So many extraordinary graduates, so many new milestones—including the University's first baccalaureates awarded for study online.
Kojo Wallace, a West African immigrant whose father drives a taxi, ended up at Bronx Community College two years ago because it was close to home.
"My circumstances at that time made BCC the logical choice," he said, "I did not want to spend most of the day commuting and BCC was the closest college to where I live—20 minutes by foot."
It turned out to be a good decision. Wallace heads off to Cornell in the fall where he will study biochemistry with the help of a $30,000 Jack Kent Cooke scholarship, one of 46 winners nationwide—five in New York State—out of almost 1,000 applicants. Wallace's story was just one of many being told during the last month of spring as thousands of City University of New York graduates received degrees at commencement exercises across the five boroughs.
The University estimates that by the fall of this year, when the final tabulations are in, more than 35,000 students will have been awarded diplomas. As in years past, this group represents all levels of academic achievement with associate, baccalaureate, masters, doctoral and law degrees bestowed. The Class of 2008 also marked a special digital achievement: graduates of the School of Professional Studies, which opened its online degree program several years ago, became the first in the history of the University to receive a baccalaureate for studies conducted online.
"Once again, our graduates have compiled an extraordinary record of accomplishment," said Chancellor Matthew Goldstein. "The class is a source of enormous pride for all New Yorkers. They will invigorate our society and make significant contributions to our city, state and the nation."
Among the commencement speakers were the Hon. David A. Paterson, the state's first African American governor, who spoke at Medgar Evers College; Chris Matthews, MSNBC political pundit, who addressed Hunter graduates, and Peter Gelb, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, who was speaker and honoree at the William E. Macaulay Honors College at CUNY exercises.
But it was the students who took center stage, often telling stories of struggle, hard financial times and difficulties as immigrants adjusting to a new country.
"I was no longer just a student back in Ghana earning excellent grades," said Wallace. "When I came here, I had to learn to work, be a full-time student and earn excellent grades."
After attending classes at BCC, Wallace worked the night shift as a security guard. Yet he still graduated in June with a 4.0 average and as one of three class valedictorians. His dream is to become a doctor in developing countries. I am very proud," he said. "Almost every faculty member I have met has encouraged and mentored me and informed me of opportunities available for students. BCC has been like a family to me." His Cooke Award will provide up to $30,000 a year until he gets his bachelor's degree.
At the New York City College of Technology, Limor Garfinkle reflected on her journey from Israel with an uncertain future to an honored graduate in communication design. "When I first came to the States at age 20, with just $1,000, I was alone, I was confused and I didn't have any confidence," she said.
A chance conversation with the registrar at City Tech made the difference. "He assured me that if I wanted to do it, I would be able to. I'll never forget those words. With such a heart-warming welcome, I felt like I couldn't disappoint this man."
Now 30, and class salutatorian, Garfinkle is the first in her family to earn a degree. She already has a job lined up as the New York studio assistant coordinator at Grey Advertising. And she and her husband have a new baby, James.
Joy Marchionni dropped out of high school in 10th grade to work in retail. But earning $7.25 an hour made her feel as if she was at a dead end, so two years ago, she enrolled in Kingsborough Community College's New Start program. For the first time, she earned straight A's and realized there was a big world out there. She was elected president of the fledgling Honors Club, and in nine months established a monthly newsletter and increased membership from 12 to 218. She became a strong advocate for KCC, lobbying city and state legislators to restore budget cuts and appearing before the Governor's Commission on Higher Education. Marchionni plans to study history and international relations at Smith College in the fall.
Angelo Damanti won't have to stray far from his college for his first job. This summer, he begins work as a chemistry analyst at the largest U.S. Federal Drug Administration lab in the country, which is on York College's 50-acre campus. The idea for his future was sparked one day as he left the physical education building at York. "I saw this huge FDA building and I knew what I wanted to do…to pursue," he said. The FDA has only five regional offices and with the exception of the lab at the agency's Maryland headquarters, the one at York is the largest and most modern.
Damanti sought out Angelo Rossi, professor of chemistry and director of the college's FDA Collaboration. That led to internships at the lab. "York is a college where professors are very involved," Damanti said, "Dr. Rossi was there and always available. He emailed me, he called…those are the things that at the end make you feel special."
Rebecca Speziale got her bachelor's 20 years ago, then worked in sales and marketing before leaving the work force to raise her children. Eight years ago, she developed scleroderma, a progressive, sometimes fatal autoimmune disease. Despite the grim prognosis—doctors gave her only three years to live, Speziale continued to fight for her dream of becoming a teacher. She enrolled in the master's program in teaching at Queens College and graduated this spring with a 3.9 GPA. "It's a badge of courage," said Lila Swell, an Elementary and Early Childhood Education professor at the college and Speziale's graduate advisor. "She received her degree despite chronic pain, fatigue and severe muscular weakness."
Speziale is a second grade teacher at P.S. 232 in Howard Beach. "My professors in the program, Dr. Swell and Dr. Kimberley Alkins, encouraged me to have confidence in myself," she said. "Even though I didn't miss any deadlines, they were very understanding about my circumstances and that took a lot of the pressure off."
In his application to the Thomas W. Smith Academic Fellowship a few years ago, Tennessee Jones explained his life growing up in the Appalachian mountains of East Tennessee. "Our water came from a creek spring and my backyard was uncut wilderness," he wrote. "Three generations of my family lived on top of each other in a little holler and my parents grew a tobacco crop to supplement their incomes…. Though we lived on the top of the oldest mountains in the world, the horizon of opportunity was very limited."
Jones won the fellowship and arrived at Hunter College and the CUNY Baccalau-reate Degree after kicking around the country figuring out where he wanted to live and writing fiction. By the time he began his studies, Jones had published a well-received book of short stories—Deliver Me From Nowhere—and was an editor at Soft Skull Press. Under the direction of religion professor Barbara Sproul, at Hunter, he took courses in Africana Studies, Religion and English. He graduated with a B.A. in Religious Dimensions of Social Justice in Literature, is working on a novel and has been accepted to the MFA program at Hunter.
For Jae Ko, a commitment to public service started in his early days at John Jay College in 2004. As a freshman, he volunteered to work at the Dispute Resolution Consortium based at John Jay. Two years later, he won the Justice Scholarship, established by Princeton University to honor the public service heroes of the World Trade Center bombings. Ko's volunteer activities that helped him win the award included youth leadership work at his church in Queens, advocacy on behalf of the disabled and serving as a patient-relations assistant at Elmhurst Hospital.
Scholarly collaborations with faculty have enabled him to work on grant-funded initiatives and present original research on conflict resolution and prison gangs at several national conferences. Last year Ko received a $100,000 Korean Honor Fellowship from the Embassy of the Republic of Korea to help him pay for law school. He graduated with a degree in criminology and a Certificate in Dispute Resolution. He also won the Leonard E. Reisman Medal, the college's highest honor for scholarship and service.
Ko has deferred entering Columbia's law school until 2009 so he can take a year off to pursue public and private sector policy work. "John Jay has taught me to go beyond being exceptional into becoming an accepted and necessary maverick," Ko said.