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Op-ed: Nobody tells CUNY’s story better than students and grads

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Photo courtesy of CUNY

One of the key roles I perform as CUNY’s chancellor is to serve as a kind of ambassador for the University. It is a role I truly enjoy. As the leader of an institution of higher education so vast and integral to its city, I’m passionate about telling the story of our historic mission and how we are fulfilling it for today’s New Yorkers. 

But I have no doubt that the best CUNY ambassadors are our students and graduates. All of them, in their own way, embody our purpose of expanding access and opportunity for all New Yorkers, no matter their background, means, or aspirations. Many of them achieve at a dazzling level that burnishes our collective success. And each year, countless CUNY graduates assume leading roles in their fields in the city and the nation. They tell our story best.

A few days before Thanksgiving, we were thrilled by the news that one of our students, Hunter College senior Devashish (Dave) Basnet, had been selected as a 2022 Rhodes Scholar, one of just 32 students in the country to earn the stellar academic honor. Dave is a DACA recipient who arrived in Queens from Nepal when he was 8, and in so many ways, he — and the personal journey that led him to this moment — are emblematic of the perseverance of today’s CUNY students. 

Also in November, Juvanie Piquant completed her one-year term as the student member of CUNY’s Board of Trustees. She’s an honors student at New York City College of Technology who became the first Haitian American woman to serve as chairperson of the University Student Senate. She’s truly made a mark, giving voice to the needs and concerns of the more than 260,000 degree-seeking CUNY students during the tumultuous times of the pandemic.

In two weeks, meanwhile, CUNY alumnus Eric Adams will become the city’s second Black mayor. The mayor-elect attended Queensborough Community College, and is a graduate of both New York City College of Technology and John Jay College of Criminal Justice. When he takes office, he will make good on a promise he made on another CUNY campus in 2015, when he told the graduating class at Medgar Evers College that he would one day become mayor. 

Dave Basnet, Juvanie Piquant and Eric Adams came from different places and have had vastly different experiences, but they are all unofficial CUNY ambassadors who are making us proud every day.

Driven to Make a Difference

Dave came to this country as a child after he and his family fled their country’s political violence. He mastered his second language so well that his parents relied on him to translate their immigration documents. When he got to Hunter and emerged as a student leader, Dave found that immersing himself in the CUNY experience helped him come to terms with his status as a DREAMer. A political science major and honors student, he garnered a slew of nationally competitive scholarships and fellowships before earning the Rhodes. (He’s also a musician and an accomplished singer, by the way.) 

But what’s perhaps most impressive to me is Dave’s selfless drive to make his personal goals serve a greater purpose. He’s worked as a research intern at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington and as a shelter intake specialist for the International Rescue Committee. And as a Jeanette K. Watson Fellow, he helped families at the U.S.-Mexico border whose migration odysseys were like his own. He plans to pursue a master’s degree in refugee and forced migration studies and wants people to “reimagine the idea of human mobility and migration” to make the immigration process less daunting.

Spurring Students to Act

As the head of CUNY student government (and an aspiring lawyer), Juvanie Piquant has been a tireless advocate for CUNY and public higher education even beyond our university. As a University trustee, she was keenly focused on the most pressing needs of our students, whether it was fighting to sustain the affordability of their education, speaking out about racial equity or pushing for expanded mental health services when the pandemic was exacerbating the academic and financial pressures that could impede their path to graduation.

One of Juvanie’s special skills is activating her fellow students — making them care, encouraging them to get involved and challenging them to use their individual strengths. I love how she put it in an interview last year with the Brooklyn College Vanguard student newspaper: “How do we work cohesively and collectively to become champions of our own goals? The fight for a better CUNY is not just one person’s fight, it is all of our fight.”

Juvanie Piquant and Dave Basnet are standouts but virtually every CUNY student, every graduate, has a story to tell that is testament not only to their own talents, hard work and perseverance but to the opportunities they found and embraced at CUNY. Possibility defines our mission. Fulfilling that promise is what drives our status as the nation’s most potent engine of economic and social mobility. That’s as true today as it has been for every generation since 1847. 

Happy holidays from the whole CUNY family to you and yours, and here’s to a prosperous, productive and healthy New Year. For CUNY, 2021 has been a year of coming back and moving forward, taking small steps on the long path back to normalcy. Please check out our multimedia CUNY Year in Review. See you in 2022!

Félix V. Matos Rodríguez is the chancellor of The City University of New York (CUNY), the largest urban public university system in the United States.

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