When Dennis Piedra graduated from John Jay with a BS in criminal justice in 1992, he didn’t know that he would return more than two decades later to pursue his master’s degree in Emergency Management, a field that he would realize was not just a career, but a calling.
For the past 22 years, Piedra has worked for the New York City Human Resources Administration (HRA), where he’s gained firsthand experience responding to citywide emergencies. When tragedy struck on 9/11, it was an eye-opening moment for him. “After 9/11, I distributed SNAP benefits to families affected in the area. That’s when the lightbulb clicked and I knew that responding to emergencies was what I wanted to do,” he said.
In addition to his position at HRA, Piedra is also the Chief of the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) in the Bronx, a dedicated and trained team of volunteers that responds to community disasters. Recently, after a fire ravaged a building in the Bronx, Piedra and his team were on the ground days later to hand out provisions and help sort clothing for families who had undergone losses.
In November, Piedra traveled with a group of colleagues to Puerto Rico to provide relief after Hurricane Maria. He was in his second month of his master’s program at John Jay, and he worked with his professors to make sure he wouldn’t fall behind on his coursework while he was gone. In Puerto Rico, Piedra provided essential relief for 12 days, working from early in the morning to 10 at night. “We were helping people with basic necessities,” he said. “They weren’t ready for this kind of catastrophe.”
Piedra has big plans for his career upon finishing his degree, and is considering working for the New York City Office of Emergency Management or FEMA in the future, which he thinks would be a natural fit. In the meantime, he is making the most out of life as a student. Piedra, 50, is also an avid sailor in the summer months, and when he learned about the launch of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary University Program at John Jay, he jumped at the chance to join. He sees his involvement in the auxiliary program as a way for him to learn about safety not only on land, but at sea. “This is another way for me to give back, and help prepare the community for safety,” he said.
Since first graduating from John Jay with his bachelor’s, Piedra has been able to see how the College continues to flourish. “Today, John Jay is gorgeous, and the College is at the forefront. There’s vitality walking up and down the hall. There’s a mosaic of people of different colors and from different walks of life.”
Piedra also remembers the influential staff members who made an impression on him as an undergraduate student, especially the late Francis McHugh, who is remembered at the College as having been a relentless advocate for students as former Dean and Registrar. “Dean McHugh was so instrumental to me. I remember his compassion for people and his amazing ability to hear you out. Without him, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
The compassion that Piedra so admired in his mentor is one of the attributes embodied not just by faculty and staff, but also the College’s students, foremost among them Piedra himself. “In responding to emergencies, you need to treat people with respect, and help them the most that you can. You need to have compassion,” Piedra said. “I’m bringing my best to everything I do.”