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A Better Life and a Better Society: In Conversation with Seny Taveras, New Chair of Legal Studies Division

 

Seny Taveras sat down for an interview a few weeks ago to talk about her responsibilities as the new leader of ASA’s Legal Studies Division. Although we only hoped for a few minutes of Ms. Taveras time, she gave us the opportunity to learn a lot about her perspective, and her enthusiasm for her new role. At the heart of Ms. Taveras motivation is her belief that everyone, no matter their circumstances, should have access to all the tools – especially education – to become successful in life. In her own words, “I believe in equality, equality of education. I believe education is a human right, and I want opportunities for all people.”

Her beliefs and her personal achievements began at home. She was born in Brooklyn to Dominican parents who inspired her to realize her full potential. At the same time, she saw in her community the injustices that immigrants and the underprivileged face when trying to make the most of themselves. As a young woman, Ms. Taveras kidded, she demonstrated a skill for being argumentative, which her mother identified as a trait of a good lawyer. She developed herself through educational opportunity, first at John Jay (BASc) and then at Hofstra University, where she earned her law degree. Years later, she has held many positions that have advanced the cause of equal justice for all people. She worked for former Governor David Patterson on issues that ranged from landlord and tenant issues to analyzing the impact of the of the shock program. She was chief of staff for City Council Member, Ydanis Rodriguez. Most recently, she was Executive Director for CUNY in The Heights, Hostos College’s Division for Continuing Education and Workforce Development. All along the way she has dispelled a popular myth about being a successful lawyer, that is, “in order to become an attorney or lawyer, one has to listen more than talk.” Her openness to the input and ideas of others has been a hallmark of her management style.

Ms. Taveras said that she fell in love with academia at CUNY in the Heights because she discovered that, as she said, “I love working with students. I love working with professors, because I know that institutions like ASA and CUNY define the future of our professionals. We’re actually preparing the students that will be the future police officers, the future lawyers, the future judges.” Her passion took root when she started her tenure by first observing classrooms, watching teachers teach, watching students learn. Instead of coming into her position supposing that she had all the answers, she held a big breakfast with her faculty and staff and asked them if they had any ideas about how to make CUNY in the Heights a better place. Likewise, she has begun her leadership at ASA by setting up one-on-one meetings with her faculty to ask them about their needs with respect to both the classroom and training. About her faculty, she says they’re talented, and she hopes to showcase them more. She also plans on leveraging her relationships with the New York City Council, the New York State Senate, and the governor’s office in order to build upon our externship program.

Ultimately, Ms. Taveras wants to give our students the most applicable, real-world experience as possible. She noted that during her time at John Jay she didn’t fully appreciate all the benefits of joining the police force – like the pension and the ability to have a great second career after retirement. She wants to make sure that our students study with practicing lawyers, police officers, and those who actually work in the field, so that students learn the most current technologies and practices, and all the benefits and drawbacks of their career choices. She also noted that no matter your specific career choices in Legal Studies, it’s always beneficial to have a lawyer as an instructor. “If you (a student) are taught by a lawyer, as a police officer, you’re going to do a better report that will not be kicked out in court, because if the paperwork has any errors then it’s kicked out.” It’s sure that Legal Studies students and faculty will benefit from high expectations under Ms. Taveras leadership.

Ms. Taveras first took real interest in ASA College when she encountered our mission statement, part of which states, “the mission of ASA College is to educate a diverse and qualified student population to become responsible professionals committed to lifelong learning by equipping them with a firm academic foundation and career-specific competencies.” She understands our mission as being inseparably connected to the ability of education to produce and promote equal justice. As she says, “…it has been shown that the way in which you take a human being who is in poverty to the middle class is by educating that person, and affording them opportunities in the workforce.” A 2013 study by the Brookings institution in connection with their Hamilton Project is one of many studies that bears this truth out. Its research shows, “A low-income individual without a college degree will very likely remain in the lower part of the earnings distribution, whereas a low-income individual with a college degree could just as easily land in any income quintile-including the highest.”[1]

Ms. Taveras would count herself among this statistic. Education, which began at home, opened doors for her. Now that she’s made it, she works hard every day to provide her students with the same opportunities, knowledge, and practical skills. She knows that her hardworking students can change their lives, and society.

[1] https://www.brookings.edu/research/thirteen-economic-facts-about-social-mobility-and-the-role-of-education/

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