Op-Ed: CUNY’s Guardian Angels 

By Félix V. Matos Rodríguez, CUNY Chancellor

Elvira Mata was born with a physical disability that causes swelling and pain in the joints of her fingers. The second-year student at Hostos Community College works as a senior nurse attendant, and for months cared for patients with COVID-19 in a Bronx hospital. Despite her condition, she was able to lift and bathe her patients. 

“Before I go to work, I have pain,” says Elvira, who was diagnosed as a young child with boutonnière deformity. “But when I see that the patients need me, I can move more freely. I love seeing their smiles when I help them and they feel better.” 

  Elvira is also dealing with tremendous personal heartache after her father, a taxi driver, died of COVID-19 in April. Her mother was also infected and endured a lengthy period of recovery. 

I am proud to say that Elvira exemplifies a standard of public service not uncommon among students at the City University of New York, an intense drive to help New Yorkers persevere despite their own challenges and personal losses. They are nurses and medics, National Guard members and good Samaritans who helped shoulder the pain of the pandemic while they balanced demanding course loads and caring for their own families. 

  They are why New York’s recovery goes hand in hand with CUNY. With campuses throughout the city that was the pandemic’s one-time global epicenter, the nation’s largest urban public university has the intellect and applied expertise to help chart a course forward; the capacity to retrain workers, and equip them with the skills to participate in a re-invented job market; and the wellspring of creative capital to help our city and state move forward in the months and years ahead. 

When it comes to our students, Elvira is not alone. Many others stepped up and did what they could to help New Yorkers weather the crisis. Here are just a few examples. 

 Anthony Almojera, a Brooklyn College senior who is also an Emergency Medical Services lieutenant paramedic in the FDNY and vice president of the EMS officers’ union, has always leaned on family and faith to get him through difficult times. Almojera took off the spring semester to have surgery on a torn biceps tendon, an injury he sustained during a call. When the pandemic surged in March, he put off the surgery to pitch in, working 16-hour shifts nearly seven days a week and fielding some of the more than 7,000 calls that came in each day requesting emergency medical service in the city.       

Shawna Townsend is pursuing her Ph.D. in nursing at The Graduate Center while also serving as a clinical nurse leader at the Hospital for Special Surgery in Manhattan. When the pandemic deepened, she helped convert a hospital that specializes in orthopedic surgery to one that could treat patients with COVID-19. In the darkest days when up to four of the hospital’s floors were filled with coronavirus patients, she would find inspiration from the patients who recovered and were showered with applause from the staffers as they left the facility.   

Borough of Manhattan Community College student Fenellah Kargbo is a member of the New York Army National Guard. She managed to keep up with her coursework in four classes even after she was activated in March, midway through the semester, to load personal protective equipment at a distribution center in Albany. For encouragement while separated from her family, Kargbo, who plans to apply to the BMCC nursing program, relied on frequent video chats with her husband and 14-month-old son.   

As their Chancellor, I am humbled by the bravery and sacrifice of Elvira, Anthony, Shawna, and Fenellah, all CUNY heroes. They are exemplary ambassadors of the University, embodying the University’s mission to help one another so we all can move forward together. They, and many more like them, are the University’s guardian angels, and on behalf of the whole CUNY system, I extend the gratitude of the University community and all New Yorkers. 

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