Humanities Alliance

Transformative Collaboration: A Conversation with Francisco Medina

By his own admission, former LaGuardia undergraduate and current Mellon Humanities Alliance Fellow Francisco Medina enrolled in LaGuardia by accident. In the handful of years since, with a pool player’s precision and focus, he has aimed to improve education for community college students. A doctoral candidate in the Urban Education program at the CUNY Graduate Center,  Mellon Humanities Fellow, and psychology adjunct on the LaGuardia campus, Francisco once served the Center for Teaching and Learning as an undergraduate Student Technology Mentor. His belief in the reciprocal transformation of teacher and learner, inspired by his early days at LaGuardia, undergirds his current student-focused research, and infuses his classroom with the promise of change. On a recent spring afternoon, Francisco sat down with Michele Piso Manoukian, (Associate Director, CTL)) to reflect on some changes in his own life, and to offer predictions about the future of higher education.

MICHELE MANOUKIAN It’s wonderful that you know so much about our campus. It’s almost as if you’ve been raised here.

FRANCISCO MEDINA You are right, and in some ways, I’ve never really left LaGuardia. How I arrived here is a funny story. I moved to the United States from Puerto Rico in 2011. Like many LaGuardia students, I was first generation; I didn’t have anyone who was helping me. I knew that I wanted to go to college, but I didn’t know how to get in. I didn’t know about financial aid; I knew nothing about the institution. I just applied to every college I came across, including every CUNY campus. I applied to LaGuardia because the name sounded Hispanic to me! It was a really random decision, but honestly, it turned out to be the best decision of my life. I ended up in the psychology department, which is where I met Professor Eduardo Vianna and Professor Lara Beaty.

MICHELE Wow, random but fortunate! What happened when you studied with Eduardo and Lara? Their commitment to our students, to our campus, is deep.

FRANCISCO Yes, precisely. My passion for academia and graduate school started when I took Eduardo’s course. We didn’t just read the textbook in his class; he showed us the depth of psychology, and brought us into questions of epistemology, of ontologies, of pathology. My mind was blown. I remember we were reading a paper about biology, and in it was the line, “Biology is political.” That sentence just blew my mind. At nineteen, I never thought that biology was political. I really leaned into that class and that’s when I fell in love with academia.

MICHELE Eduardo must have witnessed the change in you. I’m assuming he invited you to consider joining PALC (Peer Activist Learning Community.) What was valuable about that experience? Lara’s work with SERG engaged students in similar ways, right?

FRANCISCO Yes, Lara was also researching student experiences on campus. In PALC, students conducted research into what we were learning in our classes, and how it was changing us and transforming our everyday lives. Through PALC, I got involved in the Psychology Club, and that’s how I met Lara and joined her research project. The funny thing is that before those projects, I was a very shy student. I never spoke in class, never thought of myself as “smart.” But gradually, as members of PALC, we presented our research at conferences and experienced the responses of other people, which was really exciting at that point of my life. Those extracurricular or co-curricular experiences gave me a lot more confidence, and my understanding of myself as a learner changed. At each conference, I fell more in love with the work that we were doing. After graduation, I kept in touch, particularly with PALC, and now most of my work is tied to education in psychology, which is what I teach at LaGuardia.

MICHELE I can appreciate why you’ve remained connected. LaGuardia has inspired you; your research and teaching life are motivated by those early pivotal moments as a learner. When we were setting up the interview, you wrote that you want to know about the ways community college students “co-transform and breathe life into theories of human development by situating them in their lives, in their everyday experiences.” Breathing life into theories versus theories snuffing out life. I loved that.

FRANCISO Right. I began teaching at LaGuardia during the pandemic; from the academic literature I’d already learned that there is a deficit view of community colleges and community college students. However, what I found in my classroom was the complete opposite. To me, my students were genius. They had so much knowledge, perhaps not expressed in ways legible to academia—but to me, clearly, they knew so much. That knowledge changed not only my pedagogy—they confronted and transformed the textbook’s psychological theories and outdated concepts—Piaget, for example, and Freud.

I wanted to know more about how students responded to concepts created at a very specific time and context, in a very specific society within a world that is not the same world that people lived in when those concepts were formed. For example, what happens when a class interrupts and challenges these narratives of ‘desirable’ development? Actually, my initial dissertation topic changed as a result of my students’ conceptions—and misconceptions—of certain theories. My dissertation focus is now exactly at the intersection of transformative, decolonial, and critical approaches to developmental psychology and education.

MICHELE I imagine that yours is a classroom of interactions and relation building–with the text, to each other, and with you. This feels different from, you know, “I’m going to teach you this and this!”

FRANCISCO I feel I’m against that idea of ‘teaching;’ instead, I’m relating to my students and through that relationship something happens; the energy is bidirectional. I want to know more about what can occur when students’ worldviews are incorporated into the theoretical production of the field.

MICHELE Your comment about discovering students’ “misconception” gaps reminds me of the subway signs: “Mind the gap.” We should always mind the gap, but not, as you implied earlier, for evidence of failure but for the questions that can emerge. And you also bring to mind Eric Mazur’s work on flipping classrooms with hundreds of students in lectures to discussion groups about what they didn’t know. His pedagogy was transformed by his students’ gaps too, and his personal transformation story is really wonderful.

Let’s go back to your memories of being a learner at LaGuardia and your description of your current life as a teacher. Could you talk a bit about the ways these experiences have deepened or altered your understanding of the community college’s mission? What would you like others to know about teaching and learning at community colleges and about your role as a Humanities Alliance Fellow?

FRANCISCO In my role as a Fellow, I assist Professor Tonya Hendrix in developing the ePortfolio for liberal arts. Tonya is a professor of biology in our Natural Science department, and one of the HA faulty partners at LaGuardia. She’s been working on re-designing and updating the Liberal Arts Core ePortfolio to make it more integrative and relevant for our students. I’ve contributed content and created assignments, provided faculty training, made presentations, and created surveys for FYS liberal arts faculty and students. We are also collaborating with some of the liberal Arts faculty to create a mid-point liberal arts ePortfolio, which has been very exciting!

With regard to changes at LaGuardia, I think besides the redesign of its physical structure, there’s more movement towards being a student, towards centering the student. It didn’t feel quite like that when I was here. As I said, I had no idea, at that point, about what I was doing. I was just trying to figure it all out. My past has also helped me better understand how to approach another gap—the one between our students’ lives and their classrooms. This sort of gap is a recurring theme in our conversations about ePortfolio, about the best ways to develop it as a space for students to construct and represent their identities. For example, our students’ knowledge comes not only from their personal experiences and local communities; they know about the world itself. If the college’s goal is to welcome and empower students, it needs to integrate their insights and knowledge across all aspects and stages of the liberal arts curriculum. That’s what our ePortfolio does—it’s a teaching and learning platform that integrates the knowledge students bring to campus with the acquisition of academic knowledge about the liberal arts. For me, this is part of the mission of the community college: connecting academic life with our students’ community and cultural life. The Alliance has provided me the opportunity to think about these things, about how knowledge developed outside the institution can benefit the liberal arts disciplines and, in turn, support, strengthen, and transform community colleges.

MICHELE Beyond the ePortfolio and your work with Professor Hendrix, has being a Fellow widened your perspective of institutional structures, faculty obligations, and all the work that surrounds the classroom?

FRANCISCO There’s so much! Over the past few months, I have gained an understanding of the responsibilities staff and faculty must undertake, such as being in committees, developing curricula, engaging in faculty and staff training, advocating on behalf of students, and the logistics of credits, release time, annual reports—very useful things that I did not know about prior to the fellowship. I’ve gotten a clearer sense of what to expect once I become a professor. However, for me, the true highlight is how passionate faculty are about our students and their educations. I’m surrounded by people who truly care about students.

MICHELE Thinking along those lines, what changes do you observe in higher education? What are your hopes—or do you despair— for the future?

FRANCISCO This is a difficult and complex question to answer. A lot of these changes are connected to K-12, economic, technological, and global issues, including the pandemic. In general, it seems that higher education is at a loss. The new generation of students feels that the promise of higher education is broken. I’ve read recently that Gen Z has embraced the “great resignation” and is less interested in a college education. This generation sees that people can’t find jobs, can’t make enough money to pay basic bills despite their college degrees, and, of course, there’s all that student debt. And so they are deciding against college. There is also the idea that you can get a free education through YouTube videos and the internet, which, recognizing the amount of misinformation online, is not true. With all of these factors, how do we get a whole new generation to consider going to college?

On the other hand, I have also noticed a shift in higher education. Issues of race and gender, climate change, and housing—these crises seem to come up more often in courses, academic literature, and in general discussions about higher education than when I was an undergraduate. I hope we continue to have these discussions, connecting them to all the generational issues facing students. How can we make higher education more accountable for the anxieties and fears of younger generations about their economic, social, and planetary futures? I hope we begin to see higher education as a public good attuned to all the issues affecting students, faculty, staff, communities, and the world at large as part of creating a better future for higher education.

MICHELE One of my pleasures at LaGuardia is discovering what my friends are reading. Can you recommend something that might generate a “better future for higher education”?

FRANCISCO At the moment, I’m reading Hospicing Modernity: Facing Humanity’s Wrongs and the Implications for Social Activism..

MICHELE Wow! Is the thesis that modernity is near death and requires palliative care?

FRANCISO It’s basically a critique of modernity’s combined powers of neo liberalism, capitalism, and colonialism; it’s about trying to change systems when really these systems should be allowed to die with care and with generosity, without jumping into the next solution. You will find that when you jump to the next solution, things usually continue to go badly.


1 Born in the Amazon, raised in the capital of Brazil, Eduardo Vianna received his doctorate in developmental psychology at the CUNY Graduate Center after completing his medical studies, including a specialization in child psychiatry, in Rio de Janeiro. He is co-creator of the Peer Activist Learning Community. Lara Beaty, creator of the Student Experiences Research Group (SERG), earned a doctorate in developmental psychology at the CUNY Graduate Center. Her research focuses on student-school relationships, the interconnections between learning and development, and most recently, the role of adverse childhood experiences in college experiences.