Second Time’s the Charm

How Cristina Toppin ’21 overcame an initial setback and became the first Rollins student to attend the Harvard Kennedy School’s Public Policy Leadership Conference.

Photo by Scott Cook Photo by Scott Cook

Alfond Scholar Cristina Toppin ’21 knows the value of perseverance. She’s seen it modeled by two of her biggest mentors—one at home, one at Rollins.

Growing up, Toppin watched her single mom move the family from New Jersey to Central Florida, then work long hours as a nurse to make ends meet.

During her first year at Rollins, when Toppin wasn’t accepted for a prestigious Ivy League conference, another strong woman showed her why persistence is so important.

With the help of a determined Jayashree “Dr. Jay” Shivamoggi, who directs Rollins’ Office of External & Competitive Scholarship Advisement, Toppin reapplied as a sophomore. This time she got in, becoming Rollins’ first student to attend the Harvard Kennedy School’s Public Policy Leadership Conference (PPLC).

The PPLC, which took place Feb. 21-24, inspires first- and second-year undergraduate students to pursue careers in public policy and become leaders in government, nonprofits, intergovernmental organizations, international institutions, and social enterprises.

“Going to PPLC showed me that, after graduation, I can influence policy in whatever I do, whether or not I’m involved in government,” says Toppin, a double major in political science and religious studies who’s considering a master’s in public policy or joint degree in law and religion.

“I’m so thankful for Dr. Jay and her staff because they are the kind of people who have faith in you when you’re at rock bottom and you don’t have faith in yourself. You don’t know what you can do if you just release your fear of failure and realize your self-worth.”

We recently caught up with Toppin to talk about the role Rollins and PPLC have played in her personal and academic development, as well as some lessons she’s learned along the way.

Cristina Toppin ’21 flanked by her two biggest mentors—her mother and Jayashree Shivamoggi. Photo by Scott Cook. Cristina Toppin ’21 flanked by her two biggest mentors—her mother and Jayashree Shivamoggi. Photo by Scott Cook.

If at first you don’t succeed …

“Dr. Jay told me about the PPLC opportunity my first year, so I applied but didn’t get in. And it was really hard for me, so I turned a lot of it on myself. I didn’t want to apply again—that fear of failure—but Dr. Jay encouraged me to, and I pegged the essay. Rollins creates that cohort, that family environment, which motivates you to just keep going.”

… don’t give up, because you never know what opportunities are on the other side.

“There were 75 of us at the conference, and they were really focused on making sure we developed as a cohort. It was, ‘Look at the student next to you. These are going to be your future colleagues. You need to bond with them.’ We had workshops about getting ready for grad school and the nuances of paying for it, and two of the speakers were a Massachusetts representative and a woman who created an app called Politicking. We also had two mock classroom sessions, one taught by former NAACP president Cornell Brooks, who talked about recidivism, and the other one by Marshall Ganz, who was part of the United Farm Workers movement with Cesar Chavez. He spoke about using your narrative to help spark social change.”

Relentlessly pursue your passion to enact change in the world …

“A big takeaway from the PPLC was just the fact that no matter how many obstacles and challenges we face in pursuing our passion to enact change in the world, you need to pursue it relentlessly. It was immensely helpful, especially for someone like me who didn’t always get the cards dealt to them in life, to have these new networks and opportunities.”

… and connect with others who share your passion.

“I’m really passionate about women’s rights and the rights of women of color, as well as gender-based violence. At PPLC, I met so many other female students who shared similar stories as mine. You just look at your peers and say, ‘how can I help you and how can we work together?’”

You have a friend in the Office of External & Competitive Scholarship …

“Sometimes I just go to their office and ask Dr. Jay about life problems and she’s there to help me. They’re here for us during the ups and downs, and they’re definitely like the gas behind all these students getting these cool opportunities because they push us to our limits. They bring out the best in you.”

Cristina Toppin ’21 partnered with Morgan Snoap ’20 and art professor MacKenzie Moon Ryan to curate an African art exhibition at the Cornell Fine Arts Museum. Photo by Scott Cook. Cristina Toppin ’21 partnered with Morgan Snoap ’20 and art professor MacKenzie Moon Ryan to curate an African art exhibition at the Cornell Fine Arts Museum. Photo by Scott Cook.

because, at Rollins, you’re more than just another student …

“It’s such a tight-knit network. If you mention your passion, you’ll get resources and be directed to people you never knew were connected to Rollins. For example, I told my faculty advisor [assistant professor of religion Todd French] that I was interested in UN work, and he connected me with an alum who interned for UN Women. The faculty and staff care so much about students—much more than just making sure we get good grades and pass a class. When I can, I always try to give them thank-you notes. Those are relationships you don’t want to lose. We are all so indebted to them.”

… and your opinion will be valued.

“I took an art history class with [art professor] MacKenzie Moon Ryan my first year, and she invited me to conduct collaborative research with her and another student on curating African textiles for the Cornell Fine Arts Museum. I was just amazed that a professor would approach a first-year student to do research. She’s been a mentor, and she really values my opinion on African art and religion. She showed me there are pathways to conduct the research I’m interested in.”