A new job yields an unexpected alumni network

March 20, 2023

In her role supporting students at SUNY Downstate, one graduate found a built-in community.

Three Alumni at SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University
(L-R) Nicholas (Nick) Cromie, Vanessa Vales-Lewis, and Susan Kane. (Photo credit: Abe Loomis)

Nearly a year ago, when Vanessa Vales-Lewis (Ph.D. ’22, Urban Education) started her job as an assistant director for the Office of Academic Services at SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University, she was delighted to learn she would not be leaving the CUNY Graduate Center community behind. In fact, two of her colleagues — Susan Kane (Ph.D. ’18, Educational Psychology), senior assistant director of academic services, and Nicholas (Nick) Cromie, a fellow assistant director of academic services and a Ph.D. candidate in the Graduate Center’s Criminal Justice Program — also had Graduate Center ties, which made the new workplace feel familiar.

“We talk about our experiences at the Graduate Center,” Vales-Lewis said. “Part of the connection is that we’ve all been through it. We’ve had very different educational paths, but we all got to come to SUNY Downstate to be academic advisers at a medical institute.”

The Graduate Center connection, Vales-Lewis said, has lent itself to an easy rapport and a strong team spirit.

“We work very closely to help support our students, and we rely on each other,” she said. “We are very collegial, and we all play to our strengths.”

Learn More About the Ph.D. Program in Urban Education

As members of the academic services team at SUNY Downstate, Vales-Lewis and her colleagues support students’ academic endeavors through workshops and one-on-one advising. Their approaches include individual counseling; coaching in time-management, organizational and study skills; and helping students devise individualized strategies for learning.

“I might show them how to create concept maps, for instance,” said Vales-Lewis, who earned a master’s degree in adolescent science education at Brooklyn College and has worked as a classroom teacher in New York City, “and engage in more active-learning strategies. We help them shine a mirror on what’s been working and say, ‘How we can get you to this higher-order thinking ability?’”

Kane describes her working relationship with Vales-Lewis and Cromie as one that strikes a balance for students.

“The three of us get along very well because the Graduate Center only takes nice people,” Kane said with a laugh. “It’s great because we each have our own strengths. Nick and I have similar styles, and what’s great about Vanessa is that she’s really a teacher, and she uses those skills to work with our students; whereas I come from a psychology background so I’m more of a counselor. And everybody learns differently, so some students love going to her, because she does all these fun things, and other students prefer going to me or Nick. It works out really well.”

Learn More About the Ph.D. Program in Educational Psychology

Among the similarities Kane sees between SUNY Downstate and the Graduate Center is a student population that represents a broad sample of backgrounds in New York and the world.

“Just walking around the Graduate Center,” Kane said, “you can see that students are coming from all walks of life. And it’s not just religion or culture or race. My closest friend from the Graduate Center, she and I were much older, and they took us, so there was an age diversity there too, which really was great because I learned stuff from the younger people and they learned stuff from us. And it’s the same at SUNY Downstate. Everybody comes from different backgrounds.”

For Cromie, who holds a master’s degree in forensic psychology and terrorism studies from John Jay College, such diversity speaks to the impact institutions can have on students.

“What I love about CUNY, and SUNY Downstate now as well,” he said, “is the immediate difference that education makes in these kids’ lives and their families’ lives. They really can go from a family that’s just barely getting by, struggling with homelessness, things like that, to a six-figure salary in a very short timeframe. I just love that. And it’s done at a reasonable cost that really sets them up to succeed on their own.”

Vales-Lewis, who wrote her dissertation on maternal wellness and received a doctoral student parental accommodation while she was a student at the Graduate Center, says she is especially gratified when she can help students who are also mothers.

“Being an advocate for the moms on campus [at SUNY Downstate] is also something I see in myself,” Vales-Lewis said, “because the GC did that for me. I don’t think I would have been successful without the advocacy of the faculty and the protection of the GC to let me have my family.”

As a first-generation Ph.D., Vales-Lewis also finds satisfaction in supporting the academic journeys of students from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds. The Pathways Programs at SUNY Downstate helps such students find success in medical and medically related professions. Vales-Lewis says some are first-generation immigrants who have recently learned English or whose parents may not have the means to put them through medical school. In those students, she says, she sees similarities to her own experience. Regardless of who walks through her door, however, she is always eager to help.

“As a former classroom teacher who has worked in both informal and formal settings,” Vales-Lewis said, “I love seeing students succeed.”

Published by the Office of Communications and Marketing