Like many college sophomores, Violeta Rosario has been adjusting to in-person classes this year. It’s technically her second year at Fordham College at Rose Hill, but because she took all her classes remotely last year, her trips to the Rose Hill campus also have a newish feeling to them.

Fordham’s Collegiate Science Technology and Entry Program (CSTEP), a program that prepares minority and economically disadvantaged students for careers in fields in which they are underrepresented, has helped her find an academic and social home on campus.

So when administrators asked her to participate in early February in a meeting with New York state legislators who will determine how much funding the program receives from the state, she jumped at the chance.

“Anything they need, I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it,’” said Rosario, a psychology major who commutes to campus from the Riverdale neighborhood in the Bronx.

“I feel like I owe them everything.”

Rosario described Fordham’s CSTEP office as a locus of serendipity, part of her daily routine, where she connects with students she might not otherwise meet and chats with them about internships and research opportunities, among other topics.

“In a cliché way, we are like a community. We’re there for each other, no questions asked,” she said.

An Annual New York State Tradition

Fordham has participated in Advocacy Day, an annual event held over two days in Albany, for the better part of two decades, said Lesley Massiah-Arthur, associate vice president and special assistant to the president for government relations. In the past, that meant busing 40 or so students to the capital; since 2021, however, the meetings have been held via Zoom. On Feb 1 and 2, 60 Fordham students took part in 45 meetings, including one attended by New York State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart Cousins.

This year, Fordham requested an increase of $1.4 million for student aid and academic pipeline programs. For Fordham CSTEP, this would increase state funding to $17.3 million; for STEP, which serves junior high and high school students, it would increase state funding to $22.8 million. Fordham is currently home to 300 CSTEP students enrolled at Rose Hill, and 590 STEP students are enrolled at both the Rose Hill and Lincoln Center campuses.

The request also includes funding for the Higher Education Opportunity Program (HEOP), the Liberty Partnership Program (LLP), Direct Institutional Aid (Bundy Aid), and the Enhancing Supports and Services for Students with Disabilities for Postsecondary Success Program (SWDPS). Students and staff from HEOP and LLP also participated in the meetings. There are 394 HEOP students attending the Lincoln Center and Rose Hill Campus programs.

Massiah-Arthur said students are a crucial part of the funding process.

“When students are involved, there’s an entirely new energy that goes into the advocacy process. It’s one thing for me or the program director to talk about the importance of these programs. It’s another thing when students and parents participate, and elected officials can hear firsthand the importance of state funding,” she said.

In years past, they’ve had to make a case against cuts to STEP and CSTEP, which receive 40% of their funding from Fordham, but Massiah-Arthur said the good news is that lawmakers now understand the value of programs such as CSTEP, so they’re no longer routinely put on the chopping block. The decision on funding levels will be revealed in the final state budget in April.

“The objective now is to get legislators and the governor’s office to understand that it’s not just sufficient to hold the level, because with rising costs, staying at the same level is the equivalent of a cut,” she said.

“Unfortunately, what has not changed is the perception that private universities are institutions with wealthier students or higher endowments, and as a result of that, the need to invest in our sector is not weighed as important as investments in the state and city university systems.”

Promoting Civic Engagement

Advocacy Day is more than just an annual exercise in asking for financial support, said Fordham CSTEP and STEP director Michael Molina. It introduces students to a broader effort involving the Association of Professional Administrators of CSTEP and STEP (which Molina serves as president), and the New York Student Aid Alliance. It also promotes civic engagement, preparing students to become leaders in their communities.

“When we ask our students and their families to participate in these advocacy efforts, a big part of what we say is, you can make a difference,” he said.

“The last several years have made people feel that government is estranged from them and doesn’t address their needs. What we say is, at this level, these legislators have to be accountable to you, and they are.”

For Isaac Mullings, a second-year student from Ghana on the pre-med track who commutes from the Mount Eden neighborhood in the Bronx, Advocacy Day was a chance to share just how much of a lifeline CSTEP has been to his whole family. When both of his parents were laid off from their jobs as home health aides last year, he took a job at a local fast-food restaurant and juggled a 35-hour workweek and 16 credits of remote-learning classes. He now works in the CSTEP office, where like Rosario, he finds a wealth of resources to support his studies. He also tutors high school students enrolled in STEP.

“It’s been a blessing to give back to the community,” he said.

Giovanni Owens, a second-year student who commutes from Spanish Harlem, said that working with STEP students for his work-study program has increased his knowledge in his own major, computer science. This past summer, he served as an adviser for a STEP class on robotics.

“Although it’s for high school students, I find myself learning things through teaching them, through tutoring, and then just sitting in class taking notes,” he said.

When it was his turn to talk to legislators, he said he emphasized the strength of Fordham’s CSTEP community and how it will help him become the first person in his family to earn a bachelor’s degree.

“In the CSTEP office, I talk very openly about my intended entrepreneurial projects and things I want to do, and just having people there who will listen and say, ‘That’s a great idea,’ or ‘You should talk to this professor, or you should talk to this person,’ is amazing.”


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