Reviving the SEEK Archive at City College — Sinéad Sant-Barket, Alice Shepard & Lin Dan Zheng

by Judah Duke

At the City University of New York, several programs aimed at helping students excel are available for those who lack the financial or educational means to do so. One of the most wide-reaching initiatives, the Percy Ellis Sutton Search for Education, Elevation and Knowledge (SEEK), started at City College before it was offered at other CUNY Colleges.

As the CCNY SEEK team prepares for another academic year, a new project is underway to preserve SEEK’s history and legacy at CCNY. An archiving project, led by SEEK Counselors Alice Shepard and Sinéad Sant-Barket and former SEEK students Lin Dan Zheng and Anneisha Ali, will work toward collecting artifacts that speak to the program’s history at CCNY, how it’s changed over the years and what it says about the program today.

Shepard said that, as the first campus to implement a program that’s since spread to every CUNY 4-year school and served as the model for similar programs at numerous other institutions across the country, SEEK at CCNY has a special duty to make sure institutional knowledge surrounding the program’s beginnings up to the present is looked after and protected.

“It makes sense that it’s our responsibility to continue to preserve and protect and promote the legacy of SEEK,” Shepard said.

City College’s SEEK program began in 1965 as the Pre-Baccalaureate Program and has since given eligible students not only financial and academic support but a place to gather, learn and find encouragement with faculty counselors and fellow students, according to Sant-Barket.

The SEEK program offered critical resources for students during the COVID-19 pandemic, when learning was largely moved online and later in a hybrid capacity.

“When I’m meeting with students individually, we’re not just talking about picking and choosing classes for the next semester, but navigating any obstacles that they’re facing currently, academically,” Sant-Barket said. “It can be something like approaching a professor and asking a question during office hours, kind of developing the courage to do that.”

At CCNY SEEK’s Peer Academic Learning (PAL) Center, students are offered individual or small-group tutoring sessions covering a variety of courses. Incoming SEEK students complete a First-Year Student Experience, which is comprised of learning communities each semester (i.e., a New Student Seminar paired with a General Education course) as well as tutoring sessions for at least two classes. Many of the students, who do well their first year, become tutors at the PAL Center.

“The PAL Center is kind of the heart of the program, where the students really gather and hang out with each other but also study,” Shepard said.

The process of finding historic elements that capture what SEEK has meant at City College has been helped by SEEK counselors and other colleagues, who have held onto information and kept records over the years that were readily supplied to the archive. Thankfully, their colleagues have kept so much they could be “a bunch of hoarders,” Shepard joked.

Some of those artifacts included the original first issue of “The Paper,” initially a CCNY SEEK student newspaper, which was published in 1968 and is still in production. In April, the team shared some of their early discoveries and research process at CCNY’s Library Archives and Special Collections Club Hour Series in their talk entitled, “Reviving the CCNY SEEK Archive: Our History in the Making.” Other early SEEK student publications, a 1967 newspaper clipping about SEEK’s dormitory, at that time at The Alamac Hotel, and a bronze bust commissioned by then-CCNY President Lisa Staino-Coico of Percy Ellis Sutton, a Civil Rights activist, lawyer and the program’s namesake, were highlighted during the talk.

Importantly, the collection also includes a brochure and larger exhibit curated by CCNY Library and Archive professors about the list of Five Demands compiled and presented by a small group of Black and Puerto Rican — and SEEK — students to then-CCNY President Buell G. Gallagher in April 1969. Their demands led to weeks of demonstrations that shut down the campus and eventually led to negotiations with the administration that paved the way for reforms like the policy of Open Admissions that began in fall 1970.

As Zheng highlighted, the students in the movement also made it clear that SEEK was crucial to learning at City, and giving students more say in how the program was run was one of their five demands.

The CCNY SEEK archiving project was partially inspired by and modeled after the Queens College Library’s SEEK History Project, which features a collection of stories, images and oral history interviews about the history of SEEK at Queens College.

While the CCNY SEEK archiving project is still in its early stages, the team has a list of questions, including what they should prioritize and whom they should interview first for an oral history element, Zheng said.

The team is interested in looking at one thing, in particular, that makes SEEK special: counselors, who advise students about their academic as well as social needs.

“Counselors were put in from the very beginning, so that there would not only be academic and financial support for these students, but also psychologists as well, involved in helping the students navigate their time in school,” Shepard said.

As June Jordan, an early CCNY SEEK instructor and acclaimed Jamaican-American writer, noted in her “‘Life Studies’, 1966-1976, The City and The City College: An Off-Campus, Off-Camera Perspective,” “More often than not, it is the spirit of the student that requires assistance and support; scholastic accomplishment flows readily, afterwards.”

“Students who have recently graduated are still letting us know their appreciation for everything that they experienced in the program,” Shepard remarked.

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