Global Pull of Community Engagement: Urban Students Growing Into Youth Ambassadors

In 2020, the CYA program was absorbed by the Center for Advanced Study in Education (CASE) at the CUNY Graduate Center after its initial adoption by CASE in fall 2018.

As this process was underway, the directors published a book chapter describing and outlining the CYA Program, from its beginning stages to how students and their mentors prepared for the Winter Youth Assembly. The chapter appeared in the book titled Preparing Students for Community-Engaged Scholarship in Higher Education as follows:

Global Pull of Community Engagement: Urban Students Growing Into Youth Ambassadors, Samar El Hitti,  D. Hecht, Preparing Students for Community-Engaged Scholarship in Higher Education. Aaron Zimmerman, editor. Texas Tech University USA: IGI Global Information Science Reference, 2020. 264 – 283. IGI Global book series Advances in Higher Education and Professional Development

For further information about the publication, please contact the authors.

For further information about the current status of the CYA program, please contact CASE.

A Truly Eye-Opening Summer

Going to Bangladesh this past summer has been one of the best experiences of my life. I got an opportunity to learn more about my family and bond with them in a way that I’ve never been able to bond with before in my life. Currently, none of my relatives live in America, so I grew up never having met any of my relatives. I went to Bangladesh a couple of years ago, but I wasn’t able to enjoy it as much because there were so many people I haven’t met and I felt like I didn’t entirely fit in. This summer, my family got a chance to explore different cities and places such as Cox’s Bazar. I was able to have some incredibly fun experiences and have a summer worth remembering.

The Tamabil India-Bangladesh border. The mountains in the back are all India, and everything in front of them in the picture is Bangladesh.

A sunset in Cox’s Bazar, the longest sea beach in the world.

One thing that constantly stood out to me was the difference between the culture of Bangladesh versus America. As someone who’s been raised in America, I haven’t really been exposed to many cultures. This is especially true since I do not travel internationally very often. It was shocking to learn about Bangladeshi values, such as their emphasis on tradition and family. I also learned about how there were many things that I took for granted, because my relatives were not able to experience as much as I have. For example, most of my relatives have never seen the ocean. We went to Cox’s Bazar, the longest sea beach in the world. When we first went to Cox’s the beach, many of my aunts were terrified of entering the water. This left me shocked, as I have been to beaches inside America numerous times. A trip to Coney Island was just a typical Sunday for me.

Me petting a cow in Cox’s Bazar!

Seeing the differences between the lifestyles was also quite a shock for me. In Bangladesh, a typical evening consists of numerous relatives sitting inside a small room, telling each other random ghost stories or teasing each other. Since the culture was so family oriented, having fun meant even a simple day of hanging out with family. This was very different for me, because as I stated before, I grew up with no relatives, so a typical evening for me would consist of me on Netflix or studying for an exam.

Even the change in environment was a lot for me. Going from somewhat cool New York air to humid Bangladesh air with a real feel of 118°F was crazy. The use of ceiling fans and lack of air conditioning in most places made me extremely sweaty and sometimes even nauseous. Yet my relatives seemed completely fine, even during the multiple blackouts during the day that stopped the ceiling fans from running. Even going to different locations was a shock for me. My family usually took Ubers, unlike most people who took rickshaws everywhere. The Ubers came to be a symbol of wealth, although most Uber rides came out to under $2 (after being converted).

I remember I kept thinking about how I was used to so many luxuries that I was fortunate enough to have in America. I was used to air conditioning during summer weather. The closest beach for me is a 30-minute drive, compared to the 9-hour bus ride we had to take to Cox’s Bazar. Compared to Bangladesh, America seems to have more opportunities and resources available. Yet my relatives seemed extremely content and happy with life, even though some of them had so little. One of my cousins was happily thriving within a tin house the size of a garden shed. People in Bangladesh were satisfied with their lifestyle and what they had. They were satisfied with simpler things. In a way, this reminded me of a quote I read from a book:

In America everybody is somebody. They have so much and they all want more. In my country we are all nobodies; it’s easier. Here they are always trying to be somebody else. They go to the doctor and get a new nose, they get bigger chests- why aren’t they happy to have a nose that works and weather that is always good? (Homes, 30).

In this quote, the speaker is comparing his struggles from his homeland, India, to the concerns of people in America. This quote reminds me of my experiences from Bangladesh, because I feel like people in Bangladesh were satisfied with simpler things. To me, an American, this was a strange idea because I was used to the mentality of striving for more. It was odd to see people living in these poor conditions, but I learned that people with less were always happier with less. This also reminds me of the ideology from the popular rap song “Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems,” by artists The Notorious B.I.G., P. Diddy, Kelly Price, and Mase. According to Genius, a website with lyrics and the meanings of songs, this rap song alludes to the idea that having more money causes more issues compared to having very little money, since your main concern is to just get by and survive (Genius).

Bringing this back to the CUNY Youth Ambassador experience, I remember thinking about how fortunate I was and how much I took things for granted. Back in January, I read the GEM reports and learned about students and their struggle with higher education. Realizing how lucky I was to be able to attend an honors college with completely free tuition made me think about how l lucky I was. I found that my role and my opportunities were something that I felt privileged to have. This feeling came to me when I attended the U.N. Winter Youth Assembly. I was surrounded by many powerful leaders throughout the world, and I even felt a sense of imposter syndrome. Eventually, I realized my duty to use this opportunity and my role to be a leader in my own community. In Bangladesh, learning about how people have been able to thrive and stay content with having so little (or what seems to be little compared to the American lifestyle), has caused me to try to have a different outlook on life. I may have more than some of the people in Bangladesh, but they are making the most of their lives and staying happy. Similarly, my role as the CUNY Youth Ambassador has made me become a privileged member of the CUNY community and has given me numerous experiences. I plan to use my newfound philosophy from Bangladesh as well as my genuine feelings of gratefulness for all that I experience to make my signature project something that can make a lasting impact on people. I want to use what I have been fortunate enough to have in my life in a way that can work towards global development and show people that they too can use their own resources to make a difference. Although I went to Bangladesh for only a couple of weeks, I feel that what I’ve learned and brought back home with me will hopefully last me a lifetime along with what I’ve learned as the CUNY Youth Ambassador.

Works Cited

M, Homes A. This Book Will Save Your Life. Granta Books, 2012.

“The Notorious B.I.G. (Ft. Diddy & Ma$e) – Mo’ Money Mo’ Problems.” Genius, 25 Mar. 1997,

Struggles with My Signature Project

I have truly struggled with figuring out what to do for a signature project because I feel as though I won’t be able to make as big of an impact as I should be making as the CUNY Youth Ambassador. As the CUNY Youth Ambassador, my goal is to educate other CUNY students about the SDGs and how we can work towards them in order to help make the world a better place. This past month, I have been trying to figure out what to do for my signature project. At first, I thought I was going to be developing a presentation to educate the members of my Macaulay Green Initiative Club about SDGs and how we can move towards them. For example, in our Sustainable Self Care Workshop, where the members made DIY lotion bars and lip balms from sustainable sources, I tried to teach fellow members about responsible consumption and production. This is incredibly important to work towards especially with the issue of climate change. Although these events were extremely fun and taught people about the importance of sustainability, these events did not really hone in on the global aspects of sustainability. I felt as though I was briefly able to mention the SDGs, the members couldn’t understand how important it was to work towards them on a global level with the current issues in our world.

Currently, I am working on a new idea for my signature project. I hope to work with the Dean for Academic Initiatives and Strategic Innovation at the Graduate Center along with CASE, to develop a panel in the upcoming fall semester. I plan on trying to bring in various inspirational speakers, some of whom I met during the Youth Assembly. I am beyond ecstatic for this to come to life, because I am hoping that I’ll be able to inspire people of the CUNY community just like how I was inspired during the Assembly. Hearing the numerous speakers ignited a spark in me, to be the change that I want to see in the world. I am hopeful that the turnout from the panel will realize their power within them, and learn that they can be leaders in their own community as well. The other part of my project will be honing in on social media and using it to engage the CUNY community. Personally, I feel that social media is a wonderful idea to engage the CUNY youth. Social media is prevalent in the youth’s lives, and technology defines our society today. There have been numerous reports about how social media can affect someone’s mental health. Seeing this, it is clear that social media has the power to influence many members of the youth.  Social media would be able to utilize technology as a platform for engaging the CUNY youth through something that they are all generally familiar with. The youth has been seen as the “generation of technology”, so utilizing social media will allow me to share ideas more effectively. Although it may be difficult to gain a following or an audience within social media, I believe that with the right research and the right goals in mind, it will be doable. Although there is a lot of planning left to do and I’m still brainstorming, I’m optimistic for how my signature project will develop and unfold.

One “Small” Straw, One “Small” Step

The past month has been extremely hectic for me in terms of the workload from school. To be completely honest, it’s been hard to keep up with everything, especially with planning my signature project. However, I was able to feel inspired again with the help of the WhatsApp group that was created during one of the panels at the Winter Youth Assembly in February. One of the members in the WhatsApp group, who was a Venezuelan delegate, brought up how Venezuela has been out of power for four days and is in dire need of help. This started the next WhatsApp group, called Friends for Action. Friends for Action is trying to find ways in order to help Venezuela during the humanitarian crisis. In order to do this, the delegates trying to raise awareness through a social media campaign called “Friends for Action” as well as raise money for supplies for Venezuela. Several delegates donated money to give LifeStraws to filter water.  Seeing these people put their brains together and try to be so active in a time for crisis was able to remind me why I got involved as the CUNY Youth Ambassador in the first place. In a world that constantly has issues such as gender disparities and humanitarian crises, it is crucial to remember that you always have a role in how you act towards these issues. Ignoring them and hoping they will hopefully work out for themselves enables these incidents to continue happening and causes you to act as the bystander. However, doing something, literally ANYTHING, is a step in order to combat these issues. No step is too small to make a change. For example, Americans alone use hundreds of millions of straws every day. By choosing reusable options, you can stop that one straw from endangering a turtle and save their life. The WhatsApp group that was originally made just to share ideas about how to get more active was able to create a multi-national movement in order to help Venezuela. One person sharing their struggles in Venezuela was able to empower numerous people into making a chance. It’s truly amazing to see what happens when the youth come together.

Global Development Begins with the Youth

This past month, I was fortunate enough to be able to attend the 23rd United Nations Winter Youth Assembly. Over three days, I was able to learn so much about the role of the youth in making global goals, specifically the Sustainable Development Goals, happen.

Nishat Mirza- Youth Representative of the Voices of Bangla to the U.N. Department of Global Communications

During the first day, there was the Opening Ceremony. To be completely honest, I was nervous for this event. In fact, I got ready hours before I had to be and pep talks from several people to calm me down. Soon, this anxiety turned into excitement and I couldn’t stop thinking about how exhilarated I was during the train ride. While heading to the ceremony, I got lost and asked a group of people I saw who had badges on for the ceremony. It turns out they were delegates from a high school in Michigan who were also lost. As we headed to the event together, we got to know each other. Unfortunately for the actual event, I was unable to sit near them, because I was told to sit in a specific area as I was a guest. I felt slightly awkward and uncomfortable because everyone around me came in a group with people they knew. Truthfully, I also felt like I didn’t belong there because I felt as though I wasn’t a leader. People around me were discussing their various organizations and the ways they made an impact. However, as the ceremony went on, I was soon able to learn how mistaken I was. The various speakers, including H.E. Ms. Simona Mirela Miculescu and U.N. Secretary-General Satya Tripathi, were able to teach me about the role of the youth as previous generations have failed to make a difference. Mr. Tripathi said, during his ceremony, “…we have till 2028 to turn around. We don’t even realize what’s happening. The Antarctic ice is melting five times faster than in the ‘80s.” As Mr. Tripathi discussed the urgent need to make a difference for global warming, it made me feel empowered to make a change. I felt as though even though I didn’t think I was a leader, being at the conference made me one and working towards the SDGs would allow me to develop more as one. On the way home, I couldn’t stop thinking about how excited I was for the next two days.

On day two, I was able to thankfully get my official guest badge and attend different panels. I decided from early on that I wanted to attend panels attending towards different SDGs, in order to learn more about these issues and the role of the youth towards combatting it. I, unfortunately, was only able to attend three of the panels, as I felt burnt out towards the end of the third panel. Regardless, I believe that these panels were worthwhile.

One of the panels that stuck out the most to me was the panel regarding gender inequality, which featured some of the most inspiring women I’ve ever met. One of them was Nadya Okamato, who started PERIOD., a non-profit campaign at the age of 16 when her family was homeless and staying with friends. In a bus stop on her way to school, she learned about how homeless women couldn’t afford menstrual products. She realized the unfair standards for women, as menstrual products are taxed as a luxury item whereas products for male enhancement are much more accessible. Now, she is one of the founders of one of the largest youth powered non-profit organizations that strive to work towards gender inequality by providing menstrual products, repealing the tax on these products, and working against the taboo of talking about menstruation. Prior to hearing Nadya discuss her story, I didn’t realize that the disparity that women face for menstruation products. After hearing her talk, I was able to realize why this is such an important issue. I was also extremely inspired by how powerful she was at the age of 16. Often, the youth don’t realize just how important we can be. We don’t understand how powerful we can be, whether it’s creating a non-profit organization against a very serious issue, or addressing the issues that we see through protests. Listening to the panels that day made me realize how much of a leader I am, and how much power I have within the CUNY community. I may not be creating a non-profit, but by striving towards teaching the youth within the CUNY community about a sustainable lifestyle, I am, in my own way, working towards global development.

The third day consisted of more panels, but they were mainly about steps that the youth can take towards making a change. These panels talked more about why Generation Z is so important, including the fact that we are the most educated generation. One of the panels that I went to had youth advocates from the U.N. Department of Global Communications. The panelists were all around my age, and they discussed how they were able to join the U.N. Steering Committee. At the end of the panel, the panelists put up a QR code for a WhatsApp group, so that all of the delegates and youth advocates could work together to share ideas to make a change. I am currently in this group of around 150 people, and it’s very exciting to learn about the different ways that the youth are making a difference.


Priyadarshani Joshi, a researcher for the Global Education Monitoring (GEM) Report

Another panel that I attended was from GEM Report Researcher Priyadarshani Joshi. She discussed the 2019 GEM Report, which focused on the education of migrants and refugees. This topic was extremely relevant, as there are numerous countries in the world where this is extremely relevant, such as Venezuela, Myanmar, and Kurdistan. Learning about how the quality of education for migrants and refugees needs to improve was extremely crucial, but hearing other delegates in the crowd talk was also a significant moment One of the delegates was a medical student from Venezuela, who was trying to implement a clean water project within Caracas during the humanitarian crisis.

Korede Bello, a Nigerian singer and delegate, singing with H.E. Ms. Simona Mirela Miculescu and Daniella Cardillo, a singer/songwriter

The Closing Ceremony soon came, and I was able to learn about significant delegates who were working hard towards the SDGs. The topic of the education of refugees was also essential as it related back to one of the speeches from one of the Outstanding Delegates during the Closing Ceremony. The speech was from a Kurdish refugee in New Zealand who saw the poor quality of education of refugees and wanted to work to change it. As a result, she created an organization to improve education for refugees. The ceremony also consisted of a speech from Priya Joshi about how we were working towards education the SDGS, as well as a speech from the executive director of the Friendship Ambassadors Foundation about how we should start working towards our goals. The ceremony ended with a performance from H.E. Ms. Simona Mirela Miculescu, who invited delegate Korede Bello to the stage because he was a Nigerian singer. It was hilarious to see them sing together and forget the words to the song in the middle, but I thought it was very wholesome and heartwarming to see them singing.

Now that the conference is over, I keep wishing I could go back to that weekend. Being surrounded by so many leaders from different communities made me realize how much of a difference I could make, and how lucky I was to even be there. People flew from all around the world just to attend the conference, whereas I only had a train ride of an hour (which I still considered a long commute). I feel incredibly blessed to even have the opportunity to learn more about being a leader as a member of the youth, and I’m excited to see where my newly gained knowledge will take me.

Incredibly Empowering Youth From Around The World

Dr. Djibril Diallo, President & Chief Executive Officer, African Renaissance and Diaspora Network Inc.

This past weekend, I had the honor of being the 2019 CUNY Youth Ambassador for the United Nations Winter Youth Assembly as a guest of UNESCO and Friendship Ambassadors Foundation. I represented CUNY, the largest public institution in the United States, as well as the Center for Advanced Study in Education (CASE) and I met so many powerful leaders. These leaders came in all ages, ranging from a 16 year old girl who was leading the New York Coalition fighting for gender equality, to someone who has been leading a department of the UN for over 30 years. These incredibly empowering people have truly taught me that “the youth is not the future, but rather the present”. Hearing Dr. Malvika Iyer discuss her success while being a bilateral amputee since the age 13 brought me to realize that there is truly nothing we cannot do. The youth define the majority of the planet’s population and our idea and movements are valuable. As youth, we often assume that we have no power. However, as the most educated generation and one of the more innovative generations, our abilities to overcome these barriers transcends our age. Nadya Okamoto realized that homeless women are disadvantaged due to their lack of feminine resources, and launched the non-profit organization PERIOD when she was 16.  We are accountable for being the change rather than waiting for it to happen. We are the #FriendshipGeneration, and we can build bridges, not walls.

Nadya Okamoto, Founder and Executive Director of PERIOD

Dr. Malvika Iyer, Bomb blast survivor, “Nari Shakti” National Awardee, Disability Rights Activist


The value of education to me

By Tareen Haque:

Throughout January, I took my first steps as the 2019 CUNY Youth Ambassador by researching and reading about the position and responsibilities. I was able to learn more about the Sustainable Development Goals as well as the previous GEM Youth Reports. As I was reading the reports, I was amazed at everything. Throughout my entire life, education was always a guarantee for me. I grew up knowing that not getting a bachelor’s degree was not an option, because my parents taught me the value of education since I was young. As the child of two immigrants who didn’t have a college degree, I’ve seen my parents continuously struggle to make ends meet through various jobs. My mother constantly taught me that getting a job with a bachelor’s degree was necessary to make sure I was financially stable. I never challenged this notion because I knew deep down that my mother truly didn’t want me to live like her and my father. Yet as I grew up, I’ve heard numerous jokes about people wanting to drop out of school because of the workload.  During a conversation with my mother, I repeated the joke to her, only to see that my mother had given me a stern look. As she angrily told me about her hardships throughout her life without an education, it dawned on me that many of the people in my school took the right to an education for granted. They constantly complained of the stress and how boring they found the classes, but never seemed to appreciate the fact that they even had the opportunity to learn. While reading the GEM reports, I realized that I too was taking my education for granted. I also became overwhelmed with the stress and began complaining of all the work I was getting. Learning of the #FeesMustFall protests in South Africa reminded me of how lucky I was to even be attending a college, nonetheless for free. I never understood how fortunate I was to even have the opportunity to learn about the world. I hope that through my role as the CUNY Youth Ambassador and my signature project, I can bring people to appreciate education again, even if education is not presented in the typical humanities or STEM fields.


The 2019 CUNY Youth Ambassador is …

After a successful 2018 CUNY Youth Ambassador Program at City Tech with Farjana Shati as the first CUNY Youth Ambassador, we were very pleased to have the opportunity to expand our 2019 search beyond City Tech and reach other CUNY campuses. We are excited to announce that Tareen Haque is the 2019 CUNY Youth Ambassador. Tareen is an outstanding Macaulay Honors student at the City College of New York, CUNY. She is an active advocate for sustainable living, in particular responsible consumption and production. We are very encouraged by her energy and ideas in promoting SDG4 and the SDGs among the Macaulay students and delivering her CUNY Youth Ambassador Signature Project to raise awareness and engage CUNY students. She will be representing CUNY at the UN’s Winter Youth Assembly this February and we cannot wait for the spring semester to unfold. Read more about Tareen in her bio and stay tuned for her upcoming blog posts as she assumes the role and responsibility of the CUNY Youth Ambassador for 2019!

Graduation and beyond…

By Farjana Shati:

Finally, the exams are over now. I am excited for my graduation which is just around the corner. Similarly, my term as first CUNY Youth Ambassador is also coming to an end. It is a bittersweet feeling as I am reminiscing about the past few months and the experience I have gained during this role. 

The CUNY Youth Ambassador position gave me the opportunity to voice out my passion for education. It opened new doors for me to build awareness on quality education and engage the City Tech community on issues that should matter, especially on a campus as diverse as ours. My role as CUNY Youth Ambassador also armed me with the language and vocabulary I needed to interact and talk about global education issues with people from all walks of life. I believe that I served the world that was within my reach by allowing my fellow classmates, students, professors and friends the space and place to voice their opinions, perspectives, and their takes on SDGs, quality education, and gender equality. The numerous interactions and conversations I often recall still spark more passion within me. My role as CUNY Youth Ambassador will be an ongoing cherished memory. 

As I plan my next move and lay the ground floor for the next chapter of my life, I will continue growing into ambassador role the CUNY / UNESCO Partnership Program trusted me with. I am a young minority woman who wants to advocate and amplify the importance of quality education and the echo it has on sustainable development and a sustainable future.  Before I sign off as the CUNY Youth Ambassador for 2018, I would like to thank  the program directors, Prof. ElHitti and Prof. Bonanome. I had the privilege to have them as mentors and role models, and to be part of this great initiative which challenged me to grow beyond my academic skills, to be courageous and to take part in something larger than my comfort zone. Thank you!