Take Five with Alyssa Cannizzaro ’15

Alyssa headshot
Alyssa Cannizzaro ’15 is special projects manager and assistant to the president at the National Organization for Women in New York City. Founded in 1966, NOW is the largest grassroots organization in the United States working to advance women’s rights. Cannizzaro is responsible for planning actions, protests and advocacy campaigns, conducting legislative research, overseeing social media strategy and directing the volunteer and internship programs. She first joined NOW as a summer intern in 2014, and has been in her current role since June 2015. In February 2018, Cannizzaro was the youngest panelist at Columbia’s first University-wide alumnae conference, “She Opened the Door,” which featured a keynote address by Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg LAW’59. Cannizzaro will begin law school this fall.

What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?

I was born and raised in Brooklyn, but my neighborhood, Bergen Beach, is residential and almost a two-hour commute from Manhattan. Growing up, I felt like a New Yorker in a way, but an outer-borough New Yorker who had to work hard to finally be able to live in “the city” on my own. When I got to Columbia, the prospect of hopping on the 1 train for a quick 20-minute ride or even walking downtown was thrilling!

I went to a Catholic, all-girls high school where etiquette was a required course to graduate. Yes, in 2011 in New York City, my classmates and I learned things like how to set a table for formal dining, how to properly eat “difficult foods” in public (like soup and olives) and how to walk in high heels. After that experience, you could say I arrived at Columbia ready to smash the patriarchy.

What do you remember about your first-year living situation?

I lived in a suite in Carman. My two suitemates became my best friends at Columbia and still are to this day. We instantly bonded over ’90s nostalgia pop playlists, Christmas decorations, painting our nails and watching too much TV when we should have been studying.

What class do you most remember and why?

During my senior year, I took a political science seminar on the Bill of Rights with Martha Zebrowski GSAS’84. The class was small, only about seven or eight students, and we were tasked with writing a 35-page paper on the topic of our choice, as long as it related to a Bill of Rights-based issue. I had just completed my summer internship at NOW, and a hot-button issue I had spent a lot of time working on was abortion access, so naturally that’s what I wrote my paper on. We spent the first few weeks of class discussing critical texts and engaging in lively debates on the Bill of Rights, and then dedicated the rest of our semester to researching and workshopping our final papers. This paper felt like the culmination of my studies at Columbia, and my research on abortion access actually felt relevant with its real-world policy implications. The atmosphere in that seminar was one of collegiality, and by semester’s end, we all became mini-experts in our research fields.

Alyssa Vance Weinstein protest

Cannizzaro (center) with NOW colleagues outside the Manhattan DA's office in October 2017, protesting the mishandling of the investigation into Harvey Weinstein's sexual assault charges.

In addition to my major in political science, I also completed a minor in Italian cultural studies, and I can’t neglect to mention the incredible Italian language instruction I received from Federica Franze. She was my professor for four semesters of various courses in intermediate, advanced and conversational Italian. I wouldn’t have gained the confidence to speak in Italian and study abroad in Bologna, Italy, without her.

Did you have a favorite spot on campus, and what did you like about it?

I loved the offices of the Institute for Research on Women, Gender and Sexuality (the acronym, IRWGS, is fondly pronounced by faculty and students as “ear-wags”). Tucked away on the seventh floor of the Schermerhorn Extension, it’s a place you will get lost trying to find on your first trip there. But once you find it, you won’t want to leave.

The small staff that runs the office is a powerhouse of dynamic, strong-willed and kind individuals. The office is inviting, with cozy purple armchairs, shelves full of interesting gender studies books to borrow, free fridge magnets and buttons for your backpacks that say “Feminist to the Core,” and flyers advertising upcoming talks with visiting scholars and leaders in the women, gender and sexuality Studies field. And did I mention there was always a candy bowl filled to the brim with chocolates and lollipops?

I had a work-study job as an administrative assistant at IRWGS for three years. Working there showed me what a feminist career could look like, and I found an amazing mentor in the associate director Laura Ciolkowski ’88.

What, if anything, about your College experience would you do over?

Procrastinate less and go to office hours more! Columbia was the perfect place for me to learn and thrive, and I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity.