Class of ’23 Baruch Graduate Lelani Pacific-Jack Wins JUSFC Grant and Embarks on a Journey to Japan

Amid the festivity and flying confetti of Tuesday’s Commencement Ceremony at the Barclays Center, one of 2023’s more accomplished graduates was conspicuously missing. Rather than passing the tassel across her mortarboard, Lelani Pacific-Jack, a political science major with a minor in Japanese, was crossing the Pacific. This spring she was awarded the prestigious Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission (JUSFC) grant, which has given her the opportunity to travel to Washington DC, then onto Japan, for the very first time. Pacific-Jack’s journey is a testament to her passion for Japanese culture, her burgeoning interest in international relations, and her estimable dedication to learning the language.

A Brooklyn native and first-generation college student who grew up helping support a single mom and five younger sisters, Pacific-Jack’s interest in Japanese culture started when she discovered Japanese comic books, referred to as manga, after being brought to a bookstore in her neighborhood. She would soon find herself spending hours reading and exploring, inaugurating a lifelong obsession with the world of Japanese storytelling.

“Those adventures and those distinct cultural differences that I read about affected my imagination really deeply,” she said. “I guess I started to realize how much I liked reading about people different from me. I wasn’t really exposed to a lot of diversity when I was really young. For me, It was so interesting to read this combination of fantasy and reality and not be able to tell the difference between the two. I just went completely down the rabbit hole.” 

In high school, Pacific-Jack studied French for four years. However, it was in Baruch College’s growing Japanese Program, housed by the Department of Modern Languages and Comparative Literature, that she finally had the opportunity to learn Japanese. Pacific-Jack describes learning the language as the hardest thing she has ever done, but despite the difficulties her all-out enthusiasm for the culture has allowed to persevere. In her final semester at Baruch, she completed her fourth Japanese class and is well on her way to advanced proficiency.

A journey to Japan has always been a dream of hers, but the obstacles sometimes seemed insurmountable for someone from her background. “The financial burden and the time commitment required to go to Japan are pretty intense,” she said. However, thanks to the support and guidance of her Professors Shige (CJ) Suzuki and Yukie Yamaguchi-Callahan, whom she refers to as her “sensei,” and Sandy Kupprat of the Starr Career Center, she discovered the JUSFC Summer Institute program, which unites her interests in international relations and her love for Japan. “I applied. I never thought I’d get it. But, I got it.”

The JUSFC Summer Institute, an organization that supports scholarly, cultural, and artistic activities between Japan and the United States, covers all expenses for Pacific-Jack’s trip, including flights, accommodation, and provides a daily stipend. As part of the program, she will have the opportunity to meet experts in Japanese studies and international relations, such as Professor Ian J. Miller, a historian of Japan from Harvard University, and Sheila A. Smith, Japanese policy expert from the Council on Foreign Relations.

But, for Pacific-Jack, this journey to Japan is not just about personal growth and cultural exploration, it’s also about representation and creating opportunities for others. One of the few Black women studying Japanese in her classes, Pacific-Jack is passionate about promoting diversity and inclusivity within the Japanese community.

“I’ve always been the only Black girl in all of my Japanese classes. I do think that promoting diversity is really important, creating that space for other people to appreciate Japanese culture,” she reflected.

“When I started meeting with all the other students who got in I saw that there were a lot of Black women there. And I tell my mom, ‘I don’t know what to say. What do I say?’ Because I’m just so used to being the only one. It’s like, wow, there are other people just like me who are interested in the same thing as me and studying the same exact thing as I am. It was kind of a surreal moment for me. I thought, maybe things can change.”

When asked about her plans after graduation, Pacific-Jack says, “Japan. Just Japan. Going to Japan. That’s always been the end goal. I haven’t even gone yet and I’m already thinking about how I can get back there.”

Zicklin Students Can Now Concentrate in a Weissman Discipline

In a move towards further uniting Baruch College’s two largest schools, and in keeping with President S. David Wu’s recent reflection on the vital importance of the arts and sciences for every educational trajectory, Baruch students who major in a discipline housed by the Zicklin School of Business—whether it be finance, marketing, or real estate—can now complete a liberal arts or sciences concentration at the Weissman School.

This new path for students represents a timely opportunity for them to bring tailor-made combinations of skills onto their resumes and into the workplace. 

One such student is Cindy Espinoza Garcia. A native of Ecuador, Garcia is a first-generation college student who intends to become a Marketing major at Zicklin with a concentration in Graphic Communications in Weissman’s Department of Fine and Performing Arts. “In my senior year of high school, all my friends were applying to college except me; I felt confused and without a purpose,” she said. “I didn’t know what career to study or what to do for the rest of my life. I remember telling my family: ‘I just want to do something that would allow me to help people, do my best, and leave a unique mark on the world.’ By putting these two disciplines together, Garcia feels that she will now be equipped with the skills to bring her purpose to fruition.

With a family background in party planning, Garcia has recently started her own business, Soul and Balloons, which offers bespoke balloon design for events in New York City and the surrounding area. “When I started my business, I knew I needed a good understanding of the principles of marketing, but I also knew I needed to learn more about design from design experts. I got really excited when I heard about the new concentration option. Putting all these different ideas together is really going to help me create a business that feels like mine,” Garcia said. 

Strictly speaking, Baruch has never encouraged its students to focus solely on the humanities or business education. The College’s curriculum has long recognized that for the business innovators of the future, as well its creatives and communicators, leaders that the College is now famous for producing, training in the arts and sciences provides the very bedrock from which they spring. Because of this, every student at Baruch, regardless of their eventual major is educated in Weissman classrooms. 

Now with an official option for Zicklin students to add a Weissman Concentration, the College takes a more forward-facing stance, preparing students to think critically, creatively, and readying them to seize ahold of newly emerging career paths—many of which they themselves will create.

Learn More About Weissman Concentration Requirements

Weissman Grad Represents New York City Globally

When Aissata M. B. Camara (’11) came to New York City from the Republic of Guinea, West Africa, it was supposed to be a temporary thing. She was 13 years old, undocumented, and didn’t speak a word of English. Over the course of the next 22 years, she would become a vital part of the fabric of New York City political life.

She began to learn the language, culling a few phrases from children’s shows like Blue’s Clues and Dora the Explorer, and eventually earned her U.S. citizenship and two college degrees. She has since gone on to become the deputy commissioner for policy and strategic initiatives in the NYC Mayor’s Office for International Affairs—making her one of the youngest deputy commissioners in the city’s history and the first Black African woman to hold that position in the office.

Camara cites her experience as an undergraduate at Baruch’s Weissman School of Arts and Sciences as a crucial moment in her development.

“I wouldn’t be who I am today without the professors and advisors who poured their love and support into me,” she says.

Like many students who attend Baruch, Camara was initially attracted to the College’s reputation in the financial sector. But the economic recession of 2008 made her consider other directions.

She quickly pivoted to assembling an ad-hoc major within the Weissman School, combining coursework in Psychology, English, and International Affairs. During her time there she founded a nonprofit, the There Is No Limit Foundation, which strives to empower people living in extreme poverty especially women and girls, and people with disabilities.

After completing a Master’s degree at New York University, she happened upon a job opening in the Mayor’s Office for International Affairs. Having worked on global issues for most of her career, Camara was intrigued by the fact that the office sat at the nexus of global and local issues. At the urging of a mentor who encouraged Camara to apply her expertise to the challenges facing New York City, she applied and landed the job.

Within the first three weeks of her tenure, she had already launched a new program, NYC Junior Ambassadors, which brings students from across all five boroughs to the United Nations and connects them to global issues through in-depth tours, talks, and classes. This award-winning program has impacted more than 4,000 young people and educators in NYC. She soon found herself promoted to deputy commissioner of her department—which she refers to as being “kind of like the State Department of NYC”—and has since been named chief of staff as well.

When asked why she is so passionate about helping young people, her thoughts turn towards Dr. Wendy Heyman, a psychologist in Baruch’s Starr Career Development Center for over 40 years, who passed away in 2018. Camara remembers that Dr. Heyman always took her dreams and goals seriously and was one of the first who encouraged her to seriously pursue politics.

Years later, Dr. Heyman attended an event that Camara hosted at the United Nations.

“I looked over and saw that, all these years later, she was watching me work alongside the mayor,” Camara says. “I’ll never forget it. She said she couldn’t have been prouder of me. “ 

Colgate-Palmolive sends Baruch College Climate Changemakers to the United Kingdom

L to R: Alexandra Acevedo, Nikala D’Aguiar, Professor Mindy Engle-Friedman, Jenny Ho, and Winnie Lin.

Three students representing Baruch’s Heat Island Resiliency Project were awarded $10,000 by the Colgate-Palmolive Company in order to present their original research at the British Conference of Undergraduate Research (BCUR) on April 5th and 6th at the University of Warwick, in Coventry, England. There, at a gathering that included over 70 colleges from around the globe, they brought data, both quantitative and qualitative, that offers a close look at New York City’s most vulnerable—those in neighborhoods most affected by a phenomenon known as the Urban Heat Island Effect—to the world’s stage.

Over the past two years, Jenny Ho, Nikala D’Aguiar, and Samia Alam (L to R), under the stewardship of Associate Professor Mindy Engle-Friedman of the Psychology Department, collected and collated data from several low-income neighborhoods including, Kingsbridge Heights in the Bronx and East Flatbush in Brooklyn. After analyzing several years’ worth of statistics, they created a detailed report that provides a real-time snapshot of these New York City communities, profiling in stark relief the ways that climate change is taking its toll. Taken together, their research shows that metropolitan areas, and particularly those occupied by people of color, are significantly warmer than surrounding rural areas because of the wide use of asphalt, concrete, and buildings that are heat absorbent and a scarcity of trees; the absence of green spaces and cooling centers; and the need to improve local communication networks that provide information and enable residents to work together.

“Once you’re in areas where there’s asphalt, concrete, and buildings that are heat absorbent with very few trees, that is, once you’re in a highly urbanized setting,” said Professor Engle-Friedman, “you’re in a place where you are really vulnerable to being baked.” The research that these students have done shows as much, and aims to get a handle on local communication networks with hopes to develop tools that will help keep the families that people these communities safe.

With the Colgate brand found in more homes than any other in the world, and, as a leader in corporate sustainability strategies and support, the company began their relationship with Baruch’s climate change community in the fall of 2022, sending three of their executives to address the Heat Island Resiliency Team. Together, Sukhdev Saini, Global Toothbrush Packaging Lead Manager, Cecilia Coates, Lead of Global Sustainability, Climate, and Water, and DJ D’Agostino, Global Environment, Health, Safety, and Sustainability Manager, gave these students a unique glimpse of both the opportunities and the challenges presented by the prospect of integrating sustainability practices into all aspects of a business on a global scale. As a sign of Colgate’s continued commitment, Baruch’s inaugural “Conference on Climate Research, Teaching, and Collaboration” held on March 10, featured Sonay Aykan, Associate Director ESG & Sustainability at Colgate-Palmolive, as one of its esteemed final session panelists.

“This team of students has been doing such amazing work for so long,” said Professor Engle-Friedman, “and this is really a story of the kindness and collegiality of so many unsung people at Baruch that helped us get here.” The initial connection between the students and Colgate-Palmolive was made by Starr Career Center, and the Heat Island Resiliency Team was first given the opportunity to present their research, developing a poster session and an accompanying oral presentation, at the 2022 International Conference of Undergraduate Research after receiving funding from the Office of the Provost. It is this same evolving presentation that the students will now bring to the University of Warwick thanks to Colgate-Palmolive.

“Two of the three students have never even been on an airplane,” said Professor Engle-Friedman. “So, this partnership with Colgate Palmolive is making a huge difference in their lives.” But, as with much of the climate conversation at CUNY, the impacts stretch beyond the individual students and to the disadvantaged communities from which they come. 

“CUNY students are much more likely than other New York City college students to stay in the city and become its leaders of tomorrow. For Colgate-Palmolive to help them is a real contribution to these communities,” said Professor Engle-Friedman. “Our students have that feeling of investment that you can’t manufacture.” Though Baruch’s Heat Island Resiliency Project is Britain bound, in a way, they’re always on their way back home.

Baruch College Awarded Mellon Foundation Grant for Black and Latino Studies

Baruch College has been awarded a $150,000 Mellon Foundation grant for the expansion of the Black and Latino Studies Department under the leadership of Shelly Eversley, Interim Chair and Professor of English. Though the Black and Latino Studies (BLS) program has been a part of the intellectual community at Baruch College since 1970, it only became an official major this past Fall. This remarkable show of support will allow the nascent program to grow and thrive. A partnership between the Mellon Foundation, the nation’s largest supporter of the arts and humanities, and Baruch College is especially pertinent given both institutions’ ardent belief in the access that everyone should have to the arts and humanities. This is the first time the College has received funding from the Mellon Foundation.

“Ever since we started drafting the new BLS major, earning the support of Mellon was a goal,” Professor Eversley said. “The Mellon Foundation has played a critical role in supporting the humanities across all kinds of institutions, and its unequivocal commitment to the role of the humanities in supporting racial and social justice reflects the values of our program.”

The grant, entitled “Black and Latinx Publics,” will go to support a singular component of the new BLS major: community-engaged teaching and research. “The funds will be used to train faculty in community-engaged pedagogy and learning technologies so that they and their students can design and build research projects that make explicit connections between the classroom and the communities we serve,” Professor Eversley said. This is one of many ways that the program seeks to empower students through Black and Latino studies with a full range of tools they need to build the futures they desire. The grant will also help support faculty whose scholarly work speaks directly to racial and social justice issues. “In this, we will launch seminars on all kinds of publishing to demonstrate exactly how a committed teacher can also build a successful scholarly career.” Under Eversley’s stewardship, a hallmark of BLS’ critical orientation is rethinking skill sets that are typically seen as separate, instead proposing a more holistic view of education, professionalization, and scholarship.

The generous support of the Mellon Foundation is not only a huge asset for a department so early in its trajectory as an official major, but also for Black and Latino Studies’ larger mission. “It is so important to us,” Professor Eversley said, “not only because this Mellon Officer grant recognizes the value of Black and Latino Studies in higher education, but also because our present moment demands it.  Public universities like ours have a critical role in sustaining equitable futures that must include us all.” 

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation is the nation’s largest supporter of the arts and humanities. Since 1969, the Foundation has been guided by its core belief that the humanities and arts are essential to human understanding. The Foundation believes that the arts and humanities are where we express our complex humanity, and that everyone deserves the beauty, transcendence, and freedom that can be found there. Through our grants, we seek to build just communities enriched by meaning and empowered by critical thinking, where ideas and imagination can thrive. Learn more at mellon.org.

Baruch MFE’s Secret Weapon: Andrew Lesniewski

Baruch’s Master’s of Financial Engineering (MFE) program, housed in the Weissman School of Arts and Sciences’ graduate programs, is on something of a winning streak. For the third year in a row, QuantNet, whose MFE program rankings are eagerly awaited by the quantitative finance community at large, has rated Baruch’s MFE No. 1 in the United States. The College, which charges in-state students only around $29,000 for the entire program, regularly beats out schools like Princeton, UC Berkeley, and Carnegie Mellon, which typically charge twice as much. Alums of Baruch’s program report the highest compensation among the Top 10 programs, after having paid the lowest tuition. It doesn’t take the kinds of mathematical models that MFE students study to understand the value proposition.

The innovative leadership of Dan Stefanica and Warren B. Gordon have been instrumental in achieving this unprecedented run, but the MFE’s real secret weapon is its Curriculum Coordinator: Andrew Lesniewski.

“A lot of people wouldn’t understand the complex models of probability that we work with,” Lesniewski says “but the whole economy, the fate of finance, countless jobs, all rest on mathematics.” Lesniewski’s grasp of such models and his ability to explain them to a layman like me shows nothing short of mastery, but this pioneering mathematician who spent sixteen years in the financial industry, formulating a number of innovative methodologies for valuation and risk management widely used by investment banks and hedge funds the world over, can speak just as fluently about literature, opera, and philosophy. Our conversation veered towards the poems of T. S. Eliot, the relationship between Martin Heidegger’s philosophy and his Nazism, and whether those widely debated crypto currencies will turn out to be financial market game-changers or the future of an illusion. For the record, he’s still 50-50 on that one.

Leaving his native Poland early in life, Lesniewski found his way to Zurich and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. “It’s a famous school in Europe. Einstein went there, you know, so everybody knows about it. It’s quite unique,” he says. “It’s funny. Zurich is no New York City. It’s a very boring place, but not far from the Institute there’s a plaque saying that James Joyce wrote Ulysses here, and Wagner composed all his major operas over there, and quantum mechanics was developed in Zurich of all places.” Lesniewski left his own small mark on Zurich, earning a PhD in Mathematics and amassing a dossier of influential work on quantum field theory.

After spending ten years on the faculty at Harvard University, Lesniewski moved to New York and transitioned into the financial industry. Over the course of his career in finance, he headed up quantitative research at the investment bank BNP Paribas, Ellington Management Group, a multibillion-dollar hedge fund, and the Depository Trust & Clearing Corporation, the world’s largest clearing house. So, after all this success, why the switch back to full-time teaching? And why Baruch?

“I started my career as a university professor, and the whole time I worked in the private sector I also taught as an adjunct at NYU, so I never really gave it up,” Lesniewski admits. “And, you know, at the end of the day I thought to myself: a PhD degree in math, what is it worth, you know? It just provides you with just so many variable skills. I wanted to share that. And, of course, all my education was earned in public schools. I never went to any private institution.” He estimates his tuition at about 250 Swiss Francs per year. “And that was waived,” he laughs.

For these reasons, he felt an immediate affinity for Baruch and its mission. “In our program, we have students from four continents: Asia, Europe, North America, and South America. It’s a good mix, you know, because you just get those different characters in there, different ways of thinking, very smart people. It feels like something that’s also good for the country as a whole, you know? Absolutely.”

Lesniewski’s broad range of experience in the private sector led him to suggest broadening Baruch’s MFE curriculum. “I took the approach that we should really be able to present our graduates to the entire industry, not just one sector,” he says. The financial industry can be roughly broken into two parts, the buy side, and the sell side. The buy side refers to entities such as investment managers, pension funds, college endowments, insurance companies, and hedge funds. The sell side is comprised of firms such as investment banks and market makers that provide brokerage services to the buy side. Both sides need people with advanced mathematics skills to work out the complex probabilities involved. “Most programs, including the one at Baruch, which was already very well established when I got here, are really more oriented to the sell side. After working in the industry, I had a feeling that it was really a little bit too oriented towards the sell side, catering to the banks and so on. That began a long discussion of how to begin to move the curriculum – tilt it a little bit towards the buy side.” It is partially this holistic view of the industry that distinguishes Baruch’s MFE program and makes it the best in the nation.

“So, we’re giving them more than just one set of skills,” Lesniewski says. “I had a recent discussion with the director of another well know MFE program, and they still believe that you have to base the entire curriculum on only stochastic calculus to set students up to get jobs on the sell side. Of course, we do stochastic calculus too, but the skills that we give them are much more transferable. They might decide to move to a different industry, and they’ll have the skill set to make that move. Because ultimately, what is our job here? To give our students marketable skills so that they can get themselves a good life, right?”

Now in his tenth year at Baruch, Lesniewski says he still feels new to the job, and is still surprised by the quality of the students. And he loves Baruch’s location. “I mean, come on,” he smiles, “you can’t have a location like this anywhere else in the word.” He looks like he’s about to share a secret. “You know, I never in my life applied for a job at Columbia,” he says in a low voice. Andrew Lesniewski, it seems, still feels more at home downtown.

On This Day: Adjunct Professor of History Katie Uva Lights Up LinkNYC

On This Day: Adjunct Professor of History Katie Uva Lights Up LinkNYC

Replacing New York City’s long outmoded pay phones, LinkNYC kiosks have become recognizable beacons on thousands of city blocks, offering free wifi, advertising space, and the occasional illuminating factoid. But where do they get their material? Baruch History Department Adjunct Professor Katie Uva, under contract with the Museum of the City of New York, has recently contributed dozens of “On This Day” New York City history facts to the LinkNYC kiosks. She took some time to answer a few of my questions.

Dan: How did you get involved with The Museum of the City of New York and how were you selected for this project?

Katie: From 2013-2018 I worked as a Museum Educator, giving tours to school groups, college classes, and various adult groups. After leaving that job, I hosted New York City trivia nights at the museum from 2018-2021. And then this summer I was asked to write some new “On This Day” facts for the LinkNYC kiosks. Through my time working as a Museum Educator and then hosting trivia, as well as working for the Gotham Center for New York City History at the CUNY Graduate Center and regularly teaching New York City History at Baruch and Lehman, I’ve acquired some expertise in New York City history but also a good eye for what’s broadly entertaining or sparks curiosity about this city. I’m a historian by training and a lot of my work involves research and substantive interpretation, but it’s also nice to just do something fun and simpler sometimes.

Dan: What are a few of your favorite history facts that you contributed?

Katie: I don’t want to give away the “On This Days”; you’ll have to keep an eye out for them as they turn up on the LinkNYC kiosks! But I will give you one fact for each borough:

Staten Island is home to the highest point on the eastern seaboard; Todt Hill (401 feet tall).

Queens has the most public library branches in the city.

Brooklyn has the most subway stops.

Manhattan is the birthplace of the Oreo cookie.

The city’s largest park and the nation’s oldest golf course are both located in the Bronx.

Dan: How do you feel a resource like “On This Day” affects the collective understanding of history in New York City?

Katie: I think there’s often a slightly pejorative connotation to the idea of trivia or factoids, but I love being able to share bits and pieces of information about New York City. We live in a fractured media landscape, so I really like that the LinkNYC is one common source of information, but that it also has a certain serendipitous quality–it’s generally by chance that you happen to pass one and notice one of these history tidbits. 

For some people who have lived here a long time, I think the “On This Days” will provide a glimmer of recognition, a sort of “I remember that!” moment on your commute. For more recent residents, it’s a light, fun way to learn more about where you live and help develop more of a feeling of rootedness. And my favorite factoid/trivia moments are when someone finds out something interesting enough to share with other people and it starts a conversation, so my hope is that some of my “On This Days” will do that.

Baruch’s Math Department Receives $40,000 Per Year from Jane St. Capital

Baruch’s Math Department Receives $40,000 Per Year from Jane St. Capital

For years, Baruch Math Professors Adam Sheffer and Pablo Soberón have run the NYC Discrete Math REU, not only mentoring countless students but helping to change the demographics of Mathematics PhD programs around the United States. 

Each summer, hundreds of promising undergraduate students from around the world apply to join Baruch College’s Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) Program. Sheffer and Soberón founded the program in 2017, and under their stewardship it has seen tremendous growth. Last summer, there were around 500 applicants for only 12 spots. “I guess you could say it’s become competitive,” Sheffer said.

Gathering in New York City for an 8-week intensive course of study, admitted undergraduates are given the opportunity to do advanced research work in combinatorics, discrete probability, theoretical computer science, and a variety of other topics. During this period, working closely with a dedicated faculty mentor, each student makes progress towards solving a problem on their own or collaboratively, sometimes publishing a paper. The real goal of the mentors, however, is not to publish but rather to support the student in whatever they wish to achieve as they go forward. These are all experiences that make alumni of the program especially desirable candidates for esteemed PhD programs. Like many REUs around the country, the program has typically received much of its funding from the National Science Foundation. Now, Baruch’s REU adds the Wall Street based global trading firm Jane St. Capital to its list of supporters. 

Jane Street Capital is one of the world’s largest market-makers, trading more than $17 trillion worth of securities in 2020. Jane St. heard about some of the success stories that have come out of the program and reached out offering their sponsorship. “Jane St. Capital has consistently provided generous support to the math community. They also hire many promising young mathematicians, usually not from CUNY, but from programs like MIT and Harvard,” Sheffer said. “So, out of the blue, they emailed me and said, ‘We want to sponsor your program. We’ll give you up to $40,000 a year.’”

Funding from the National Science Foundation helped make the program possible to begin with, but carries with it a number of stipulations. For one, it can only be used to fund students who are either American citizens or permanent residents. The Jane St. Capital funding on the other hand, will help the Baruch Math Department realize one of its main goals: expanding access to a high-quality mathematics education for students from disadvantaged backgrounds around the world. Many promising international students are not eligible to attend most summer programs, and this funding will help open the door to them.

“Our program is not meant to take just the people from MIT or Harvard. We get a ton of applications from these places, but that kind of misses the point of our larger mission within the math community,” said Sheffer. “We mostly try to take different types of students. Students who seem to have a lot of potential but have not yet had the opportunity to demonstrate it. That is where we feel we can really make a difference.”

For instance, in one of the other programs that Sheffer runs, he recently mentored a group of 30 students. Some were from universities like Columbia, Princeton, and Brown. But the best student in the group was from Egypt. “It was someone from the University of Egypt. He did amazing work and is an amazing person. So, of course I wrote him very strong letters of recommendation and really pushed him. He ended up getting accepted into several PhD programs in the US. I think that’s a case of someone with a tremendous amount of potential who, without the program, would have probably been limited to Egypt. Because of the program, he had a paper to show for himself. The paper even won an award. That’s how he managed to move to the US and do a PhD here. So now, with Jane St.’s help, I’m so pleased that we can continue to provide more opportunities to people like him from all over the world.”

Baruch College Hosts Historic Fuzhounese American Conference

Fuzhou America Conference

On October 8th, 2022, as the Baruch Performing Arts Center continues to reopen its doors and welcome all varieties of audiences back into its theatres, Baruch College hosted an unprecedented gathering. A self-organizing community made up of mostly the descendants of immigrants from Fuzhou, China came together for their largest ever in-person conference, “Take Out Only.” The conference was sponsored in part by Baruch’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology and the Asian American Studies Program. Ken Guest, a Professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, was invited to give one of the keynote addresses. He’s been working with this community for 25 years.

“In the anthropological field, it’s what we call ‘longitudinal research,’” Guest said. “That’s a way of saying that you’ve devoted your whole life to something. I started working on the parents of this community that came to the US in the 90s and early 2000s. It is incredibly gratifying for me to see this new generation come together. And to be invited into their community as a researcher to provide a data driven perspective is really unique.”

Over the past 25 years, a wave of over half a million immigrants have come to the United States from Fuzhou, a large metropolitan area in Fujian, a province in southeastern China, revitalizing New York City’s Chinatown and changing the cultural and ethnic makeup of the Chinese American community. Guest’s first book, God in Chinatown, which began as his dissertation at the CUNY Graduate Center, traces their journey by exploring their work in restaurants, garment shops, and construction, and the vast human smuggling network that often aids their arrival in the United States. His writing also addresses the role of Fuzhounese religious communities both here and abroad, the religious revival that has swept coastal China, the Fuzhounese role in the rapidly expanding U.S. network of all-you-can-eat buffets and take-out restaurants, and the higher education experiences of the Fuzhounese second generation, particularly at Baruch College.

Fuzhou America, the non-profit that organized “Take Out Only” and oversees an online community that brings nearly 8,000 second generation Fuzhounese Americans together, relates the prototypical Fuzhounese immigrant narrative on their website. “You know how the story goes… someone in our family-usually a father, uncle, or grandfather-crossed the Atlantic by boat. Then, they opened up take-out restaurants in every corner of this country. From the rural villages back in Fuzhou, they succeeded in carving out a space for us in America.”

But, the descendants of this first wave of Fuzhounese immigrants now find themselves in a situation familiar to many children of immigrants growing up in insular communities: torn between their aspiration to assimilate into American life and their parents’ expectation that they continue working in their demanding restaurant businesses. “I wanted to imagine that there could be something more to my life than just working in a restaurant, only building towards owning my own restaurant or maybe becoming the boss’ wife,” said Lei Wang, herself a Fuzhounese immigrant and student at Baruch. “The options are really very limited for most people who come from Fuzhou. But now, I’m only a few weeks away from my graduation!” For Lei, and many of her generation, things seem to be changing.

“Take Out Only” was in part an event to collectively process this experience, reflect on the trauma of the past, and the possibility of the future. “This was really a powerful moment of self-recognition,” said Guest, “they wanted so many different perspectives included: a historical angle, a panel on entrepreneurship, and in the afternoon they wanted do a panel on intergenerational trauma led by Amy Zheng, a second generation Fuzhounese immigrant who has her PhD in Psychology. I was amazed that they wanted to open up and talk about that part of their experience.”

Fuzhou America Conference

The breakdown in communication between generations is especially challenging for this group. In many cases, the younger generation has trouble even speaking with their parents in their native language. Most grew up learning English and Mandarin, the dialect that has now become nearly universal in China due to the central government’s attempt to flatten out regional differences. Their parents often only speak the local dialect that they grew up with. For young Fuzhounese Americans, expressing themselves to their parents at all can sometimes seem impossible. In creating a safe space where this community can delve into their shared experiences, “Take Out Only” is the first event of its kind.

“It was inspiring to be able to help them frame their personal experiences in a slightly larger context,” said Guest. “Really it’s an extension of what I experience with my students all the time in my anthropology classes. Of course, Baruch students typically know about immigration when we get to that section on the syllabus. But it’s an anecdotal first-person experience. They have never thought about it in terms of these huge historical patterns and where they fit into that. They start to see that they’re not alone.” 

In continuing to document this generation’s experiences, Fuzhou America has asked Ken Guest to help. “We’ll see how it all continues to develop,” he said, “But, I think there’s at least one or two more books to be written on this community. To work closely with them on how their story is told is really exciting.”

Fuzhou America Conference

In Baruch Elevator, Teacher and Student Reunite After 20 Years

For students, faculty, and staff, thoughts of Baruch’s elevators typically evoke a variety of frustrations: remembrances of long lines, out of order signs, and tight squeezes. As in most busy Manhattan high-rises, this experience has become practically archetypal. But, as many long-time members of the Baruch community know, sources of consternation can suddenly, and unexpectedly, give way to moments of surprise and delight. 

In the middle of the second day of the Appreciative Inquiry Summit, an event which is part of the College’s five-year strategic planning process, Harold Ramdass, a Lecturer in the English Department, made his way to the elevator on the 14th floor of the Newman Vertical Campus Building. He held the door as a woman ran towards it, and as she entered her familiar appearance struck him. Unsure of exactly how he knew her, he decided not to approach. Then suddenly, he realized who she was. “What is your name? Are you…Debra Phillip?” he asked. She turned surprised, tilting her name tag towards him. “Yes, I’m Debra Phillip.” “You were my student!” he said. They hadn’t seen each other in twenty years.

Harold Ramdass, himself an alum of Baruch’s undergraduate English program, went on to earn his PhD at Princeton in 2007. A Chaucerian by trade, Ramdass has been teaching the Great Works Courses at Baruch for two decades, beginning as an adjunct in 2002. Of Indo-Trinidadian descent, familiar with Hindu and Muslim traditions, and a product of Catholic School, Ramdass is a perfect fit for the Great Works program, which seeks to give all Baruch students, regardless of major or ambition, a grounding in a historical and global view of the literary imagination.

“Throughout the years, I have always remembered Debra,” Ramdass said. “She took my Great Works class very early in my teaching career at Baruch. And she sat up front.”

One of the first texts the class took on that Fall of 2002 or 2003 was the biblical book of Genesis. Ramdass likes to take risks with familiar texts when he’s teaching.

“I want students to challenge the way they think about texts, the way they read them. To look at something very familiar as something new. To look at the actual language rather than merely replicating the received cultural reading.”

He acknowledged at the outset that though three monotheistic faiths regard Genesis as holy scripture, his aim was to push the class to see the text in a new light. In particular, he guided his students to think about the two contrasting points of view embodied by Adam and Eve. “On the one hand, we see Adam’s reliance on received authority, the word of God, and on the other, Eve’s more empirical method. Given two conflicting sources of information, Eve figures the only way to discover the true nature of the fruit, is to try it.”

Around this time, Ramdass noticed that Phillip was having a very hard time. She looked uncomfortable in class. Always attentive to his students’ reactions, Ramdass asked her to stay after. Phillip explained that the discussion made her uncomfortable because she felt that this text was a spiritual text, a religious text, and if one were to remove the spiritual significance, as Ramdass had, he had no chance of understanding it. Ramdass reassured her, “I’m not here to tell you what to believe, only to experiment and see what happens.”

Debra Phillip too remembers their semester-long debate. “Here I am taking this class, and this young guy is using the Bible as a textbook,” she said. “And he’s telling me that I have to try to separate spirituality from my reading of it? That’s where the tension started between us. Everything he said, I had to answer. And I never gave up.”

Ramdass reflected, “As a teacher, I couldn’t be happier. What more could you want? And I could tell, throughout this experience that she didn’t know what her comfort level should be with me or with the kind of work we were doing.”

But Ramdass said that it was the last day of class that really lingered in his mind. Phillip stayed after once again to speak to him. “She said, ‘I still believe the Bible is spiritual and religious and there is a right way to read it,’ but she told me she got something very important out of the class. In church, whenever the pastor launched into a misogynistic interpretation of the Bible, she could now go to the same passage, the same textual moment, and argue her own interpretation.’ And I said to her, ‘this is amazing, that is exactly it, you have done amazingly.’”

Phillip, who remains deeply committed to Christianity, also remembered the conversation. “At that time, when I was in search of a place to worship, I encountered a pastor who made comments that were misogynistic. And the professor did make me think. He had me looking at things a little more in depth. It couldn’t be the case that just because the pastor told me ‘do x, y, z,’ I should do it. No. It was my responsibility to do my very own reading and pray to God that the spirit will reveal things to me. Luckily, my pastor now is one of character and integrity that pushes me to develop a relationship with the Word.”

Ramdass felt a connection with Debra in part because both trace their roots to the Caribbean, and both had an implicit understanding of the unifying role that religion played in the diaspora. “I’ve always been mindful of my experience with Debra when teaching and especially when creating my various documents and job application materials. She was significant to me.” 

These application materials eventually landed Ramdass a full-time Lecturer position in the English Department. “It’s a life changing appointment,” Ramdass said, who had spent many years stretched between adjunct roles at Baruch, Cooper Union, and Lehman College. “I can finally put all my focus on Baruch students.” His passion for students was another connection he would share with Debra Phillip.

Phillip, a single mom of two who left Grenada in the 90s to build a life in the US, graduated from BMCC with honors, and then began pursuing her BBA at Baruch while working full time as a nanny and housekeeper for several families in Manhattan. She went on to finish her degree at Lehman College in 2015. “I finally decided that I wanted to be helping students.” Phillip said. “If I could make a difference for even one person, it would be worth it.”

Her drive sent her to pursue her MA in Childhood Education at Brooklyn College. “As I was nearing graduation, my college advisor asked, ‘Are you going to do your masters?’ I told her there was no way! I didn’t have the money. She said, ‘Never say never,’ and gave me the information for the CUNYCAP program.

CUNYCAP, which provides financial support and employment opportunities to CUNY graduates that go on to pursue graduate degrees, helped connect Phillip with Baruch College’s Office of Enrollment Management. She has gone on to join the Baruch community more permanently as the Enrollment & Retention Coordinator in Office of Undergraduate Advisement & Orientation. For the past seven years, she’s been able to follow her passion for helping students realize their full potential and develop their educational goals. “I think everything happens for a reason,” she said, “Though I have struggled in my life, I always have something to draw on to relate to the students who come to me. Helping them is everything to me.”

Ramdass saw the spark in Phillip that first day she sat down in his class. “When you meet Debra, there’s a light in her. She’s special. But at that time, she also seemed to be dealing with a lot. My class might have stressed her out in some ways.” Ramdass laughs, “But now when I see her, I see a person who has totally come into herself. After all these years, it’s quite amazing.”