From a Crossroads, a New Path










On May 14, Partners for Change Fellow Jamiela McDonnough, served as one of two guest speakers for the Colin Powell Center’s End-of-Year Celebration. Jamiela, a senior majoring in biology with a minor in studio art, offered the following excerpted remarks to her fellow students, family members, Center staff, and guests.

It’s the end of another academic year. The Center is winding down for the semester and it’s my turn to graduate. Now for as long as I have been waiting for this moment, it feels different than I expected. I feel happy and excited, of course. But I feel a little sad and sentimental, things I thought I’d never feel at graduation. I’ve had my share of challenges at City College not unlike most of you. A little over a year ago, I would have sold a kidney to graduate early. But looking back on things now, I realize that everything happens for a reason. The rocky path I chose has led me to some great opportunities including being here to speak with you all. And I wouldn’t change that for anything.

For those of you who are not familiar with my story, I came to City College in 2007, where I enrolled in the Sophie Davis program. I loved the mission behind the school and what it might ultimately mean for me: a shorter cheaper way to becoming the physician that I wanted to be. I made friends, I was intellectually challenged, and at times I was even addressed as Doctor. But for all those positives, there were just as many difficulties, which led me to a crossroads during my third year. Ultimately, I resigned from the program.

To some of you this may not seem like the end of the world, but it was for me then. I was down and I doubted myself even though I knew I made the right decision. I wasn’t happy where I was and that had to change. So I took the next semester off and decided to go away and clear my head. I left for Peru in September of 2011 with my suitcase and a journal in tow. It may have been the greatest decision I’ve made to date. The country is gorgeous and diverse and people were so warm and welcoming. In Huancayo, I divided my time volunteering in a clinic & working with children. But of all the things I did there, my favorite part was trekking to Machu Picchu.

Now quick question, who here has ever hiked up a mountain?

For those of you who haven’t, imagine this; You leave early in the morning and its cold, so you have layers of clothes on and a regular backpack. It starts off pretty easy. But as you get higher, things quickly change. The air gets thinner and the lack of oxygen makes it hard to breathe, and the sun is getting higher in the sky making you extremely warm. Your eyes can see that your surroundings are beautiful, but you’re not even thinking about that because you’re so exhausted and sweaty. This backpack now feels like it’s full of bricks, your legs are tired, and your pulling the layers off until the climate change forces you to put them back on. Maybe just maybe, if you’re like me, you have to stop and ride the emergency horse for a little while. [My excuse is that my legs are short so I have to use more energy to keep up with the tall people.] And then you reach the peak, and you feel nothing but joy. Despite the weakness your body feels, your mind and soul are on a high that overpowers everything. Faith confidence and delight replace any doubts you’ve had about reaching that peak.

That is how I feel today. This past year has been the peak of my experience here at City College.

There aren’t enough adjectives in the world to describe how great my time in the center has been. I’ve been granted opportunities and experiences that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. From the professional workshops, meeting Secretary-General Kofi Annan and General Powell, my internship, to seminar meetings with Shena Elrington, I’ve been blessed to meet professionals who have mastered their fields and inspire me to carve my own path to success.

I’m honored to have been part of the “Partners for Change” program under the impeccable guidance of Sophie Gray. In this short year, we as partners for change have interned and learned, mastered the literature review, and even made presentations to benefit our communities. This specialized program is more intimate because of its size but I wouldn’t have had it any other way. This group of peers is family to me. The friendships I’ve made and cultivated are what I value most. The trip to Washington, DC gave me the chance to bond with the two-year fellows and it was such a great time. On that trip, I think I had the chance to speak with most if not all of the fellows at one time or another and every conversation was so easy like we already knew each other. What we had in common brought us together despite our different backgrounds and majors. That commonality is our desire to make and inspire positive change in the world.

My wish for the new fellows is that you, too, embrace the opportunity to bond with the fellows within your program and in the others.

This fellowship is the best experience I’ve had in my years at City College and I’m sad to see it end. But from this, I know I’ve learned a couple of things that I hope you all can take with you. First, obstacles lead to opportunity, and second, the road to success is not on any map. Instead, you have to forge it yourself. And remember it doesn’t matter how long it takes to get there as long as you do.

Thank you.


Teaching Health-Care Rights to Empower Patients

Health-care march. Photo by Neil Parekh/SEIU Healthcare 775NW; courtesy Creative Commons










By Nur Afsar

I worried that even 25 seats would be too many. But as people flooded through the doors, I saw that my worry was unwarranted: We quickly put out more chairs for what was to be an amazing learning experience.

Last week on May 2, my Partners for Change colleagues—Salma Asous, Syed Haider, Jamiela McDonnough—and I led a health-care rights workshop for parents of children enrolled in programs at the New Apartment Settlements’ College Access Center in the Bronx. In the presentation titled “Know Your Rights,” we outlined patients’ rights to language access, financial assistance, emergency treatment, and accommodations for disabilities within the health-care system. Many of the parents were Spanish-speaking, so we brought a translator with us. After going over basics, we gave out colored cards corresponding to true and false and quizzed our audience, who answered most questions correctly. I could see my feelings of joy and pride mirrored on my fellow facilitators’ faces: We were making ourselves understood!

I had become interested in becoming a Partners for Change fellow because I was eager to take action. I had taken many courses that addressed how health disparities are linked to socioeconomic status. I was aware of the injustice of low-income minority populations being more likely to have poor health outcomes: They are less likely to be insured and subsequently less likely to have access to a primary-care physician. I couldn’t just sit with this information. What I needed was a plan, a way to help overcome the vast disparities in New York City and make a positive impact. This is exactly what I was able to begin doing through the Partners for Change fellowship.

Nur Asfarco-leads a health-care rights workshop. Photo by Sophie GrayTackling the System
In this past year, I’ve learned a lot through my experience working as a Health Leads Advocate at New York Presbyterian’s Washington Heights Family Health Center and in seminars led by Shena Elrington, health justice attorney at New York Lawyers for Public Interest and our leader in residence. We learned about the ins and outs of our health-care system and how the Affordable Care Act (ACA) will bring about changes. In discussions we faced the harsh realities of the system, but Shena never let us leave our seminars without us feeling that students like we are can bring about change.

As a medical student, I was learning all the things I had to know to be a health-care provider, but in our Partners for Change seminars, we were learning about policy. We gained a lot of knowledge (more than I expected!), but what is it really worth if the information can’t be shared with those who really need it?

Stressing Advocacy
After the session, there was a time for Q&A, and with Shena’s help, we were able to answer many of the parents’ questions and address their concerns. Some said they had been denied an interpreter when seeking care for their children or themselves. Others said they didn’t know where to go for financial assistance. As I expected, there were some questions about insurance. One person asked, “Why is there an income cut-off? I work hard to make money, why shouldn’t I receive Medicaid.” We explained the federal poverty level and discussed the Medicaid expansion to come through the ACA. Additionally, we addressed other options for people ineligible for Medicaid—undocumented immigrants, for example.

As an aspiring physician, I feel further equipped by my fellowship experience to inform patients of their options and help them maneuver through the changing system so they can take control of their own health. Informing parents of their rights—and steps they can take if their rights are violated—is a major form of patient activation. We stressed that they didn’t need lawyers. They can advocate for themselves, and I feel we went a long way to empower them with the knowledge and tools to do so.

Read more about Nur and our other contributors here.

College Access Advocacy: the Bridge Builders Forum at John Jay College

The 2012 College Access Fellows of the Center's Partners for Change program

Last Saturday, I attended the second annual Bridge Builders Forum at John Jay College of Criminal Justice to support the Partners for Change Fellows in their College Access and Success advocacy event. As I entered the sun-soaked new building at John Jay, I was pleased to see two bright-eyed and smiling Partners for Change Fellows registering and welcoming students and families to the event. During their eight month tenure with Partners for Change, the College Access and Success Fellows studied and provided service to local nonprofit organizations that tackle issues of low academic achievement, lack of college information, retention and attrition rates, and insufficient advising, among other root causes.

Inspirational Stories
The Bridge Builders Forum was aimed at providing students and families access to some of the city’s best resources in the pre-college field. These resources included everything from the inspirational stories of keynote speakers Bernard Gassaway and Baruti Kafele to workshops like “Parent Workshop: Parent’s Guide to Financial Aid and Scholarships,” facilitated by Powell Center Leader-in-Residence Allison Palmer. In addition to the keynote address and workshops, the day closed with a band performance, a raffle (including some high-ticket college essentials, like laptops and iPods), and closing remarks.

With so many inspiring options to choose from, I found myself at the workshop, “Envisioning My Future: Panel of Professionals,” which included a diverse panel of professionals, from a Latina MIT graduate to a woman who pulled herself out of juvenile delinquency through college to eventually become the director of a State office. The conversations at this workshop included the benefits and challenges of living off-campus, how to make the most of your college experience, why homework sometimes feels like jumping through hoops, and how to network effectively. During the Q & A, as the panelists spoke about their own experiences and career trajectories, a common theme emerged: volunteering.

The Value Added of Volunteering
The theme was surprising, yet welcome, and as a long supporter of the myriad benefits of volunteering and its role in career exploration, it was wonderful to hear the professionals’ own stories of volunteering and the value it added to their careers. Sally Santiago, played a slideshow of her work with Women in Leadership Development, including a photo of her smiling alongside former President Bill Clinton, which she explained was an experience that grew from her contribution as a volunteer. Kishan Shah, a panelist who currently works as an Investment Analyst at Goldman Sachs, pushed the students to get out there and offer services as a volunteer, build a network, be proactive and figure out what it is “you want.” If you want to work for a technology start-up organization, he suggested, do some research, get on the phone, and ask if you can come in to volunteer and learn about their organization. The final question from the audience was “how old do you have to be to volunteer?” to which the panelists echoed a resounding “you’re never too young to volunteer!”

Providing Passion and Purpose
I left the session feeling part inspired, part awed, and part nostalgic when I suddenly stumbled upon another smiling College Access and Success Fellow eagerly directing participants through the halls of John Jay. Thinking now about the warmth and smiles of the Partners for Change Fellows, I can only assume their upbeat attitude was not due to their required arrival time at 8:30 a.m. on a warm, sunny Saturday, but rather their ability to support and advocate for an issue they came to know so intimately this year. As a former student and professional in the “college access and success” field, I can say from experience that the issue and its root causes can often feel both nebulous and insurmountable. However, alongside the event organizers, our fellows were able to be the backbone of an event that is providing concrete solutions and steps that can be taken to address this community issue. I’m certain the fellows were also given some sense of hope to see so many professionals using “passion and purpose,” to quote keynote speaker Baruti Kafele, to affect change in the futures of NYC college students.—Sophie Gray

Sophie Gray is coordinator of the Center’s Partners for Change program. Read about her and our other contributors here.