MAY 2015

Commencement Beckons for Class of 2015

On Wednesday, June 3, more than 3,000 students will become the newest John Jay alumni when they cross the stage at the Theatre at Madison Square Garden for the College’s 49th annual Commencement ceremonies.

“For almost 50 years, John Jay students and alumni from across disciplines have made a difference locally, nationally and abroad,” said President Jeremy Travis. “We know our newest graduates will make their own mark as fierce advocates for justice.”

The graduating class comprises 1,237 males and 1,852 females, ranging in age from 19-year-old Jason Colin to 63-year-old Jeff Smith. There will be 2,613 bachelor’s degrees awarded, along with 531 master’s degrees. The class also includes 126 military veterans and 396 international students representing 83 countries.

Five sibling pairs are members of the graduating class, including Gurjinder and Baljeet Singh, Ignace and Angela Joseph-Pauline, Allen and Enrique Santos, Christopher and Andrew Flores, and Selin and Senem Yigistoy.

The Class of 2015 will be led by valedictorian Elvira Kirilko, an Honors student who earned a perfect 4.00 grade-point average majoring in Forensic Psychology. The ceremonies will have dual salutatorians: Emily Ford, a Criminology major, and Daniel Destefano, a Criminal Justice (B.A.) major. Both also achieved flawless 4.0 GPAs; the tiebreaker is based on credits earned at John Jay.

Honorary doctorates will be presented at the 10:30 AM and 3:30 PM ceremonies to two longtime “fierce advocates for justice”: Chief Judge Robert Katzmann of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, a champion of immigrant rights, and William Ramirez, a dogged fighter for police reform in his role as Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Puerto Rico. (See profiles below.)

Good Things Come to Those Who Persevere

Elvira Kirilko, the valedictorian of the Class of 2015, sat for an interview with John Jay News knowing that the following day, she had a one on- one with an admission representative from Georgetown University Law School — her first choice. Any nervousness on her part proved misplaced. Shortly thereafter, she made the move from Georgetown's waiting list to its entering class for this coming fall.

Kirilko, who immigrated to the United States from Belarus at age 3, sports a perfect 4.0 gradepoint average as an Honors Program student majoring in Forensic Psychology. "I came to John Jay for forensic psych," she said. "I knew I wanted to go to law school, but wanted a relevant degree without it being specifically pre-law."

En route to the top of the graduating class, Kirilko has made the most of her faculty mentors. Psychology Professor Jill Grose-Fifer has helped her almost since day one, having cotaught in Kirilko's freshman learning community. Professors Evan Mandery (Criminal Justice) and Richard Haw (English/Interdisciplinary Studies) also rank high on the valedictorian's list. "I can go to them for everything, from calming to career advice,” she said.

Kirilko knew from the start that a perfect GPA was something worth hanging on to. "It was a lot of pressure, but it was a burden that I liked," she said. "The only way you can go is down." The significance of her achievement hasn't been lost on Kirilko's mother, who recently bought two "valedictorian" bumper stickers for the family car.

Success and perfection notwithstanding, Kirilko's prescription for her fellow graduates is simple. "Live life in the moment," she urges. "Don't live only for the future — you'll burn out, and it's a waste of your life."

The Class of 2015's co-salutatorians have some things in common — they're both transfer students from community college, both are a few years older than the average graduating senior, and both have a surprisingly easygoing perspective on the perfect 4.0 GPAs they achieved.

"It wasn't about the GPA — more about making sure I learned something in every class I took," said Daniel Destefano, a Criminal Justice (B.A.) major who came to John Jay via Kingsborough Community College. "The 4.0 just reflected the amount of work I put in." Emily Ford, a Criminology major from Monroe County Community College in western New York, reflected: "I don't feel like it was a burden to maintain perfection because I wasn't actually trying to achieve a 4.0 GPA. I kept telling myself that if I didn’t get a 4.0 one semester, that'd be OK, but I did achieve it and I am extremely proud of myself."

An unassuming attitude doesn't mean that they didn't take their John Jay education seriously. Destefano, who aspires to a policy analysis position in government, got a taste of that last fall as part of a student team participating in the Diplomacy Lab project. In February, Destefano and other student researchers presented the findings from a study of illegal wildlife-trafficking to officials at the U.S. State Department. "I don't know if the research has future potential," Destefano said, "but the people at State certainly seemed impressed."

Ford, who hopes to find a career as a criminal investigator, had to work extra hard to stay focused since her fiancé, a Marine corporal, was deployed to Afghanistan for much of the time she was John Jay. "It helps to have a great support system," she said, citing four Fs: fiancé, family, friends and faculty. "Asking for help isn't a sign of weakness,"

Ford noted. "Your professors are there to help you and want you to succeed." Being a bit older than the average college senior can be a plus, they agreed. "I know I'm more focused than I was when I was younger," said Destefano, who said he chose John Jay for the opportunities it offered and its diversity. "I think a lot of my success has to do with where I am in my life right now, being older than the average student," added Ford, who chose John Jay for its affordability.



Doctoral Honorees Are True ‘Fierce Advocates’

At the 2015 Commencement, John Jay will award honorary doctorates to a champion of the legal rights of immigrants and to a dogged fighter for criminal justice reform in Puerto Rico.

Chief Judge Robert Katzmann of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit was instrumental in creating the Immigrant Justice Corps, the country's first fellowship program dedicated to providing critically needed high-quality legal assistance for the immigrant poor.

His fellow honoree, William Ramirez, is Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Puerto Rico, a role in which he has fought to reform Puerto Rico's so-called "outlaw police force." He has led investigations of alleged human rights abuses directed at homeless drug users, and the monitoring of police compliance with federal domestic violence protocols.

Katzmann is a political scientist as well as a lawyer and jurist, who has written or edited numerous books in such areas as antitrust policy, transportation policy for the disabled, and judicial review. Retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens has described Judge Katzmann’s scholarly writing as "required reading."

Ramirez, born and raised in the South Bronx, has continued to fight for civil and human rights despite threats directed at him and his organization, including the ransacking of ACLU offices and the police detention and interrogation of Ramirez for more than two hours.

CLASS ACTS — Snapshots of members of the Class of 2015

The long and winding road

Mention that he’s a so-called non-traditional student, and Brad Davis bursts out laughing. “My route to John Jay was a long time coming,” said the 32-year-old Army veteran. From high school graduation in 2000, his circuitous route to John Jay took him to colleges in Virginia, Florida and Arizona, and jobs as a golf pro and in emergency equipment sales, among others.

“But having grown up as a military brat, something was always tugging at me to join, so I ended up joining the Army and served for three years and a combat tour in Afghanistan,” said Davis, who was injured while in service and honorably discharged in 2013. “I miss the Army every day and would go back in a heartbeat.”

Davis became a New Yorker when his wife was accepted into a doctoral program at NYU, and he enrolled at John Jay to complete a bachelor’s degree in Criminology, which he earned in December 2014. “John Jay was the obvious choice to continue my degree,” he said.

As co-captain of the men’s cross-country team, an active member of the campus veterans’ group and even the author of a play that was performed in the Black Box Theater, Davis has made the most of opportunities at John Jay, both in and out of the classroom. He cites the mentoring influence of Professors Michael Rowan, Janice Johnson-Dias and Mucahit Bilici, who motivated him, helped him develop skills and encouraged him to pursue a master’s degree in public administration, which he is on track to receive in May 2016.

“My master’s program is opening doors that I didn’t know of before,” Davis said. “I didn’t realize just how much John Jay would change my life.”

I see dead people

Stephania Guzman, a Forensic Science major, might never have imagined that her college experience would entail swabbing tissue samples from dead bodies. But it did, in fall 2013, as a member of the student research team mentored by Professor Nathan Lents. She got to visit the Body Farm, the aptly named anthropological research facility run by the University of Tennessee, for her study titled “Analysis of the Human Microbiome in Living and Decomposing Bodies.”

Guzman admits, “I can’t believe I had the stomach for it.” Her mother, while bursting with pride at Stephania’s academic accomplishments, said simply, “That’s crazy!” On balance, though, it’s just another moment in time for a student in John Jay’s Program for Research Initiatives in Science and Math.

Specializing in cellular and molecular biology, Guzman hopes her undergraduate research will lead to more accurate means of establishing time of death. She’s also hoping to work as a research assistant for a year after graduation before applying for a Ph.D. program. “Having research on my résumé will make my application to a doctoral program more competitive,” she noted. Down the road for the Honors Program student will be a career in pharmaceutical research.

Guzman has worked with Lents for three years, and she credits him as “really the reason I want to do research and go to grad school. I couldn’t have asked for a better mentor. Her support network at home is every bit as significant. She is the first in her family to graduate college, and said her parents “feel like they’re graduating with me. They deserve this moment just as much as I do.”

Going places

Score another success for the Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program, an initiative that prepares undergraduates for applying to Ph.D. programs. Jamel Love, a McNair Scholar and Political Science major, is on his way to a doctoral program at Rutgers University.

Although Love’s main academic interests focus on political behavior and political psychology — “applying political thought to help people act in a more informed way” — he said his pursuit of a Ph.D. is grounded in his passion for teaching.

“I tutored high school students in the Upward Bound Program because I am very interested in giving back to those who are less fortunate than I,” said Love, an Honors Program student. “Once I was in their position, so I truly appreciate what others were able to give back to me. I want to provide the same services to young males who may not be receiving the support from home or in their schools.”

Love is hoping to create an organization that will provide guidance and mentorship for disadvantaged young males. “I want to make a difference, even if it is not on a global scale but in my own community.”

"Jamel is among the very best of my current students, who consistently produces excellent work,” said Professor Jack Jacobs from the Department of Political Science. “He will go far.”

Organ-ic chemistry

Daniel Minervini has been playing the piano and organ since the age of age 12. It was a few years before that — fourth or fifth grade, as he recalls — that he knew he wanted to pursue law enforcement as a career. It was that bit of precocious self-awareness that would ultimately lead him to John Jay, as a member of the Class of 2015.

Minervini, an Honors Program student, was recently featured in an article in The New York Times on the restoration of the Brooklyn Paramount Theater, an early-20th century movie palace that since 1963 has been used as a basketball arena and all-purpose hall by Long Island University. The Paramount’s mighty Wurlitzer theatrical organ had miraculously survived the venue’s cycles of disrepair and renovation, and that’s where Minervini came into the picture. A member of the board of directors of the New York Theater Organ Society, Minervini has been part of the team that maintains the vintage instrument, and in an audio clip on The Times’s website, he can be heard playing a rousing rendition of “Give My Regards to Broadway.”

Unlike, say, a church organ, the theatrical organ flourished during the silent-movie era as a way of imitating an entire orchestra, including percussion and sound effects. Minervini, who regularly performs in concert around the country, said the society maintains the Paramount organ, “but we don’t play it much. Its sound is so huge that it fills the entire building.”

The winner of a graduation award for the highest GPA in his International Criminal Justice major, Minervini hails from a law enforcement family. And while graduate school may some day be in his plans, for now he is awaiting the outcome of applications to a number of police departments — that, and maintaining and playing one of New York’s true musical treasures.

¡Viva John Jay!

Hector Bernal takes a back seat to no one when it comes to being a John Jay “true believer.” A first-generation Mexican-American from the Bronx, Bernal got his first taste of John Jay through the College Now program during his senior year at John Lindsay Academy. Since then, he has become a Peer Ambassador, a member of the CUNY Service Corps, and rarely misses an opportunity to sing the College’s praises.

A Forensic Psychology major who hopes to attend Columbia University School of Social Work in the fall, Bernal transferred to John Jay after a year at Monroe College because he liked the campus, the atmosphere and the professors. “It was one of the first times I felt challenged academically,” he said. “But I enjoyed it and felt like I was up to it, even though I was living off vending machines and the library became my second home.”

The Peer Ambassador experience over the past two years has been transformative for Bernal. “It’s a great opportunity get involved on campus,” he said. He recalled having benefited from his initial engagement with a Peer Ambassador as a transfer student, and since then has paid it forward by recommending others for the program. “I’m just glad I can help students at a critical point in their lives,” Bernal said.

Bernal is hoping to join the NYPD, using his academic background to help him on the job. “An MSW will give me a broader perspective,” he said, “since a lot of the job is about communication and mediation.”

The write stuff

She was still not even halfway through her senior year when Dominika Szybisty got a plum that most English majors only dream of: her name mentioned prominently in a new scholarly work.

Szybisty was a young McNair Scholar when one of her mentors, English Professor Allison Pease, asked her to take on a demanding editing assignment for the book The Cambridge Companion to To The Lighthouse. “I spent about a month at the NYU library checking and standardizing citations,” said Szybisty. “It was the greatest experience ever.”

The unexpected mention in the book’s acknowledgements, she said, “brought tears to my eyes. My family printed it out.”

Szybisty is the real thing when it comes to English language and literature. She is a three-time winner of honors for English majors, a tutor for the past three years at John Jay’s Writing Center, a published writer in the annual journal John Jay’s Finest, and she plans to submit her McNair thesis to a peer-reviewed journal.

The Maspeth, Queens, resident, who emigrated from Poland at age 8, has her sights set on earning a Ph.D. in English — her specialty is modern American literature — and hopes to win admission to the doctoral program at the CUNY Graduate Center in 2016. After that? “I want to come back, to work in CUNY,” she said. “These are the best students in the world. ‘Fierce advocates’ is one of the best things John Jay has come up with, because that’s what these people are.”

Pushing the envelope

Benedicta Darteh came to these shores in 2011 from her native Ghana to go to college, to further her dream of becoming an attorney. She found her way to John Jay, and in her four years here has compiled an enviable résumé that includes the Honors Program, service as a class representative on the Student Council, appointment as a Pinkerton Fellow, and a year as Chief Justice of the student government’s Judicial Board.

And for her efforts, she is the proud 2015 winner of the Leonard E. Reisman Medal, given to a graduating senior with the most outstanding record of scholarship and service to the College.

John Jay’s loss will be Georgetown Law School’s gain. Darteh, a participant in the College’s Pre Law Institute, wants to further her interest in international human rights, and pointed out that Georgetown has “amazing clinics” in this field.

It’s quite an accomplishment for the International Criminal Justice major. Raised on British English — “we’re more long-winded,” she quipped — Darteh credited the John Jay Writing Center with breaking down her language skills and rebuilding them. “It was so helpful when writing my law school application essays. I was in the Writing Center all the time,” said Darteh.

The future lawyer also gushed with gratitude for her John Jay faculty mentors. “I’m overwhelmed at how much they want us to succeed,” she said. “My professors pushed me beyond what I thought I could do.”

She urged her classmates to look for opportunities to serve: “The more we do, the more we see new facets of ourselves that we didn’t know were there.”

She’s No. 1!

Taisha Lazare has the distinction of being the first John Jay student to win a scholarship endowed by one of America’s foremost living playwrights, and named for New York State’s longest-serving Court of Appeals judge.

The Judge Judith S. Kaye Pioneer of Justice Scholarship, created with a gift from Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner, honors students whose work has furthered the cause of social justice through community service. As the inaugural recipient, Lazare more than fits the bill. She spent much of the summer of 2014 working at Covenant House and the Coalition for Homeless Youth, and has interned at the New York Center for Juvenile Justice. “I advocated to keep youth out of the system, and off the streets,” she explained.

A Criminal Justice major who will attend St. John’s University School of Law on a full scholarship, Lazare came to John Jay from Kingsborough Community College, via the CUNY Justice Academy program. “I wish I had a great story as to why I chose John Jay, but I'm glad I followed that route,” she said. “I’ve met so many formidable people at John Jay from different backgrounds, following different paths yet with goals that are essentially the same as mine.” Lazare has kept herself nearly as busy on campus as off, with an extracurricular track record that includes service as a senior representative on the John Jay Student Council and as president of the Haitian-American Student Association, among other credits.

As she prepares for the next phase of her life, Lazare says she is motivated by a sense of responsibility attached to the Pioneer of Justice Scholarship. “Judge Kaye is such an inspiring woman and phenomenal advocate, I feel I owe it to her and to Mr. Kushner to be the best advocate I can be,” she said. “I see it as a reminder not to lose sight of my goal.”

To serve and inspect

Taisha Guy is matter-of-fact when it comes to discussing her future. “I want to become an inspector general,” she says. “I want to work for the Department of Health and Human Services’ IG office or for the NYC Department of Investigation.”

Guy graduates this year with her second degree from John Jay — an M.P.A. with a double concentration in fiscal policy analysis and advanced forensic accounting, to go along with the B.A. in Public Administration she received in 2012. Her career in public service is well underway, thanks to a valuable internship with the New York City Council’s Appointment Investigation Unit.

Yet Guy’s sense of service predates that internship, and even her John Jay education. She is one of 126 student veterans in the Class of 2015, having served in the U.S. Army Reserves as an Automated Logistics Specialist, and was recently named as the winner of the 2015 Graduate Veteran Award presented by T-Mobile. She is a regular participant in the biweekly Women’s Veterans Group, and a volunteer in the Treats for Troops project.

Guy also has the distinction of having founded the student organization “Socially Awkward.” While the club’s name and focus might belie her ever-congenial nature, the organization is just one more testimony to her abiding passion for service.

Once upon a DREAM

Danyeli Rodriguez del Orbe knows the meaning of struggle. After arriving in the United States from the Dominican Republic at the age of 8, she became one of the millions of undocumented immigrants in this country confronting the challenges that come with such a status. She has done more than confront them; she has overcome one obstacle after another, all the while working to help others in similar situations.

As a John Jay student majoring in Humanities and Justice, del Orbe has excelled. She is an Honors student and a John Jay-Vera Fellow, and was awarded the NYIC DREAM Fellowship by the New York Immigration Coalition, a program that provides college scholarships to undocumented students who demonstrate exceptional commitment to community engagement.

“Although my struggle has been hard, learning English, finding friends who could understand me, working to make it to college, programs like the DREAM Fellowship have helped me keep my hopes up and keep fighting for comprehensive immigration reform,” she said. “I am more motivated than ever and will continue to persevere.”

Del Orbe is a staunch advocate for immigration reform and for the rights of undocumented people. Since 2013, she has worked as a legal assistant at the CUNY Citizenship Now initiative, and on campus, she co-founded the John Jay DREAMers student organization. “I think the most important thing is raising awareness about the issues undocumented students face,” she said. “And it’s important for undocumented students to become aware [of available resources], so they can take what they learn here back to their communities and their families.”

Her commitment to the cause continues. Next year, del Orbe will join the Immigrant Justice Corps, a legal advocacy organization founded by one of John Jay’s 2015 doctoral honorees, U.S. Chief Judge Robert Katzmann. For the moment, though, she can bask in the significance of her own academic achievement. As the caption accompanying her senior photo on Facebook reads: “Told my momma I would make it, and I found a way.”