Category Archives: Student Stories


SLU Student Spotlight: Sima Petilli, LEAP to Teacher

Sima Petilli, a special-needs educator and participant in SLU’s LEAP-to-Teacher program who recently earned her master’s degree at Lehman College, was not going to let anything stand in her way of becoming a certified teacher – not even the sudden, mid-semester transition to working, studying, and full-time parenting from home in response to COVID-19, all while also preparing for the edTPA, a challenging certification exam requiring prospective teachers to submit a portfolio of lesson plans, videos, and written responses.

“It’s very easy to get confused and overwhelmed, but in reality, the edTPA is like a wave. You ride from one wave to another,” Sima said of her experience tackling the different portions of the test.

Originally from Russia, Sima first came to the U.S. when she was 13 years old and then moved to Israel to complete her undergraduate studies. She returned to the States afterward to pursue a career in public relations as a Conference Director. But when the company went bankrupt, she realized she wanted a completely different lifestyle. For the past three years, Sima has worked as a special needs preschool teacher in Manhattan, and loves it.

“You never know what could happen during a lesson!” she exclaimed gleefully. “This was a big shift in my career and I’m very happy with my decision.” Read more about Sima.

Meet SLU’s 2020 Valedictorian and Salutatorian

Gena-Fae Fillingham
B.A. Urban and Community Studies, summa cum laude
Valedictorian, SLU Class of 2020

Gena-Fae Fillingham was born and raised in a small farm town in Nebraska, where her mother taught her to care about the most vulnerable in her community. She worked as a certified nurses’ aide throughout her senior year in high school, and later attended nursing school where she graduated with honors and was certified as an LPN. She worked as a charge nurse in a nursing home in Brooklyn, and simultaneously volunteered for the charity “Hope for Kids,” which seeks to raise awareness and increase the number of children receiving up to date immunizations. Gena-Fae later changed her career path and worked as a legal secretary in the corporate sector, then decided to return to a field of work that would allow her to engage more with the community and serve others. Gena-Fae found the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies a perfect fit for her ambitions. After completing her coursework at SLU in December of 2019, she completed an online TEFL certification course in April 2020, and was officially certified as an ESL teacher in May. Her internship took her to lower Manhattan, where she worked with Chinese immigrants and tutored a Chinese student online. Gena-Fae plans to move to Asia and work as an ESL teacher. Read more about Gena-Fae.

Karen Gale Mardenborough
B.A. Urban Studies, summa cum laude
Salutatorian, Class of 2020

Karen hails from the beautiful twin island Federation of St. Kitts and Nevis. Karen excelled in her education and after graduating from high school, became an untrained elementary school teacher. She spent just over one and a half years on the job before migrating to America, moving to New York City in 1999.

While raising her two children, she worked part-time and decided it was time to go back to school. In 2005, Karen enrolled at Cypress Community College in California. However, after only two years, she and her children returned to New York in 2007. There, Karen was able to get a part-time position as a College Assistant at Hostos Community College, and later took and passed the CUNY Office Assistant exam. This provided her with a secure, permanent, and full-time position working for the Human Resources Department at Hostos.

Karen took advantage of CUNY’s tuition waiver benefit to pursue her higher education, earning an Associate’s degree in Criminal Justice from Hostos in June 2017. Her education at Hostos made Karen realize that it is not only the justice system that is broken, but there are so many disparities within her own community that need to be mended. She subsequently enrolled at CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies, and has now earned a bachelor’s degree in Urban Studies, summa cum laude. She will enter SLU’s master’s program in Fall 2020. Read more about Karen.

Gena-Fae and Karen appear on this CUNY video at minutes 2:55 and 4:50.

Profile in Determination: Diaraye Bah, College Prep Student

No one is more determined to succeed than Diaraye Bah.

Born in Guinea, Diaraye majored in biology at the Universite Gamal Abdel Nasser de Conakry (UGANC) before emigrating to the United States in 2012. She currently works as a Patient Care Associate at Metropolitan Hospital, taking vital signs, executing EKGs and collecting specimens from patients. Drawing blood is what she likes most. “That’s my favorite thing to do,” Diaraye chuckles. “People think I was a vampire in another life. But I’m good at it. I’m very gentle.” But even Diaraye was daunted when the coronavirus struck. “Work became very demanding and very dangerous. The stress is high and as part of the floating staff pool, I work in different areas of the hospital. But it is worth the effort.”

Diaraye also believes higher education is worth the effort. Determined to become a nurse, the DC37 member saw a notice about SLU’s College Prep Program on the union’s website. Then she met Becky Firesheets at a CUNY Day info session. Becky helped her complete her application for nursing school, and encouraged her to attend College Prep to improve her proficiency in reading, writing, and elementary algebra. Diaraye’s kids, her cousin Fatima, and her colleagues all urged her to do so as well. And so Diaraye enrolled — in both courses. Continue reading Profile in Determination: Diaraye Bah, College Prep Student

SLU Announces 2020 Diversity Scholarship Recipients

The Joseph S. Murphy Diversity Scholarships are dedicated to fostering diverse leadership in the labor movement and in the academic discipline of labor studies. Each year, SLU’s diversity scholarship program awards full tuition plus additional funds up to $30,000 for graduate students, and up to $20,000 for undergraduate students.
This year, seven remarkable women of color—two undergraduate students and five graduate students—are the recipients of diversity scholarships. They are: Tania Caldwell, Cylantra Dees, Monise Etienne, Frida Garza, Xiomara Loarte, Gabriela Quintanilla, and Maria Santana.
Click on their names to learn more about these accomplished and ambitious ladies.

Spotlight on Students: Montserrat Vargas

By Becky Firesheets

This new reality of life in quarantine is challenging for all of us, but we don’t have to look far to find encouragement and motivation, especially when it comes to our students here at SLU. Montserrat Vargas, an adult learner currently enrolled in Worker Education’s Reading/Writing College Preparation course, recently shared her answers to a few questions about surviving quarantine life. As an immigrant, small business owner, and craftivist workshop leader, her perspective and positivity are especially valuable right now. Check out her inspirational words below, and learn more about her work, including Mujeres Stitchers Virtual Meet-Ups and custom-made embroidery kits, by visiting her website. Continue reading Spotlight on Students: Montserrat Vargas

Spotlight On: SLU Urban Studies Student Bibi Braide

Bibi Braide (M.A. Urban Studies Program) is a natural-born leader. Just ask her. “I am good with people,” she admits. “When I speak, people tend to listen.” Asked how she acquired that skill, she replied, “It’s just a part of me. When you work with people, you have to see the world through their eyes and know where they are coming from. And they respond to that.”

Bibi, who was born in Nigeria but grew up in the U.S., earned a degree in nutrition from Lehman College, and for the past ten years has been a nutritionist at Wyckoff Heights Medical Center WIC Program, a teaching hospital in an ethnically diverse neighborhood in Flatbush, Brooklyn. She works in a federally funded program that provides nutritional care including screening, assessments, diet instruction, and other counseling for low income families. Bibi’s patients are primarily women, children and infants—she often counsels pregnant women, breastfeeding mothers, and mothers with their children. Continue reading Spotlight On: SLU Urban Studies Student Bibi Braide