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Marcia Newfield, BMCC

So who was Belle Zeller? Most of us know that she was the founding president of the PSC. In his acceptance of the Belle Zeller Scholarship Trust Fund Lifetime Achievement Award, Professor Emeritus Irwin Yellowitz gave a more rounded portrait of her: she broke ground by transferring her academic research about the influence of political pressure in New York State to practicing lobbying herself. President John F. Kennedy consulted her in revising the Federal Lobbying Registration Act.

She was chairwoman of the Legislative Conference of the City Colleges from 1944 to 1972. When that organization became a union and merged in 1972 with the United Federation of College Teachers, another union representing part-time instructors, she became the first president of the Professional Staff Congress. She also continued teachingpolitical science at Brooklyn College, paving the way for other female faculty. Yellowitz says she became so well known in Albany, fighting for tenure and pensions for college instructors, that she was an institution in herself. Her NY Times obituary (she died in 1998 at age 95) corroborated that: “She would burst in on legislators who were busy with other business, even if they were behind closed doors, even if they were in conference. Because of who she was, people accepted that. She was able to get people’s attention because she was a scholar as well as an activist.”

Scholarship and Community Service

Zeller’s combination of scholarship and activism became the inspiration for the Belle Zeller Scholarship Trust Fund, which was established in 1979 by the PSC as an independent charitable organization to reward students who had a minimum grade-point average of 3.75 plus a record of outstanding community service. Currently, winners receive $2500 a semester until they reach 120 credits. It is not a surprise that over one hundred candidates applied this year for these ten scholarships. Their records were impressive, as were those of the seven who received Special Recognition Awards. The 2020 scholars include two from Brooklyn College, Marwa Elraey (Linguistics & Communication) and Michelle Braun (Forensic Linguistics & Cross-Cultural Communication), and two from CCNY, Yanna Almonte (English & Creative Writing), and Denisha McCurchin (Biomedical Science), one from CSI, Nicole Agu (Accounting & International Business), and one from Lehman, Ezekiel Olumuyide (Chemistry).

The Irwin Polishook Award, in the name of the PSC president who served from 1976 to 2000, went to two CUNY graduate students: Alison Domzalski (Biochemistry) and Lynne Turner (Sociology). This year, a revived award honoring former CUNY Chancellor Robert Joseph Kibbee was bestowed on two undergraduates, Paguindamba Tankoano (Liberal Arts at BCC and Environmental Sciences at Lehman College) and Nataly Lopez (Liberal Arts, Hostos Community College).

The range of community service by the awardees spans from income tax preparation and advice, to preparing meals for the homeless and ill, to translating research grant proposals for environmental projects, to coordinating community share and farming projects, to organizing low-wage workers, to tutoring high school students in science and healthy eating, to providing fire-safety education in disadvantaged communities, to engaging young adults in social change around education, housing and food justice.

The Belle Zeller Scholarship Board and Advisory Committee lament that they don’t have resources to grant more scholarships. Hence this virtual fundraiser on December 9th, picking up a tradition that was dormant for more than a decade. Donations are welcome. The website (bellezeller.org) is being updated so that viewers will be able to see the complete event, which included remarks by CUNY Chancellor Matos Rodriguez, NYS legislators Toby Ann Stavisky and Deborah Glick, honorees Irwin Yellowitz and PSC President Barbara Bowen, former CUNY University Student Senate President Timothy Hunter, and keynote speaker, Distinguished Professor Myriam Sarachik, who reminisced about her forty years as a physicist at CCNY and the way the attitude towards women in physics has changed from virtual exclusion to active encouragement. Added treats were performances of Bach, Chopin, and Stravinsky, performed by pianist and BMCC professor Howard Meltzer and cellist George Dewar.