During the Fall of the 2023 school year, the CUNY Peer Leaders and Humanities Alliance Fellowship cohorts met on Zoom for a session centered on deep listening, led by Dr. Christina Katopodis. Academia often breeds a sense of hustle, competition, and isolation, and an intentional cultivation of presence in a collective setting can have a transformative effect. Our facilitator Christina set the intention for our gathering with Beronda L. Montgomery’s Lessons From Plants: plants are “stuck” where they are for their entire lives — we ought to take care of ourselves and each other the way we take care of plants: adjusting environmental conditions so everyone can thrive, not blaming individuals for their “failure” to thrive in higher education. What plants teach us is that it is possible to thrive when we decide to collaborate, as opposed to compete, with our neighbors — it is possible, and much more fun, to support one another in mutual thriving so that none of us sits alone with our struggles.
To begin with, each of us was encouraged to share the path that had led us to our CUNY colleges. We quickly discovered how many roundabouts most of us had to take before landing, as well as just how far some of us had had to travel to get there. Some mentioned having been part of a “bridge” program, such as the Macaulay Honors program, or the TASC diploma at Grace Outreach, a program dedicated to helping adult women return to school and gain employment. Others, many who come from overseas or just from out of the city, had heard about CUNY through friends and family and became curious about the possibility of entering the CUNY system. There were some of us who mentioned the quality of a specific program as the decisive factor in coming to CUNY; for instance, the science-based liberal arts program at Hostos and the Music program at the Graduate Center.
Many of us shared the sentiment of being attracted to the city itself, to the opportunity to live and grow educationally in a city where we hoped to find the experiences and people that perhaps only New York has to offer. For the vast majority of us, CUNY’s relentless fight to remain affordable was a weighty reason that drew us to it as well. Our testimonials were a great reminder of what CUNY, despite its many shortcomings, makes it possible for many of us who desire and deserve to get higher education but who believe that such an option should be affordable for everyone.
As in a new life, so in the pursuit of higher education does it take a village to raise a person, so we took some time to highlight the kinds of support that each of us received as we set on our paths to CUNY. Many mothers and fathers and older siblings received shout outs, as did wives and uncles/aunties. While it is advantageous in numerous ways to have academy-specific guidance from our parents, many of us have been on the receiving end of familial love and support even when nobody else in our families had gone to college before us, and that holds its special beauty. Luckily, there is an abundance of selfless, attentive teachers, advisors, and educators of all kinds who have taken many of us under their wing. One of us mentioned feeling recognized and capable after her fifth grade teacher encouraged her to lean into what they had identified as an “educator’s propensity” — years down the line, this recognition “led [her] to [her] first job as a science teacher at an after school program for underserved youths”. For others, navigating the sometimes implausibly complex educational system wouldn’t have been possible without advisors’ help. Some of the participants had come from CUNY’s Pipeline Program, which provided structured help in transitioning from undergraduate to graduate programs.
Some participants have been in CUNY for longer, earning scholarships and fellowships along the way to sustain their continued education. It is possible, even as a sixth or seventh year graduate student, to be supported as a PhD candidate, with for instance a 5-year funding package at the Graduate Center, as well as fellowships at the Teaching and Learning Center, and of course, at the Humanities Alliance Fellowship program. It was mentioned a miscellanea of opportunities across CUNY colleges, and beyond, through which some of our participants have been able to fund their projects and degrees, such as the CUNY Research Scholars Program (CRSP) and the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program.
But it’s not all about the hustle. What is it that motivates us to pursue education? How does a possible path in a graduate program align with our core principles and that which we want to see flourish in the world? Or even better yet, how will an educational path shape our principles and us as people, as thinkers, as agents of goodness in the world? These are all questions that, when answered, may or may not lead us exactly where we want to go to. Hearing each other tell our origin stories before we became CUNY heroes/heroines gave us the opportunity to reflect on those other deeper pursuits we’re all engaged in. All that got accomplished on the way to CUNY, said one participant, came from “God first of all,” “the driving force and the #1 reason why [they’ve] made it this far.” And as a word to the wise, a HA Fellow encouraged us “to tap into [our] inner being and guidance system for what only [we, individually] can know is best for [us] and which skills, talents and goals are right for that time, and what is yet to come.”
One of the beautiful effects of engaging in deep listening is the way it shifts our relationship to each other’s differences. In the bureaucratized context of academic gatherings, those differences we perceive in one another can sometimes get in the way of being present to each other’s contributions. That is to say, listening deeply to our experiences can mean that differences in rank, academic year, and the other many factors that account for our different positionalities, are suspended momentarily in favor of the chance to relate to others on the basis of where we are now—everything that brought us to this zoom room we were all sharing.
This blog post was authored by Inma Naima Zanoguera.