Know who you are: The SUNY system’s role in equity

Sean Kirst speaks at SUNYCUAD conference

Sean Kirst — an award-winning journalist and author who is a SUNY Fredonia graduate — was both a keynote speaker at the recent SUNYCUAD conference and one of many SUNY success stories.

The recent SUNYCUAD annual educational conference had a lot of great information, but perhaps most appropriate were some of its keynote speakers reminding us of just what SUNY is. It’s not the Ivy League. It shouldn’t be. Instead, it has a much bigger role in addressing a more equitable society.

Sean Kirst, an award-winning journalist, author of The Soul of Central New York and a SUNY Fredonia graduate, recalled his own modest upbringing and how a SUNY education was really the only way up. Kirst — a top-notch storyteller who several people said gave one of the conference’s best keynotes ever — recalled the “lightbulb moment” in college when all the authors he’d read in his English classes finally made sense in their relevance to life. For decades at The Syracuse Post-Standard and now at The Buffalo News, Kirst introduces readers to wonderful humans, many of them underdogs in some way, but his own ability to tell these stories and his own underdog tale would not have been possible — as he said repeatedly — without a SUNY education.

Famed pollster John Zogby, while not a SUNY graduate but a longtime Upstate New York resident, brought up an important point as he talked about educational trends. While he notes it’s important that SUNY schools continue to attract top-tier students — the most talented and prepared — he said SUNY can’t forget about students who don’t have the flashiest SAT scores or high-school GPAs but can benefit the most from an affordable education. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting so many of these students who colleges don’t compete for because of their high-school academic profile yet have flourished in college with the opportunities they have — and who will excel (or have already excelled) in whatever field they choose.

As a conference organizer, I’m so happy we also booked Robbye Kincaid — director of Stony Brook’s Responding to Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Project — as a keynote speaker, because she emphasized SUNY’s mission of creating opportunity and a more equitable society. We can never forget the inclusive mindset that realizes diversity’s central role in our campuses and society, a point of view that benefits us all.

Chancellor Kristina Johnson added her own affirmation that even with challenges come opportunities to grow, and that the SUNY system is a gem. I agree, and it’s the combination of shining stars and diamonds in the rough that make it so valuable.

I am blessed, as a campus-based storyteller, to see opportunity create these success stories regularly. One of my very favorite assignments from the past year was speaking to winners of our Diversity Graduate Fellowship, which is the SUNY ideal in action. One winner used to be homeless and is now poised for a counseling career helping at-risk and homeless individuals. Another is a single mother teaching at a science charter school with an eye on those who most need support. Another was raised by a single mother in the Bronx and knew a SUNY education was the only way out — and after her master’s degree will bring her important diverse viewpoint to the counseling profession.

The latter winner is Stacy Araujo, who came through the Equal Opportunity Program, which helps low-income, first-generation and other college students who might need more help in transition. (Another Oswego graduate who came through the EOP program is Al Roker, America’s favorite weatherman.) Araujo explained SUNY and the EOP program about as well as anybody I can remember:

“Without this program I would not be the hardworking, focused and determined student I am today,” she said. “And more importantly, I would not have thought myself capable of succeeding during my undergraduate years and pursuing graduate studies.”

As somebody who has an associate’s degree, bachelor’s degree and master’s degree from SUNY schools — and might not have been able to get them otherwise — I know this is truth. And it’s reason that every day I get to work at a SUNY institution, I know I can be part of making a difference for the better.

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