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A Year in the Life of a CUNY Student Leader — The Communicator (BCC)

May 12, 2010 | General

by Muhammad Jalloh – It was the most challenging of times and the most crucial for me. It was the summer of 2007 and I was working a minimum wage job at a local retail store. But it was a time for me to make one of the most crucial decisions of my life: going back to school. I had always known my success in life was a function of how intimate I became with my books and how soon I returned to school to pursue my higher education studies and my dreams of becoming a computer scientist to be reckoned with. Such was the time and thus ran the dreams of my heart and the musings of my intellect. But this was the time and I had to make a decision. I had decided that this fall will not pass me by but that I will be in college, where I always knew I belonged. Such was the time and I had to decide.

After applying and getting into Bronx Community College and taking the COMPASS tests, I responded to a letter inviting me to come for the New Students Orientation program, a BCC tradition to welcome, advise, register and inform new students about the different opportunities on campus. A few weeks later, I was one of the hundreds of new students walking the halls and occupying the classrooms of BCC. But this was just the beginning-the beginning of an experience in leadership that I would not have dreamed of on my own.

Muhammad Jalloh

Muhammad Jalloh

It all started at the entrance of the school cafeteria during the “Welcome Back Days” week. Having setup a table and handing out informational booklets and flyers regarding the different services and opportunities within the college was a tall young man who was trying to talk to everybody and eager to help anyone who passes by, especially the freshmen (and they were usually very easy to pick out of the haystack of students.) Looking puzzled and unsure, I walked over to him and took some of the materials he had on the table. I then relayed my concern to him: I wanted to know if there was a space on the campus that I can perform my daily Islamic prayers. “I know just how to help you, young man,” I can now imagine him thinking. He directed me to RBSC 306, which served both as a prayer room for the Muslim students as well as a meeting place for the members of the Muslim Students Association (MSA) and a quiet recluse for study from the sometimes noisy school library.

By his side (also helping out) was a lady who also gave me more information pertaining to other campus issues. Curious, I asked her, “Are you a student?” Amused, she threw the questions, “Do I look that young?” I later found out the man was no other than Manny Lopez, the assistant director of student life, and the lady was Melissa Kirk, the director of student life. They were often times referred to, in the college, as “the Dynamic Duo” for how effectively and efficiently they work together. It was the beginning of a relationship that would see me often in their offices asking for guidance, getting clarifications on ambiguous issues or sharing some productive time with them.

But that was just the beginning. In the spring of 2009, I stopped by the Office of Student Life’s office to pick up a form to apply for candidacy in the upcoming SGA elections. I had always wanted to be involved in the governance of the college, serve the student body, gain some advocacy knowledge and develop leadership skills that I can put to both immediate use as well as apply to my future career –wherever that took me. However, I was also very much involved with the Muslim Students’ Association (MSA) and serving as its vice president and web administrator of the club’s website, www.BCCMSA.com.

Fearing that the club may not have a strong leadership, I gave up the thought of running for the position of an SGA senator. But just until about 24 hours before the deadline for submission for candidacy, I met Mr. Lopez and Ms. Roslyn Gillespie, (then Vice President of the SGA) by the staircase and having asked me why I had not submitted my application all this while, I had told him that I may just stay with the MSA and give it the much-needed leadership rather than run for a senatorial position in the SGA. But he pointed out that my service as an SGA Senator is just an extension of my service in the MSA: I was just serving a broader and more diverse population-a student population that was 10,000 strong. I took it to heart and slept over it. The next day, I filled out and submitted my application. I launched my campaign and enlisted the help of my friends not just to vote, but to campaign for me as well. The result was a testament to the power of social networking and the possibilities that a strong and trusted network of friends and admirers could do. It was the beginning of an experience that I would always cherish.

A few weeks later, the election results were released: I was among the top 15 candidates that were elected to form the next SGA body. The SGA executive elections followed next. I ran for the offices of president, secretary and legal and legislative representative and lost all three. It was a sour pill to swallow, but another lesson learned: connect on time with potential voters and rivals as numbers, not competency or speeches, win elections. A friend of mine called the results a “travesty.” But it was more than that: it was an opportunity to learn…the hard way.

Enter, the CUNY Leadership Academy

A few days later, I received an email from the (then) CUNY Leadership Academy informing me that I have been nominated to be a fellow of the academy and undergo a yearlong leadership training program and experience. I immediately knew whose handiwork this was. I met him a few days later while going up the stairs in the Student Center. “Yes, it is. I have been looking out for you”, Mr. Lopez admitted. It was an honor I could not have asked for, especially since I did not even know about the existence of the Academy. I sent in the application and waited for the results. But they were many weeks in the making.

Meanwhile, the new SGA senators were invited to attend the New Leadership Challenge Conference at Brooklyn College on June 12th, put together by the CUNY Council of Student Life Directors and the CUNY Leadership Academy, where they will meet with other SGA senators from the different CUNY colleges to learn the skills necessary to be effective leaders in the various schools. But the leadership skills learned and acquired were not all that the students took away from this seminar. I was particularly happy that I was able to meet so many student leaders from all across CUNY who faced the same challenges, had the same hopes and were committed to working for the good of the over 400,000 students that see CUNY as their bridge to their future and the missing link between them and their success in life. It was an exhilarating experience, to say the least.

During this time, the CUNY Leadership Academy was reviewing the over twelve dozen applications to the academy that they received. A few weeks later, 60 of the applicants were selected to appear for a final interview session that included a simulated group project planning and execution and a personal interview for each of the candidates. I had also received a letter asking me to choose one of many available dates for my interview. Wednesday afternoon, the last day of the interviews, seemed good to me and realistic based on my schedule. It was a challenge working with seven other students from different CUNY colleges and with different leadership experiences to put together a project from planning to execution. Ms. Julie Agosto, (the CUNY Corps and CUNY service learning coordinator) and Mr. Derrick Boone (CUNY coordinator for student life), were in the room observing and taking notes about how effectively the students worked together and how efficiently they were able to adjust to working with others. It was a challenge. Being somewhat shy and not “pushy enough”, I thought I had little hope of being selected as one of the Fellows for the year.

In between working on the group project, the candidates were called one after the other for their individual interviews with Dr. Joe-Joe McManus (the executive director of the academy), Ms. Christina Joseph, (the academy’s coordinator for special programs and professional development) and two other alumni of the academy. Having recently served on the BCC Search Committee for the vice president for student development and enrollment management, I seemed more confident with the personal interview session as I have been preconditioned to think like an interviewer and seemed to be in a better position to know what was expected of me and the potential loopholes that I had to avoid that may cost me the opportunity to be one of the fellows for the year. Walking home later that day, I was sure of one thing: if everyone else in the group made it into the Academy, I will have a chance; but if there had to be eliminations, I may just be the first to be let go.

However, towards the end of July, I received an email from the academy: I had been chosen as one of the 25 students this year to undergo the yearlong leadership training experience as fellows of the academy. It was one of the happiest emails I had ever read in a long time. To be one of only 25 students out of CUNY’s 400,000 students to be accepted into the CUNY Leadership Academy was a privilege whose significance was never lost.

During this time, the new senators of the BCC SGA had assumed office and were undergoing an intensive six-day leadership training put together by the Office of Student Life to prepare them for the challenges ahead of serving the student body as they promised during the campaign season and expected of them. It was during one of these training sessions that Mr. Laconia Therrio came in as one of our scheduled speakers. He touched on the issue of diversity and how importance it was that the people tell their “stories” to find commonalities and establish unity in the world. This led me to developing www.MetroTribes. com, a website devoted to celebrating cultural diversity by sharing cultural experiences and histories that have the potential to bridge the cultural gap between the various ethnicities and races of the world instead of widening it.

The College president, Dr. Carolyn Williams and the (now retired) vice president for student development and enrollment management, Dr. Otis Hill, also came in and spoke to the new student leaders to encourage and remind them of their responsibilities and expectations both as students and student leaders on the campus. Dr. Ruth Bass (then chair of the BCC Senate) also came in to talk to us about how the College Senate works and the role of the SGA senators in helping it to function efficiently and effectively.

To the average student, it may seem that, thus far, I had had enough leadership training to last me for a long time. And they would be right. Usually right. Except that in August, I was at the College of Staten Island for the two-day orientation program for the new fellows of the CUNY Leadership Academy. For the first time, all 25 of the fellows met and were in the same place to learn about what it takes to make it through the year in the Academy. Here, I also met two other SGA senators from other CUNY schools who had made it in as Fellows: Christopher Browne (Brooklyn College) and Evita Belmonte (City Tech). Alyna Brown (Lehman College) and Tyesha Allen (BMCC), both of whom had been part of my interview group, had also made it into the academy.

It was amazing to meet students of different ages, diverse cultural backgrounds and nationalities and various academic pursuits in the same place, at the same time, for the same reason: they had been chosen as CUNY’s best and brightest and now had to undergo a yearlong intensive training program to sharpen their leadership skills, expand their cultural horizons and learn firsthand the challenges of global leadership and how cultures, politics, economics, selfless service and other factors played a key role in how leadership functions and how leaders can make the best impact on their societies without compromising their personal values or dispelling the values of others because they seem “different.”

“The Fellows that Could”: The Malave Leadership Academy Fellows at the Innovation Workshop at John Jay College of Criminal Justice with the team from “The Medici Effect.” Standing, from L-R: Julie Agosto (CUNY Corps and Service Learning Coordinator), Muhammad Jalloh (BCC), Ayeesha Berte (Lehman College), Evita Belmonte (City Tech), Linda Gomez (CSI), Daysi Manzano (York College), Jasmine Patel (Brooklyn College), Christopher Browne (Brooklyn College), Liliete Lopez (Hostos CC), Fitz King (John Jay), Karishma Chawla (Brooklyn College), Philip Parris (Medgar Evers), Leen Feliciano (QCC), Brant Douglas (Medgar Evers), Qimei Luo (CSI), Alyna Brown (Lehman College), Keisha Fuentes (Executive Assistant to the director of the Academy), Sweet Joy (Medici Effect Team), Christina Joseph (coordinator for special programs and professional development). Sitting, from L-R: Edgar Romero (LaGuardia CC), William Leverett (Queens College), Moses Kanduri (KCC), and Dr. Joe-Joe McManus (executive director of the Academy), Christian (Medici Effect), Katrina Hannan (CSI), Jimmy Domdeth (CSI), Jay-Sheree Allen (City College) and Carlos Ruiz (Baruch).

“The Fellows that Could”: The Malave Leadership Academy Fellows at the Innovation Workshop at John Jay College of Criminal Justice with the team from “The Medici Effect.” Standing, from L-R: Julie Agosto (CUNY Corps and Service Learning Coordinator), Muhammad Jalloh (BCC), Ayeesha Berte (Lehman College), Evita Belmonte (City Tech), Linda Gomez (CSI), Daysi Manzano (York College), Jasmine Patel (Brooklyn College), Christopher Browne (Brooklyn College), Liliete Lopez (Hostos CC), Fitz King (John Jay), Karishma Chawla (Brooklyn College), Philip Parris (Medgar Evers), Leen Feliciano (QCC), Brant Douglas (Medgar Evers), Qimei Luo (CSI), Alyna Brown (Lehman College), Keisha Fuentes (Executive Assistant to the director of the Academy), Sweet Joy (Medici Effect Team), Christina Joseph (coordinator for special programs and professional development). Sitting, from L-R: Edgar Romero (LaGuardia CC), William Leverett (Queens College), Moses Kanduri (KCC), and Dr. Joe-Joe McManus (executive director of the Academy), Christian (Medici Effect), Katrina Hannan (CSI), Jimmy Domdeth (CSI), Jay-Sheree Allen (City College) and Carlos Ruiz (Baruch).


Next, Community Service

A few days into the fall semester, I had the opportunity to do my first community service event since I started college. It was on September 11th, a day that has been set aside as the “National Day of Service” to encourage Americans to devote themselves to help their communities by volunteering their time and energy and helping to remember the victims of the tragedy of 9/11. As a Muslim, this held special significance to me. I consider myself above average when it comes to a conceptual and contextual understanding of Islam and Islamic Law. But I also know that Muslims have been blamed for the tragedy of 9/11 eight years earlier. It was also clear that current US foreign policy towards the Muslim world was not the most favorable. But I found solace in knowing that I can and should be able to bridge the cultural gap between “East and West” and the Muslim and Western world. And, this was one of those perfect opportunities to gauge the feelings on the “American side.” Working alongside other Fellows and staff members of the Academy at the HELP USA Wards Island rehabilitation center and helping to clear the facility of unneeded junk and giving it a “facelift” by helping to paint it, it became clear to me that one of the most effective ways to unite people was to have them put aside their trivial differences and work together to make life better for the less-privileged members of our world.

During this time, school was already in session and I was also very much involved in the BCC Student Government Association. At an earlier meeting, the SGA had chosen to put me forward as the sole candidate for the vice-chairperson of the College Senate (a post traditionally held by the SGA President). At the first Senate meeting, I was nominated by my colleagues for the position. The vice president of the SGA, Omar Murray, had also decided to run for the same position during this Senate meeting. After the “campaign speeches” were done and the votes were cast and in, I beat him by 31 votes to 15 to become the vice-chair of the BCC Senate.

In the following months, the academy gave me the opportunity to attend both the MtvU Woodie Awards (which recognizes the best of radio, musical and media excellence on America’s colleges and universities). I was also, along with the other fellows, invited to attend the “Investing in Futures” higher education event organized by The New York Times and CUNY and heavily attended by stakeholders in higher education, the unions and others. This was an opportunity for me to widen my horizon, expand my cultural competence and hear and understand the challenges facing public higher education in the US from those intimately involved in the system, including CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein and Dr. Muriel Howard, the president of the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AACU). The contacts I made at this event were also invaluable.

Parties, Retreats, Conferences, and Conventions

Around the same time, I was also involved in the BCC SGA’s planning and execution of both the “Welcome Back” Party and the Halloween Party, events that had become SGA traditions over the years. Being rather unaccustomed to attending parties and very uncomfortable in the arts of parties, I had engaged myself in what I could do best: conduct interviews, take pictures and shoot videos.

By mid-December when the finals came around and the winter break came knocking, I was already looking forward to the Fellows Retreat put together by the CUNY Leadership Academy for the 2009-2010 cohort. The two-day retreat was a welcome relief from the previous weeks of finals and a great way to usher in the New Year. But the retreat was just a good beginning for what promised to be a year full of experiences for the fellows. At around this time also, the University was considering renaming the academy after the former vice-chancellor for budget and finance Ernesto Malave, who had passed away in Puerto Rico while attending the “Somos El Futuro” Conference.

During Presidents’ Day weekend in February, I joined the other senators of the BCC SGA and our mentors from the Office of Student Life, Manny Lopez and Regina Smith, to travel to Albany for the 39th Annual Black, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Conference. It was a great opportunity to meet and hear from the stakeholders in the state’s political system, including Gov. David Patterson, President Ruben Diaz of the Bronx and many other council members and legislative representatives, including Hassel Thompson, Marcus Crespo, Pedro Espada and Nick Perry (the chair of the Legislative Conference).

A week later, I was on my way to Tucson, Arizona, along with 11 other fellows and two staff members of the CUNY Leadership Academy for the annual National Collegiate Leadership Conference. Being my first time traveling to the American Southwest, it was an invaluable opportunity for me to meet other student leaders from different parts of the country and establish a strong social and professional network of like-minded people from diverse backgrounds, academic pursuits and socio-political interests. Realizing the enormity of the opportunity at hand, I had gone ahead and finally launched my long-in-the-making social networking site, www.Rumiya.com. I had also ordered some business cards to make it easier for me to share my information with others without risking their losing them if they lose piece of paper I scribble my contact information on. For the first time, I came into contact with “real” Native Americans, usually thought by many people to be almost extinct. I met and made friends with people from both the Navajo and Pueblo tribes. It was striking to note that many of them may be easily mistaken to be Hispanics, whether as a result of the way they look (many look very Mexican) or the names that they bear.

A few weeks later, I was also sponsored by The Communicator to attend the annual National College Media Convention at the Marriot Marquis Hotel in Times Square. Having attended the conference as an official delegate of BCC the previous year, I knew how invaluable and critical the sessions could be when it comes to learning and applying the science and art of journalism. I also had the opportunity to meet Mark Halperin, Time magazine’s editor-at-large and co-author of Game Change, one of the hottest political narratives of the decade that chronicles the historic campaigns of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John McCain and Sarah Palin and the political dealings, interests and interactions that played behind the scenes. The previous year, I had the opportunity to meet Byron Pitts, Charles Gibson and Brian Storm, all persons to be reckoned with in the field of journalism. Here, I was able to learn valuable newsroom management skills, pointed to newspaper editing resources, introduced to the power and potential of multimedia journalism and given insider perspectives on some of the best opportunities available within this industry, including internships and portfolio creation. I was also able to meet and keep in touch with people who would have a lasting impact on how I approach journalism and view the world. It was nothing short of an experience that gave me a fresh perspective on the future and potentials of journalism.

The Malave Leadership Academy

While it may seem that I had done my own fair share of traveling, learning and experiencing leadership, appreciating service, and realizing and embracing the rich diversity of our world, the (now renamed) Malave Leadership Academy had one more experience in store for me. This came in the form of the “Cincinnati Urban Experience,” an alternate spring break opportunity volunteering to work with the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless in far-away Ohio. This was an opportunity to realize that, despite the wealth of America and the somewhat carefree and luxurious lifestyle (by world standards) that many of us lead, homelessness and hunger were as real in almost every American city as daylight. It was touching to see both the blacks and whites languishing in abject poverty and deprivation while the big corporations have a free rein to maltreat them as they want while their elected representatives watch on without even raising an eyebrow. Cooking and cleaning at the soup kitchens, packing canned foods for families at the food pantry, cleaning gardens and recreational centers and observing and interacting with those who rarely get help and have almost lost hope in themselves, the corporations and especially their elected representatives, it was as frustrating as it was touching for the Fellows that had the opportunity to take part in this experience. It was also a wakeup call to the fact that while there is supposed to be a system in place to protect every American from humiliation, abandonment and abuse by either the corporations or the government, the people always have to initiate change in their societies if they ever have to move forward.

“The Making of Leaders”: The SGA senators at the BCC Leadership Training Sessions L-R: Melissa Kirk (director of student life), Raya Bayor (SGA treasurer), Manny Lopez (assistant director of student life), Muhammad Jalloh (vice-chair of Senate), Sebastian Pessoa (SGA senator), Leona Alfred (SGA executive secretary), Omar Murray (SGA vice president), Margaret Rodriguez (SGA president). Sitting: Dr. Otis Hill (former vice president for student development and enrollment management) and Dr. Carolyn Williams (president of BCC).

“The Making of Leaders”: The SGA senators at the BCC Leadership Training Sessions L-R: Melissa Kirk (director of student life), Raya Bayor (SGA treasurer), Manny Lopez (assistant director of student life), Muhammad Jalloh (vice-chair of Senate), Sebastian Pessoa (SGA senator), Leona Alfred (SGA executive secretary), Omar Murray (SGA vice president), Margaret Rodriguez (SGA president). Sitting: Dr. Otis Hill (former vice president for student development and enrollment management) and Dr. Carolyn Williams (president of BCC).

Reflections on a Year

After a year serving in the BCC SGA, working alongside other fellows of the Malave Leadership Academy to better acquire the necessary leadership skills needed for an effective and efficient leadership system that works for our world, and taking advantage of the opportunities that came my way from them, I realize that not every student may get the same opportunities as I did and not everyone may have the “prepared mind” to recognize the challenges and embrace the invaluable opportunities that present themselves to them. But I also know that my experience this past year is a testament to the fact that a quality CUNY education and co-curricular experience may be all one needs to acquire the skills needed to make a difference in our communities and the increasingly globalized world that we live in and must adapt to.

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