Category Archives: Student Stories

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Gabriela Quintanilla is a DREAMer

Gabriela Quintanilla is a DREAMer. And she has some big dreams.

Born in El Salvador, Gabriela came to the U.S. as an undocumented immigrant at age 13 and grew up in the Catskills region of New York. She went to high school in Liberty, and was very active in her student government. When President Obama issued the executive order creating the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, the local press wanted to interview her. “I suddenly realized that everyone in my school and my community would know that I was undocumented,” said Gabriela, “but I wanted to share my story and raise awareness.”

Raising awareness is something Gabriela cared about from an early age. Her mother worked at a poultry factory for 12 years, and that’s how Gabriela became involved with the Rural & Migrant Ministry. “I joined RMM when I was 14,” she said. “I saw my mother’s situation and I wanted to know more about her rights. Every year we would go to Albany and my mother would share her story. In RMM I worked alongside women who really wanted to make a change in what is like a forgotten land. People in the City don’t understand that rural upstate New York isn’t just about growing apples. It’s about isolated factory workers and farmworkers who have been forgotten.”

After earning her degree in sociology at SUNY Stony Brook, Gabriela returned to RMM, serving as the organization’s Western New York Coordinator. “My job revolved around coalition-building. I worked alongside farmworkers who year after year shared their stories of oppression with legislators. I also organized community members to go to Albany and support The Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act. The Farm Workers Bill had been around for 20 years. It was about getting farmworkers to be protected by New York labor laws. That they deserved a day of rest, overtime, and the right to collectively bargain. And eventually, we won.” Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the bill into law on July 17, 2019.

Gabriela learned about SLU four years ago when she met Laurie Kellogg and Diana Robinson at a food chain workers event. “I wanted to go to graduate school, and I thought SLU would be a good fit for me, with its emphasis on the labor movement. But I had just moved to the Finger Lakes and I wasn’t ready to make another change. I had always dreamed of living in New York City, and last summer I decided to make the move—in the middle of a pandemic. The first month was really hard—I’m an extrovert, and the lack of community was just awful. But I accomplished my goal: I’m enrolled at SLU, in my first semester in the Labor Studies MA program.” She sighed. “Online.”

Gabriela says she’s lucky—she had a great support system that helped her get her education. “Others aren’t so fortunate. So in 2015 I founded Adelante Student Voices, an organization that provides a safe space for New York’s undocumented students to explore their legal status and find routes to college. They learn about New York State’s DREAM Act, the legislation that allows eligible undocumented students to apply for financial aid for college. So far, 55 students have gone through our program and 26 have been able to go to college.”

Asked what she wants to learn at SLU, Gabriela replied, “I’m curious to explore how non-profit organizations have been able to achieve changes in the law without relying on unions. When you think about the labor movement you automatically think unions, but there are many other organizations that should be included. There needs to be a way to bridge the gap. I’m hoping my professors and my classmates can help me figure that out.”

She added, “I’m enjoying learning about urban issues and how labor issues play out in the city. But I also want to bring a different perspective, from my own experience. I want to find out how we can bring the most marginalized communities to the forefront of the labor movement. I want people to think about the issues that impact rural areas and those vulnerable and forgotten workers, many of them undocumented. I’m fortunate to have my green card now and I’ve applied for citizenship. And I will utilize this privilege to bring forward those who are marginalized to decision-making tables.”

She paused. “I’m not going to forget them.”

LEARN MORE ABOUT SLU’S M.A. IN LABOR STUDIES

Students in the News: Brian Fleurantin

Brian Fleurantin is not about to stop talking.
The URB MA graduate candidate has recently been involved in a number of protests and community actions against his employer, Housing Works, which has been accused of unfair labor practices. Along the way, Brian has been quoted in news articles and interviewed on WBAI radio. Here’s Brian in his own words:
“Throughout my time at SLU, I’ve had the pleasure of connecting with my colleagues from various professions and learning what it takes to be a better, more effective organizer and advocate. Whether in class or working with my peers on projects outside of campus, SLU has taught me how to build community and achieve goals that previously seemed unattainable. Although our company has stifled our organizing efforts at various points, we’ve managed to persevere and continue doing the work of building community, working to form a union, and making sure every employee there has their voice heard. The work always continues and I’m thankful SLU has been here to help guide me along the way.”

JEFFERY SUTTLES MAKES MUSIC FOR A MOVEMENT

 

Graduate student. Special education teacher.
Digital humanities specialist. Writer. Poet. Musician. Indie artist.

Those are only some of the myriad vocations of
Jeffery Collin Suttles. To call him enterprising would be an understatement.

A candidate for the M.A. in Urban Studies at SLU this semester, Jeffery found new inspiration for his art in a cooperative management course that he took with Rebecca Lurie in 2019. As his final project, Jeffery composed a song called, “Co-Op,” which he subsequently premiered last month at a community development rally/video shoot held at the Black Lives Matter mural in Brooklyn. Continue reading JEFFERY SUTTLES MAKES MUSIC FOR A MOVEMENT

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