Pride of the City

July 11, 2011 | CUNY Matters, The University

Presenting some graduates with extraordinary achievements . . .

They are Rhodes, Fulbright and National Science Foundation scholars. They dream of sitting on the U.S. Supreme Court, teaching history and math, inventing new rockets, life-saving medications and subway systems. The City University of New York’s extraordinary Class of 2011 includes a citizenry of well-rounded, public-service minded scholars, strivers and seekers ready for their next challenge.

Katherine Mateo. She sees a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court as the best place from which to effect change.

Joshua Usani. Helping save a man’s life was one thing that inspired him to enter medical school.

Nadia Augustyniak. She plans to study how Sri Lankan people heal from extended wartime suffering.

Anthony Pang. His research project could help make interplanetary space travel possible.

Kathleen Capogrosso-Brown. A personal health issue influenced her to tackle a demanding double major.

An estimated 31,300 CUNY degrees were conferred this spring (including summer 2010 and fall 2010 graduates), including 11,700 associate degrees and more than 19,000 baccalaureate degrees. Their recipients include U.S.-born and immigrant New Yorkers seeking a high-quality education in a challenging economy and students overcoming poverty, illness and cultural barriers on a journey to become nurses, scientists, presidents.

They also include some of the highest-achieving students in the nation, headed to graduate programs at CUNY Graduate School, Harvard Medical School, Stanford Law, Yale and Oxford universities. Among them are a Rhodes Scholar — CUNY’s seventh — as well as winners of prestigious National Science Foundation Fellowships, Fulbright grants and Jonas Salk Scholarships, and other students striving to understand the world and make it better.

“The CUNY Class of 2011 has compiled an extraordinary record of achievement,” said Chancellor Matthew Goldstein. “Whether they’re New Yorkers contributing to their city and state as citizens and salaried professionals, graduate scholars deepening their — and our — knowledge of our world, or new arrivals gaining the credentials to transform their lives, they all will make a difference.”

The work, aspirations and drive of five graduates give a glimpse of the potential and breadth of the CUNY experience, and of the many impressive students seeking a CUNY education today as the University’s academic profile has risen and the economy has declined.

Dominican Republic native Katherine Mateo, Macaulay Honors College at Lehman College 2011, is aiming high — as in the highest court. A self-described high achiever, Mateo, 21, a consultant with HBO’s corporate offices, has been admitted to Stanford Law School on a full scholarship covering tuition, fees and books.

Mateo majored in three fields: political science, physics and philosophy. All three, she believes, reinforce her interest in law. “Political science and philosophy are obvious for their importance and physics is important because it has shown me about quantifying life,” she said.

She has a long list of internships under her belt, including ones at NBC, where she put together a video guide for voters about candidates; the State Attorney General’s Office Consumer Fraud and Protection Bureau, where she mediated cases for consumers and worked on landlord-tenant issues; and the chambers of New York State Supreme Court Judge Nelson Román, where she was a filing clerk.

Mateo was five when she and her family moved from the Dominican Republic to Puerto Rico and six when they emigrated to New York. What motivates her, more than wanting to succeed, she says, is a strong desire to help others. She aspires to a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, seeing the highest level of the judiciary as the best position from which to effect change.

Joshua Usani, City College 2011, was inspired to pursue science when he watched his mother, a nurse, give vaccines to poor children in his native Nigeria. He decided on a medical career when, as part of an ambulance corps, he helped save a man’s life.

“I resolved that if I could touch people’s lives in this very basic, yet powerful way, the satisfaction I would receive would justify all the challenges associated with the pursuit of a medical career,” said Usani, one of eight CUNY students awarded Jonas E. Salk Scholarships to study in the medical field in 2011. The prestigious University awards, which provide an $8,000 stipend over three or four years to help defray medical school costs,  recognize students who are judged likely to make significant contributions to medicine and research.

Usani, a biology major, seeks to understand how the immune system attacks the body in autoimmune diseases, and to develop treatments. In his project, he used a confocal microscope to identify the distribution of lysosomes in specialized epithelial cells in the thymus. These thymic nurse cells are crucial in T-cell development.

He will attend Yale University School of Medicine in the fall.

Nadia Augustyniak, Hunter master’s in anthropology 2011, is intrigued by how “the epic events of violence and war” — such as the schisms of the Bosnian War and the divisions of Sri Lanka’s civil war — “play out in peoples’ everyday lives, even years later.”

“What kinds of stories do they tell? Do they try to forget it? How do these events continue to affect their lives?” asked Augustyniak, who has been awarded a Fulbright to teach English in Sri Lanka, giving her “a wonderful opportunity to live in a place I don’t know much about, learn the language and build relations with communities which I could later work with.”

Augustyniak emigrated from Poland to New Jersey when she was 11 and later majored in anthropology at William Paterson University. At Hunter, she worked closely with anthropology assistant professor Ruchi Chaturvedi, whose research explores political violence and South Asia. For her master’s thesis, Augustyniak worked  with the Bosnian refugee community in Utica, N.Y., teasing out the ramifications of their wartime experience on their daily lives and spending time with a family.

“Anthropology is a demanding field, because it’s very difficult to do it without language skills and having some link to the community,” Augustyniak said. In Sri Lanka, where a 26-year civil war between militant rebel groups and the government ended in 2009, she will teach English and continue to study Tamil, one of Sri Lanka’s three main languages, along with Sinhalese and English.

Augustyniak plans to continue graduate study after completing the Fulbright, focusing on the political situation in Sri Lanka. “I would like to continue looking at the effects of protracted conflict and how people and communities heal after such tremendous suffering,” she said.

For Anthony Pang, City College 2011, the sky is no limit.  His interests could lead him all the way to Mars.

Pang was one of five CUNY graduates awarded substantial three-year grants from the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program, which is geared towards assuring the vitality and diversity of America’s scientific and engineering workforce.

An NSF grant of $121,500 over three years was awarded to Pang, who will study spacecraft propulsion at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He will work toward a doctorate with MIT professor Manuel Martinez-Sanchez on plasma dynamic simulations for space thrusters. Already offered a fully paid research assistantship for the project, Pang will develop simulations for both plasma thrusters and ionospheric interactions with spacecraft. The research could help make interplanetary space travel possible, he said.

Pang pursued a variety of interests at CUNY. “I had an interest in policy, so I became involved in the Colin Powell Center [for Policy Studies]; in the environment, so I worked on a biodiesel initiative; and in robotics, so I worked in the robotics lab.” He helped design satellites for NASA as a member of the CUNYSAT-1 team.

Last year, he modeled ice sheet movement with the Caltech/NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. At the Powell Center, he wrote on engineering policy and developed modules to teach engineering to high school students.  He still found time to write for The Campus, CCNY’s student newspaper.

“You have every opportunity here, so the only thing limiting you is yourself,” he said.

Kathleen Capogrosso-Brown, who collected two associate degrees from Queensborough Community College, had already decided to leave her career as a public high school teacher when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. That set her on a new path toward helping others with the disease.

Following graduation in 1999 from Baldwin High School on Long Island, Capogrosso-Brown earned a B.S. in music education at New York University, secured state teaching certification in 2006 and began teaching at North Shore Middle School on Long Island.

“Fortunately, I was able to get a job but quickly became aware that there is more to teaching than just being an instructor,” she said. By 2008 she was disillusioned by the intense bureaucracy and politics in the public school system and yearned for a change.

That year she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and hospitalized for several weeks. From then on, her health was a priority. Her developing interest in alternative and holistic treatments led her to enroll in Queensborough’s massage program. A faculty member recognized her intellect and encouraged her to take on a tough second major, nursing.

“It was amazing to know that the faculty had such confidence in me,” Capogrosso-Brown says. “They went above and beyond their day-to-day responsibilities and continually opened doors. … A double major demanded every ounce of my determination to succeed. I was on campus most days from early morning to late at night.”

However, she adds, “It is both the disappointments and the achievements throughout my life that have propelled me toward my goals.”

Capogrosso-Brown graduated with a 3.87 grade point average and two A.A.S. degrees, one in nursing and the other in massage. She also received an award from the

All-New York Academic Team for the Phi Theta Kappa International Honor Society. She hopes to receive a John Dystel Nursing Fellowship from the Multiple Sclerosis Society to work at the New York University Comprehensive Multiple Sclerosis Care Center.

More pride

For the Class of 2011, and for the first time in CUNY history, the University is publishing an expanded list of its many high-achieving graduates, including National Science Foundation winners; Rhodes, Fulbright and Salk Scholars; and students who have won other top awards or are headed to prestigious graduate schools. The newly created Web page — Pride of the City: CUNY Class of 2011 — tells the stories of this year’s top graduates through profiles detailing their achievements and plans, and through video interviews. Additionally, more than 400 students and their achievements and awards are listed in one comprehensive location.