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Meet Our Staff: Charlene Darbassie

Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership
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Meet Our Staff: Charlene Darbassie

Straight talk: If you’ve spent any time in the last two decades on the sixth floor of the North Academic Building (NAC) on the City College campus, you’ve already met Charlene Darbassie, Administrative Assistant in the Office of the Dean at the Colin Powell School.

And in that case, you already know a few things about her—namely, that her easy, contagious laughter instantly warms a room; that her son, Christopher, is her greatest passion; and that she is a dedicated and fierce advocate for students. You might not know, however, that Charlene is a die-hard Dolly Parton fan and that she can double as a fry cook—while in high heels and a business suit (no, really, she's done it!).

Charlene was born in Guyana, but moved to Trinidad at the age of two. In her late 20s, she moved to the United States after her husband emigrated five years before. It wasn’t too long after that she’d begin working at The City College of New York. This month, she will have been commuting from New Jersey to Harlem for 21 years—17 spent in the dean’s office, in its time as the Division of Social Sciences, and of course, in its last three years as the Colin Powell School.

'IT'S ALL ABOUT FAMILY'

Her initial visit to City College was a memorable—if not particularly favorable—one. “I came to interview during a really bad blizzard. When I showed up, the secretary was so surprised. She said ‘You made it! You’re the only one who came, and you live the farthest away!” Despite Charlene displaying her signature tenacity and follow-through that day, she didn’t get the job. But it was only a month later that she would get a call asking her to interview for another position in human resources, which she did land.

For Charlene, staying with City College has been a no-brainer. “The other day, my son asked me why I’ve stayed in this job for such a long time,” she says, “and I told him it was all about family.” Family, in this case, includes her husband and son, as well as the people she has worked closely with for years. “The flexibility I’ve had in this position has been really key,” Charlene says. “Chris had his swim meets, and I’d be able to attend, and volunteer at his school’s fundraisers.” And, she says, there were key people in the office who were there for her in some of her darkest times, including Colin Powell School Dean Vince Boudreau.

“I remember that when my mother died, Vince was associate dean. It was vacation time for a lot of people, and we were the only two people in the office when I got a call from my sister in Trinidad. My mother had collapsed and was in the hospital. Vince passed by as I hung up the phone—he thought I was laughing and then realized I was actually crying. I was able to call him at home 5:30 the next morning when I got the call that she had passed away. I can honestly say that if I didn’t have the support from the office then and in those two years afterward, I wouldn’t have made it through.

Another important family member in the Dean’s Office is Charlene’s longtime friend, Ginny Warner, Executive Assistant, who has worked in the dean’s office with Charlene for nearly 17 years. “We’re like sisters,” Charlene says. “We finish each other’s sentences sometimes. She’s been there for me and I’ve been there for her. I feel like a lot of the people here are my family. You spend a lot of hours here. In order for any ship to run smoothly, you should become familiar. There are too many businesses where no one knows who’s sitting in the cubicle next to them. And I think, within City College, this dean’s office might be special for the bonds that we’ve sustained over the years.”

BRINGING THE WORK HOME 

This year, Charlene is now watching her own son, Christopher, set off for college. In the fall, he’ll be attending Pace University to study lighting and design tech in its theater program. Charlene has always stood by her son’s own vision for his future, despite what well-meaning friends might advise.

“I’ve had friends who’ve told me I should encourage him to be a lawyer or go into medicine, because he’s smart,” she says. “But I won’t be one of those parents who tell my child that they need to major in this or that. He has to be happy with his life. Christopher has always been an old soul, and he knows what he wants to do, which I support.”

Charlene adds that her role as student advocate has helped shaped her convictions as a parent of a student headed to college. “My time here has shown me that even if you don’t agree with your child’s choice of major or their path in life, you have to stay involved. I’ve seen students who haven’t had their parents in their lives, and they suffered for it.”

REALIZING A VISION

Charlene is uniquely well positioned to comment on the success the Colin Powell School vision with respect to student success. “The students now have more opportunities: internships and scholarship money—including graduate students, who had significantly less funds available before,” she says. “Departments are slowly coming together and there’s more meaningful interaction between faculty members. Which can only end up being beneficial for students.”

Furthermore, having worked under six deans, she has a firm sense of what it takes to be a good leader, specifically as dean of the college. “A good dean has to be a people person, a good listener. And a sense of humor is crucial,” she says. “I’ve known Vince as long as he’s been here. And I’ve known about his vision for social science for years because he’s always talked about it. Now he’s in a position to do what he’s envisioned for students for a long time. And it’s a beautiful vision.”