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Fast Learner

October 13, 2009

Born and raised in Bucaramanga, Colombia, Wilson Andres Acuna first moved to New York as a 17-year-old in 2006. By his own account, he wasn’t especially happy to be here.

“I came to New York to be with my father, who had been living here for a few years,” recalls Acuna, one of three BMCC students to receive the 2009 Peter Jennings Scholarship Laurel Award. The award recognizes the achievements of outstanding CUNY students who have earned a General Equivalency Diploma through a special CUNY program. It’s named in honor of the late ABC News anchor Peter Jennings, who never completed high school or earned a college degree.

“From the time I came here I missed Colombia and always wanted to go home,” Acuna recalls. Finally, he did—on vacation in December 2007. The trip was an eye-opener.

Getting unstuck
“I realized my life wasn’t in Colombia any more,” he says. “I’d been living away for two years, and Bucaramanga no longer had the appeal it once did. So I returned to New York knowing I’d have to do something to get unstuck and move forward in my life.”

A CUNY community college seemed the best option. Acuna chose BMCC despite the fact that Hostos Community College was within walking distance of his home and BMCC was a 40-minute subway ride away. “I went with BMCC on the basis of its reputation,” he says. “It’s the best decision I ever made.”

But before he could begin classes, there was unfinished business to attend to. In the summer of 2008, Acuna enrolled in the GED program offered by BMCC’s Center for Continuing Education Department and Workforce Development.

“I wasn’t entirely confident that I would succeed or that my language skills would be good enough for college,” he says. “But the teachers were incredibly helpful and supportive, always willing to answer my questions—in the classroom or after class. I would never have made it this far without them.”

GED in hand, Acuna could have moved directly into an associate degree program. Instead, he decided to spend time in CUNY’s College Transition program “to get a better feel for what college classes would be like.” He also wanted to improve his skills “and see if I was ready to go on to college.”

He was ready. He began his studies at BMCC this spring and completed the semester with a 4.0 GPA. His selection as a Peter Jennings scholar surprised no one—least of all his teachers. Wrote one, in support of Acuna’s application, Acuna is “a quick learner who distinguished himself as a support to other students, not simply providing answers, but patiently asking question to guide them toward discovering concepts at their own pace. His sense of community and responsibility are reflected in his commitment toward a career in biology, protecting species and natural environments.”

Taking a pass on cartoons
Acuna is in fact planning to pursue a bachelor's degree in biology after graduating from BMCC; he’ll then go on to study environmental biology at the graduate level. “My interest in plants, animals, nature and the environment goes back to my childhood,” he says. “When my friends were watching cartoons, I was watching Discovery Channel and Animal Planet.”

Taking in the arc of Acuna’s life, from his arrival here six years ago, one can’t help being impressed by his determination, focus and gift for self-reflection.

“I really didn’t speak English well when I came here and was insecure about meeting people,” Acuna recalls. “It’s when I connected with BMCC’s Center for Continuing Education that my academic life began. Until then, I was stuck—but now I’m moving forward, and looking ahead to all things I can do and all the places I can go.”

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