For a moment, Natalie Genao felt vulnerable. During a movie screening about domestic abuse at the Coalition of One Hundred Black Women’s annual Signature Role Model Program, Genao remembered feeling the beatings.
“Through the entire workshop I felt like I was transparent,” she said.
Genao, 24, is one of three York College students who attended the seminar from April 14 to 17, which covered a number of issues that women of color face from getting jobs to domestic violence and getting help in abuse situations.
Genao attended the seminar with Suzanne Sylvester, 20, and Aaisha Joseph, 26.
The Signature Role Model program is held every year during Spring Break and connects female high school and college students to women professionals for four days of mentorship and empowerment. College students are paired with a professional female mentor in their field for a few days of job-shadowing where they get a first hand look into their intended future careers.
“It allowed for me to see what we learned in class and the real world,” said Sylvester, a Business Administration major, who got to shadow Gloriana Waters, the vice chancellor of human resources management overseeing all of CUNY.
While watching Waters work, Sylvester asked her new mentor how she manages to keep a level head knowing how much her decisions impact people’s lives. Waters impressed on Sylvester the importance of work-life balance. Sylvester said her own workaholic drive for success comes from the sacrifice her mother made immigrating to the U.S. in order for her to have a better life.
Hosted by L’Oreal, the program also included a handful of professional workshops including “Dress for Success,” “Money Management,” and “Dining Etiquette.” Attendees were also pampered by L’Oreal makeup artists, and the Glamazonia art exhibit by Fashion Africana focusing on the perception of black beauty.
One workshop in particular, the movie screening and discussion on domestic violence, hit home for Genao, an English major, hoping to pursue a career in public interest with a focus on women’s issues. Listening to women share testimonials of witnessing domestic abuse with friends and family inspired Genao to share her own.
The last to speak, she spoke about her first hand experience of overcoming domestic abuse. Her abusive relationship, spanning two years, came to an end when Genao woke up in a hospital bed with a doctor screaming to her that she could have died.
“I don’t feel ashamed to express my challenges to anyone because of how I expressed myself in that workshop,” Genao said.
After sharing her testimony, Genao was approached by a high school student who thanked her for opening up because she also saw herself in a similar predicament months prior. Seeing how she could touch others solidified her interest in pursuing women’s issues.
Genao, who shadowed Councilwoman Inez Dickens, said that her mentor taught her the importance of following her moral compass.
“Stand for what’s right,” Dickens said to Genao. “Don’t let anyone make you feel guilty for it.”
Joseph, 26, who is also majoring in Business Administration, is trying to find the balance between her love for fashion and a passion to start her own non-profit. Her program mentor Nkechi Ogbodo, the founder of Kechie’s Project, helped her to realize that she can follow both. Ogbodo encouraged Joseph to work on her fashion company and develop her own social enterprise through it. She also learned the importance of confidence from her other mentor, Abaynesh Asrat, founder of Nation-to-Nation Networking.
During the program Joseph worked with another participant on a prom drive, collecting dresses and tuxedos for high school students. In just two days, Joseph collected over 20 dresses. Pushing herself into a leadership position in this project taught her to take charge with her own ideas.
“It’s a great platform for branching out and tapping into your leadership potential.” said Joseph about the Signature Role Model Program.
Relationships generated from the program are often maintained long after its conclusion according to Linda Chesney, director of career services and the coordinator of the role model program at York. She credits the program for jump-starting her own career.
“It’s been over 20 years and it has still made a difference in my career,” she said.