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Girl Talk from the Bronx to the White House: St. Athanasius Alumna Julissa Reynoso Pantaleón Chats with Students

This week, four St. Athanasius middle schoolers huddled on Zoom and shared their aspirations. Miley knows she wants to make a change in the world. Lana wants to run a business; Immanuela wants to bring more diversity to the world of dance. Brianna is likewise committed to social justice, and she wants to be a lawyer or a business owner. The woman they were sharing these hopes with—Julissa Reynoso Pantaleón—jumped in to encourage Brianna: “You can do both!”  And Ms. Reynoso has a truly extraordinary vantage point from which to consider what is possible for young women from the Bronx.

from left to right: Brianna, Lana, Miley, and Imanuella.

“I was there in the 80s before you were all alive!” she shared with the students. “I lived nearby on Beck Street.” Like the four girls she talked with, Ms. Reynoso learned key life lessons at the Partnership’s St. Athanasius School—lessons that have taken her all the way to the White House, where she is currently Chief of Staff to First Lady Dr. Jill Biden and nominee for U.S. Ambassador to Spain. Ms. Reynoso has also served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State and U.S. Ambassador to Uruguay. But this week, she was speaking with our students not in her official capacity, but as an immigrant from the Dominican Republic like many of our students, a woman from the South Bronx who graduated from St. Athanasius and went on to attend St. Thomas Aquinas High School, Harvard, Cambridge University, and Columbia Law School.

But before they could chat with Ms. Reynoso, the four students had to handle their own nerves; after all, it’s not every day that eighth graders chat with a White House official. Lana got up the courage to ask the ambassador about whether she still gets nervous, and she was really struck by what Ms. Reynoso told them. “It was simple and helpful: come prepared, be confident, take deep breaths, and lean on good friends and family.” Lana shares that the ambassador’s response really calmed her down.

“She sees that knowledge is one of the most powerful tools she can have as a woman of color,” student Imanuella marvels. And indeed, Ms. Reynoso shared with them how important St. Athanasius was in getting her started acquiring the knowledge she sees as such a powerful tool. “I came from the DR when I was 7; I remember not knowing English. One of my strongest memories is when I was able to understand English, around fourth or fifth grade at STA. The teachers were so wonderful and exposed me to so many ideas and thinking and learning of the world outside of the Bronx.”

The importance Ms. Reynoso placed on education really struck Immanuela, and Briana was downright surprised by one reaction the ambassador had: “She was really sad when she talked about St. Thomas Aquinas High School,” Briana noticed; Ms. Reynoso’s alma mater shut down last year. Briana took away from the conversation that even though so many years have passed, Ms. Reynoso still feels so connected to the school and the mission. She emphasized that access to quality education is a real issue—a point that resonated with Briana’s interest in social justice.

But one topic they talked about at length interested Miley more than any other. “We talk about kindness all the time at school,” Miley reflected afterward, “but I didn’t expect Ms. Reynoso to bring it up. It’s clear that the importance of kindness goes beyond kids, to adults,” Miley shared, and noted that it’s probably good for both groups to remember to be kind.

“You have to take care of your neighbor, your friends and strangers–you can do a lot in your own little world and community to bring a little bit of joy for people around you,” said Ms. Reynoso, who added that she thinks of herself more as a public servant than as a politician. “It’s not just good to be kind because it’s a good thing to do, but it’s also important for your own development and for your career. It’s a small world, and you need a lot of people to help you along the way.”

Ms. Reynoso encouraged the girls to see the world not just as small, but as accessible to them: “look at the world as your own.” Yet she knows more than most that sometimes, that’s a challenge when you are looking at it from Hunts Point. “It’s tough sometimes coming from places like the Bronx, because you might not have all of the resources, all of the luxuries, if you will. But it makes you a stronger person and you have to take that with you wherever you go.”

And as Ms. Reynoso shared by example, our students can go far—even to foreign embassies; even to the White House.