CUNY Students and Alumni Set Forth To Study and Work Around the World

Istou Diallo

Istou Diallo, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Fulbright Fellowship

Students and alumni of The City University of New York in 2018 won 17 Fulbright Fellowships, bringing to 151 the number who have won this prestigious federal award in the past 10 years.

Interim Chancellor Vita C. Rabinowitz said, “The future belongs to people and countries that understand the world’s cultures, languages and practices. No one is better positioned for this future than CUNY’s Fulbright Fellows, brilliant young people ready to explore, absorb and bring a wider world view back to the United States.”

The Interim Chancellor added, “Sen. J. William Fulbright saw back in 1945 that for the United States to lead the world after a devastating global conflict, it needed more leaders who fully understood the world’s people. Through the Fulbright U.S. Student Program, his vision continues to enrich our country, as well as the many students who have benefitted from it in more than 140 countries.”

These CUNY students and alumni have accepted a 2018 Fulbright award:

Vaiva Aglinskas, a fifth-year doctoral candidate in cultural anthropology at the Graduate Center, will be in Vilnius, Lithuania, studying Šnipiškės, a neighborhood of wooden houses. These still-inhabited late 19th- and early 20th- century homes — some lacking indoor toilets and running water, most heating with wood — stand amid a growing high-rise downtown that was first envisioned during the Soviet era. The plan is to preserve one strip of the wooden houses as a heritage museum.

The area’s original residents are long gone. “The Jewish residents were murdered in the Holocaust, and some of the Polish population were transferred to Poland after World War II as Vilnius was undergoing Lithuanianization under the Soviet Union.” Aglinskas also will examine what happened when the houses were privatized in the 1990s after the Soviet Union’s collapse.

“My project asks what a nation is willing to erase to build this particular version of its modern future. How is the value of Šnipiškės constructed and how does it fluctuate over time? I am especially interested in how these values reflect peoples’ lived experiences,” she says. Her research includes interviewing residents, city officials, urban planners, architects and heritage experts.

Aglinskas grew up in Hawaii speaking Lithuanian at home. After her bachelor’s in English and Russian literature at Wesleyan University, she earned her master’s at Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas, Lithuania. She applied to CUNY because the five authors cited most frequently in her master’s thesis teach at the Graduate Center. “It’s been exciting to actually study with them.”

Istou Diallo (John Jay College of Criminal Justice, 2017) won a Fulbright research grant to India to study the personal and political strategies that women with disabilities employ “to challenge their societal and political marginalization.” India’s constitution guarantees equal rights and improvement in standard of living to people with disabilities, but those rights fall under state government jurisdiction, so the standard of living varies with location.

Not only will she assess the disparate impact of the law, but also she will “engage with organizations for women with disabilities in hopes of sparking reformative action.” She will work with associate professor Binitha V. Thampi of the Indian Institute of Technology Madras (Chennai) and with Soulfree, a nonprofit that champions Indians with severe disabilities.

Diallo, born and raised in Harlem to parents from Guinea, attended a public high school for gifted and talented students, New Explorations into Science, Technology and Mathematics. At John Jay, she majored in forensic psychology, minored in gender studies and interned with the Manhattan Borough president and the City Council speaker. She now works with the Sauti Yetu Center for African Women and Families in the Bronx. After her Fulbright year, she intends to go to law school and to fight for the rights of people with disabilities.

Jaclyn Callery (Baruch College, M.S. Ed.-HEA [higher education administration], 2017) won a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship to Argentina and expects to teach in a college. “I’m a first-generation college student. My family is from Ireland, and we’d visit there every summer. That made me want to have an international experience,” she says. As an undergraduate she studied in Belgium, where she went “without knowing any French or Dutch or anybody, and I came back with a strong sense that I could do anything.”

With her 2012 bachelor’s degree from SUNY New Paltz, she taught English in Thailand to kindergarten students for six months. “It was so much fun. I didn’t speak much Thai, so it was all songs and language games.” Back in New York, she taught third grade in Harlem while saving money for her master’s program. Not long after starting her graduate degree studies, “I did a real-life elevator pitch to Richard Mitten, the director of [Baruch’s] study abroad office. He had an opening and I’ve been there since December 2016. My experiences working in that office really solidified my desire to work with international students.”

Callery, who grew up in Yonkers, chose to apply to Argentina because it’s an increasingly popular destination for U.S. students. “While Baruch does not currently have exchanges with schools in Argentina, I’m interested in finding out what is drawing American students there and in encouraging Argentines to come here, too.”

Aterward? There’s a lot more world to experience.

Grace Cesario, a fifth-year doctoral student in archaeology at the CUNY Graduate Center, heads to Iceland on her research Fulbright. “I’ll be digging for animal remains over the summer at sites that the Vikings abandoned about the year 1104 and, during the rest of the year, working on analysis,” she explains. Over the past three years, she has worked at these sites in consultation with historians and landscape and soil specialists, seeking clues about how the earliest settlers survived on a chilly island with no native land animals except the arctic fox.

“When the Vikings got there, they were immediately fishing, using sea birds, setting up farms and raising domesticated animals they brought with them. But many of my sites were marginal. There doesn’t seem to have been much farming, so it seems they had a heavy marine strategy for survival.” The Leifur Eiríksson Foundation and the American-Scandinavian Foundation also support her zooarchaeological research.

Asked how she chose the CUNY Graduate Center for her Ph.D., Cesario, a Californian, laughed. “As an undergraduate at the University of California, Davis, I worked in Alaska and decided I could never work anywhere it was hot. My advisor helped me look for graduate programs in arctic or subarctic study, so I wouldn’t get super sweaty, and she said to talk to [Graduate Center and Hunter College professor] Tom McGovern, whose lab covers the whole north Atlantic. I emailed him and he said to come to Iceland that summer, before I even started” formal doctoral studies. “It’s been really great.”

Kelsey Chatlosh, a Graduate Center fourth-year doctoral student in cultural anthropology, will use her Fulbright research grant to study the struggle for recognition of a little-known group of Chileans of African descent. “They’re descended from people whom the first Spanish colonizers brought as slaves beginning in the 1500s,” she says. “Most live in a region in the north that was part of Peru until the War of the Pacific [1879 to 1883], when Chile conquered the area.”

Led largely by women, the Afro-Chilean activists seek recognition with a separate ethnic category in the Chilean national census, just as they gained recognition in a 2013 regional census. National statistics would help them justify demands for improved housing, employment, health and scholarships. They are writing history curricula, supporting Afro-Chilean religious and cultural practices, securing land for their communities and linking with other activists.

“The dominant discourse is that the Chilean nation is racially homogenous, a whitened mix of European and indigenous heritage,” Chatlosh says. “Activists, particularly Oro Negro and the Luanda Collective of Women, are pushing up against this narrative. In general, Chileans don’t talk about race, except in relation to working-class black migrants,” who face discrimination and sometimes violence. “Racial difference, however, is still usually discussed as something that ‘Chileans’ themselves don’t have.”

Fluent in Spanish, Chatlosh studied in Chile as an undergraduate at George Washington University. She learned of the activists through a Graduate Center course and an offshoot reading group on the politics of race and reproduction led by professor Dána-Ain Davis.

Victoria DiTomasso (Macaulay Honors College at Hunter College, 2018) will study at the Leibniz Institute for Astrophysics in Potsdam, Germany. “I’ll work with a scientist who collaborates closely with Hunter professor Kelle Cruz, one of the principal investigators of Brown Dwarfs in New York City,” she says, referring not to Disney characters but to low-mass stars that have failed to ignite. She then heads to Harvard University for a doctorate in astronomy.

DiTomasso grew up in Brooklyn knowing little about astronomy but loving physics at Staten Island Technical High School. She joined Astrocom NYC, a collaboration between CUNY, the American Museum of Natural History and Columbia University, and was hooked by Methods of Scientific Research, “an extended lab course where you play with science equipment, the inquiry process and the uncertainties of data.”

In Summer 2015, she began conducting research with CUNY and museum scientists and presenting her findings at conferences. She interned at the American Institute of Physics, writing teaching guides on the history of women and minorities in the physical sciences. She also studied exoplanet atmospheres at the University of Michigan. But the biggest kick was operating the MDM observatory telescope onsite in Arizona and remotely controlling telescopes in Hawaii and Chile from her computer.

To build enthusiasm for the sciences among other young women, she organized CUNY Fem-STEM Hack Day on April 27, 2018; it was aimed at attracting Hunter and Borough of Manhattan Community College women who had never previously participated in such an event.

Emmanuel Ampomah Dwomoh (City College, 2018) will research how socioeconomic status affects the risk that residents of Mbarara, a cancer hot spot in Uganda, run of developing esophageal squamous cell carcinoma. He joins a team from Mbarara University of Science and Technology that is considering such factors as carbon monoxide poisoning, preserving meat by smoking, drinking fermented milk and eating “Eshabwe,” a salted dairy product.

“I’ll recruit and interview 180 residents, half of them cancer patients and half a control group,” says Dwomoh, who intends to pursue an M.D./Ph.D. after his Fulbright year. “I’ll try to determine whether their food and environment make them susceptible.” To help, he plans to learn their language, Runyankole.

Dwomoh joined his parents in the Bronx after finishing high school in his native country, Ghana. He says his experience as an immigrant who had to adapt quickly to different cultural contexts should help in his research.

At City College, he found particular support from art historian Ellen Handy, biologist Jonathan Levitt, who chairs the college’s Minority Access to Research Careers program, and the City College Academy for Professional Preparation.

As an undergraduate, he went to Puerto Rico to research treating severe bone fractures by building a biodegradable polymer scaffold on which bone can grow. For his honors thesis, he joined Levitt’s visual perception lab; Dwomoh explored the number and type of synapses in the ferret’s visual cortex. And in summer 2017, he was in Uganda to research resistance to antimalarial drugs. That’s how he made the contacts that led to his Fulbright.

Etienne Forbes (City College, 2018) will use his Fulbright Fellowship to earn a master’s degree at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam in culture, organization and management, as well as a way station toward an eventual doctorate in education.

After growing up in Laurel, MD, he had more than 20 jobs — construction, Target, Verizon, UPS, a factory making battery casings for pacemakers — before joining the U.S. Navy to see the world, only to be stationed in Florida and Virginia. “I didn’t have the opportunity to travel until my summer study abroad in Amsterdam in 2016,” he says. He fell in love with the university, its teaching methods and the dynamic and diverse city.

“In my private sector jobs and in the Navy, I noticed a common thread, a lack of opportunities because of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and more. If you’re a woman, you’ll face extra hurdles in the military. If you’re a person of color, you’ll have extra struggles in the corporate world. I want to work to improve inclusion and diversity in all sectors and I believe education is the path to equality. I don’t know what the job in the interim will be, but my long-range target is higher education because teachers help to build the pathway.”

After the Navy, he found City College and the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership, where “the emphasis is on giving back and public service, and there are many ways to do that. In classes and seminars, the school makes you feel you can make change happen, and I hadn’t held that perspective before.”

Jonathan Zisook, a doctoral candidate in sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center, will use his Fulbright research award to

Jonathan Zisook

Jonathan Zisook, CUNY Graduate Center, Fulbright Fellowship

examine the resurgence of Jewish culture among Gentiles in post-communist Poland. “I’ll speak with artists and museum educators, professors and political commentators, and a slew of folks involved in the preservation of Jewish heritage and the explosion of Jewish themes among Polish Catholics,” he says.

Before World War II and its Nazi extermination camps, more than a tenth of Poland was Jewish. Now, Jews are less than one-tenth of one percent of Poles. “But many cities and towns have a Jewish cultural festival. There’s a street in Kraków with at least six Jewish-style restaurants. Every night in summer they have klezmer [traditional Jewish music] concerts with dinner. And the Jagiellonian University of Kraków, where I’ll be based, has dozens of Jewish studies majors. The spread of Jewish culture is happening largely in the absence of living Jews, although the size of the Jewish community is growing.”

Zisook, whose grandfather immigrated from what was then part of Poland in 1929, earned his bachelor’s and master’s at Yeshiva University. He has studied hard to learn the “difficult but rewarding” Polish language so he can conduct a good deal of his research without a translator. He already has found poignant stories, such as that of the Catholic woman who helps maintain several Jewish cemeteries in the Lublin region “because there’s no one else to do it. She feels compelled, and there are a lot of those folks.”

Eleni Katechis (Hunter College, M.S. Ed., 2018) has won a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship to an elementary school in Taiwan. Although she has never studied Chinese — she’s now learning simple phrases — she has met many Asian students during two years as an assistant teacher in New York City public schools. Indeed, she says one immigrant student from Taiwan “inspired me to seek a Fulbright there.”

She has traveled abroad, but never to East Asia. “I wanted to push myself out of my comfort zone and past experiences.”

She is finishing her first year as a special-education teacher at P.S. 18 in the South Bronx. “Being a first-year teacher is not easy. I’ve become a stronger teacher and a more compassionate person.” She intends to return to the Department of Education after her Fulbright year.

Growing up in the Pelham Bay section of the Bronx, “I went to a Greek-American school, and was not exposed to a diverse population. But at Hunter my whole world changed. I changed as an individual and became more focused and inspired to do well academically. I didn’t get into Hunter my first try; I appealed. I had never been the strongest student, but I felt this was my time to prove to myself what I can do.”

She anticipates that her Fulbright experience will broaden her world view and teaching skills. “I believe it is important to understand students from an academic perspective and imperative to understand them from a personal and cultural one, as well.”

Ardit Marku (Hunter College, 2017) won a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship to South Korea and will work in a primary or secondary school. “I’m really excited,” he says. “I’ve had friends or teachers who were South Korean, but this is my chance to really experience the culture and learn more about the country.”

He leaves with an English language arts degree (usually earned by future primary and secondary teachers), a certificate in teaching English as a second language and post-graduation experience teaching immigrants in the New York Public Library’s adult learning center.

When he arrived in college, Marku expected to become a physician, but at Hunter he realized that “it was more being with people and helping them that attracted me.” That led him toward teaching. If he likes teaching full-time in Korea, he most likely will seek a master’s degree in teaching English as a second language (TESOL) or will move into applied linguistics.

Language is very important to him. Marku was born in Albania and speaks fluent Albanian. He arrived in Brooklyn at 8 years old. Two years later, he was told that he spoke English without an accent. He studied Italian at Brooklyn Technical High School. Now he is learning the basics of Korean and its alphabet, Hangul, so he can navigate his fellowship and communicate with his host family. “It’s an amazing opportunity and I think learning the language and the alphabet will help me get the most out of it,” he says.

Michael Mazzeo (Macaulay Honors College at Hunter College, 2018) is going to Galicia in northwest Spain on a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship and expects to teach in a high school. “I’ve always wanted to improve my Spanish speaking skills and my great-grandmother is from Toledo, so there’s a family pull, as well,” he says.

Born and raised in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, Mazzeo attended Stuyvesant High School and graduated from Macaulay/Hunter with a major in biochemistry and a minor in human rights. He intends to apply to medical school and eventually to work “at the intersection of public health, medicine and education.”

When it came to choosing a college, he says, “The opportunities at Macaulay and Hunter were too good to turn down.” He interned with the New York City Department of Health in the East Harlem Neighborhood Action Center as part of the Center for Health Equity. “We work with residents to provide them with resources and information about the social determinants of health and how they can promote positive health outcomes within the community,” he says.

And for four years, he has been part of Peer Health Exchange, a nationwide organization with a Hunter chapter that connects college and high school students to talk about sexual health, mental health and substance use. “The idea is to get students to face health issues early on, before health education is traditionally given, in a safe classroom environment, so when they have to make decisions, they can make informed choices about their health.”

Jawad Rashid (CUNY BA/City Tech, 2018) will research how Moldova, Europe’s poorest country, can improve scarce mental health services. This future physician spent summer 2017 there on a two-month federal Gilman International Scholarship, helping homeless people with tuberculosis, HIV infection and other conditions. He also “worked at a hydrotherapy center for kids with cerebral palsy and other neurological/muscular disorders,” he says. “I was in the pool, giving them physical movement and social interaction — basically letting them have fun and relax.”

Rashid chose City Tech for its expertise in human services. Department chair Justine Pawlukewicz and chemistry professor Peter Spellane then pointed him to the CUNY Baccalaureate for Unique and Interdisciplinary Studies, whose students can take courses across campuses. At CUNY BA, he created his own major in vulnerable populations, combining human services, physical sciences, psychology and public health policy. “I want to help people reach their level of independence and self-efficacy.”

In Moldova, he saw some short-term crisis intervention, but little help for people facing common mental health problems like depression, anxiety and substance abuse. “It’s taboo there to speak about it,” he says.

Working with a local medical school and nongovernmental organizations, he will assess existing community resources and propose next steps. “The government may be more receptive with the help of these organizations.”

In future work with America’s homeless, he foresees building on a key strength he spotted in Moldova’s population, “their passion for living. Even without resources they try to enjoy life. I’d like to figure out how to bring that to America.”

Claire Lynch (Macaulay Honors College at City College, 2018) heads to Madrid for a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship. This is her second major award; in 2017 she won a Truman Scholarship, the top federal grant for graduate study leading to a career in public service. She also has a Colin Powell Fellowship in Public Service from City College (2015 through 2018).

Claire Lynch

Claire Lynch, Macaulay Honors, Fulbright Fellowship

She is considering getting a master’s in peace and security, but ultimately expects to attend law school and specialize in human rights. This summer she will intern with Perseus Strategies, a Washington law firm that deals with international human rights issues like arbitrary detention and torture. Her senior thesis is on international humanitarian law involving the ethnic war in the former Yugoslavia.

Lynch, who is Irish Catholic, double-majored in Jewish studies and political science. She interned in Washington with Sen. Chuck Schumer through CUNY’s Edward T. Rogowsky International Program in Government and Public Affairs. Earlier in college, she traveled to Morocco and Italy to study the political, social and economic dynamics between Jewish and Muslim communities. This year she returned to Morocco for a five-week internship to help implement sustainable agricultural programs in marginalized communities.

She expects her Fulbright Fellowship will burnish her Spanish to near fluency. She also gets by in Arabic and is two semesters into Hebrew.

Lynch has been a board member of the New York Public Interest Research Group, tutored non-native English speakers for citizenship tests, helped refugees and leads the City College chapter of the Roosevelt Institute, a student-run think tank.

Marielle Ray (Macaulay Honors College at Hunter College, 2017) has won a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship to Argentina, with a probable posting to a provincial college. “My number one reason for wanting to go there is its literature. I especially loved learning about [Jorge Luis] Borges, going back to high school” in Westhampton, Long Island. “A number of professors in high school and Hunter who are Argentinian shared the natural beauty of the country, as well as the literature.”

She began studying Spanish at age 7 and calls herself proficient, but not yet fluent. “That’s one of the things I’m looking forward to.”

Ray double-majored in English and psychology, did a minor in Spanish and earned a certificate in human rights. “I have a lot of different interests.” For the human rights certificate, she interned with OutRight Action International and wrote a lengthy research thesis on Iraqi-American immigrants that focused on the mental health of refugees and other displaced people. “I looked at the need for more supportive services for people resettling in the United States.”

Since graduation, she has worked part-time in psychological research at the NYU College of Dentistry. “I’m on the data generation side of observational research. I assign codes for verbal and nonverbal activities in couple and family interactions.”

Ray says she is leaning toward applying to graduate school, either in social work or clinical psychology, upon her return. “I definitely would apply to Hunter’s social work school because I know it’s great.” She added that thanks to Macaulay and CUNY, “I graduated college debt-free, which I’m grateful for.”

Susan Abdelghafar (CUNY BA/John Jay College, 2017) has won a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship to Malaysia. Born in Harlem to Egyptian parents, she sought the fellowship “because I wanted to pick a place outside my realm in order to better understand my religion. Malaysia practices Islam in a different way than I’m used to. Sunni Islam in Arab cultures tends to be more institutionalized. In Malaysia it is more spiritual.”

There also is “a growing population of Muslim women entrepreneurs in Malaysia, and I wanted to support them as well.” In addition, it is near other countries that she would like to visit, like Cambodia, Thailand and New Zealand.

Her Fulbright commitment, in which she will teach English in a school, fits well with her undergraduate studies. As part of her degree through the CUNY Baccalaureate for Unique and Interdisciplinary Studies, Abdelghafar made up her own major — two, in fact. Her major in global social justice included coursework in gender studies, sociology, political science and interdisciplinary studies. Her dance curriculum included contemporary dance, Hip-Hop, ballet and improvisation.

“I think I meshed social justice and dance well,” she says. Choreography for her final project for modern dance and ballet focused on the Black Lives Matter movement.

She is likely to go to graduate school after completing her Fulbright. “My primary focus has always been to connect social justice issues to our psychology. And the performing arts can provide a healthy coping mechanism.”

Kahalia Stanberry (Lehman College, 2018) has a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship to a Madrid middle school. And, armed with her computer science degree, she will volunteer at RobboKids, a Spanish nonprofit, teaching programming to secondary school students, just as she has done here with Girls Who Code.

“I’ve taken Spanish for four semesters. The way my professors from Spain described their country was amazing,” she says. “I want to gain fluency, interact with the people and learn more about their culture.”

Stanberry was attracted to robotics at Frederick Douglass Academy in Harlem and thought about electrical engineering. At Lehman, she was attracted to programming paradoxically “because I thought I couldn’t do it. Then I took a programming class and wow! I could.”

Guided by Michelle Augustine, Lehman’s director of prestigious awards, she won grants from organizations including Women in Technology in New York (WITNY), Facebook and University software-development programs. “CUNY and Lehman have so much to offer.”

She also got a strong introduction to the challenges of entrepreneurship through CUNY Startups, a business accelerator that encourages students to conceive and launch enterprises. She joined four other students in launching the still-nascent V Branch. It pairs student programmers who need credentials for their resumes with nonprofits that need effective websites. “Win-win,” she says.

When she returns from Spain, Stanberry wants to work in industry for a year so she can consider what kind of master’s degree to pursue. “Ultimately,” she says, “I want to create my own business.”

In addition, Lindsay Griffiths (Macaulay Honors College at Hunter College, 2018) won a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship to Colombia, but declined it to start a Ph.D. program in English at Princeton University. Griffiths, a double major in English literature and Spanish translation, is the daughter of immigrants from Jamaica who learned her first Spanish from Dominican schoolmates in Amityville and Copiague, L.I.

She was a Ronald E. McNair Scholar, joining a U.S. Department of Education program that prepares college students from underrepresented groups for doctoral studies. Independent research projects sharpened her understanding of race and gender. She worked with Hunter professor Janet Neary on 19th century slave narratives. At the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, last summer, she researched “Black No More” by George Schuyler, a 1931 satirical novel about race written during the Harlem Renaissance.

Hunter Doctoral Lecturer Adrián M. Izquierdo connected her with Chatos Inhumanos, a small New York publisher, to translate “Burp: Gastronomical Writing,” as it’s called in English. The book’s stories and essays reflect Spaniard Mercedes Cebrián’s take on food and culture on both sides of the Atlantic. “I loved working with the Chatos Inhumanos team,” Griffiths says, “and it didn’t hurt that they paid too.”