Knowledge as a Tool for Agency: My Introduction

Hi! My name is Mike Rifino and I am a Futures Initiative Fellow studying for my doctorate in Human Development at the CUNY Graduate Center. In what follows, I wish to reflect on my transformative experience I had as a CUNY undergraduate student (both at LaGuardia after transferring to Hunter College) that has ignited my passion for scholarship in human development at the intersection of learning, especially in contexts of diversity and adversity. Since then, I have participated in research projects that draw on Vygotskian perspectives at the intersection of learning and development. Drawing from my passion for scholarship in human development that addresses issues of social justice, especially in educational contexts, I am thrilled to be part of the Futures Initiative, which I completely identify with their mission “in advancing greater equity and innovation in higher education through bold, public, and engaged teaching and learning.”

My quest to pursue a PhD in Human Development began when I joined the Peer Activist Learning Community (PALC) in 2010, a transformative learning activist research project at LaGuardia Community College for students. Through PALC, I was introduced to Vygotskian and related developmental theories, which I began to draw on to critically examine underlying assumptions in sociocultural practices relevant in my everyday life. This allowed me to understand learning and development from a critical perspective and to develop an activist stance toward education. Thus, learning a broad range of developmental theories in PALC allowed me to rediscover knowledge as a tool for action and become an empowered learner. As I continued to engage in this project, I investigated a slew of developmental trajectories and transformations that underwent for participates. For example, I am currently studying how students and faculty in PALC, collaboratively investigated and redefined student agency/passivity as a dialectical process in light of creating a critical activist learning community.

By 2012 PALC, expanded into a college readiness program, which I continued to pursue under the supervision of Dr. Eduardo Vianna. This research project draws on Vygotskian perspectives to promote the development of a learning identity among under-achieving minority high school students. As someone who was underserved by public education, I can relate to their struggle, which inspires our quest to construct a transformative pedagogy and curriculum that can reorient students to believe in their agency to make a contribution to the world. This research served as the basis for my senior thesis for the CUNY Pipeline program, which is a highly competitive program that provides support to underrepresented students interested in academic careers.

In sum, my passion for studying student agency, collaborative learning practices, and social justice, especially in educational contexts is exactly what inspires and thrills me to be part of the Futures Initiative. Collaborative research with underrepresented students with the aim of expanding their potential to make meaningful social contributions is one of the main goals I have as being a Futures Initiative fellow. I am excited and fortunate to have this opportunity and to study and work with innovative and inspiring researchers in the Futures Initiative program, and in the Graduate Center in general. Throughout my Futures Initiative journey, I wish to further collaborate with underrepresented groups and engage students to not only reflect on their own agency but to collectively transcend areas where they feel constrained, such as their learning practices by emphasizing their potential to make a contribution to the world based on Stetsenko’s notion of the transformative activist stance theory. As a Futures Initiative fellow, I am driven to collaborate, develop new perspectives, and employ knowledge as a tool for contributing to social justice in education.


The Futures Initiative
The Graduate Center, CUNY
365 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10016-4309