CLASS ACTS — Snapshots of members of the Class of 2018

Fatoumata Ceesay

Fighting for Fairness

Fatoumata Ceesay
Major: Sociology.
Minors: Gender Studies and Africana Studies.
Hometown: South Bronx, New York

When Fatoumata Ceesay applied to John Jay, she didn't quite know what she was getting into. Her high school had over 5,000 students. "They just lined us up, sat us at a computer, told us to apply to a few colleges and go," says Ceesay. "And, coming from an immigrant family—I'm from Senegal and The Gambia—there was more of a focus on working than education." Luckily, when Ceesay came to John Jay, she found programs that guided her. "If it wasn't for the SEEK Program, I wouldn't be here at John Jay. SEEK motivated me to continue on, spread my wings and fight for advocacy and social justice," she says. That passion for justice deepened when Ceesay became a Pinkerton Fellow. Working with Pinkerton and the Prisoner Reentry Institute, she went back to her community in the South Bronx and became a youth council facilitator with Save Our Streets. "The environment where I grew up had a lot of 'police use of force' incidents, as well as discrimination for black and brown people. I wanted to do Pinkerton to help correct that wrong," says Ceesay. Pinkerton helped focus her interests, while the McNair Program put Ceesay on a Ph.D. track. At McNair she found lasting friendships and mentors—such as the program's Director, Dr. Jessica Gordon-Nembhard, and Associate Director, Dr. Ernest Lee—that helped her grow as a person and a scholar. "We're all students aiming for a single goal, to get our Ph.D. It's about developing into something greater, because one day, we'll be those professors and researchers," says Ceesay. Proving the effectiveness of the McNair Program, in the fall of 2018, Ceesay will be attending Stony Brook University, where she hopes to obtain her Ph.D. in Sociology. "In my 22 years, I've endured a bad education system. I've endured a bad housing situation. I've endured a bad encounter with the criminal justice system," says Ceesay. "I've endured a lot of things that people of color have to go through every single day. I want to conduct research that helps change policies and improves the lives of people of color."

Lisset Duran

STEM Superstar

Lisset Duran
Major: Cellular and Molecular Biology.
Hometown: Corona, Queens

When Macaulay Honors student Lisset Duran first enrolled at John Jay, she thought she would major in Forensic Science, until she discovered the Program for Research Initiatives in Science and Math (PRISM). Inspired by PRISM's close-knit community of STEM students and the opportunity to do graduate-level research, Duran switched to studying Cellular and Molecular Biology, a field in which she has made remarkable contributions over her four years at John Jay. "My research has been on the regulation of genes in breast cancer. By targeting certain proteins, I want to understand the expressions of genes that are beneficial to cells," says Duran. For this ground-breaking work, Duran has now won several awards, including the extremely prestigious CUNY Jonas Salk Award, which is given to graduating students for their potential to make significant contributions to medical research. She's the first John Jay student to ever receive the award, and it's not the only award she's received; her work has also been recognized at the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) conference and the American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB) Annual Meeting. She says these accomplishments were made possible not only with PRISM's support, but the unending support of her mother, who emigrated to the U.S. "If it weren't for my mother's sacrifices, I wouldn't be where I am today," says Duran. "She never got the chance to go to college, but she has done everything in her power to give me the chance to follow my dreams." Duran has come a long way since first starting at John Jay. "I've experienced growth both within and on the outside. I used to get up to present and I would literally shake. Now I do my presentations with a lot of confidence." That confidence will serve Duran well as a Ph.D. candidate in Princeton University's Molecular Biology program, which she will begin this fall.

Abidur Rahman

Making History

Devon Simmons
Major: Criminal Justice.
Minor: English.
Hometown: Harlem, New York

Devon Simmons is the first Prison-to-College Pipeline student to graduate from John Jay with a four-year degree. He earned his GED when he was first incarcerated, but afterwards, there were no higher education opportunities available. Then, 13 years later, he was transferred to Otisville Correctional Facility, and the Prisoner Reentry Institute's Prison-To-College Pipeline (P2CP) opportunity presented itself. "I took the CUNY assessment test and passed," says Simmons. "Then I did the interview, and out of over 100 people that applied, I was one of eight people selected to participate in the program." His first class was English 101 with Professor Jean Mills. "I hadn't been in a classroom for over 13 years, but she made it very engaging. I actually wrote my first academic paper in that class on gender, race and class, and it was selected for John Jay's Finest," says Simmons. After two and a half years in the program, Simmons was released from prison in 2014. Then he entered Hostos Community College and received his associate's degree. Along the way Simmons even took classes at Columbia University, completing their Justice-in-Education Initiative Program. "I remember the program director asking me if I was ready to come to Columbia. I was grateful for the opportunity, it's a prestigious Ivy League School, but I told him no, I'm a bloodhound," says Simmons. "John Jay will always be home to me because they afforded me the opportunity to have access to higher education." While at John Jay, Simmons traveled to Cape Town, South Africa with Professor Baz Dreisinger, who created P2CP. "That was epic. I spoke at two prisons and visited Mandela's cell," says Simmons. He continued his studies abroad with trips to Cuba, where he studied socialism; England, where he spoke at Newman University regarding their P2CP replica program; and Jamaica, where he discussed creating higher education opportunities for incarcerated individuals. "I have a 3.9 GPA, and I take pride in that because it illustrates that I'm not being given a pass, that I deserve to be a part of the academic world, and I'm an intellectual," says Simmons. "But I'm not exceptional. There are other men and women who are incarcerated, and they're very intelligent people. They would be doing magnificent things if they only had the opportunity."

Joseph Gregory

Living Up To A Legacy

Joseph Gregory
Major: Criminal Justice
Hometown: Griswold, Connecticut

Joe Gregory's passion for justice is something that runs in the family. His grandfather and namesake, Joe Persichilli, went to John Jay back when it was still called the College of Police Science. "I know the history of the school because my grandfather told me about it when I was first accepted," says Gregory. Back then as a high school student, the only work experience Gregory had was as a landscaper in his hometown in Connecticut, near the military base where his father served in the Navy. But as a John Jay student he's held several internships, including a legal internship at the Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez's office, a place that helped opened his eyes to the need for criminal justice reform. "America needs to revamp what we think is a crime, especially for low-level offenses," he says. "If you look at statistics and the racial demographics of America, the prison population's demographics are disproportionate, and we need to do a better job." Gregory has also played baseball all four years at John Jay, and as a senior, he was named a leader in the clubhouse, a position that he used to build comradery among his teammates. "Our team is very diverse, which is different from where I grew up in Connecticut," says Gregory, "but we're all one team. We're all on the same wavelength. And we don't slack off academically." Now, Gregory will continue to work at the Brooklyn DA's office conducting investigations after he graduates, and he eventually wants to go on to pursue law school or a Master's of Public Administration. "I like the idea of helping people," says Gregory. "There are so many ways to help people, whether in non-profits or civil service agencies or in law."

Briana Merritt

All In The Family

Briana Merritt
Major: Law and Society.
Hometown: Brewster, New York

Briana Merritt's family has strong connections to both John Jay and the New York Police Department. Her father is a retired NYPD lieutenant colonel, and he's now an adjunct professor at John Jay. Her mother was a dispatcher for the NYPD. And her sister, who graduated from John Jay, is now an NYPD officer in the 32nd precinct. "But I knew I didn't want to be a cop," says Merritt. "Luckily, during my senior year in high school, I did an internship at a small law firm in my town and I found out that I really enjoyed learning the legal language." After getting into Macaulay Honors College, Merritt looked at John Jay's Law and Society major and realized it was a perfect fit with her newfound passion for the law. "With my family's history, I guess you could say it was meant to be," says Merritt. Being a Macaulay Honors student opened a whole new world for her. "It's such a well-rounded honors program. It includes a cultural aspect, learning about the city and the arts," says Merritt. But the best part of her college experience was working with the Pre-Law Institute. "It both prepared me and reaffirmed my chosen career path. I met Dr. Charles Robert Davidson when I was a senior in high school interviewing for Macaulay," says Merritt. "And when I came to John Jay, he became the director of the Pre-Law Institute Program. He got me connected with all the events and different people in the field." In the fall Merritt will be attending Emory University School of Law in Atlanta. After studying abroad in Spain, and taking an international law class at John Jay, she's set her sights on practicing international law, focusing on human rights. "Here at John Jay we learn to take the knowledge we're getting and apply it to society. We're taught to ask, 'How can I make a difference?' In my career I want to make a global impact on issues such as human trafficking, genocide and nuclear weapons," says Merritt. "We think of these things as large-scale issues, but they affect real people in many countries. I want to hear those stories and help change their lives."

Magdalena Oropeza

Laying Down The Law

Magdalena Oropeza
Major: Criminology and LLS.
Hometown: Sunnyside, Queens

When Magdalena Oropeza was just four years old, she came home from a school career day and announced to her mother that she was going to be a lawyer. "I'm turning 22, and the dream is still there," says Oropeza. When she was in high school, Oropeza was looking for a college that was close to home, affordable and a Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI). "As a Latina that went to a high school where Latinos made up maybe four or five percent of the overall class, I really wanted to be somewhere where I could learn more about myself and about my family and my culture." Oropeza enrolled in John Jay, but had to overcome a health issue to continue her education. "Before coming to John Jay, I was diagnosed with relapsing remitting multiple sclerosis. So I spent the first week of class in the hospital." After receiving treatment, and finishing her freshman year, Oropeza signed up with The Ronald H. Brown Law School Prep Program. With the encouragement and guidance of Dr. Jodie Roure, Professor José Luis Morín, Dr. Isabel Martinez and Dr. Daniel Auld, she took classes at St. John's University School of Law. While studying there, she spent late nights—fueled on coffee and enthusiasm—poring over dense law cases. She also prepared for the LSAT, interacted with lawyers and judges, and finally applied to law school. "Working with Judge Francois Rivera, I kept thinking, wouldn't it be amazing to be a judge one day and mentor a student like myself?" says Oropeza. Now, she's well on her way to realizing her childhood dream of becoming a lawyer, or possibly even a judge. Oropeza was accepted to 15 law schools and will be attending Columbia Law School this fall.

Abidur Rahman

Going Green

Abidur Rahman
Major: Law and Society.
Minor: Environmental Justice.
Hometown: South Ozone Park, Queens

Abidur Rahman didn't expect to be graduating early when he enrolled at John Jay three years ago, but in the summer before his freshman year, he received a postcard about a new program called ACE and decided to apply. "It was probably the best decision I made in recent years," says Rahman. "Every semester, I got a MetroCard, a textbook voucher, and a tuition waiver, which was amazing." Rahman knew he wanted to become a lawyer, and he was quickly accepted to the Pre-Law Institute, which allowed him to complete an internship at Bronx County Family Court that radically changed his perception of the legal field. "I had these preconceived Hollywood notions about law being dominated by men, especially white men, but the judge, Judge Alma Gomez, was a Puerto Rican woman," he says. "Seeing her work with parents rather than just punishing them inspired me." But Rahman's passion for justice doesn't stop at people; he's also passionate about the environment, which he discovered while still trying to figure out what kind of legal career he wanted to pursue. "I took Sustainability 100, and we talked about how law could help fix environmental problems. From there, I kept taking more environmental classes," he says. Rahman, whose parents were born in Bangladesh, is inspired by the way people in that country use resources more sustainably. And, at his home in South Ozone Park, he takes pride in owning nine chickens that lay eggs each week. "It's a privilege to have control of your own food," says Rahman. "It's a form of environmental injustice when people don't necessarily have control over what they eat." After graduating, he plans on combining his interest in law, working with diverse communities, and his passion for the environment. "I want to enter a non-profit organization to do good," says Rahman. "Earthjustice is an organization of lawyers who fight for environmental justice, and I'd want to work for them one day."

Monica Zambrano

Fighting Fraud

Monica Zambrano Saquicela
Major: MPA in Inspection and Oversight
Hometown: Elmhurst, Queens

Monica Zambrano Saquicela has always been ahead of the game. When she arrived to John Jay as a transfer student, she immediately started taking graduate level classes through a combined Baccalaureate/Master's degree program, and now, she's graduating with an MPA in Inspection and Oversight. "There's a lack of accountability in government," she says. "One of the best ways to address social justice issues is by tackling corruption, fraud, and abuse of power." This spring, Zambrano Saquicela attended the Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs, and Administration-Batten Student Simulation at Baruch College, and despite it being the first year that John Jay students competed, Zambrano Saquicela and her team won. "We went in giving it our all, not just to win," she says. Throughout her time at John Jay, Zambrano Saquicela also participated in the National Model United Nations competition with thousands of students from all over the world, an experience that inspired her to one day work at the UN. "Working at the UN is my dream job," she says. "There are so many global issues I care about, and I believe in the UN's mission of influencing governance around the globe. My parents are Ecuadorian and I grew up traveling to Ecuador, which first sparked my interest in traveling around the world and having an influence on other nations." Zambrano Saquicela, who is the first in her family to graduate with a master's degree, credits her parents for her motivation to succeed. "Everything I do is for them," she says. Zambrano Saquicela has now been accepted to be one of three graduate students to be a part of this year's summer internship with the Office of Inspector General for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, where she'll use the skills she learned at John Jay to work closely with the Fraud Prevention Unit.

Thuy Nguyen

Student Today, Professor Tomorrow

Thuy Nguyen
Major: Psychology.
Hometown: Allentown, Pennsylvania

The mission of John Jay is to educate for justice, and sometimes, it’s the students who become the educators themselves. That’s what Thuy Nguyen, who majors in Psychology, will do after completing a fully-funded Ph.D. program in School Psychology at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, which she will be attending this fall. “My long-term career goal is to become a university professor who works with youth who are impacted by the justice system,” she says. Nguyen got her first glimpse of how schools can lead students to prison when she began to work with John Jay’s Prison-to-College Pipeline program (P2CP) at the Otisville Correctional Facility. She was shocked to see that many of the experiences of the incarcerated adults she worked with mirrored the experiences of the low-income and racially diverse middle school students she mentored through the CUNY Service Corps program. “I started to see the connection between schools and the prison system,” says Nguyen. “These incarcerated men had stories about their teachers not caring about them or negatively targeting them, and that shouldn’t be the case. That should never be the case.” When Nguyen was accepted to the McNair Scholars Program, she worked rigorously to become prepared for a Ph.D. in school psychology, but the process wasn’t without its obstacles. “I felt like I wasn’t qualified. I didn’t know any of the steps of how to apply to a Ph.D. and to do it straight out of undergrad was a big obstacle,” says Nguyen. But Nguyen’s hard work paid off, and she was accepted to multiple programs before deciding on the University of Minnesota. “Both my parents are immigrants and I’m the first in my family to even graduate high school, so this is a big deal for us,” Nguyen says. “They’ve always wanted me to go after my dreams.”

Genesis Gonzalez

Líder de Lenguaje

Genesis Gonzalez
Major: Criminology.
Minor: Psychology and Dispute Resolutions.
Hometown: Elm Park, Staten Island

As a high school senior, Genesis Gonzalez only applied to two colleges, and she was thrilled when she was accepted to John Jay as part of the APPLE Corps program, which helped her navigate the tricky transition to college life. "Having a close-knit group of people to experience my first years of college with made my experience so much better," says Gonzalez. Thanks to the APPLE Corps stipends and the Excelsior Scholarship, she is graduating early and with no debt, which is crucial for Gonzalez, who is the first in her family to graduate from college, and with an impressive 3.7 GPA. "My parents are proud of me. They always knew I'd make it here," she says. As a student, she interned at the YMCA's New American Welcome Center in her neighborhood in Staten Island, where she organized English and citizenship classes and discovered her passion for social work. She brought so much enthusiasm and talent to her position that she was soon hired for a paid position as a community health worker. "I was the only bilingual person on the team," says Gonzalez. "What I do really helps the immigrant community." Now, she wants to become a licensed clinical social worker, but first she plans to take a gap year. "I worked hard to have this year off, and in June, we're going to have a nice family vacation in Puerto Rico, where my father is from," she says. "Everyone works and is so busy that it's nice to take this time off." But Gonzalez doesn't plan to rest for long; her goal this upcoming year is to work full-time so she can save up money that she'll use towards her master's degree in social work. "I want to find a social work job where I can continue to use my bilingual skills, and I want to go to Puerto Rico," says Gonzalez. "I'd love to work in the Air Force or Army to help military families or even in a juvenile detention center. I have plenty of options in social work, and I want to go somewhere that's meaningful."