Pro Student CUNY’s Mission Towards Inclusive Learning

The student-led committee advocates for student populations dependent on online courses.

With fewer online courses available this semester, John Jay student Sophia Kieseheuer found it challenging to register for classes.  

She has a two-and-a-half-hour commute to campus and suffers from Crohn’s disease. It is an autoimmune disorder that she was diagnosed with at 14. 

“I am triple-vaxxed. I didn’t have any reactions to the vaccines, but others like me who have autoimmune disorders aren’t able to do that,” Kieseheuer said. “When CUNY announced the 70% in-person policy in December, I became very nervous.”  

In response to the 70% policy, Kieseheuer and other students who opposed the policy created the Pro Student CUNY committee. Pro Student CUNY’s mission is to “create a CUNY that is more flexible, reasonable, accountable, accommodating, accessible, and fair for everyone.” 

Pro Student CUNY believes that the university can continue the online learning that students transitioned to at the beginning of the pandemic. However, they said that the flexibility once offered to students is now being taken away.

On December 15, 2021, CUNY Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Daniel Lemons sent out an email to students that CUNY would offer 70% of classes for the spring in person with “a much more robust selection of online and hybrid courses than before the pandemic.” But two weeks before the Spring semester began, Lemons advised campuses to reduce the in-person percentage to 55-60.

Still, many students like Kieseheuer did not see the robust selection of promised online courses. 

“I remember when I looked at Developmental Psychology, a required class, there were only two sections that were fully online, only sitting 28 people each,” she said. “You either had to be a senior to get in or just cross your fingers and hope that the classes were still open when you can apply.”  

On March 3, Pro Student CUNY hosted its first Town Hall to discuss how students and faculty felt CUNY was handling course flexibility amidst the pandemic. The 38 attendees included John Jay’s Vice President of Enrollment Management and Student Affairs, Brian Kerr, and Student Council President, Andrew Berezhansky. 

Many attendees agreed that the university’s guidelines for in-person returns were not clear enough.

“My concern is that sometimes the administration in some ways are not being cognizant to students’ needs,” said Saaif Alam, University Student Senate Vice-Chair of Disability Affairs. “There is a lack of clarity and guidance for local campuses on their reopening.”  

Alam wants CUNY administrators to adjust their plans so that it benefits students in underrepresented communities like those with disabilities.  

In Fall 2021, John Jay’s Faculty Senate sent out a survey to ascertain students’ preferred learning methods. Eighty percent of students who responded said they preferred hybrid and fully online courses over traditional in-person courses. 

On January 21, the college’s reopening committee published the Spring 2022 Reopening/Campus Access Plan for John Jay. CUNY also has a Student Vaccination Mandate FAQ. Both do not specifically address students with disabilities. But, CUNY directs those with a medical or religious exemption to their Campus Location Vaccine Authority (LVA) liaisons.  

Due to the lack of online offerings, some students also feared that they might no longer be able to complete their degree requirements.

Doha Kharma, a Forensic Psychology major, said that she could not register for classes this semester because she was unvaccinated.

“There were online classes available, and they didn’t allow me to enroll in them,” Kharma said. “It’s unfair because my friend was able to enroll in online classes while being unvaccinated.” 

According to John Jay’s COVID-19 Health and Safety Guidelines, students who are only taking online courses do not need to provide proof of vaccination since they would not physically be present on campus.  

Kharma also said that she was willing to change her major and enroll in other online courses so as not to miss the spring semester. She said that she reached out to the admissions office and the Psychology Department but did not hear back from them until after the semester started when online courses were available. 

“For every course, there needs to be at least one or two online sections to give students an option,” Alam said. “There needs to be more training for faculty development on technology to enhance the online experience for professors and students.”  

Pro Student CUNY wants to establish all CUNY campuses as online accredited institutions, like the university’s School of Professional Studies. John Jay currently offers master’s degrees online but not for undergraduate programs.

Alam said that online accreditation requires the collective work of undergraduate and graduate deans. “The pandemic has taught us new ways to go forward to ensure that students have that flexibility,” he said.

However, President Mason reminded students that the college is not an online degree-granting institution in John Jay’s February Town Hall. 

“We have been advising students not to think that they can plan to get their degree without an in-person presence because we are not structured to do that,” she said. 

Pro Student CUNY highlighted how online and hybrid options benefited working students, parents, out-of-state students, students with disabilities, and others who depend on these offerings.  

Pro Student CUNY has made phone calls and sent letters to the Chancellor’s office in hopes of achieving policy changes that benefit underrepresented and disabled students. However, they have been unsuccessful in receiving a response. 

As someone who suffers from an autoimmune disease, Kieseheuer said she is fighting for people like her. “I’m not only trying to get myself accommodated, I’m also trying to get everyone accommodated,” she said.  

Kieseheuer said that anybody could help the cause. 

“We’re trying to get a massive amount of students to be a part of Pro Student CUNY and make others aware of our mission,” she said. “College should be catered toward us and not towards politics and administrations.”

The committee hopes to continue raising awareness of how CUNY has handled the pandemic by advocating for change at Town Halls, with the help of CUNY-wide Student Council presidents and from the CUNY School of Professional Studies. 

Pro Student CUNY is hosting another Town Hall on April 7 from 7-9 PM. To learn more about Pro Student CUNY, you can visit their Linktree.

About the Writer:

Christian Charles
Christian Charles ’23 is a junior majoring in Political Science, minoring in Digital Media & Journalism with a certificate in Dispute Resolution.