When Fordham’s fall semester kicks off on Aug. 26, first-year Gabelli School of Business students will be joining an educational enterprise that’s very different from high school.

Thanks to a program called GABELLI SMART, it won’t be entirely unfamiliar. For six weeks this summer, the incoming undergraduates have been meeting via Zoom with small groups of fellow first-year students, junior and senior students, alumni, faculty, and administrators.

A Leg Up

The sessions for these groups, or “neighborhoods” as they’re called, began the week of June 29 and run through the week of Aug. 10. Each neighborhood—named for an area of New York City—comprises roughly 20 students who were grouped together by interest and geography. The idea is to give incoming first-year students a leg up before they officially start their studies.

Marisa Villani, senior assistant dean for undergraduate studies, said GABELLI SMART is an expansion of an existing program that has involved first-year students reading the same book together through the summer, most recently The Promise of a Pencil (Simon & Schuster, 2014)

“We’ve seen tremendous feedback from past years that students are excited, want to engage, and want to get started,” she said, noting that the expansion of SMART was in the works long before the COVID-19 pandemic struck.

Donna Rapaccioli, Ph.D., dean of the Gabelli School, has high hopes that GABELLI SMART will lend real support to students’ academic, professional, and personal journeys.

“Gabelli SMART brings together the best part of the Gabelli School of Business, and what I am most proud of—its community, she said.

“The intention was to introduce the students to many of the members of our community that they will interact with in the fall, and that they will be better prepared for a very successful launch to their college journey.”

Asking Questions and Creating Community

Undergraduate juniors and seniors are serving as advising mentors to the new students, giving them an opportunity to ask any and every question they may have. These mentors will also supervise the teams’ creation of crowd-sourced Instagram stories depicting what they believe it will take to be a successful Gabelli School student.

Betsy Parr, assistant dean for first-year students at the Rose Hill campus, noted that this is different from years past, when students were asked to complete writing assignments over the summer individually.

“This summer, it’s with your neighborhood. Some of them might be from your high school, but also might be two or three states away. So, it’s about attempting to create these bonds of community and shared collaboration before starting the Gabelli program,” she said.

Meetings vary between 30 and 60 minutes and are held at times convenient to most participants. The first was run by an academic adviser and student mentors; subsequent ones were organized by alumni, faculty, and personal and professional development advisers.

Building Teamwork Skills

Andrew Santis, GABELLI ’16, joined meetings with the neighborhoods dubbed Madison Avenue and St. Mark’s. Santis, a marketing major who currently works for a digital media startup, said he emphasized the way his time at the Gabelli School taught him how to work on a team through first-year classes such as The Ground Floor and second-year projects like the Consulting Cup.

“I told them, ‘At first you think, ‘Oh great, it’s another group project,’ but it actually does help you so much because now that we’re all remote, you really have to turn to those teamwork skills,” he said.

“You’re working with people who are potentially in a different time zone, and you’re no longer working with people in person, so you have to be better at communicating with people, whether it’s through Slack, Zoom, or email.”

Developing Helpful Habits

Michael McSherry, GABELLI ’78, a senior lecturer at the Gabelli School who teaches The Ground Floor, met for 60 minutes on July 27 with 10 students in Southern Boulevard, a neighborhood whose students all hail from the Central United States.

In addition to personal introductions, he spent time talking about strategies for success, such as time management skills and balancing the many priorities they will encounter during their four years. He also discussed the importance of immersing oneself in the day’s business news, by reading The Wall Street Journal or business news aggregator sites such as The Morning Brew.

“It’s good for conversation, it helps develop the critical thinking skills they will all nurture during their four years at Fordham, and it also enables them to refute or reaffirm the topics and skills they learn in the classroom,” he said.

Anthony Silvestri, one of two first-year advising mentor coordinators, has been working with the group Mosholu Parkway, a roadway he’s gotten to know in real life as a Ram Van driver. Their first meeting went better than he expected, he said, especially since this year he and another coordinator, Samantha Barrett, consciously mixed a few international students in with the stateside groups. Meetings are taped for students in distant time zones, but many logged on live anyway, he said.

Barrett, also a Ram Van Driver, picked Bronx River Parkway for the neighborhood she supervises, which is made up of students from the Global Business Honors Program, of which she is also part. She was pleasantly surprised at how easily the group conversed with each other, with very little prodding from her.

“Had we not had three months of Zoom class, it would be kind of weird and shocking to do this, but … given all that’s happened over the past five months, it kind of feels normal,” she said.

Indeed, in some ways, Villani said the COVID-19 pandemic has opened up doors to try ideas that might have been off the table previously. In addition to an online series being led by a business ethics professor for high-achieving students, the college has hired support staff to design synchronous and asynchronous wellness and mindfulness session with students and will be rolling out online storytelling sessions with alumni.

“If you anchor high with your GPA your first semester, you’ll be astronomically more successful throughout your college career and a strong GPA will help lead to internship offers that lead to job offers,” she said.

“By introducing the students’ community early on, they have an even greater chance of doing their best in their first semester.”


Patrick Verel is a news producer for Fordham Now. He can be reached at [email protected] or (212) 636-7790.