Nohoum Traore spoke several languages when he arrived in New York City in 2003. None of them was English.
A native of the West African nation of Mali, Traore had come here fresh out of high school, to join his brother and attend college. He was fluent in French and a few Malian tribal dialects as well as his native language, Bambara. But he’d never studied English.
It wasn’t a problem. “I enrolled in the Spanish American Center, a private language school on 42nd Street,” he recalls. “I learned English in three months.”
That was more than good enough to meet CUNY admission standards. He chose BMCC “because, as a student coming from a foreign country, it just seemed to be the right place,” he says. “The teachers were incredibly welcoming and helpful.”
Traore graduated in three semesters while also taking courses at Hunter, where he continued his studies, earning both bachelors and masters degrees in economics. Diplomas in hand, he was hired as a project coordinator by Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA), a non-profit group that evaluates economic aid programs for the world’s poor.
Returning to the U.S. and a second Masters
Traore flew back to West Africa, where he would spend the next two and a half years. Based in Mali, he was responsible for assessing microfinance, land irrigation and agricultural development initiatives and their impact on local economies. Eventually, he decided to return to school to pursue a second masters—this one in public policy, with a concentration in developmental economics.
“I thought back to my time at BMCC and all the help I was given here,” he says. “My experience at BMCC enabled me to do what I did in the IPA. Now I wanted to give back.”
To get the training he’d need, Traore applied to public policy programs at Harvard and Oxford and was accepted at both. He chose Harvard, where he’s on track to graduate in June 2012.
Traore gets mentored by BMCC’s Cynthia Wiseman
At BMCC, Traore’s anchor and main resource was Cynthia Wiseman, a professor in the Developmental Skills department.
“In my first semester I took her ESL094 class, which turned out to be one of the most important experiences of my life,” he says. “My English was still weak, and I knew that could be a handicap. But she made a point of reminding us that ‘ESL’ stands for ‘English as a second language’—meaning that we were all already fluent in at least one other language. It went a long way toward making us comfortable and boosting our self-esteem.”
At a time when he still knew few people in New York, “Professor Wiseman always made time for her students,” Traore says. “She knew each of us by name, and was available to help and advise us whenever we needed. She gave me the help I needed to succeed.”
For her part, Wiseman downplays her contributions. Traore’s success, she says, is all his doing.
“Nohoum is a special person—extremely focused, hard-working and adept at breaking down a complicated task into different parts and getting it done,” she says. When Traore told her about his plans to transfer to Hunter, she assumed his goal was a bachelors degree. “He said, no—I’m going for a BA and an MA at the same time. He managed this incredible feat in two years.”
Traore continues to keep in touch with Wiseman. “Throughout my academic and professional life, I’ve used what I learned in her class—how to organize my thoughts, write a good sentence, communicate with people. I still see her as my mentor.”
When he completes his studies at Harvard next year, Traore plans to return to his profession—ideally in the developing world, where he feels he can contribute the most.
“I’d prefer to go to Mali, but the important thing is to be useful and to learn,” he says. “I will go anywhere I feel I can add value.”