Brooklyn, N.Y.—Two decades after becoming Brooklyn College’s first Rhodes Scholar, Lisette Nieves ’92 has returned to her alma mater as a member of the faculty.
Nieves is teaching a new generation of students an important lesson: No matter what their background is, they can still get a good education, achieve success, and help others.
“I was the first Puerto Rican woman ever to become a Rhodes Scholar,” she notes. “And there are still many young Latino, African American and other minority-group students out there who qualify for similar honors but who do not realize it.
“I see it as my task to make them recognize what is their due and to help them achieve it,” she says. “Everything I’ve done in my career is directed toward that end.”
Nieves is the Belle Zeller Distinguished Visiting Professor of Public Policy and Administration for 2011–13. She teaches two courses: an undergraduate class on the Brooklyn College campus and a graduate-level course at the Graduate Center for Worker Education in Manhattan.
Beyond her distinguished professorship at Brooklyn College, Nieves remains active on many professional fronts. She is vice chairperson of New York City’s Panel for Education Policy, a trustee of the New York State Teachers’ Retirement System, a member of the national board for Year Up and a member of the advisory council to the Woodrow Wilson School of Public & International Affairs at Princeton University. Most notably, President Obama recently appointed Nieves to the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics.
Nieves is modest about her accomplishments. “They aren’t about me,” she says. “Instead, they reflect a recognition of commitment to serving young adults through education and public service.”
But life has not always been so full of richness and rewards for Nieves.
“My family probably didn’t start out the way many of yours did,” she told the audience at an award ceremony in her honor at the Robin Hood Foundation. “My parents split up when I was young,” she said. “My mother put me and my sister into foster care, then died soon after of a drug overdose. We spent six months in foster care . . . (until) my father tracked us down.”
Growing up as a child of the working class, Nieves attended PS 181, IS 246 and John Dewey High School. The experience imbued her with a sense of social justice, which she expressed by organizing a soup kitchen, tutoring special education students, and revitalizing a feminist newspaper.
After graduating from high school, she continued the public school tradition at Brooklyn College, where she worked toward a bachelor of science degree in political science and philosophy. Despite juggling two or three jobs, she was named a Truman Scholar in 1990 and a member of Phi Beta Kappa in 1992.
Then it was off to Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. “Oxford was a new world,” she told the Daily News.
“Oxford differed in that it is based on a one-to-one learning system, whereas at Brooklyn College it’s a classroom learning environment. There was more personal time with a faculty member at Oxford, but not an understanding of the value of peer learning in a classroom setting.”
Two years later, in June 1994, she returned to New York with Greg Gunn, a Rhodes Scholar in mathematics and physics from the University of Chicago whom she would ultimately wed. They have been married for 15 years now, have a six-year-old son, Gabriel, and reside in Brooklyn
Five years after her return to the United States, she enrolled at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public & International Affairs to earn a master’s degree in public affairs and domestic politics.
Since then she has worked for a succession of organizations aimed at helping young people achieve success, most recently as founding executive director of the workforce and education program Year Up NYC. During her five-year tenure, the organization grew a $250,000 seed grant into a $6 million operation with 40 staff serving more than 250 young adults a year.
Despite all she has accomplished, Nieves still concentrates on the future. “My plans include working on a major national initiative that focuses on the college completion agenda and moving the needle so that we can see more Latino and African American students achieving their education goals.”