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by Vince Boudreau, Dean, Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership
This summer, the Pew Charitable Trusts published a report that got my attention. The report, Federal and State Funding of Higher Education: A Changing Landscape, broke down the numbers and found that as state funding continues to dwindle, federal support has increased. This is a crucial shift in the financing model for public education, with tremendous implications for the Colin Powell School, its students, and the future of public education.
While state contributions typically show up as support for specific institutions, federal dollars generally arrive as grants, loans, and tax relief to individual students. Historically, state aid to institutions accounted for the lion’s share of public funding to colleges like The City College of New York. But in recent years, shifts in funding profiles made state and federal contributions to education more equal. Hence, even as we bemoan the drop in state support for our campus—in the past five years, state funds fell from 48 percent of our operating budget to just about 30 percent as of this year— the hidden story has been that federal dollars have been rising at just about the same rate. On our books, they show up as tuition revenue rather than public support—but the amount of public monies devoted to higher education have remained more stable than an exclusive focus on state contributions suggest.
Understanding this new funding context means understanding that if we lose students—if we fail to help them navigate their way through the complex of admissions, registration, and financial aid—we are losing public tax support as it is currently and increasingly being allocated.
This shift in financing is an unwelcome one, but trend lines over the past 25 years are unambiguous: states are retreating from their support of public universities. We have always been concerned with student retention, because we’ve always been concerned about our students’ success. Going forward, we have also have financial reasons why we must address student retention, which should begin by clearly understanding the concerns of a typical Colin Powell School student.
Our students are likely to come from an underrepresented social or ethnic group. Many of our students belong to families living below the poverty line. Surveys have shown us that 80 percent of CCNY student respondents were born in a country outside of the United States (while less than 20 percent are here on student visas). Together, those figures suggest that huge sections of our student population are seeking to make a home for themselves in the United States. But it also suggests that many may be inexperienced and ill-equipped to navigate the administrative hurdles that one must clear to get state and federal grants, loans, and tax credit. Our student may be the first in her family to attend college—and perhaps, therefore, also the first to contemplate filling out a financial aid eligibility form. She probably works a substantial number of hours each week. She may also bear the responsibility of steering immigrant parents through governmental systems and societal norms. She may not have health insurance. She may not be documented. She may have come from a deeply distressed public school.
So our students may have tremendous potential, but there’s a good chance that they come to college deeply unsure of this new environment. Yet the shifts in public financing to higher education make it more important than ever before that they figure things out quickly. As tuition increasingly becomes the way that public colleges secure their budgets, students become increasingly burdened in their role as conduits for that support. The hypothetical formula makes initial sense: Colleges can stabilize their budget by charging higher tuition to students who are eligible for more financial aid. But those assumptions shift responsibility form the college’s relationship with the state to the student’s relationship with the federal education bureaucracy.
And here lies one of the dirty little secrets of public education, particularly in places committed to supporting the aspirations of underserved men and women: While we bemoan the corrosive impact of failing high schools, stressed neighborhoods, poverty, and social instability on educational outcomes, an unimaginably large number of students leave college, or limp to the finish line because they cannot figure out how to navigate the numerous bureaucracies they encounter. Before we lose the students with poor math skills, or an inability to write, we lose countless others who fail to solve some puzzle with its roots in the administrative bureaucracy.
Take, for example, a scenario that is as common as it is frustrating. Over the last few years, restrictions on financial aid have grown increasingly complicated, and computer audits of student courses more unforgivingly sift courses that are deemed necessary from those that do not. Students navigating major and general education requirements need to be more focused on taking required courses, or they risk losing financial aid—typically in the year or month before they graduate. In consequence, some never do.
And then there is the issue of simply having enough qualified people to give the face-time and support that students need. As institutional funding for colleges falls, the easiest and earliest cuts often take place in these service offices, leaving them staffed with fewer—and less experienced— professionals. This leaves us less able to respond to this new context, where institutional solvency is dependent on student retention. Registration, admission, bursar, and financial aid offices need to be regarded as the frontlines in our effort to retain students. Where these offices have eroded, we must shore them up.
All of these factors combine into a complex of new barriers to student educational success, producing a deeply altered tone surrounding public education. Our public universities are, more than ever, cash-strapped and struggling. But they are also, as never before, asking students (rather than legislators, educators, and administrators) to be the problem-solvers, bringing revenue onto campus and helping balance the books. That reverses generations of good education policy and an established sense of who should be looking after whom.
by Matthew Nagler, Associate Professor, Department of Economics and Business, Colin Powell School
In the wake of the tragic mass shootings on a college campus in Roseburg, Oregon, President Obama and others have called for stricter gun control laws. Yet others, including many close to where the shootings took place, are saying increasingly that they feel they need to own a gun. (See, for example, the recent front page story in The New York Times, “Common Response After Killings in Oregon: ‘I Want to Have a Gun’.”) The dramatic tension between President Obama’s gun control advocacy and others’ calls for greater access to guns relates to a phenomenon I identified in a 2011 article in the Journal of Industrial Economics entitled, “Negative Externalities, Competition, and Consumer Choice.” I called the phenomenon “negative network effects.”
A network effect exists when an individual’s demand for a product increases with the number of people who currently use the product. Social networks, for example, are successful because so many people are on them. As more people join, the desire of others to be on that same platform increases. Network effects can cause a “bandwagon” to occur—the more people join, the more people want to join. They can also cause the reverse to happen: When some people reject a product for which use by others is critical, others find the product less valuable and they too may reject it. Because of bandwagons, demand for a network good can often be prone to tipping points, at which a critical moment is suddenly reached where the product becomes literally irresistible (or else—just as suddenly—eminently disposable).
A lot has been written about network effects by economists and other social scientists, but most of the writing is about what I refer to as “positive network effects”: situations where a person’s adopting a product increases the perceived benefit to others of using the product. In my article, I discovered the “evil twin” of this phenomenon, in which a person’s adopting a product increases the perceived cost or risk of not using the product: a negative network effect. I identified several examples in my article, but perhaps the most archetypal is SUVs. In “The Strategic Significance of Negative Externalities,” published in the journal Managerial and Decision Economics, I used data to estimate the negative network effect in the SUV market. That is, I measured the rate at which the increased uptake of SUVs caused other people to feel they needed one, too—in this case the desire is related directly to the perceived risk of colliding with someone else’s SUV.
Just like a positive network effect, a negative network effect can eventually result in a bandwagon. And this is exactly what is now being observed in Oregon: the more people have guns, the more other people perceive they are at increased risk if they don’t have a gun. Their reaction is not necessarily driven by actual numbers of people owning guns. Just the mere perception of the ubiquity of guns, fostered by how often shocking stories about gun violence appear in the news, can create the negative network effect. True or not, it was the perception of the Oregonians interviewed in the New York Times article that they would be safer, given how many guns they believe are out there and their increased perception of risk, if they themselves got a gun.
My research on this phenomenon suggests a clear role of public policy: when a bandwagon effect is imminent, we risk reaching a tipping point in which rapid uptake of the bandwagon product—in this case, guns—could occur. What government can do is apply a “nudge.” If it can increase the disincentive to own a gun, interest in gun acquisition might be suppressed just enough to prevent the tipping point from being reached. We might even tip toward a safer, alternate reality in which a lot fewer people have guns—and in which those who do own them hold them for reasons other than the fear of other gun owners.
Dr. Matthew G. Nagler is an Associate Professor in the Department of Economics and Business at the City College of New York. He also holds an affiliate appointment with the Graduate Center at the City University of New York. He has held positions as an antitrust consultant, a marketing professional, and a staff economist at the Federal Communications Commission. Dr. Nagler is the author of numerous refereed journal articles relating to applied microeconomics, industrial organization, behavioral economics, and social economics. He received his Bachelors Degree in Economics from Cornell University and his Ph.D. in Economics from the University of California at Berkeley.
by Vince Boudreau, Dean, Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership
What does it mean to be a public university? For decades, there were two distinct definitions—so bound together that when they became estranged, nobody seemed at first to notice.
On the one hand, public education referred to a finance model in which citizens and government officials pledged support for those working in its schools, and so allocated money from public coffers for that purpose. Students in public universities could expect to pay less for their tuition, and people living in states and cities anticipated supporting that education through their tax expenditures.
A second meaning evoked broader and more soaring ambitions and, for generations, the American public understood that the university system was the greatest of equalizers. Universities helped construct just and prosperous societies; they shored up the foundations of democracy; they contributed insight that helped us resolve some of our most pressing social issues. These universities existed at the intersection of our collective need to be smarter, and our egalitarian inclination to seek progress in the aggregate, to rise or fall as one people. Everyone, in this view, had a stake in the vitality of public universities.
But this collective understanding didn’t hold. In discussions about the role of public education, there was soon confusion—not with what public education was for, but with who it was for.
People began approaching public education with suspicion. Misplaced concerns about undeserved individual entitlement began to shoulder aside our original aspirations. We began to equate support for public education as essentially the transfer of resources with individual students—beneficiaries of largess—and began speculating on who among them, as individuals or categories, deserved that support. This is an impoverished and narrowly calculating formula that no longer allows for a deeper sense of social purpose. In essence, places like City College were forced to revisit our most important founding discussion, first broached in 1847: Was a university education for the elite only, or for everyone?
We founded the Colin Powell School after a decade of building out scholarship and fellowship programs that recognized the great potential and outstanding achievements of some of our very best students. As we did so, we hoped both to provide for them in extraordinary ways what others receive as a matter of course, and to suggest the potential of so many outside of these programs. It was good work. But we moved from programming that centered on a collection of leadership programs to a school serving over 2,600 students because those opportunities should not have been extraordinary—but rather the routine provision of a public education institution that functioned as it was originally intended. Building out this capacity is the current and great task of our school.
We must reframe discussions on the costs of the public university. A crucial starting point is that any conception of public that separates beneficiaries from the social whole is inadequate. Cutting financial support for public institutions results in higher social costs of living in a place where opportunities are hoarded and prospects for advancement seem dim and distant. We measure those costs in violence, in hopelessness, in sickness and insecurity. We measure them in the widening spaces between those who are privileged and those who are not—in de facto economic re-segregation, in under-employment, in achievement gaps and school-to-prison pipelines. We measure them, as well, in the horrible certainty that vast stores of talent, generation upon generation, lie wasted.
We are, in fact, in the middle of a great crisis in our ability to think of ourselves as a whole people, and to plan for the prosperity of that whole. Over the past decades, the decay of the middle class has not happened in isolation—it has taken place in direct relationship to the decay of visionary institutions set up to create and nurture the middle class.
As state budgets around the nation are cut, often the first thing that is affected are our schools. The way forward cannot be assembled from so-called merit-based programs, designed to reward individuals over ostensibly less talented or deserving peers. Opportunity should not be a prize or an award, but a basic provision of our systems and institutions.
In blog posts to come, I’ll be exploring the way this mission plays out at the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership, building on this discussion of why we should care about public education in the first place. We’ll look at what happens within the walls of our school, how and when students begin to make sense of the college setting, and the myriad ways in which they sometimes don’t. We’ll also explore some of the other, broader purposes of the public university, including its capacity to speak in particularly necessary ways on some of the most important questions that confound our nation. We’ll also look at the legacy of public education on our social fabric and the ways that things may have shifted. In the end, I’ll discuss what we’re working to achieve at the Colin Powell School–to maintain the truest vision of public education in an environment grown increasingly hostile to our founding purposes.
by Julia Suklevski
Based on the well-publicized number of sexual assault cases on college campuses across the United States, many might assume that these assaults are occurring at an alarming rate. They would be correct. But this is no recent phenomenon. For decades, the epidemic that has been impacting our nation’s college students was something that administrations did not want to admit was actually happening. This resulted in injustice for survivors, their experiences invalidated by the institution that was to provide them equal access to a safe learning environment.
I serve as a volunteer Domestic and Other Violence Emergencies (DOVE) Program Advocate at New York-Presbyterian Hospital in Washington Heights, and I’m a student studying in the Women’s Studies department at City College. So domestic violence and sexual assault are issues I think about and discuss often, and why I, along with Arlene Verapen, was inspired to help bring an important documentary,The Hunting Ground, a film that has been screened on college campuses all over the nation, to further the discussion at The City College of New York.
The Hunting Ground (2014), a documentary that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this year, was screened on April 22nd and April 23rd, to members of the City College community, as well as concerned members of the public. The film, directed by Academy- and Emmy Award-winning documentarian Kirby Dick, follows two survivors turned activists for a grassroots movement to strengthen alliances between survivors of sexual assault and the public. These advocates used their voices to raise awareness about how college administrations handle cases of sexual assault and violations of Title IX.
Annie Clark and Andrea Pino, who were sexually assaulted during their first year of college, are highlighted in the film for their dedication to the idea that survivors of sexual assault do not have to remain victims of policies and barriers that prevent them from seeking justice. They advocate for thorough investigations of their respective university’s Title IX violation, an equality law that institutions receiving federal financial aid must uphold. Title IX protects students from experiencing discrimination on the basis of sex in educational programs and activities at universities that receive federal funding. Discrimination on the basis of sex can include sexual harassment or violence, such as rape, sexual assault, sexual battery, and sexual coercion.
If a university’s administration fails to uphold the Title IX policy by not responding promptly and effectively to sexual harassment or assault, it creates a hostile environment for the survivor. This hostile environment gives the student the right to proceed with filing a report to the Department of Education that the university is in violation of Title IX. Clark and Pino did just that at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill following their assaults. They inspire thousands of individuals across the nation’s universities to explore this option if they also experienced poor follow-through of their reported sexual assaults. Women’s Studies Program Coordinator Arlene Verapen says, “Opening the eyes of the general population is important for change. Annie’s and Andrea’s stories are catalysts for an important movement on college campuses. Educating our community about Title IX is the key to finding justice.”
The documentary goes on to explain the many layers and complexities that hinder survivors from receiving the justice they deserve. Universities are large institutions that receive funding from the government, as well as private donors and alumni. Its reputation oftentimes trumps the dignity of the survivor. In a society where rape culture is not only disturbingly present, but in some cases, encouraged, it is unfortunately easy to see how the epidemic continues to grow, silently but with great force.
Professor Patricia Ackerman, Director of the Women’s Studies Program at City College, moderated the community conversation following both screenings. Members of the panel included myself, Michele A. Baptiste, the Title IX coordinator for CCNY, Romy Fabal, Student Health Services Staff Nurse; Teresa Walker, Executive Director of Student Health Services; Dr. Laura Iocin and Dr. Erin Jeanette of the Counseling Center; and Professor Teresa Lopez-Castro and Professor Lesia Ruglass of the Psychology Department. The Office of Public Safety was also present.
As someone who has had individuals very dear to me experience sexual assault and did not receive adequate support from a school administration, it pains me to think that so many individuals have no option but to remain silent about assault. As a trained advocate and crisis counselor to survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence, I was heartened to see the number of people who made time to attend the screening. It was a powerful moment during a crucial time: we must continue to push awareness and ongoing dialogue in order to combat decades of negligence and injustice.
Read the Politics of Sexual Violence Initiative’s white paper: The Forever Victims.
Nimmi Gowrinathan, a leading researcher, analyst, and commentator on international gender and violence issues, has joined the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership at The City College of New York as a visiting professor. She directs the Politics of Sexual Violence Initiative, a three-year program funded by a grant from the NoVo Foundation. The NoVo Foundation works to transform global societies from cultures of domination to ones of equality and partnership.
Gowrinathan is a former fellow of the Center for Conflict, Negotiation and Recovery, and the Gender Expert for the UN National Human Development Report in Afghanistan. For more than seven years, she served as director for South Asia Programs at Operation USA, overseeing disaster relief programs. Gowrinathan’s research interests include gender and violence, female extremism, social movements, issues of asylum, ethnic conflict, and the impact of militarization, displacement, and race in Sri Lanka. She is author of the blog Deviarchy and a frequent contributor to national media outlets including Foreign Affairs and CNN.
In this interview with Neighborhoods and Nations, Gowrinathan discusses her mission, the unique role of the public university, and her preference for fluidity within the professional and scholarly roles she occupies.
Would you identify the sum of your work so far as contributing to a mission you’ve identified as your “life’s work”? What motivates you?
My work has always been driven by a quest for social justice for the Tamil population in Sri Lanka. Within that, the work that I anticipate to require the entirety of my life, which demands both my emotional energy and intellectual curiosity, centers on understanding the politics of marginalized women. I am constantly reinvigorated by the everyday resistance of women around the world to all forms of repression.
Tell us about the Politics of Sexual Violence Research Initiative and its place at the Colin Powell School. How do you plan to use your resources on campus to engage students and the broader public?
The Politics of Sexual Violence Initiative is designed to better understand the impact of sexual violence on the individual politics of women, both within the U.S., and in select cases around the world. Beyond conducting research to better inform policy and humanitarian formulations on sexual violence, this initiative is intended to create a global network of women scholars engaged in political activism, research, and advocacy–beginning with the young women at City College. The Colin Powell School has been very supportive, and I hope to use this initiative to contribute a unique political project to the engaged scholarship already underway there, as well as to draw in students for events, research, and through select courses I will offer over the next few years. The Initiative also hopes to build important links between existing social movements (Black Girls Matter, the Last Girl) to create far-reaching political movement that addresses the root causes of violence against women.
What are your thoughts on the role of the university with regard to human rights matters–such as sexual violence across the globe or, say, Stop and Frisk in NYC? Does the public university have any major responsibilities other than to educate its students?
I think the public university, and particularly one with the unique demographic make-up of City College, has an obligation to engage in public debates that affect and shape the lives of its students and its community. While providing a space for student-driven activism, at an intellectual level the university should provide an environment where diverse opinions and new ideas can be presented, challenged, and adapted to support movement-building in many directions.
You are both an activist and a scholar, and you’ve worked as an NGO director, human rights advocate, policy analyst, and journalist: do you see clear divisions between the work you’ve performed within these roles? Do you see yourself primarily as any one player? How do you shift between spaces–are there any specific challenges you face?
I don’t see clear divisions within my work, and I think a fluid approach to my intellectual life and the roles I play has allowed me to create a unique voice and contribution to multiple conversations. I have met young women around the world who are torn between competing identities (Somalian-American/Activist-Scholar) and who are socialized into trying to fit into one role or the other–rather than embracing the value of a space I have called the “inside-outsider.” The challenges I faced were early on in my academic career, where there were often accusations of bias. However, as I have built a career around the exact tensions we have been taught to avoid, I have found that the variety of roles I play allows each to contribute to the other in insightful ways. My own unorthodox approach to my intellectual and professional work can be an example for a younger generation frustrated with the roles available to them, proving that there is no one way to engage in the issues that you are passionate about.
Tell us about your involvement in the Vice Media documentary series on women in/at war. You’ve said that, in sharing women’s stories, you want to “challenge perceptions in academic and policy spaces, while pulling out the richness of their narratives.” How might the Vice series contribute to that goal, or do you see this as a new frontier?
The Vice media series Women at War will begin this month, and hopes to draw out the stories of women that stick with you when conducting intellectual research. The narratives are all drawn together within a special project that will allow one or two big ideas to be revealed in each mini-documentary, with a clear through-line that reveals the complexity of women’s politics as their lives are shaped by violence. This project may not shift academic discourses, but it has been proven that ending sexual violence requires a significant shift in attitudes towards and perceptions of women. Recent films like India’s Daughter reveal the entrenched cultural perceptions of an older generation of men, however Vice News has proven the ability to reach millions of young men and women around the world–providing a distinctive platform through which to tackle the difficult task of dismantling patriarchy in all its many forms.
by Matthew G. Nagler, Associate Professor, Economics and Business, Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership
About six weeks ago, the New York State Attorney General’s office released a report accusing GNC, Target, Walgreens, and Walmart of selling fraudulent dietary supplements. The AG had DNA-tested 24 products from the retailers representing seven supplement types— including such popular products as gingko biloba and St. John’s Wort. All but five of the products were found to contain DNA that was either unrecognizable or from a plant other than what the product claimed to be—including in some cases little more than powdered rice or house plants.
These findings were no big surprise to Edward J. Kennelly, Professor of Biology at Lehman College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY), Fredi Kronenberg of Stanford University, or Bei Jiang of Dali University in China. The three biologists collaborated several years ago on a study of black cohosh, a plant-derived supplement marketed over-the-counter as a cure for hot flashes. They analyzed 11 products and found that three contained no black cohosh, while a fourth that did contain it was also contaminated with a “cousin” plant species. The results of their study are published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.
Shortly after that study was completed, Mr. Kennelly and I met at a CUNY awards dinner. His research results had raised an important question: While, as scientists, his team had been able to identify fraudulent supplements in the lab, was there any way that consumers could ferret out the frauds? This, I knew, was a question economic analysis could answer. Soon Mr. Kennelly, his collaborators, postdoctoral student Chunhui Ma, and I joined together to do a market-focused study of black cohosh adulteration, the results of which are published in theInternational Journal of Marketing Studies. Our findings lent support to the notion that dietary supplements are an example of what’s called a credence good, a product for which the quality cannot be determined conclusively by consumers even after they buy and use it. Auto repairs offer the classic example. Suppose I take my car to a mechanic for a routine check-up, and he tells me that the transmission is about to fail and needs to be replaced. Fifteen hundred dollars later, I leave the repair shop and find my car drives no differently than when I had brought it in. I can’t tell whether the car needed the repair to begin with, or even whether the repair was executed. I have to take these things on faith. Dietary supplements function similarly–largely because no medication is 100 percent effective, and because sometimes people just get better on their own. This means a consumer cannot rely on what happens when she takes the supplement as an indication of whether it is a fraud or not.
But were consumers able to separate the good from the bad? To determine this, we used a modified version of what economists call “hedonic analysis,” in which the researcher takes the relationship of a product’s observable characteristics to its price as a measure of which characteristics are valued by the market. We turned the standard approach inside out, looking at whether something that the market clearly values but can’t directly observe—authenticity—influences a product’s price. This could tell us whether consumers were getting a clue about authenticity in sufficient numbers to move the market price up or down—by flocking to it or running from it—based on whether the product was or was not a fraud. It turns out they weren’t. They did not have a clue which products were the frauds and which were not.
When something is a credence good, there are two ways the consumer might be protected against fraud. One is through the force of reputation. But because with credence goods people cannot figure out for sure if a product was a fraud even after they use it, they have nothing unequivocal to pass along via word-of-mouth, in chat rooms, or in online product reviews. Consumers who look to reputational sources for helpful information are less likely to find it. Brands that have perpetrated a fraud can get away with it for a long time before enough negative feedback accumulates to effectively bring them down.
Indeed, credence goods and their reputation can be as unreliable as praise for the emperor’s new clothes. Suppose a few early adopters of a fraudulent supplement happen to get a good outcome and squawk about it online. This puts pressure on others to corroborate the positive hype. If the consensus is that the brand is a miracle cure, those consumers who have a different experience may question their own, correct perception and might stifle their criticisms. Things can persist this way for some time—with countless consumers throwing good money after bad.
So that leaves a second source of protection: regulatory oversight. In the United States, dietary supplements are regulated under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA). DSHEA’s rules regarding labeling and good manufacturing practices more closely resemble those that govern foods than the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)’s rigorous pharmaceutical regulations. Accordingly, supplements require no premarket clinical testing or approval. Since DSHEA was enacted in 1994, the number of products to which it has applied has grown from 4,000 to approximately 30,000.
Meanwhile, funding for supplement oversight has declined, with the result that the agency has recently faced severe constraints in its efforts to enforce its relatively meager rules against mislabeling and contamination. The Republican-dominated Congress that enacted DSHEA clearly intended for the consumer to take personal responsibility when shopping for supplements – to recognize that, as the labels say, any claims made by manufacturers are “not evaluated by the FDA.” But even if one assumes that buyers are up to the rigors of self-protection, shouldn’t they at least have the assurance that the supplement contains what its label says it does? Our study shows that even the most cautious consumer is unlikely to be able to determine the authenticity of a product.
We should be grateful for interventions by authorities with the ability to scrutinize supplements scientifically and call out the frauds. Like the little boy in Andersen’s story who called it as he saw it, they provide an indispensible service to the public. And, while it may be an unrealistic wish given our current Congress, our findings and those of the New York Attorney General point to an irresistible conclusion: It is time to revisit DSHEA and put in place stronger regulations on dietary supplements.
Matthew Nagler is an associate professor at the Colin Powell School of Civic and Global Leadership, City College of New York: http://mnagler.ccny.cuny.edu/ Note: This post has been edited from an earlier published version.
Fatjon Kaja is, by all counts, an exceptional student here at the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership. Furthermore, his good humor, sensitivity, and commitment to service for the public good have made him a trusted peer among the school’s students and fellows.
Kaja, a recent immigrant to the U.S. from Albania, is enrolled in the B.A./M.A. program in Economics and has a second major in Pre-Law, with minors in Italian and French. He is a Legal Scholar in the Skadden, Arps Honors Program in Legal Studies, the Co-founder and Vice-Director of the Guidance for the Legal Empowerment of Youth (now the ACLU Chapter at the City College of New York), and Deputy Policy Director of the Economic Development Policy Sector of theRoosevelt Institute at the City College of New York. He was a Partners for Change Fellow in 2013-2014 and has held numerous leadership roles in other campus offices and activities, including student government.
In his free time, he likes to explore New York City, listens to classical music, and plays soccer with his friends and relatives. In this interview with Neighborhoods and Nations, we ask Kaja to describe his path from rural Albania to Harlem. Along the way, Kaja offers insight into why he believes Colin Powell School students have an edge as they pursue civic and global leadership roles after completing their studies at The City College of New York.
What brought you to City College?
When I started applying for college, I only had been living in America for two months. Despite the fact that I possessed a strong application package, I applied only to the City University of New York due to its affordable tuition rates and because of its alumni roster, comprised of numerous self-made men and women who rose in prominence in the highest ranks of their respective professions. The idea that I could emulate such persons remains the cornerstone of my American dream.
What experiences growing up in your home country shaped your academic interests?
I was born and raised in Peshkopi, a small city in northeast rural Albania. Located between mountains, Peshkopi is the poorest district in Albania with a high unemployment rate. Growing up in such an environment was tough: educational resources, justice, and meritocracy were hard to find, while corruption, disorder, and nepotism thrived. These factors pushed me to focus my studies in two interconnected fields, economics and law. Specifically, I am deeply interested in exploring the impact of law on economic processes and outcomes, and the reciprocal influence of economic conditions on legislative acts.
How do you relate to your fellow students within the Colin Powell School? Do you feel you’ve found a community? If so, what do you think brings you together?
One of the things that I share with my fellow Colin Powell School students is our eagerness to learn about new material. I think the majority of us are children of immigrants or immigrants ourselves, and many of us are striving to integrate ourselves into American society. Additionally, we all have the desire to better ourselves, which in turns encourages us to expect more of each other. As students of the social sciences, all Colin Powell School students are interested with issues regarding the role of the state, civil rights, economic development, social movements, or global issues. What brings us together is our belief that social and political ideas need to be debated extensively. In my classes, I have found a community of eager scholars, who have aspirations to become leading public servants or executives of Fortune 500 companies. I feel like this is where I belong.
In addition to your demanding academic and extracurricular load, you applied for and received a Partners for Change Fellowship, which had its own stringent demands. How did the fellowship serve your professional development, and how did it complement your academic work?
My academic work is mostly focused within the fields of law and economics. The majority of the courses that I’ve taken offer a deep, insightful analysis of theoretical concepts. As a Partners for Change Fellow at the Colin Powell School, I had the opportunity to complement my academic work with empirical research and service in the field of economic development, financial literacy, and leadership in the community. I attended weekly seminars about financial institutions such as banks and credit unions, gained industry knowledge about their respective structures and services, and learned about the role that financial literacy plays among college students in the United States. Through close collaboration with other fellows and our Leader-in-Residence, I implemented a survey on campus to test the financial literacy of City College students. The results were incorporated in a research project that is being developed further and will soon be published. Part of the fellowship is the component of the internship, where I was assigned as a Business Development intern to theCommunity League of the Heights, a nonprofit organization in Washington Heights. There I worked on a number of projects that helped develop the structure of the organization and increase its value to the community. Through this fellowship, I honed my ability to make good decisions, plan and organize my time, work well on a team, and developed sound interpersonal, oral, and written communications skills.
Have you had mentors who’ve helped you during your time here?
I have been blessed with numerous mentors. I’ve benefited a lot from great guidance and support from Professor Andrew Rich, who is my undergraduate thesis mentor. He has been a generous source of ideas and insights on my project since its inception. Dean Boudreau has always encouraged me to be rigorous and thorough in every aspect of my academic and professional life. I am grateful for his high standards and for his continuing influence on how I think about leadership.Professor Richard Bernstein is a superb source of good ideas, useful information, and helpful criticism. Professor Kevin Foster of the Economics Department has broaden my understanding of economics and its utility in our daily lives. AndGaslin Osias, Senior Admissions Advisor at City College, has always been available to look over at multiple drafts of my personal statement, resume, and cover letter and provide valuable feedback and interview tips. Outside school, I would like to mention my mentors at the Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom LLP, who have always provided precious advice about law school and the legal profession.
Where do you see yourself in a year? Five?
In a year from now, I see myself completing my last semester of my master’s degree here at City College and waiting to hear from law schools. In five years from now, I aim to graduate from a top tier law school with honors. After graduation from law school, I would love to work for a few years in the banking group of a prominent law firm.
Other than tuition savings, why might competitive and ambitious students choose to attend The City College of New York for undergraduate or graduate studies over some of the more prestigious private colleges in the city?
I think there are many advantages that CCNY students have over students attending NYC private colleges. First of all, City College is one of the most diverse institutions in the nation, with students representing over 150 countries and speaking more than 99 different languages on campus. This allows for us to engage in intellectual debates with people who hold fundamentally different perspectives about issues and offer competing viewpoints about the role of the government and public policy. It is extremely beneficial to engage in such debates because it makes us aware of things that we have never thought before and, for those who aspire to take on leadership positions, it is essential to take into account all opinions.
Another advantage that City College students have is the small class size, as it allows for the students and faculty to easily forge bonds. The professor has the opportunity to get to know you closely; he or she learns about your background and your academic passions. When one applies for professional schools, the professors are able to write a solid letter of recommendation, which in turn can be a determining factor of whether or not you get into your dream school.
Being a student at the Colin Powell School has allowed me to explore my academic passions under dedicated faculty such as Professor Marta Bengoa of the Economics and Business Department and Professor John Krinsky of the Political Science Department. Being part of the Skadden Arps Honors Program in Legal Studies and the Partners for Change Fellowship at the Powell School has been an amazing experience. Both programs have allowed me to pursue topics of interest and have challenged me academically. Besides providing me with a full merit-based scholarship, these programs have helped me get internships, offered research opportunities, and provided me with insightful guidance. They truly have pushed me to test the limits of my potential.