It’s hard to believe that Tabitha Rinko-Gay, a friendly student who tends to smile when she speaks, was ever bashful.
However, the 2013 class Valedictorian insists just two years ago, she was incredibly shy.
Rinko-Gay grew up in Texas and Pennsylvania before moving to New York in her teens to dance professionally with the New York City Ballet.
“Ballet” she recalls, “allowed me to be shy.”
For four years, she performed in productions such as The Nutcracker, and made a name for herself in the ballet world.
“I loved dancing, but I didn’t want to be part of a dance company anymore,” she says of her decision to hang up her ballet shoes.
“Looking back, I don’t miss the stress and the pressure and I was reaching a point where I was risking injuries. Back then, dancing was my therapy, but now, writing is my therapy,” says the avid reader and writer.
Seeking change, and the opportunity to reinvent herself, Rinko-Gay decided to give college a try.
“I left a part of myself behind, on the stage,” she recalls. “For once, I wanted to be normal.”
First time for everything
Rinko-Gay credits BMCC for helping her shed her shell.
“My first semester, I never spoke in class—ever. I never wanted any attention on me,” says the Writing and Literature major who maintained a 4.0 GPA during her two years at BMCC. “I was just there to soak everything in.”
While attending the School of American Ballet as a teenager, Rinko-Gay was home-schooled by her parents, completing high school in 2005.
She was then accepted into the New York City Ballet and danced with that company until July 2010.
She performed with another ballet company after that, and in May 2011 obtained her GED, then enrolled at BMCC in August 2011.
"I didn't pursue any formal education during my ballet career,” she explains.
Because she was home-schooled, BMCC was the very first place Rinko-Gay ever entered a classroom.
She first joined the Out in Two scholarship program (in which students pledge to graduate within two years and must maintain a specific GPA) then became a Phi Theta Kappa (PTK) member.
“I compared writing papers and studying to performing live. You have a deadline to meet and must be prepared to just ‘get out there’ and do it,” says Rinko-Gay, a diligent note-taker who enjoys conducting literary research.
Hoping to fly under the radar at BMCC, Rinko-Gay says: “I didn’t want people to know about my dance background and think, ‘Oh, look, there goes the ballerina.’ I wanted to be average.”
However, one person—English Professor James Tolan—wouldn’t allow Rinko-Gay to just be “average.”
Life-changing literature course
Rinko-Gay was a student in Tolan’s Introduction to Literature and Honors Composition courses.
"He encouraged me to tell real stories in my writing; not to generalize or conceal anything,” says Rinko-Gay. “I found myself opening up right away in his literature class. I wrote about my ballet background and thought, ‘This class will help me find my voice’. He also broke us up into groups and I’m still close with those students today.”
Says Tolan, of Rinko-Gay: “In twenty-five years of college teaching, I have never had a student flower as dramatically and emphatically as Tabitha. To begin the semester, she was tentative, but quickly became immersed in the questions we asked in the course about identity and family. She is polished, not only as a student, but as a person of substance.”
Rinko-Gay credits Tolan’s classes, and her job as a sales representative at a boutique, for helping her gain confidence.
“I found that at BMCC, anytime I took a risk, either socially or academically, I never regretted it. No one at BMCC ever held me back, and I lucked out with amazing professors and friends,” says Rinko-Gay. “A friend of mine recently asked some classmates, ‘What happened to Tabitha? She used to be so quiet!’”
Out in Two Coordinator Mary Quezada is equally proud of this year’s Valedictorian, whom she advised and mentored during her time at BMCC.
“Tabitha maintained a sales job, volunteered at on-campus and off-campus events through Out in Two, earned a 4.0 every semester, and balanced the rigors of attending college full-time,” she says. “She truly exemplifies the BMCC motto, ‘Start Here, Go Anywhere’.”
Life imitating art
This fall, Rinko-Gay will attend Hunter College as a Comparative Literature major and hopes to someday pen a novel loosely based on her life.
“I jot down little stories all the time. For example, there is one man I constantly bump into in Manhattan,” she says. “I don’t even know his name, but I wrote a story about him.”
What she wants her peers to know is that, if she could start anew in college, they can too.
“You’re never too old to go back to school and try something new. After all, I got my GED just two years ago,” says the 24-year-old. “Now, I have so much to say, and more to accomplish."
The (formerly) shy scholar who wanted to keep her dance background a secret confesses: “I am definitely going to address my ballerina past in my graduation speech.”
In the family
“It’s such an honor to represent this year’s graduating class,” says Rinko-Gay. “I’m the youngest of three children and I always thought, ‘OK, I guess my sister and brother will be the academic ones, and I’ll be the dancer', but now life turned out differently, for the better.”
“My mom was the Valedictorian of her high school and college,” she adds. “I’m thrilled to follow in her footsteps, and keep that academic fire fueling in my family.”