A Conversation with CITY’s Student Advisory Board Co-Chairs

From CITY’s inception, serving students has been its top priority. But what does that look like in practice? To help us figure that out, we’ve convened a Student Advisory Board (SAB) composed of students nominated from each of Yale’s schools, from Yale College to professional schools like law and nursing. These board members play key roles in shaping CITY’s direction, from providing feedback on programs and policies to proposing new focus areas. We sat down with this year’s co-chairs — Alexus Coney, Christina Neiva de Figueiredo, and Genevieve Liu — to learn more about their goals for the year and how they’re approaching the SAB’s role.

From left to right: Alexus Coney, Christina Neiva de Figueiredo, and Genevieve Liu.

Thanks so much for chatting! What are each of you studying here at Yale?

Genevieve: I’m a sophomore, so I haven’t declared my major yet. I’m either going to be ethics, politics, and economics or economics and film — to be decided.

Alexus: I’m an English major with a concentration in African American literature.

Christina: I’m studying data science and global affairs.

It’s great to see a range of disciplines represented, even just among you three co-chairs. Besides your role on the SAB, what else are you involved in on campus?

Christina: Outside of the SAB, I’m the innovation programs coordinator at CITY — I’ve been working here for the past year, so I’ve been highly involved with CITY. I also lead professional development for Sube, which is Yale’s Latinx business and leadership organization, and I’m part of Yale’s Brazil Club.

Alexus: I do a lot of theater on campus. I’m closing out my term as vice president of the Yale Dramatic Association, and I’m a member of the Heritage Theater Ensemble, Yale’s black theater group. I am primarily a stage manager and a producer, but I’m getting more into directing. Apart from that, I am a manuscript editorial intern at the Yale University Press and a social media supervisor for the Careers, Life, and Yale.

Genevieve: I’m part of Mock Trial, so I pretend to be a lawyer on the weekends, and also run tournaments — this week we had a tournament with 51 college teams, for example. I’m a yoga teacher and help lead Yogis at Yale, so I teach once or twice a week and help coordinate the teachers. I’m also a research assistant for a health economist at the School of Public Health.

Christina: I highly recommend her yoga classes, by the way.

A moment from an orientation and scavenger hunt at an SAB meeting.

I know you three have been thinking about the word “innovator” a lot. Do you consider yourself an innovator? If so, what’s an example of how you innovate, or a time you were innovative? I’d love to hear about your relationships to that word.

Alexus: I didn’t necessarily consider myself an innovator until I really reframed what that word meant to me. Part of that was becoming more involved with Tsai CITY and learning about how this organization allows for interdisciplinary approaches to innovation. In the humanities and arts, I do a lot of forms of social innovation through the work that I put up, involving diverse characters, actors, and productions. So I’m definitely honing more into the term. It’s an exciting prospect for me that I feel like I can share with others now, because of Tsai CITY.

Genevieve: I think that my idea of innovation has definitely expanded since coming to Yale and working at CITY. I think the most amazing thing about the concept of innovation, as opposed to solely entrepreneurship or business, is how inclusive it is. What really is novel about innovation is that it aggregates people from all disciplines and all interests to bring an idea to fruition.

I think my entryway to innovation came when I was 13. My father had passed away, and I went online looking for other teens who had lost a parent and found nothing. Long story short, I wanted to create a website for teens who had lost a parent to find one another, especially because parent loss, despite feeling like a rarity in my own experience, is pretty ubiquitous. I was this technologically challenged 13-year-old who had never heard of innovation, but sharing my story and talking to people who had experiences and skills that I didn’t have allowed me to create this website that ultimately became SLAP’D (Surviving Life After a Parent Dies). I think that that’s an important part not just of my own experience, but also being here at Yale —you can come together with others and bring ideas into reality regardless of your experience or the place that you come from.

Christina: Yeah, I think we’re all innovators. Innovation is just about finding a new solutions to a problem. Ideally, I see one of the roles that CITY can play as helping students identify the problems that they care about and providing them with the resources to come up with new solutions to these problems. This process doesn’t have to be super serious or intense — we’re all constantly innovating every time we come up with a new system, or a new way that something might work better. I think the compulsion to make the word “innovation” seem a little too big and mighty really harms the process.

SAB and staff members in conversation at a recent SAB meeting.

That’s a great segue into my next question. Either collectively or as individuals, what’s your biggest goal as you think about your time as SAB co-chairs?

Christina: My main goal is to increase knowledge of CITY around campus as a center where anyone can come with a problem or an idea. I want to increase the number of people who think they can come to CITY and realize their ideas. By doing this, I think we help break down walls between schools and disciplines at Yale and really become a place where anyone can come to innovate.

Alexus: Yeah — I think my main goal is to boost the accessibility of CITY, in terms of people who don’t necessarily envision themselves as innovators, and also to increase the perception of CITY as a place where anyone can just walk in — regardless of prior experience or a specific relationship to entrepreneurship or technology.

Genevieve: I just agree with what they said!

Related to that, you’re in a unique role as co-chairs of the SAB, which is in this “bridge” role: you’re serving students, by representing their voices and interests, and you’re serving CITY by helping us understand those perspectives and giving us input and feedback. I’m curious to hear your thoughts about that role, and how you’re thinking about the role of students in shaping CITY’s direction.

Alexus: That role is huge. This is an organization that’s very deeply rooted within Yale’s campus, in that it needs students in order to thrive. We as students are in a great place to become innovators, and to become more socially and environmentally responsible people. We’re constantly learning. CITY also involves the aspect of staff who have gone into the real world and can pass a lot of knowledge on to students. It’s definitely a cooperative and mutual relationship between staff and students — you really can’t have one without the other. It’s a great thing that the staff here really encourage students to come in and just have conversations with them, with no expectation for what that may entail; staff and students are able to discover things together. Staff attendance at the SAB meetings also allows them to meet with the SAB members who directly represent the different facets of campus, which is really cool.

Genevieve: I would add to that by saying that we hosted our first SAB meeting as co-chairs a few weeks ago, and we tried to approach the meeting by really asking everyone, “What is the impact you want to make as a board member?” You have a tremendous amount of power as a board member, and responsibility along with that. I think that’s something that students really latch onto, this idea that they can be a part of influencing the culture at Yale. What’s cool about CITY that it’s meant to foster these relationships between students, but it’s also a part of the university. Being able to have a formal voice in something that is rooted within the university is definitely a unique experience, and it really is amazing working with two co-chairs who happen to be innovators, and women, and students most of all — to be able to feel like we’re working together and have the backing and trust of the university is a really unique opportunity.

Christina: I completely agree with everything you’ve both said. I think one reason the SAB is critical is that, as Genevieve and Alexus have mentioned, CITY is a center that serves the student body of Yale, and in order to remain successful and relevant, CITY needs to provide a product that the students want. The Yale student experience is relatively unique, and as a staff member, it can be hard to put yourself in the shoes of a student. In terms of designing programming, asking, “What’s their life like? When’s the best time to hold events?” are examples of where our input can be really valuable. The role of the SAB can range from that detail-oriented level to thinking through what the mission of CITY should be. It’s that breadth that I think makes the SAB’s role so valuable.

CITY staff members share a laugh with an SAB member.

What’s one thing that you each are excited about for the next year?

Christina: I am so excited to work with these two. I’m not sure what exactly what we’re going to implement, but we’ve already coalesced so well. I know that whatever we work on is going to be awesome.

Alexus: Yes, exactly that! I’m excited to grow as co-chairs, and I’m also excited to watch CITY grow. As a very new center and presence on campus, it has so much potential. That puts us in a very exciting place, especially being co-chairs of such an exciting, inspirational, and just really enthusiastic board. I’m definitely looking forward to the future.

Genevieve: They took my answers! I’m excited just to grow our little brainchild — you know you’re doing something you love when you’re thinking about it all the time, and you’re just so excited for what the future holds. One thing I’m excited about that we haven’t touched on is getting the rest of the SAB just as energized as we are. I think both the turnout and the energy we had at the last meeting just shows what the future holds, and I think that that’s really exciting.

Read more about CITY’s mission here.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Interview by Laura Mitchell Tully