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A Serendipitous Road to Service and Advocacy

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It was a bit of chance that led Julia Cunningham to Fordham and ultimately planted the seeds of her interest in education and advocacy. In between her undergraduate studies and her current position as a senior policy analyst at the Hunt Institute, she found identity, confidence, community—and a desire to channel her rural background and experiences into a career dedicated to improving opportunity and access for all.

Cunningham, who graduated from Fordham College at Rose Hill in 2013 with a B.A. in English, has been with the North Carolina-based Hunt Institute—a nonprofit dedicated to improving education policy—since 2018, after she earned a Master of Education degree from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education. But it’s not the career she always envisioned for herself.

Finding Her Right Place

Cunningham grew up in Cazenovia, a small town outside of Syracuse, New York, and played competitive ice hockey. She hoped her dedication to the sport would eventually earn her an athletic scholarship to attend college. One weekend, after meeting with a coach in Manhattan and not feeling the “the right vibe,” Cunningham and her father visited Fordham. Cunningham had heard of the school, and she wanted the long drive to have not been a total loss. It wasn’t. “We drove on campus and immediately both of us were like, ‘Oh, this is it. This is the place,’” Cunningham said. “And it immediately became my first choice.”

Once at Fordham, Cunningham planned to follow her dream of going into children’s book publishing. “That’s really what I wanted to do,” she said. But junior year, while tutoring third graders with a Fordham roommate at an afterschool program in Harlem, Cunningham remembered how much she loved being around kids. “I hadn’t done that in a really long time and I forgot how much I liked it,” she said. From there she sought out more service opportunities, including an internship with the nonprofit Change for Kids.

During her senior year, Cunningham applied to Teach for America (TFA), a nonprofit organization dedicated to training and placing teachers in public schools serving low-income students. “Being from a rural place in New York, I kind of wanted to go back to a rural place for teaching,” she said. She ended up teaching children at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, home of the Oglala Lakota Nation. She credits TFA with helping her figure out that “yes, education was something that I wanted to spend my life in.”

Uniting Policy and Education to Strengthen the Community

She spent four years in South Dakota working for TFA, teaching middle school writing. At Pine Ridge, Cunningham came to see that “Native challenges really need a lot more attention throughout the country than they get.” While immersed in a small town, she witnessed “how rural community development is so impacted by the health of the school and vice versa,” prompting her to study education policy at Harvard. She worked to give rural education a seat at the table, hoping to make it, if not a priority, then at least “just part of the discussion.”

Cunningham’s time as a middle school teacher, combined with her graduate studies in policy, really drove home the reality that education and community well-being are so intertwined in small towns. “Often the school is the center of the community and the health of the community,” she said, emphasizing that “the physical health of the people in the community is so dependent on the strength of the school and the services that the school is able to offer.”

That’s why she’s currently pursuing a master’s degree in public health at the University of North Carolina. “I really want to find a position, or maybe even create a position for myself, where I’m really working with rural leaders to figure out what assets their community already brings to the table—because they all do—and figuring out how to leverage those assets to make a really strong, whole community system to strengthen themselves and then help make that applicable in other places, too,” she said.

Forever Connected to the Fordham Ramily

Cunningham stays connected to Fordham by participating in the Fordham Mentoring Program and unofficially mentoring members of the Hot Notes a cappella group, which she helped found as a student. While COVID-19 has made it difficult to connect with friends, family, and colleagues in person, for some people, Cunningham included, digital and Zoom gatherings have leveled the playing field. She said she occasionally felt a bit of FOMO (or fear of missing out) whenever her friends in or near the New York area would meet on campus for reunions or other events, but now it’s a bit easier for her to stay connected.

“I feel like I have been able to get involved with some mentoring a little bit more than I might have otherwise, because they might have had people who would be able to meet with mentees in person,” she said, adding that she’s “reconnected pretty closely with a lot of Fordham friends” and no longer feels left out.

More than just exposing her to opportunities that would guide her choice of career or blessing her with a network of support, Cunningham said Fordham broadened her worldview and opened her eyes to a lot of societal injustices.

“I think that’s a lot of the reason that I’ve decided to work in this equity, education, health care, community development, and advocacy sphere for my whole career,” she said. “I didn’t expect to end up here.”

What are you most passionate about?
Rural community development. I think that rural communities across the country have so much to teach us about how to serve the whole person, and I think that we focus too much on the deficits of rural communities as opposed to their assets. If we partner with rural communities and think about the diverse perspectives that they bring to the table, I believe that not only can we create innovative, scalable solutions that are relevant and applicable, but we can also discover new methods of community development in suburban and urban communities as well.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
I have had to tattoo this one on my heart, and I’m still working on getting better at it: “You can’t help others until your own cup is full.” As someone once phrased it to me, if your own cup is full, if you are happy and fulfilled and at peace with yourself, you can use your overflow to give to others. But if your cup is dry or low, not only can you not give what you need to those you love, but you are so starved and thirsty that you will take whatever respite comes your way, whether it is healthy or not. You need to prioritize yourself and your own well-being so that you can truly be there for those who need you the most, and so that you aren’t tempted to give your attention to those who will use it wrongly.

What’s your favorite place in New York City? In the world?
For New York, I have to say the sidewalk outside of 30 Rock, but let me explain why! My freshman year was the last year that Hughes Hall was a residence hall, and I lived on the fifth floor with three roommates who I’m still incredibly close with to this day—in fact, I sent them the picture used in this article ahead of time to make sure they approved. We made it an annual tradition to camp out outside 30 Rock one night a year to get tickets to Saturday Night Live. While of course it was a ton of fun to see SNL, I honestly barely remember all the specifics about the shows themselves. I more so remember sitting out in the freezing cold with my best friends, making friends with the people in line, using the nearby McDonald’s to go to the bathroom, and falling asleep for six hours when we got back to our dorm and then barely making it back to the city on time to get into the show.

As for the world, Crystal Beach, Ontario. My great-grandfather built a cottage there almost 80 years ago that we still use, and I’ve been there every summer of my life—with the pandemic summer being the only exception. It feels like home.  

Name a book that has had a lasting influence on you.
When I was first preparing to move to South Dakota, someone recommended to me the book Lakota Woman by Mary Crow Dog. It is a memoir of a woman growing up on the Rosebud Indian Reservation (about 50 miles from the Pine Ridge Reservation, where I lived), and I found it to be one of the most honest, realistic depictions of what Lakota women experience on a daily basis.

Who is the Fordham grad or professor you admire most?
I met Rob Minotti, director of campus ministry for liturgical music, on probably one of my first days on campus at Fordham, and I spent probably almost every day with him until I graduated four years later. I have met very few people in my life who are as dedicated to their craft as Rob, and I admire him endlessly for all that he does for Fordham’s students.

What are you optimistic about?
I have found it incredibly difficult to be optimistic over the last year, but in my work in education, one thing that I’ve seen a lot is that people do not want to go back to the norm. I think that the events of the last year have opened many people’s eyes to the systemic inequities and racism that exist in our country’s framework, and are doing what they can to rectify these egregious injustices. I am optimistic that the many, many crises of the last year will force us to come to terms with our past mistakes and ignorance and finally work to create systems that are actually attempting, at the very least, to be equitable for all.

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