When his students are looking ahead to college, high school English teacher Phil Cicione asks them two pretty simple questions: What’s going to make you stand out? And will you be happy doing it?

Cicione, a 1987 graduate of Fordham College at Rose Hill (FCRH), believes that college is about learning how to think and finding yourself, so he encourages students to apply to schools where education isn’t limited to the classroom. He thinks the ideal place for that experience is Fordham—and for more than 20 years, that’s what he’s told his students.

This year, he’s bringing that philosophy to his fellow alumni through Forever Learning, a monthlong series of programs focused on the intersection of humans and technology.

Created by the Office of Alumni Relations in collaboration with the Fordham University Alumni Association (FUAA), it kicks off on April 3 with presentations online and in person at the Lincoln Center campus by faculty and alumni at the forefront of tech innovation. Later in the month, alumni will have a chance to sit in on a Fordham class. The series will also feature a tour of Red Hook, Brooklyn, a former industrial neighborhood now home to Pioneer Works, a cultural center led by artists and scientists.

“New York has so much to offer,” Cicione said, “and Fordham is fortunate to have that as one of the ancillary aspects of its education—that by choosing a school like Fordham, you’re choosing a place where your education extends beyond the classroom.”

The Immeasurable Value of Mentorship

A Long Island native, Cicione first learned of Fordham from his own high school English teacher, Ed Desmond, FCRH ‘67, who touted Fordham’s location as a major selling point. Desmond became Cicione’s mentor, offering him advice and leads when, after working in book publishing right out of college, he wanted to pivot to education.

“[He told me] how I could be better prepared to go into education, what I would need to do, where I was deficient, and how I could make that up,” Cicione said.

Desmond and his son even helped Cicione secure his current role at Commack High School, where he’s been mentoring students and schooling them on the merits of a Fordham education for the past two decades. (His own son, Conor, is also a Fordham alumnus; he graduated from FCRH in 2018.)

Some may think that it’s hard to stay fresh and motivated after teaching at the same high school for two decades, and Cicione admits that it can be challenging, but he finds ways to shake things up, he said. And he embodies a piece of advice he gives to students: Once you know what will truly make you happy, “the other things will fall into place—the money, the wanting to wake up every day and go to work: Those things happen only when you feel good about where you’re going and what you’re doing.”

Forever Fordham, Forever Learning

As an alumnus, Fordham parent, and New York resident, Cicione finds it easy to stay connected to the University in ways that are personally meaningful.

He’s been a loyal supporter of the Fordham men’s crew team, where he met many of the people he still calls close friends. He has fond memories of “getting up early in the morning to run down Fordham Road and go to the boathouse,” he said.

For roughly 10 years, he’s served as leader of Fordham’s Alumni Chapter of Long Island. The chapter is a way for alumni to reconnect, he said, but it’s also a way for them to pay it forward by supporting Fordham students. In 1991, the chapter launched the Long Island Scholarship in Memory of John Cifichiello, GABELLI ’68. Funded through contributions from chapter members and through fundraising activities, such as an annual golf outing, the scholarship provides four years of tuition assistance to high school students from Long Island.

Last but not least, Cicione serves as vice chair of the FUAA Advisory Board, through which he has been helping to plan this year’s Forever Learning month. He said he’s looking forward to the mix of in-person and online events, where faculty and alumni will share their research and thoughts on the role of artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and other technologies in education, business, and art—and the larger implications for the human experience.

Cicione sees the Forever Learning initiative as just another example of education not ending with graduation.

“You’re going to get that kind of education that Mark Twain talked about when he said, ‘I never let my schooling get in the way of my education,’” he said. “You’re breaking down boundaries and you’re going beyond the textbook … to extend your curriculum to the things you love.” 

Fordham Five (Plus One)

What are you most passionate about?
I am most passionate about the four B’s—books, baseball, beer, and Bruce Springsteen.  When I’m in school, it’s only three B’s and I omit beer. Everything else stems from that.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
The best bit of advice I ever received came from the book The Hotel New Hampshire by John Irving. He wrote: “You have to get obsessed with life and stay obsessed with life.” I’ve taken that to mean you have to try new things and don’t let opportunity pass you by.

What’s your favorite place in New York City? In the world?
My favorite place in NYC is Yankee Stadium. I truly realized this after things eased up regarding COVID-19 protocols in 2021. When I first approached the stadium for the first time since 2019, I could feel myself getting excited like a child on Christmas Day. The limestone facade against the elevated tracks of the 4 train resonates with the vast differences of this great city.

Name a book that has had a lasting influence on you.
The book that has left a lasting impression on me is The Catcher in the Rye because it made me want to be a reader. The book that means the most to me is The Things They Carried—I quoted it in my father’s eulogy.

Who is the Fordham grad or professor you admire most?
The Fordham professor who I admire most is Constance Hassett, Ph.D. I still talk about her to my students. I didn’t have great grades with her, but she is brilliant and she helped me realize that what was good enough for high school wasn’t good enough for the next level.

What are you optimistic about?
I am the eternal pessimist. To borrow an idea from one of my professors in my master’s program: The optimist believes that everything is good; the pessimist believes that no matter how good things are, they can always get better. I have used that mantra in my teaching and my life. Get smarter and better—no matter how good you think things are at the moment.