The people in the following story are using their influence to help make the world a more curious and inclusive place. They are mentors in every sense of the word, striving to ensure that their communities nurture the talented students in their high schools.
They are SUNY New Paltz alumni — representing a diverse range of backgrounds and viewpoints — and they are opening doors for the next generation.
SHARRELL MATTA '04
School Counselor at Frederick Douglass Academy II
Harlem, New York
Sharrell Matta ’04 (Psychology; Sociology) has always believed in her students, but just as importantly, she has dedicated her career to teaching them how to believe in themselves.
As part of her work as a school counselor, Matta carries forward the lessons her parents and teachers taught her about how a supportive community can help create opportunity and success.
“First-generation students can sometimes feel socially isolated, and have a hard time balancing their academic tasks with the need to work or help support their families,” said Matta. “The best advice I offer students is to ask a lot of questions about the issues and challenges they see around them. I want them to be curious, to understand the system, believe in themselves and work hard.”
This approach to motivating students has a proven track record of success. Matta has helped 100% of her students attend college, creating new academic pathways for dozens of families within their communities and beyond.
Last fall, Matta received national praise for her meaningful contributions to her community when she was celebrated on ABC’s “Good Morning America” for going above and beyond for her students. A captivated audience was shown a video montage that unveiled the impact of Matta’s hard work and mentorship; the room promptly filled with smiles and tears.
“She helped put wings on my back so I could be the woman that I want to become,” said Mary Kwofie, a member of the Frederick Douglass Academy II Class of 2020 who will attend SUNY New Paltz in the fall. “She is more of a mother to me than a school counselor.”
The personal relationships Matta cultivates with students are at the core of her counseling philosophy. Working with youth who have limited access to resources and support, the most important thing for Matta is that she shows them how much she cares.
A first-generation college graduate from East New York, Brooklyn, Matta understands how financial stress and family expectations can create obstacles that prevent young trailblazers from achieving their dreams.
“I want my students to know that I’m here for them in ways they may not be familiar with, but also that there are resources available that they may not be aware of,” said Matta. “I treat them like my own children, knowing it’s my job to guide and support them in life in all the ways I can.”
Sharrell Matta '04 (Psychology; Sociology) is a 2017 SUNY New Paltz 40 Under Forty honoree. She has worked at Frederick Douglass Academy II for six years and previously worked as a school counselor in East New York, Brooklyn.
JACQUELINE (LEHMANN) HESSE '04 '08g
(English | Secondary Education: English)
CHRISTINE MCCARTNEY '07g
(Secondary Education: English Language Arts)
Teachers at Newburgh Free Academy P-TECH and Co-Founders of Global to Local
Newburgh, New York
As educators at Newburgh Free Academy High School, Jacqueline (Lehmann) Hesse ’04 (English) ’08g (Secondary Education: English) and Christine McCartney ’07g (Secondary Education: English Language Arts) have pioneered new ways of teaching students the power of civic involvement.
“We want to help them develop the knowledge, skills and dispositions to enact positive change,” said McCartney. “If we invite students to really think about things like climate change and social justice, and to interact with others in the community while they are still in their formative years, I believe we can create lifelong habits and a generation of students who envision themselves as environmental stewards.”
When they did not find an existing structure that could provide these types of transformative educational experiences, Hesse and McCartney decided to create one themselves. They are the co-founders of Global to Local, an international service-learning program based in Newburgh, New York, that provides life-changing travel opportunities for high school students.
“Our program provides youth the opportunity to see the world in an authentic way and to begin to envision themselves as change makers in it,” said Hesse. “It is important to get them thinking about their roles in the world, and how their local actions can have global impacts.”
Students have traveled to Ecuador, where they participated in an after-school program that provided homework help and even taught basic coding to their Ecuadorian peers, using robots and tablets donated by Global to Local. Students also traveled to Cambodia to learn first-hand about the Khmer Rouge genocide from the people and organizations who experienced it. In the process, they gained rare insight into how public spaces can be used as shared community resources for healing.
Opportunities like these have proven especially valuable to these students as Newburgh’s economy has been impacted by a decades-long period of deindustrialization. The city has struggled with an increasing juvenile incarceration rate, entrenched drug and gang issues and high poverty levels.
However, McCartney and Hesse believe that these challenges present opportunities for their students to claim a place in conversations about the future of the city. They are mission-driven to provide these future leaders with an international perspective that will help them effect change in their local community.
“Their resiliency and dedication impress us every day,” said Hesse. “Any chance to support our students as they engage in civic processes and with grassroots organizations is one worth taking.”
Christine McCartney ’07g (Secondary Education: English Language Arts) has spent the past decade teaching English in the Newburgh Enlarged City School District. In 2013, she was awarded a Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching from the University of Tempere in Finland. She was a Gilder Lehrman Fellow at Harvard College in 2014 and a Fund for Teachers Fellow in 2016.
Jacqueline (Lehmann) Hesse ’04 (English) ’08g (Secondary Education: English) has been teaching English Language Arts in the Newburgh Enlarged City School District since 2007 and is the founding ELA teacher at Excelsior Academy. She received a Fund for Teachers grant in 2016. Hesse is a director for the Hudson Valley Writing Project at SUNY New Paltz and on the board of directors for Habitat for Humanity. She is also a 2019 SUNY New Paltz 40 Under Forty Honoree.
MATTHEW FAGAN '12g
(Adolescence Education: Social Studies)
Teacher at Hudson Valley Pathways Academy
Ulster Park, New York
Matthew Fagan '12g (Adolescence Education: Social Studies) believes in the mission of P-TECH: to make learning relevant for students. As a Humanities and Global Competencies instructor at Hudson Valley Pathways Academy (HVPA), a P-TECH model school at Ulster County BOCES, Fagan partners with students to explore nontraditional education options that lead to an associate degree and workforce-ready skills.
Today, there are 200 Pathways in Technology Early College High Schools (P-TECH) schools with more than 100,000 students in 18 countries. The curriculum combines elements of high school, college and career, and students graduate within six years with a no-cost associate degree in applied science, engineering, computers or another competitive STEM discipline.
“The conventional school model works for many students,” said Fagan. “But I don’t think everyone is aware of the different opportunities available, even here in Ulster County. The P-TECH model presents students with real workplace learning challenges that they wouldn’t encounter in other scholastic environments.”
Last fall, Fagan led his class on an exploration of the global issue of clean water. Through a variety of experiential trips and independent research, he encouraged them to use their newfound knowledge to take action in a meaningful way.
“We conducted science experiments at The Hudson River Research Reserve at Norrie Point and sailed the Hudson on the sloop Clearwater,” said Fagan. “The students were so moved by the information they learned. Making those historical, local connections was incredibly memorable.”
This unit culminated with students presenting their learning at a “Water in our World” Symposium that included community partners, industry partners, fellow students, staff and parents.
The P-TECH model presents students with real workplace learning challenges that they wouldn’t encounter in other scholastic environments.”
Experiences like these are having a profound impact on students at HVPA. Anthony Ramsell, from the Kingston City School District, credits the P-TECH model with having an immense influence on his education and his life.
“My expectations for the future are to always be happy, not to procrastinate, and to have better social skills,” Ramsell said. “I can do all of that here. This school feels like a small community and the environment fosters engagement between both students and educators.”
Matthew Fagan '12g (Adolescence Education: Social Studies) has spent the last five years teaching at Ulster BOCES P-TECH.