Colin Powell School
Graduating to Success and Paying it Forward: Vanessa O’Neil’s Journey at CCNY and Beyond
Where are you from and what is your background story?
My family moved to Crown Heights from Trinidad when I was 4 years old, in search of better opportunities for my sisters and me. My mother dreamed of becoming a nurse but worked in local retail to supplement our household, while my father worked as a policeman. Back then the Crown Heights area was deeply impoverished, and the rampant crime made it a much more dangerous place than it is today. My parents worked hard to keep my sisters and me out of the neighborhood. My mum kept us busy with afterschool programs such as ballet, music lessons, museum classes, and of course my absolute favorite, library trips.
I remember how my older sister would push the shopping cart down Eastern Parkway to the library with my younger sister and me walking beside her. As we passed through our neighborhood, we witnessed many people who seemed lost and suffering. While I had aspirations for something more, I did not see many examples of women that looked like me in the roles I wanted. Determined to become more than a statistic, I volunteered in the community and joined the local NYPD Explorers Youth Club. I studied hard in High School because I knew getting an education was my ticket to a better life, which landed me admittance to The City College of New York.
What brought you to CCNY and the Colin Powell School?
As a little girl, my mother would take my sisters and me for walks in Marcus Garvey Park. I fell in love with Harlem and the beautiful representations of Black excellence. I applied to City College because it was very well known for its Science programs and I was excited to be accepted.
What is your passion or purpose behind pursuing what you did at City College?
I have always been fascinated by the human mind and studied neuroscience in my high school's science research program. My first major at City College was Biology, but later changed to Psychology. I wanted to learn about the human mind, motivations, and behaviors. I felt with that knowledge, I would be well-equipped to help people lead balanced and healthy lives.
Briefly, how has your career unfolded? How did City College and/or the Colin Powell School help you to get where you are in your career?
I knew that I wanted to work in healthcare and was grateful for the opportunity to intern at Mount Sinai's Human Resources Department. I worked in their Supply Chain and was permanently hired as a medical secretary in a private OB/GYN office. I was hired at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in 2019 as an office coordinator in the Thoracic Oncology Department and currently, I am a Financial Patient Access Coordinator in the Pediatric Department.
In addition to my day-to-day work, I serve as a STRIVE ambassador and I attend empowerment events and speak to new graduates to encourage them to keep striving for excellence. Memorable in my City College experience at the Colin Powell School and pivotal in my career include a group of mentors that helped me navigate college. They include my Colin Powell School advisor Herbert Seignoret, Administrator Charlene Darbassie, and Professors Robert Melara and Herb Boyd.
Do you have any significant memories or accomplishments from your career or time at City College / Colin Powell School that you would like to share?
While I was in college, I was a part of the Caribbean Student Association and the Bible Club. However, my entire life turned upside down. My father suddenly disappeared and I survived an attempted rape in what felt like a perpetual cycle of traumatic events. During that time, I went from being in good academic standing to struggling academically to stay afloat. It was then that I witnessed the impact of having a supportive network and received an outpouring of support from Dr. Seignoret, Charlene Darbassie, Professor Robert Melara, and Herb Boyd to continue my college degree despite the setbacks.
Around the same time, I came across a flier for the STRIVE program near my college campus and it became a sign for me to keep going. STRIVE is a non-profit organization that was founded in 1984 to help neighborhoods in East Harlem tackle unemployment and poverty. Their programs help people accomplish economic empowerment and overcome societal barriers. I applied to the Health Operations Program and was accepted. The STRIVE program was eye-opening and very challenging. It taught me to be comfortable with being uncomfortable, and gave me gentle reminders never to give up.
Do you have any advice you could give to current or future students?
Every single day I remind myself that I am constantly graduating to higher places and the only failure is not trying. One of the most important lessons I learned was how much control we have over our lives. My STRIVE trainers, Mrs. Latisha Smith, and Mr. Donnell Hill taught me that life is 10% of what happens to you but 90% of how you choose to respond.
I realized that I choose how I respond to negative situations. That requires thinking about all the possible consequences before reacting so that we make things better, not worse. Realizing that we have that much control over our lives is empowering.
A bad day does not mean a bad life. No matter how difficult things may seem, please continue to keep trying. Seek support from your peers, family, and community. I urge you all to use the resources offered by the campus and network every chance you get. You never know where your next job opportunity may come from, so please always be prepared. No matter what your current job or area of study is, your skills are transferable and you can work in any industry. Your education is the most powerful tool you have to actualize your potential. When you accomplish your goals, please never forget the support you received. Use what you learned to help pay it forward for others to make it.
What are your future aspirations for your career?
I will continue to build my career at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. My goal remains to learn new ways to help patients and their parents overcome financial burdens so it does not remain a barrier to them receiving the care they deserve. I dream of one day retiring from my current company.