.
Facilitators Kelsey Milian and Jackie Cahill led the room in a participatory activity to give everyone a chance to speak and introduce themselves. Everyone stood and formed a large circle around the room, passing around a microphone to share their names, pronouns, CUNY campus, and favorite power stance as a way to tell a story about themselves.
Director Melendez played two video recordings providing testimony, advice and wisdom, from two alumni of the program. Alumni shared how they came to CPL, how transformative it was to have support and community, the importance of having letters of recommendation from CPL Directors when applying for jobs and graduate school, and how the professional development they received through the program built them up as community leaders and writers, and gave them a better understanding of the world.
Director Melendez then engaged the room in a reflective activity, asking, “What Kind of Leader are You?” inviting students to share whether they see themselves as conventional or unconventional leaders. Students talked about being leaders on their campuses, in their families as older siblings, and in their communities. The discussion touched on leadership as a form of care and looking out for others; patience and willingness to let people be themselves and speak for themselves; encouraging and guiding others to live their lives; and making room for missteps and errors along the way. One student said, “Leaders take from their own experiences to help others understand their experiences.” Director Melendez summarized, “We pay it forward. The leadership that you’ll experience in this program is not hierarchical. As much of what you bring to your peers and families, you can bring here as well.”
After a short break, Facilitator Milian asked participants to take a look at quotations placed at each round table and to reflect and discuss them as a group:
“Though we tremble before uncertain futures may we meet illness, death, and adversity with strength may we dance in the face of our fears” – Gloria Anzaldúa
“What we say and do ultimately comes back to us so let us own our responsibility, place it in our hands, and carry it with dignity and strength” – Gloria Anzaldúa
“It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.” – Audre Lorde
“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” – Audre Lorde
Each table reported back to the larger room, sharing their small group reflections before breaking for lunch.
Dr. Luke Waltzer, who is Director of the Teaching and Learning Center (TLC) at the GC, spoke about his work at the TLC and Humanities Alliance. He noted that there would be future opportunities for the CUNY Peer Leaders to speak on panels about teaching at CUNY, and how much their perspective is valued among faculty. He reminded students that the GC is also a space where they are welcome outside of CPL programming, that there are public talks, performances, and events open to everyone and that would benefit from undergraduate participation. Dr. Luis Henao Uribe, who is the Humanities Director at the TLC, also introduced himself and shared how much he looks forward to learning from them in the showcase at the end of the year.
Facilitators Milian and Cahill then guided the room in a collaborative activity to form a CPL music playlist for the year. Everyone picked 1-2 songs that resonate with them in their bodies and shared why they chose them with their peers at the small tables. The songs will be added to a communal Spotify playlist.
Concluding the day with a few administrative matters and an invitation to join a WhatsApp group chat for immediate connection and peer-to-peer sharing, Director Melendez thanked everyone for coming and bravely sharing their reflections and stories with one another. Facilitator Milian reminded the leaders that each of them was chosen for a reason, a fact that could give them confidence and buoy them as they face the challenges that come with the start of a new academic year. Everyone left the kickoff event feeling inspired and connected to a very special community of support and leadership development at CUNY, a perfect way to start the year in our best power stances.
Christina Katopodis, PhD, is the Senior Postdoctoral Research Associate of the Humanities Alliance at CUNY and coauthor, with Cathy N. Davidson, of The New College Classroom (Harvard University Press, 2022).