How Two CUNY Superstars Forged a Friendship
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
Graduating senior Charles “Claudio” Simpkins, a speaker today at the City University of New York Honors College commencement, is also charged with “shadowing and following” Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, another speaker at the event.
It’s a routine assignment for the Harvard Law School-bound Mr. Simpkins, who has rubbed elbows with Secretary of State Powell and Tom Brokaw at other campus events. In fact, he has earned some fame himself, as one of the students appearing on subway advertisements touting CUNY’s return to academic excellence.
What does Mr. Simpkins plan to ask Mr. Spitzer? “Anytime I meet anyone who went to Harvard, I like to hear what kind of impression they’ve had there and beyond, just so I know how best to take advantage of my experience this year,” he said.
For Mr. Simpkins, the day is really about reflecting on the experience he has had at CUNY. Inevitably, the person who first springs to his mind is his friend Ryan Merola, a student one year behind Mr. Simpkins who this year joined him as a Truman scholar.
That is just one of the traits the two men share: Both are enrolled in the Honors College program, Mr. Simpkins at City College, Mr. Merola at Brooklyn College; both have served as vice chairmen of the university-wide student government, and both have an intense interest in politics and debating (and wide repertoires of hand gestures to emphasize their points).
Yet the two aren’t exactly alike. In debating style, Mr. Simpkins says he has a “black Reverend thing going on,” while Mr. Merola is more formal. Mr. Merola has been a stellar student for as long as he can remember, and he plays the bagpipes. Mr. Simpkins doesn’t play an instrument and didn’t hit the books seriously until his senior year of high school. Mr. Simpkins is of black, Puerto Rican, and Cuban descent, Mr. Merola of Irish and Italian descent. Mr. Simpkins is known as a lady’s man, whereas his friend has maintained a lower dating profile. “I know there’s got to be dirt on him, but I can’t find it,” Mr. Simpkins said.
The two are far apart on the political and geographic spectrum: Mr. Simpkins is a conservative who spent most of his childhood in North Carolina; Mr. Merola is a liberal and a third-generation Brooklynite.
The differences, though, are important to the friendship. “Encountering someone with an oppositional viewpoint was an opportunity to strengthen my own beliefs. It served to refine everything,” Mr. Simpkins said.
They have brought to bear their different strengths in student government. “I’m more political and practical, he’s more policy-oriented. That’s why we were able to complement each other so much,” Mr. Simpkins said.
The two met at a reception for students admitted to the honors college when Mr. Merola was a freshman. Later, there were shared classes, trips to volunteer at the Democratic and Republican national conventions, and appearances in a mock presidential debate in which Mr. Merola played Senator Kerry and Mr. Simpkins played President Bush. Both say that their most memorable moment together was on December 13, when as student government representatives to the City Council they supported Chancellor Matthew Goldstein’s tuition increases.
Even though Mr. Merola is a year younger, he has been a role model to Mr. Simpkins. “Ryan has been someone who is motivating. Just looking at all the things he’s doing, if I ever felt if I was satisfied at what I was doing academically, I’d look at Ryan and think I need to step up more,” Mr. Simpkins said.
Mr. Merola, the straighter edge, admires Mr. Simpkins “for being the only one on campus with the testosterone to really stand up and say what he believes.” There were times, though, when Mr. Merola felt it was his role to monitor him. “Ryan would call me if I were doing something entirely stupid,” Mr. Simpkins said. Still, Mr. Simpkins seems pretty serious. He wrote his thesis “on the impact that political blogs are having on the American political landscape,” a topic he chose after being an active conservative blogger himself.
Identifying himself as an evangelical Christian, Mr. Simpkins opposes gay marriage and abortion. “In terms of fiscal policy, I want to see less government, which means tax cuts coupled with spending cuts,” he said. As for foreign policy, he described himself as “an old school isolationist.”
With support of the Honors College program, Mr. Simpkins has had the chance to study abroad in Cuba and Hungary, experiences that affirmed his position. “In Cuba, seeing the position that the economy was in, the state of the buildings in Havana, I can only imagine what rebuilding a place like Iraq would be like. It’s very costly and very lengthy operation,” he said.
Having seen Messrs. Simpkins and Merola together, the Truman scholars of the past and present are already marveling at the dynamic duo. “They joke about Ryan coming to Harvard also. They say, ‘Don’t put the two of them together. That will be trouble,'” Mr. Simpkins said.
Mr. Simpkins said yesterday that the topic of his speech today – taking place at the Hammerstein Ballroom – will be public service. After the graduation, he and his father will get into a rented car packed with all his belongings and drive to Washington D.C., where tomorrow he starts a summer internship at the Department of Justice’s community affairs division. His assignment: “to research ethnic tensions around the country and notify my higher-ups. The division has attorneys who are trained as negotiators to go in and mediate,” Mr. Simpkins said.
Washington already feels like home. Last week, he was there on agency visits arranged for Truman scholars. At the Department of Justice he met two Truman alumni who went to Harvard Law School.
“For me it was, ‘Oh, this is my dream job,” Mr. Simpkins said.
Mr. Simpkins expects that he’ll be working with Mr. Merola. History will tell that the friendship began at CUNY.