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2020 Academic Awardees & Scholarship Recipients

2020 PDK Inductees

For Sasha Garcia ’19, M.S. ’20, it was never a question of what she was going to be when she grew up. From the moment she stepped foot into her kindergarten classroom Garcia knew she was destined to be a teacher.

“I’ve always looked up to my teachers,” said Garcia “I see the influence they’ve had on my life and I want to be able to do that for the next generation.”

When others questioned her ambitions, or commented that other professions had higher salaries, Garcia wasn’t deterred. During high school, Garcia worked at Bank Street College Family Center to gain teaching experience. While she wasn’t able to keep that schedule during college, she has kept in contact with many of the parents of her former students and still babysits them just to keep the connection.

“Teaching is what makes me happy. I like how children think and their imaginations. Sometimes a child I will work with will say something and I’ll be surprised I never thought of it that way. Seeing their perspectives and how they see the world is inspiring,” said Garcia.

Garcia is currently in the School of Education’s Five-Year B.S./M.S. Education Program, but she doesn’t plan to stop there.

“I want to get a second master’s in special education and also pursue a certification in early childhood education, and then go on to my Ed.D,” said Garcia.

Not many people casually mention pursuing a doctoral degree, but Garcia isn’t daunted by the prospect of hard work. In addition to the six courses she’s taking this semester, Garcia also works three jobs and runs three clubs (two of which she founded) at the Manhattan Campus. Garcia is currently president of the Association of Latin American Students and vice president and publicist of Women’s United and vice president of Sexual Identity Acceptance.

“It’s all about being organized and having a plan,” Garcia says simply describing how she’s able to manage it all. “I do my assignments when they’re assigned and don’t procrastinate, I also take advantage of the B and C terms so I can balance out what days I have classes.”

The flexibility to take classes in different terms, and on different campuses, is part of what drew Garcia to Mercy College.

“I’ve known I wanted to come to Mercy since I was in seventh grade,” said Garcia. “I toured Mercy with my College Bound adviser Gina Jones at Liberty Leads and I loved all the offerings, but that Mercy also felt like a small school. There’s so much one-on-one support, and when I saw there was a Five-Year B.S./M.S Program I was sold.”

Garcia’s adviser cautioned she had only visited one college and might change her mind, but when she visited Mercy’s Dobbs Ferry, Bronx and Manhattan Campuses years later as a high school junior she still hadn’t changed her mind and was determined to begin her freshman year at the Manhattan Campus.

Since starting Mercy College Garcia has flourished. Whether its participating in clubs, or working with the College’s Department of Student Life in the Diversity and Inclusion position, Garcia is an active part of the College community. Community involvement is something that was always emphasized in her family. Garcia’s parents are from the Dominican Republic and her family tries to return often to help where they can.

“My uncle opened up a school in the Dominican Republic. It started as my great grandmother’s house, but he turned it into a school for low income children,” said Garcia. “Whenever we go back we always bring a box full of toys, clothes, shoes, food, anything they need. My family and I also try to save money to pay for a child’s tuition at the school. Bringing the community together and giving the kids backpacks and pencils they can have for school is a great thing.”

On the most recent trip to visit the school they threw a pizza party for the kids and community. Garcia plans to teach there for at least a year after she graduates. Eventually, she plans on opening her own school which is why she wants her Doctorate of Education.

“I was always supported, and I was really fortunate to have people emphasizing how important academics were. I see in my family how proud my parents or grandmother are when my sister or I get an A and I want to set an example for the next generation,” said Garcia.

From a young age, whether it was her parents, teachers or local community, academics and community spirit have always been fostered in Garcia’s life. Garcia brought that passion and determination to Mercy College where she has jumped into the College’s student life and is always looking for a new way to get involved and do more.

Garcia’s passion for making the most out of life and striving for more is because she recognizes how precious life is doesn’t take anything for granted. Garcia’s mother is a Hodgkins cancer survivor, and her father suffered vision loss from neuromyelitis optica.

“It hit me that things can change in the blink of an eye,” said Garcia. “Having a mother with determination strives me to be a better woman every day. My mom took on second job when my dad lost his vision and even works from home to help my grandmother who has colitis. She shows us that no matter what struggle you have been through it is possible to strive for more,” said Garcia.

Garcia’s father is pushing through his disease and his perseverance in his treatments inspires Garcia. “He never stops striving and working for his children. All these struggles my family has been through push me to work hard to be there for them. Being at Mercy College is what makes me thrive and strive for more.”

Student Spotlight: Suzanne Leslie

Mercy School of Education student Suzanne Leslie ’19 — who is pursuing her master’s degree in educational administration — uses drumming with choreography set to music as a fun way to get students moving. After hearing about the idea from a teacher at another school, Leslie and two colleagues at Carrie E. Tompkins Elementary School in Croton-on-Harmon, New York, collaborated to design their own program, which they call Drumming for Fitness. It is another take on Mercy’s favorite teaching method: hands-on learning.

In Drumming for Fitness, students learn to perform choreography while drumming, a workout that mixes physical education and music. “It’s a complete, 45-minute workout,” Leslie says, “and all students can participate, regardless of their needs or disabilities.” The only materials needed are an exercise ball, a large bucket or milk crate and a set of drum sticks for each student.

The three colleagues — Leslie, physical education teacher Justin Duchin and music teacher Marlena Peters — create all the choreography themselves. When they find a new song (which might be anything from a classic such as “YMCA” to a tune from a recent movie such as “Trolls”), they create choreography to exercise different muscle groups, outlining moves such as “double hits, march and click, ski jump, hit and click, run in place,” and so on to form a complete routine. Students pick up the choreography quickly: “At first, we thought we’d only need five or six songs for the whole unit,” says Leslie. “But kids can actually do five or six songs in one day. So each year, we have to create many new songs and routines. That’s the hardest part for the teachers.”

The routines vary a bit by grade level to account for differing levels of coordination. Routines are simple and slower in the younger grades. Beyond increasing the complexity of routines in the third and fourth grades, the teachers add even more challenge by asking students to create their own choreography. In small groups, students use school iPads to select a song on YouTube Kids, develop the choreography together and then perform in front of the class. “They absolutely excel at this,” Leslie says, “especially the students who are somewhat shy in class.”

Now that Drumming for Fitness is in its third year, the word is out that the program is fun and effective. Groups of parents, teachers and staff have all requested drumming workshops. Leslie has also taught several workshops to teachers in other districts, both locally in Westchester and beyond. In November, she was chosen to present at the annual conference of the New York State Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance (NYS AHPERD). After attending the conference for 10 years, she felt that it was time to give back by giving her own presentation. “I want every student to be able to do Drumming for Fitness,” she says. “Sometimes [physical education] teachers back away from dance or creativity, but I want them to see that it’s easy.” With more than 50 attendees, the session was so popular that Leslie ran out of equipment. Even so, she found a way to involve everyone and gave away all of her choreography to make it easy for teachers to start Drumming for Fitness at their own schools.

Student Spotlight: First cohort of STEM Master Teacher Fellows

In January 2019, Mercy College held a reception to welcome the first cohort of seven STEM Master Teacher Fellows and introduce them and the initiative to the Mercy community. This fellowship is the latest in a series of programs funded by the National Science Foundation aimed at meeting the nation’s growing need for trained K-12 educators in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM. This $1.46 million grant will fund two cohorts of seven teachers over six years to take courses in STEM pedagogy at Mercy College, develop leadership skills and lead projects in their districts to support STEM education. This program partners with the school districts of: Yonkers, New Rochelle, Port Chester and Elmsford.

The January recognition ceremony on the Dobbs Ferry campus served a dual purpose: to introduce the new cohort of Fellows to the Mercy community and to create a climate of enthusiasm and support for the initiative. “We want the community to understand the advanced role Mercy has undertaken, one that will shape the STEM education of our local schools,” said Gunning. “We hope the community sees the College as a go-to resource whenever there are plans to expand and support STEM teaching in their schools.”

Each cohort of STEM Teacher Fellows will be supported by mentor faculty from the School of Education (Drs. Marrero and Nitecki), Biology (Dr. Haskew-Layton) and Math (Dr. Ben-Jacob) departments, and by resources and guidance from the Center for STEM Education. Working with education partners Sarah Lawrence College’s Center for the Urban River at Beczak (with a focus on environmental science), and New York University's Tandon School of Engineering (focusing on engineering and robotics), Fellows will receive rich, authentic learning experiences and professional development.

New York State has identified a critical need for highly effective math and science teachers for K-12 students. Even more critical is the need for programs that can be delivered to high-need school districts where underrepresented students suffer from the lack of highly qualified science and math teachers. Responding to this need, Mercy College School of Education recently registered a new Advanced Teaching Certificate for STEM Education. The fellowship program takes advantage of this additional coursework and is aimed at preparing the new cohort to become leaders in their districts.

“By the end of the fellowship period, these pioneering teacher leaders will be extremely well-versed in real-world STEM issues and grounded in best practices they can use to lead other teachers in improving STEM teaching and learning,” said Gunning. Other goals include improving student motivation, achievement and possible careers in math and science in districts where such achievement can be elusive. “We hope to contribute significantly to the growing number of teachers who are not only equipped to take on STEM leadership roles within their schools, but who will also remain in their high-need districts to keep the momentum going,” added Gunning.

For more information, visit the Fellowship site:

Student Spotlight: Derek Horne

Mercy School of Education student Derek Horne ’19 uses chess to build his students’ social and emotional awareness. He teaches 15 fifth-grade students with autism and emotional disabilities at the Vida Bogart School for All Children, a school in the South Bronx that is designed to help students with special needs. “A lot of my students are impulsive and make decisions without thinking,” he says. “I'm a big chess player, and I know the game of chess takes a lot of concentration and focus. So I decided to use chess in my classroom as a teaching tool.”

First, Horne taught his class the game of chess, including the purpose of each piece and how the pieces move across the board. Then, he broke students into small groups and assigned each small group a different chess piece (e.g., pawn, bishop). Students worked in their small groups to decide how to move their group’s piece. As they became more familiar with the game, they learned to consider the repercussions of each potential move before deciding which one to make.

To prompt students to think strategically and see the lessons chess can teach, Horne asked students to imagine that the king and queen are the students’ best friends who are being picked on by the other team’s pawns and knights. Students considered how to keep their friends safe. In addition to improving their strategic thinking skills, this story led them to make connections to real-life situations in and out of school, which began to make a noticeable difference in their thought processes and behavior. For example, when one student reflected on his reaction to an incident on the playground, he said he thought about a specific move that resulted in losing a bishop on the chess board. “I knew I had to think it out because I know what will happen if I don’t,” he said.

As the culminating event, students demonstrated their new skills for their peers by playing chess using human-size chess pieces on three huge chess boards, which Horne rented and set up in the school’s auditorium. While his students played chess on stage, students from other classes were able to come up to watch their peers thinking strategically about their next moves and ask questions about their thought processes. “One of my students stated that the reason why he did not move his pawns into the center is because he wanted to create a barrier to protect the king, connecting this back to a basketball game he played over the summer in which a teammate guarded him,” explains Horne. “Making that type of connection was truly amazing. It shows that chess can influence students’ real-life behavior [and vice versa]. I want them to think, ‘Hey, if I can think like this and win at chess, maybe I can win in real life as well.’”

Mercy Associate Professor Esther Wermuth, who spent many years in schools as a teacher, school counselor and school administrator and now serves as Horne’s advisor at Mercy, is enthusiastic about the project’s impact: “This is an amazing project. I’ve never seen anything like it.” Given the impact chess has had on his students in the two months since school began, Horne plans to continue using the game in his classroom throughout the school year.