November 17, 2020

Announcing brightspot’s Founding Council of Student Advisors

brightspot Culture

By Allison Yu and Sofia Melian-Morse

brightspot’s commitment to racial justice pushes us to want to do better and be better in our mission to make the student experience in higher education more equitable. Part of this commitment is the formation of our Council of Student Advisors (CSA).

While brightspot always strives to make our engagements with the student community as inclusive and accessible as possible, we recognize that we can sometimes miss the perspectives of students who don’t have the privilege to stop and chat with us in our workshops and feedback fairs.

The Council of Student Advisors affords us an opportunity to foster an extended relationship with a diverse group of students and gain insight into their real, lived experiences. Their diverse voices are valuable and necessary in the conversation of designing a more equitable future.

Thanks to our partners Rutgers’ Center for Minority Serving Institutions, our clients, and our extended network, we received over 40 applications from students at 14 institutions across the nation that included graduate, undergraduate, private, public, and historically Black colleges and universities. We conducted our interview process with the focus on filling this Council with diverse students who come from a range of institutions and backgrounds, and paid particular attention to how each candidate’s life experiences could provide unique perspectives.

Our first remote meeting kicked off in late September 2020: brightspot and the CSA members show their “superpowers”

We asked our Council members a few questions to get to know them. One in particular, “What is one life experience that has defined you?” gives an invaluable look into how these students have found inspiration in unique life moments and challenges which contributed to and shaped the perspectives they bring with them to the Council.

Join us in welcoming the founding members of the Council of Student Advisors and read about the experiences that have defined them.

Andrew Ankamah, Jr.
School: Temple University, Sophomore
Discipline: Political Science

One experience that I would say defines me was when I went through fighting cancer in elementary school. That whole period of time taught me how to persevere, which is a skill that I use in my daily life.

“Harley” Joseph Beach
School: Central Piedmont Community College, Sophomore
Discipline: Engineering

I believe the most defining experience of my life is the year that I spent in Columbia, SC, while in a gateway program for the University of South Carolina, and then moving to North Carolina. It was my first time living away from home for an extended time. In the beginning, I was making good grades, meeting new people, and enjoying campus life. In the middle of my first semester, I started to be more worried about my social life than with academics, which led to great memories with new lifelong friends but damaged my GPA in a significant way. In my second semester, I dropped my classes and focused on finding a job because of the burden of my financial status. My aunt and uncle offered me the opportunity to live with them for the summer to work. Their kindness, generosity, and giving me a chance to see what type of people they are changed me. I felt like an improved version of myself. I later told them about everything that went wrong in Columbia. Instead of being disappointed and turning me away, they helped me further by offering a chance to live with them as long as I needed with the condition that I work towards bettering myself. With a newfound sense of myself, I developed a drive to succeed for not only me but also for them. I am on my way to graduating with an associate’s degree and transferring into a university to earn a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering.

Tiyana Herring
School: Florida State University (currently)/Florida A&M University (undergrad), 1st year graduate student
Discipline: Psychology

Being a teacher was one of the best things that has happened to me so far in my life. My students changed me in ways that are inconceivable. Having students in my classroom from all different walks of life made me much more compassionate, open-minded, and tolerant towards others. I had to accept my kiddos for who they were and the abilities that they had and work with them in order to help them grow academically and personally. Some days were more challenging than others, but knowing that my students were counting on me to be my best self made me persistent. Seeing my kiddos grow and make progress toward their goals made all the days worth it.

Lizbeth Parra
School: The College of New Jersey, Sophomore
Discipline: Political Science

When I was in the sixth grade I started reading a lot of books. I would read one or two books per week, and I enjoyed Drama, Biographies, and Autobiographies. One of the books I read that was an Autobiography is called “A Child Called It”. This book was about a man who as a child got abused by his mother and reading his story helped me realize that what I wanted to do with my life was help those who are shut down or feel small because of a group of people or a single person in their life.

Natalie Passov
School: University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Senior
Discipline: Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies, Communication

I have recently resigned from this position, but I was the Music Director and active member for my collegiate a cappella group, the UMass Dynamics. Through this experience, I was able to record a full length studio album and take on a large part in shaping and directing the creative choices for this! It was one of the most challenging yet rewarding projects I’ve ever taken on. Listen to “the Pocket” on any major platform!

Viyan Poonamallee
School: The New School, Freshman
Discipline: Philosophy

A defining experience for me was probably I first took a class in community college. I was fourteen at the time, and being homeschooled, it had been years since I had done my education in a proper classroom, let alone a class meant for people four years my senior. It was one of the more anxious experiences of my life, but it was important to who I am today. It’s because of a fourteen year old me walking into that classroom that I learned to truly apply myself to the best of my ability. In hindsight, it seems a little silly to attribute something so self-defining to PSYCH 101, but we rarely get to choose our formative experiences.

Fernando Sánchez López
School: College of Marin, Junior
Discipline: Computer Science

One of the experiences that has defined me the most is when I took the decision to come and live here to the United States. It was a last minute decision, but I felt like it was something I needed to do, otherwise I would regret it for the rest of my life. And so far, I think it was a good decision even though I basically have to start from zero since I knew nobody when I came here. This was just almost three years ago in October 2017.

Ayman Siam
School: New York University, Sophomore
Discipline: Mechanical Engineering

One experience that has defined me is a photography program that I did back in high school, NYC SALT. Studying Mechanical Engineering, I never thought visual arts would be of any interest to me but I still joined because it just felt right. That program has fully opened my eyes. From shooting in the streets of NYC, I have been able to see the same streets with a very different pair of eyes. If you know one thing about NYC, it’s that everyone is in a hustle and grind mode. But through photography, I can slow down to the time of life (Einstein’s theory of relativity) and share the little moments we take for granted. This experience made me realize that everything is connected and to be creative we need to find inspiration from other fields and focus our attention on the present moment more than our past or future.

Next Steps for CSA Members

Students entered the CSA interested in some common learning goals, which will influence our curriculum for the program:

  • Learning from other students from different backgrounds
  • Learning how to use design thinking as an approach to solve problems at their schools and beyond
  • Gaining leadership skills and experience
  • Gaining collaboration and research skills

As a group, the CSA has expressed interest in tackling issues at their schools like:

  • Dismantling systemic issues surrounding DEI
  • Increasing access and awareness of resources (e.g., mental health and wellness)
  • Designing academic support programs to help students (e.g., raise GPAs)
  • Making online learning more approachable and less overwhelming
  • Advising that better supports students with high-stakes testing
  • Finding and creating community, even through remote avenues

Individual brightspot mentors have been assigned to each CSA member and will be available to help teach tools, strategies, and approaches that are of interest to their mentees, as well as provide a sounding board as CSA members work through their projects. We hope that the mentor / mentee connection will deepen the exploration of what it means to make the student experience in higher education more equitable.

At the end of this program, each student will have had the chance to share their research project, process, and findings in a webinar. brightspot will also provide seed funding for one of the student projects to move forward. If you are interested in attending this webinar, sign up here for brightspot’s mailing list where we will provide updates on the CSA and more!

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