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Alumni Spotlight: Mayra Guerrero

Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership

Alumni Spotlight: Mayra Guerrero

Like other Colin Powell School students at the City College of New York, Mayra Guerrero had many stops and starts as she pursued her highest goals. Like other Colin Powell School students, she succeeded in reaching these goals, emerging from a period of exhausting work hours and painful setbacks stronger and more prepared to lead.

For Guerrero, the goal was entering a doctoral program in community psychology. Before transferring to City College, Guerrero took classes at Borough of Manhattan Community College. Early in her time at City, she took Professor Glen Milstein's course, Psychology of Immigration, which solidified her resolve to become a clinical psychologist, and introduced her to the mentor who would help guide her on her journey there. Guerrero was soon admitted to the CCNY Psychology Honors program as well as the CUNY Graduate Center Pipeline Fellowship, an initiative designed to support students who are interested in pursuing a Ph.D. 


Professor Milstein took on the role of faculty mentor to Mayra and collaborated with her to conduct research. She spent the next year excelling in her courses, all while working full-time at a restaurant and conducting research with faculty. During this time Guerrero worked with CCNY professor Denise Hein, studying trauma and addiction in her lab. And with Milstein’s guidance, she studied the staff at the restaurant where she worked to learn more about the relationship between stress and performance for her independent study. Guerrero was doing the work of an engaged scholar, pulling from her own experiences and connecting with her own community to further her research. But she had yet to discover an even more profound and personal connection to her academic work.

Guerrero's older brother was an army veteran who had been deployed in both Iraq and Afghanistan. “He came back changed after the Army," Guerrero said. Still a teenager while her brother was overseas, she witnessed the changes in his demeanor slowly emerge on visits home. “He isolated himself and became a hermit. Before, he was always joking and happy. He was always kind of quiet, but this was different,” she said.

So when Milstein began working with psychologist Leslie Robinson, a CCNY alum who founded Warrior Spirit: Mission Homefront, a peer-to-peer guided dialogue program for veterans, he invited Guerrero to assist him in evaluation. The program was designed to help veterans avoid isolation and connect with their loved ones by using a specialized interactive card deck. Milstein and Guerrero visited Fort Drum in upstate New York and Fort Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania and led interviews with over 300 veterans. Through this, they were able to assess why veterans can be reluctant to seek out help from mental health professionals, and see if an informal dialogue between veterans is a useful alternative. 

The opportunity to conduct research on something so personally significant propelled Guerrero toward her goal. She began working in earnest toward entering a Ph.D. program in psychology. Adolfo Cuevas, a former student of Professor Milstein's and doctoral psychology student, helped Guerrero work on the applications. But programs are increasingly competitive, and Guerrero did not score a spot through any of these initial applications.

“It was hard to see other students in the pipeline program getting interviews and responses," Guerrero said. "I only got rejection letters. Some didn’t even bother to respond." Guerrero began considering other options. “It was difficult because I felt like a failure. It was something I wanted so badly and it didn’t happen.” 

But, predictably, Guerrero didn't give up. She spent the next year completing two theses--for the honors program and the pipeline program--both outlining her work with Milstein, Robinson, and the National Guard. She continued working in the restaurant and assisting Prof. Hein, and collaborated with Prof. Milstein on an article for an academic journal. She returned to Ph.D. program applications a stronger candidate, and after applying to six doctoral programs, Guerrero accepted one of only three spots in DePaul University’s Ph.D. program in Community Psychology. 

The Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership wants to highlight the stories of alumni like Mayra Guerrero, not only to tout their accomplishments and the quality mentorship offered by our faculty, but to highlight the promise of our mission. Our alumni leverage their academic talent with incredible drive and purpose. Mayra Guerrero, like other Colin Powell School students, can be defined by their commitments: their commitment to academic success, their commitment to transforming their communities, and their commitment to themselves. 


[This story was edited from an original profile by Jordan Ortega, Program Associate, Office of Engaged Scholarship at the Colin Powell School.]