Keeping CUNY Talent at CUNY

New programs focus on guiding top community college graduates into top CUNY senior colleges.

Kingsborough student Luesoni Johnson, left, worked with faculty mentor Kristin Polizzotto, right, to develop prizewinning zebra fish research she hopes to continue at Hunter.

With ambitions of becoming an orthopedic surgeon, Luesoni Johnson entered Kingsborough Community College in 2008 keenly interested in science. What she didn’t anticipate was that a year later, she would be presenting her own research – on embryonic development in zebra fish -- and winning a prize alongside students from Yale, Cornell and other private and public universities.

Now the honors student with a 3.70 GPA is looking forward to continuing her research next fall at Hunter College toward her new goal as a professor of embryology and neuroscience, via a new CUNY program guaranteeing eligible, high-achieving students transfer from Kingsborough to the federally funded, competitive Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program at Hunter. Under the program, the students finish their bachelor’s degrees at Hunter while receiving a stipend, mentoring and preparation for applying to graduate schools, through McNair.

“I thought that once I finished Kingsborough that would be the end of my research experience,” said Johnson, 19, of Brooklyn. One of three Kingsborough students tapped so far for Hunter’s McNair program, Johnson added, “I’m going to take a very big leap through that door. I’m very excited for the fall.”

The unique Hunter-Kingsborough arrangement was born out of concerns — expressed most recently at the second CUNY Honors Opportunities Conference on Nov. 3 — that the University’s top community college students find it easier to transfer their credits to aggressively-recruiting, scholarship-bearing private colleges than to honors programs at the University's four-year colleges. In recent weeks, Senior Vice Chancellor Jay Hershenson has convened a working group of deans and educators to discuss ways to better inform the public about the honors opportunities offered across the University. The group is planning activities and exploring the use of web and other promotional media to showcase CUNY’s honors programs to the public.

In 2008, only 54 percent of community college graduates with GPAs of 3.75 or better moved on to CUNY senior colleges, a figure that has flatlined for nearly a decade. Honors slots for students who transfer to the senior colleges are limited, although other opportunities for an enriched academic experience, such as the Hunter program, are available.

“Our students are going to Columbia, NYU, Smith and Wellesley — with scholarships,” said Kingsborough Associate Provost Reza Fakhari. “I’ve got private colleges coming here (to recruit). We’ve got diversity, and excellent students.” Within CUNY, however, “they can’t transfer to the four-year institutions, and they don’t get scholarships,” Fakhari said.

“The question was, ‘If our students are picked up so easily by Columbia, NYU and Smith, why can’t we get them into CUNY honors programs?’ ”

“There is a brain drain with regards to our high-achieving and highly motivated community college students. The private colleges are just eating them up,” said Karlyn Koh, honors program director at LaGuardia Community College and co-convener of the Honors Opportunities Conference. “At LaGuardia, you have people from Vassar coming in, Barnard. . . .

These places really want us and want to support us.” Koh added, that often high-achieving community college students “don’t think about Hunter or City College. They think about Amherst and NYU” when it’s time to transfer for junior and senior years. “We have these really strong students who should be able to compete within CUNY,” said Koh.

“We want a share of those students,” asserted Robert Greenberg, Hunter’s associate dean for undergraduate education and student opportunities, who was instrumental in putting together the Hunter-Kingsborough Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) detailing the transfer agreement between the two colleges, and is involved with a proposal to make a similar but more expansive arrangement with LaGuardia that could involve placing eligible community college students in McNair and other high-end, minority-opportunity programs sited at Hunter. “We want to reach out to them, nurture them so they can get a really fine education here and then go on to graduate school if they so choose.”

The Hunter-Kingsborough MOU is unusual in that it guarantees transfer of qualified community college students into a CUNY senior college. Such agreements, say Greenberg and others, can help retain top community college students within CUNY after they graduate, as well as attract high achievers to the University.

Greenberg, Koh and other administrators are advocating for identifying, encouraging and creating enticing academic opportunities within CUNY for the University’s high-achieving community college students. At the Nov. 3 Honors Opportunities Conference, held at Macaulay’s West Side campus to foster collaborations to provide more high-level academic and internship opportunities to CUNY's top students, two panels explored the question of where high-achieving community college students transfer after graduation. The session touched on private-college recruiting efforts such as Vassar College’s Exploring Transfer Summer Program for LaGuardia students, as well as on the Hunter-Kingsborough collaboration, initiated in response to concerns aired at the first Honors Opportunities Conference in 2008.

Like the McNair program, which exists at Hunter and John Jay, CUNY senior colleges have a number of programs, funded by the federal government and foundations and often aimed at talented minority students, that theoretically are open to community college students. These programs include the Skadden, Arps Honors Program in Legal Studies, a partnership between City College and the leading law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. The Skadden, Arps program, which helps prepare students for law school, does not have a formalized agreement with community colleges, but “the director makes an effort to recruit our students,” notes Karlyn Koh. Other programs include the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program at Brooklyn, Queens, Hunter and City Colleges, open to students interested in doctoral studies and academic careers in the humanities; the federally funded MARC and MBRS/RISE programs in the sciences, and The City College-Grove School of Engineering’s “joint dual degree program” with Hostos and LaGuardia community colleges, a pre-engineering initiative with a prescribed curriculum that prepares community college students who meet its requirements for enrollment at CCNY. With 200 students currently in the pipeline, there are plans to extend the program to New York City Tech, Kingsborough and Bronx community colleges.

The CUNY Justice Academy at John Jay College of Criminal Justice has educational partnerships with six community colleges that provide a path to careers in forensic science as well as in criminal justice. The Lehman Teacher Academy will be the receiving program for high-performing math and science students from Hostos Community College who are interested in teaching. Academically strong CUNY community college students who would like to design, with a faculty mentor, an individualized bachelor’s degree, can enroll in CUNY Baccalaureate for Unique and Inter- disciplinary Studies while matriculating at a community college, and work on completing their associate and bachelor’s degrees at the same time. The Hunter School of Nursing is partnering with the nursing program at Queensborough Community College. Said Hunter College President Jennifer Raab, “The health care world of today requires more nurses, and more nurses with bachelor’s and higher degrees…. Students entering the nursing program at QCC in the Spring 2010 term will be able to qualify for a nursing license at the associate degree level, but will move seamlessly into the Hunter B.S. program.”

The community colleges, meanwhile, are focused on preparing their high achievers to compete. “Our honors program at LaGuardia is designed to up the ante for them,” said Karlyn Koh. “We help them get up to speed…especially in writing. We give them leadership experience.” She added that CUNY community-college honors directors have been meeting to share their concerns and forge new opportunities within CUNY for their students.

“The primary objective is to have a voice, to speak for our honors students,” Koh said. “To start opening those doors.”

Opportunities Are Knocking

From prestigious internships and research summers to rigorous, pre-professional academic programs, the University is forging collaborations to increase opportunities for high-achieving students. A recent conference spotlighted high-end programs with Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences, Gerstner Sloan-Kettering Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, Time Warner and the Economist news magazine, which cosponsors internships with the Office of University Relations.

University students are valued for their academic achievement, life experience and diversity. One complaint: Not enough apply. “That is something we would very much like to change,” said Assistant Dean Francoise Freyre of Weill Cornell’s Access Summer Research Program. James Airozo, conference co-convener , said other panels explored ways to retain community college honors students within the University (see accompanying article).

Yelena Leitman, a Goldwater Scholar from Hunter College who spent two summers of research at Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory — a place where “you can have lunch with a Nobel Prize winner” — called her experience “a turning point . . . . I understood that was my place and that was what I wanted to be.”

Small Foundation Nurtures Budding Science and Math Teachers’ Dreams

York College student Fatima Flores, left, benefits from tuition help
available from the organization founded by Annette Rickel, right.

Fatima Flores came to New York from Ecuador 18 years ago with her husband and infant son, speaking only Spanish, having no other family to rely on, but knowing that here she could build a better life.

Her first priority was her mentally disabled son who, she said, functions as a 6-year-old. After finding care for him and, later, for her now-11-year-old daughter, she set about learning English, passed the GED and took the prerequisites for college while her husband worked as a waiter.

“When you really want to change your life, you have to look for a way how,” she said. “Sometimes people look for the easy way to work or survive. Going to school is very difficult, and having to worry about financial needs — it’s sometimes very hard.”

While studying at Queensborough Community College, she heard about the Annette Urso Rickel Foundation, a small philanthropic organization that draws students from around the world and since 2005 has annually paid the tuition and, depending on need, book costs for 20 CUNY community college students. All intend to become math or science teachers in New York City’s public schools.

Dr. Rickel is helping people with their dreams,” said Flores, who expects to graduate from York College in 2011 with a bachelor’s in mathematics. “It’s a blessing to have someone to help.”

Rickel, a psychologist in private practice and a professor at Weill Cornell Medical College, has been concerned with young people throughout her career. Teaching at Wayne State University in Detroit, she developed a program for teenage mothers who returned to school. During a Congressional Fellowship with then-Sen. Donald Riegel Jr. of Michigan, she addressed adolescent mental health needs with Tipper Gore on Hillary Clinton’s health care task force.

When her husband died, she came to New York as education director at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. With thoughts of her mother (an elementary and middle school teacher) and aunt (a math and science teacher) in mind, Rickel decided to set up her own foundation.

To be considered for Rickel grants, students need a minimum B average, faculty recommendations, financial need and a persuasive essay about why they want to teach math or science in the city’s public schools. For more information, go to

CUNY Senior Vice Chancellor Jay Hershenson, who met with the Rickel Foundation’s board in November, called its work “enormously important. It fits right in with the efforts that CUNY is making to advance science, technology, engineering and math — the STEM fields. The Rickel Foundation gains extra depth because of Dr. Rickel’s personal involvement with the students who receive grants. She’s inspirational.”