On May 19, 2022, excitement and anticipation reverberated through LaGuardia’s M401A; it’s not every day that Student Success Mentors (SSMs) are invited to sit down for a conversation with CUNY’s Chancellor Felix Matos-Rodriguez, and we were nervous! For us, the opportunity to meet the chancellor was an honor, a rare chance to show ourselves and to be ourselves as we described the integral role the SSM program plays in the student experience. We hoped to share our mentoring experiences fully and openly; Student Success Mentors now, we had once been new students and we could speak to the demands and challenges of college life.
A group of former and current LaGuardia students, most of us hadn’t been in a closed space since March 2020, before the pandemic. If I had a flutter of nerves before the chancellor’s arrival, I was absolutely rigid when reporters swarmed in like paparazzi with their camera shutters and flashes. But, entering the room behind the cameras, Chancellor Matos-Rodriguez responded to our “Bienvenidos” easily, “Mucho gracias! Buenos dias!” Any previous jitters were remedied by his warmth; for me, being with the chancellor was a human experience, the opposite of a dynamic of power. For just under an hour, our conversation was seamless, organic, and comfortable.
During our discussion, my fellow mentors and I felt pride as the chancellor listened attentively to our descriptions of the wide-reaching impact of the First Year Seminar (FYS). He learned that in the FYS every new LaGuardia student, including transfers, is introduced to their discipline major and academic life. We highlighted our role as facilitators of the FYS Studio Hour, as the bridge that connects students to LaGuardia’s amazingly helpful resources and supports faculty knowledge of the student perspective.
The chancellor was particularly interested our training in the practices of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Estefany Gonzaga, Coordinator of the Student Success Mentor program, offered the example of exercises that raise SSM awareness of our own biases, stressing empathy as one of the program’s core values, a practice necessary to establishing successful relations with students from different backgrounds. In my Studio Hour work, I have realized that it is through the practice of empathy that mentors guide students to a unique voice—their own. We articulated our goal of instilling in students the power to advocate for themselves, a skill that increases the power to advocate for others and cultivate a society of empowerment.
Although we cannot fully prepare students for specific situations, we can model empathy, as well as the habits of mind that can be taken beyond the exceptional community of the College to their personal and professional lives. Fellow mentor Kristina Graham expressed this sentiment best:
I am very proud to [be] a part of students’ journeys from their first experience with higher education until their last days at LaGuardia, before they embark on further education pursuits or professional endeavors.
As we shared our work with Chancellor Matos-Rodriguez, we asserted our broader goals as student leaders—to urge students out of their comfort zones, to overcome “nerves” just as we overcame ours when introduced to the chancellor. As a father of a college student whose campus experiences are not unlike our own, Chancellor Matos-Rodriguez expressed sincere appreciation for the Student Success Mentor program’s commitment to guiding LaGuardia students toward tenacity and fortitude.
I wish to acknowledge David Brandt, Estefany Gonzaga, Kristina Graham, John Griffin, Talha Islam, Melisa Morgan, and Ellen Quish for a memorable experience. We appreciate the coordination and support of the President’s Office and Marketing and Communications in organizing our visit with Chancellor Matos- Rodriguez. The Student Success Mentors are grateful to the College for the opportunity to share our experiences as students and mentors.