On Friday, June 14th, the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies celebrated its inaugural commencement in the Proshansky Auditorium at the CUNY Graduate Center. Nearly 100 graduates participated, out of a class of approximately 158 students. More than 400 people, including students and their families, SLU faculty and staff, and distinguished guests filled the auditorium to capacity in celebration of the School’s first-ever graduating class.
Greg Mantsios, Founding Dean hailed the establishment of the School as the 25th unit in the CUNY system, and exhorted its first graduates to use their new knowledge to become change-makers. “What an extraordinary dynamic you are, choosing to enroll in our School because you wanted to make a difference. Making a difference in these times is a challenge of great magnitude. It’s essential that individuals have the ability to think critically and plan strategically, and that is possible only with a good education … Citizens must ‘tool up’ to defend the institutions of democracy. That too requires education, as does leadership. Leaders must be well-educated, well-informed and critically astute. We have seen what happens when they are not. … To lead is to assure that economic prosperity is shared by all. The greatest ambition is to end exploitation and to achieve greater equality. … What will you do with the knowledge and skills you’ve attained, for yourself, for your family, for global social justice and for the planet? That’s not just a question, it’s a charge that we at SLU give you. Do something important to make the world a better, more just place. … Every day, someone from this School and this University—someone like you—is out there changing the world in ways both big and small. We are counting on you to do the same.”
CUNY Trustee Michael Arvanites and Senior Vice Chancellor Matthew Sapienza brought greetings from the University’s Board and central administration. Arvanites told the graduates, “You’ve received a priceless degree at a pretty good price. You’re the pride of CUNY, and the pride of New York. But with your degree comes a responsibility—to make this City and State a better place.” Sapienza spoke of the significance of the occasion: “The word ‘historic’ is used a lot, but this day really is historic, the first graduation for this new School. I want to thank one particular person here today, and that’s founding Dean Greg Mantsios. It was Greg’s vision, his hard work, his dogged determination, his salesmanship over many, many years that made the dream come true of having our own free-standing School of Labor and Urban Studies.”
Deputy Mayor J. Phillip Thompson delivered a rousing and timely keynote address. He spoke of economic disruptions and encouraged the graduates to lead the next wave of big ideas. “If nothing changes in the way working people think and organize, the next 25 years of disruption will make peoples’ lives even more difficult than the last 25, and the danger of conflict will rise.” He outlined five areas where labor should take the lead to reverse the tide of inequality, including of making the Green New Deal a people’s movement. “New York City has over 500 miles of coastline facing the ocean and the ocean is expected to rise over six feet in this century. That means we have to rebuild the City’s infrastructure fundamentally. We have to. Use this as an opportunity to build a new green energy and construction workforce and industry. Don’t wait for business to define what it is going to look like. Labor should create the industry, because if you wait for business to do it working people will not be the beneficiaries.” He also encouraged graduates to address the needs of the City’s aging population; to make advanced manufacturing and robotics worker-owned rather than investor-owned to ensure that it serves the people; to extend collective bargaining to consumer use of data; and to tackle the growing affordable housing crisis that continues to plague New York and other major cities. “Working people need a future-oriented, big-thinking and bold labor movement. It’s up to you to build and lead such a movement,” Thompson declared. “The question of whether you are living in interesting times, and whether those times will be a blessing or a curse, depends on what you do with you training, your energy, you education and your imagination. The future is yours if you dare to shape it.”
Roberta Reardon, New York State’s Commissioner of Labor brought greetings from Governor Andrew Cuomo and shared her leadership journey with the graduates, including how she overcame her own fears and insecurity. “Because you are here, I know the type of individuals that you are. Because you are here, you have made the commitment to dedicate yourself to public service and social justice. Because you are here, you are fiercely passionate about making a difference for working people. Because you are here, you want to do the work that necessary to advocate for those whose voices need help being here. Because you are here, you are a change-maker, but you never succeed by yourself. It is the beauty of the labor movement that you always have brothers and sisters with you and they’re often people that you don’t even know, but they will always have your back.”
Glen Guild, who earned a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Urban and Community Studies and a Certificate in Labor Relations, was SLU’s 2019 Valedictorian. In his remarks he touched on the challenges that come with balancing work, family and education. “It has been an extraordinary journey to complete my degree, and my family has been a phenomenal inspiration to me. Pursuing higher learning while managing a career and a home is exemplary of how life gets in the way. Nevertheless, like all of you, I made a commitment and saw it through to the end. … I understand the sacrifices made by everyone out there wearing a cap and gown tonight. I am proud of your achievements, and I am proud to be counted as one of you.”
Alecia James, a former public-school teacher who holds an Advanced Certificate in Health Care Policy and Heath Care Administration and graduated with a Master of Arts in Urban Studies, spoke on behalf of the graduate degree program. “I remember excitedly sharing with a family member that I was in graduate school pursuing my Master’s degree. Her response to me was, ‘You shoulda finish long time.’ Essentially, that’s a Jamaican way of saying, ‘You should have completed your studies a long time ago.’ Is there an inherent shame or stigma associated with pursuing your studies at a certain age? Is there a “use by” date on education? … SLU is a place where the faculty encourages students to take a deep dive into questions that may stem from their work and that they may have been thinking about for years. This has emboldened me to take the next step in my education—to pursue my doctorate in public health.”
Nicolas Pineda, Jr. was Undergraduate Student Speaker. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Urban and Community Studies and intends to begin working on the Advanced Certificate in Labor Studies in September and eventually move on to SLU’s Master of Arts in Labor Studies. Nicolas paid tribute to SLU’s faculty and staff, in particular his academic advisor. “I want to celebrate my academic advisor June Cumberbatch, who once responded to my anxiety as I struggled for so long to do well in school this way: ‘You will not fail, because I will not let you.’ And I received the same support that every student walking through the doors gets every day at SLU. … What are the odds that a school would emerge, in this anti-labor union climate, named the CUNY School of Labor and Urban studies? Whatever they are, we beat them. We are SLU’s inaugural graduating class—Congratulations Class of 2019! We did that!!”
SLU’s first Distinguished Alumnus award was presented to Nastaran Mohit, Organizing Director of the NewsGuild of New York, and an M.A. graduate in Labor Studies from JSMI. She told the graduates that they should always return to SLU, as she has: “I view this School as a true gem in a world where it is so difficult to get a quality education at an affordable price. But more importantly, it’s a way to be a part of this community. You can be out on a picket line and see former classmates alongside current students and esteemed faculty members, all out there fighting for workers in this city—it’s not just about education and getting a degree, it’s about being part of something bigger.”
The evening was capped off with a performance by the SLU Commencement Chorus, led by graduate Jessi Olsen and accompanied by the Rude Mechanical Orchestra.