An Inspired Vet Finds Himself, And Much More - ASAP

Patrick Saladrigags found academic and social support in ASAP, which set him firmly on the path toward achieving long-held dreams.
Patrick Saladrigas never had it easy. Growing up in rural Polk County, Fla., he was only a few years old when his father became crippled from a car accident and his mother had to become the main source of income for the family.

She worked the night shift as a nurse until "she was bone weary," Saladrigas says.

The family shopped for food at a dollar store, and a big treat for him and his two brothers was dinner at McDonald's.

To help boost himself out of poverty, Saladrigas joined the Army after high school. As a member of the Military Police Corps, he was deployed twice to Korea and in 2004 to Iraq.

But the hard times finally seem behind him. Last spring, Saladrigas graduated at the top of his class from CUNY's Accelerated Study in Associate Program (ASAP) at LaGuardia Community College. Now he's working on a B.A. in political science at Queens College.

"My parents instilled in me that you have to have strength in life and that ... struggle will bring you prosperity," says Saladrigas, 26, who joined ASAP in July 2007 after six years in the service. "I feel like I need to be a success because I owe it to them."

While in the Army, he heard that The City University of New York has good veterans' programs. "I wanted to see what life is like in the big city, and CUNY definitely gives a lot of opportunity for students so it led me here," he says.

With his tuition covered by the GI Bill, Saladrigas planned to attend LaGuardia for one semester and then transfer to a senior college. But he was impressed by the individual attention he received from his professors, and he couldn't say no to ASAP.

Developed as part of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's Commission For Economic Opportunity Agenda in early 2007, ASAP offers free tuition, small class size, convenient schedules and cohorts organized by majors and work experience. It is designed to help highly motivated community college students earn their associate degree in fewer than three years. Then they may continue their studies or move on to challenging careers.

"ASAP is one of those programs where they really want to take care of you," says Saladrigas, who, back in civilian clothes and living away from his close-knit family, needed a helping hand. "They want you to be not just their student but a member of their family, the ASAP family. What I needed [from this program] is camaraderie, community and support - and that's perk enough."

Arlene Peterson, Saladrigas' ASAP adviser, says he was a disciplined student who excelled in his classes but needed the program to help him navigate the web of educational and GI Bill requirements.

"We do a lot more than just telling them about academics," says Peterson, who met with Saladrigas at least twice a month. "We're teaching them life skills and how to ask the right questions. It's a joy doing it, and Patrick has made me so proud."

ASAP operates in CUNY's community colleges, giving academic, financial (including free books and Metro Cards ) and social support to students who will be unable to complete an associate degree in the standard two years.

Some 400 new ASAP recruits joined 400 returning ASAP students this fall. ASAP's two-year graduation rate stands at 35 percent versus 11.4 percent for a comparison group of community college students. According to ASAP University Director Donna Linderman, by summer 2010, ASAP will reach a three-year graduation rate of at least 60 percent (nationally, community college students have a three-year graduation rate of about 20 percent).

"If you have a problem you can go to them, you can talk to them, and if you strive for excellence, they will put your name out there," says Saladrigas, who developed close and supportive relationships with his fellow ASAP students and instructors. "I thank them so much for all the opportunities they've given me."

Saladrigas hopes to attend graduate school to pursue a joint law and divinity studies degree. For as long as he can remember, he has wanted to be a lawyer and a minister. And he knows he can "make it happen," he says, adding that: "my family is really the primary driving force and why I chose to leave the military and come back to school and not just be adequate in my studies but be the best."