When Rena Varghese, Esq., reflects on Women’s History Month in relation to her own personal and professional journey, her mother immediately comes to mind. Her mother, Mary, who grew up in India, heard about the opportunity when she was a teenager for Indian nurses to work in the United States. At 16 she left her home to attend nursing school more than 900 miles away in another state in India, determined to emigrate. She completed her studies, gained nursing and midwifery experience in India, and arrived in New York City by herself at age 25 to seek out work. She returned to India where she got married and then she and her husband settled in Queens.
For years, Varghese said, her mother spent hours on subways and buses commuting to work as a nurse, never complaining.
“I’m not sure I could have been so bold,” reflected Varghese, the Executive Director of the Nexus Center for Applied Learning & Career Development at Farmingdale State College. “Thanks to her courage and sacrifices, here I am, first-generation, afforded the opportunity to be the first in my family to graduate from law school and now serve students as an educator. The trail-blazing of my mom, and women like her who made up a wave of immigrant nurses in the 1970s, have created a generational impact, the legacy of which is exponential in terms of the accomplishments and contributions that originate from these brave women.”
In keeping with her parents’ wishes, Varghese went to college and then law school—even though she didn’t know much about the profession. “I felt I owed my parents.” Varghese, her sister and brother were expected to attend college, but their parents also wanted them to have lucrative, prestigious careers, which by cultural standards as she viewed them seemed to mean becoming a doctor, lawyer, or engineer. (Varghese’s sister is a doctor and her brother a lawyer.) Her father had been a teacher in India; he got a job with the U.S. Postal Service after coming to America.
After graduation, Varghese joined a large law firm specializing in corporate real estate and structured finance. “My father has a strong sense of social justice and he envisioned me defending people in courtrooms. Although I didn’t do that, he was proud I was working in a prestigious setting with top attorneys.”
But after years of practicing, she questioned her career trajectory. “I had deferred to a career track.” Then, she was invited by her law firm to be a liaison with her alma mater, Cornell University Law School, to recruit and interview students for summer positions with the firm. “I met with students, mentored them, and it made me consider working with students full time,” Varghese said. “I realized what a difference mentoring a student could make.”
She made the transition to academia about 15 years ago and came to FSC in 2017 to launch the Nexus Center, where she thrives on helping students get on a path to a career through internships and other applied learning experiences. “The access to education and a job is transformative,” she said.
Varghese’s experience helps her to understand the stress and uncertainty many students feel to choose a major and succeed academically. “I realize the pressure put on students, especially first-generation students,” according to Varghese. “There are certain expectations placed on immigrants. I remind students it is okay to change your minds. Some feel like they need to know on day one what they want to do. I tell them it is a common feeling to be unsure.”
Especially at the largest technology college in the SUNY system, it’s important to inspire students to consider professions where women are still underrepresented and to offer them practical pathways towards achieving these career goals, she noted. “Celebrating Women’s History Month brings awareness to the contributions of women that are inspiring and encouraging to people in general.”
The Nexus Center’s unique collaborative and continuous approach to helping students makes it a particularly satisfying place to work; most departments on campus join forces with the center, and students get involved with the programs not long after starting school. “It’s not separate from what they are doing in their major,” Varghese said. “Everything is done to further their position in finding a job and giving back to the community. Because the efforts are campus-wide, students pay more attention to the messages and are happy with the team effort.”
Varghese also shares her knowledge in the classroom; she teaches in the FSC Center for Criminal Justice and has taught courses at St. John’s University School of Law.
When she is not putting in long hours on campus, Varghese enjoys her hobbies, which include writing screenplays and playing in poker tournaments.
She and her brother have collaborated on screenplays. “I’m very interested in movies and TV.” A high point in her writing experience occurred when she had the opportunity to present her screenplay to James Cameron. “He asked me some questions and then said, “You really know your stuff,’’ Varghese added. A screenplay for a romantic comedy Varghese and her brother wrote made it to the quarterfinals of the 2021 ScreenCraft Comedy competition.
Varghese won a seat into the World Series of Poker main event and, most recently, played in a World Poker Tour event in Las Vegas in December 2022. She gets mixed responses at poker tournaments, Varghese added. “I tend to be underestimated; usually I am the only woman at the table.”
While her career has evolved from its original path, Varghese said her parents are proud of the contributions she is making. “My mother and father are glad I am here, they value education so much. They are happy I am working at a college and having an impact on people.”