April 29, 2021
The Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC/CUNY) valedictorian for the graduating class of 2021—which includes graduates from Summer 2020, Fall 2020 and Spring 2021—is Fernanda Carvalho Santos, who earned an Associate of Science (A.S.) in Art Foundations: Studio Art with a concentration in Photography in Fall 2020 and is now enrolled in a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) program at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC).
“I have been working not only with photography at SAIC but also merging different mediums such as film, performance, sculpture and installation into my creative work,” says Carvalho Santos, who grew up in Brazil, and moved to New York City in 2019.
Her first step was to take an intensive English-language course at Hunter College, CUNY. Then once she was enrolled at BMCC, she made the choice to focus on an artistic field.
“I had to debate about how I would be able to get a job that gives me enough income to live comfortably, especially in Brazil, a country that lacks support for artists,” she says.
After high school, Carvalho Santos took a one-month introductory photography course and volunteered as a photography instructor at the non-profit Social Project Viver a Vida, which serves low-income families.
“I taught photography to teenagers and adults and took photos of their events for a year,” Carvalho Santos says. “Because of this experience, together with my artistic aspirations, I decided to major in photography at BMCC. Now I am an interdisciplinary artist, using not only photography but other mediums as well to speak about social, political and cultural issues.”
At BMCC, her creativity was developed further in an Honors Contract filmmaking project with Professor Philip Weisman, an Honors Contract project with Photography Professor Terttuu Uibopuu, and in the research and creation of an artificial language, a project Carvalho Santos completed with Linguistics Professor Cynthia Wiseman, who also guided her to make several conference presentations.
One of these was the research paper, “ePortfolios: Tapping into the Imagination to Motivate Learning,” which Carvalho Santos and fellow student Giulia Michiele, along with Professor Wiseman, presented at an international gathering of the Asociación Nacional Universitaria de Profesores de Inglés, A.C.
Throughout her tenure at BMCC, Carvalho Santos maintained a 4.0 GPA and was a member of the BMCC Panther Partners mentoring program which serves first-generation students.
She then worked as a college assistant for Panther Partners, was a member of the BMCC Learning Academy (BLA), Degree Under Three and Out in Two communities, and served as a S.T.A.R. Ambassador. She also tutored fellow classmates in General Astronomy and helped them complete their Language and Culture class projects.
Dean’s Award Recipient Josiah Ramesar plans to become a public defender
In additional to a valedictorian, BMCC presents a Dean’s Award Recipient every year and this year that honor goes to Writing and Literature major Josiah Ramesar, who has served as the BMCC Student Government Association (SGA) president.
Among other accomplishments as a student leader, Ramesar encouraged fellow students to be active in the 2020 presidential election, and to attend the October 2020 BMCC Votes Debate Watch Party.
“I hope my classmates and peers who watched this debate really got to see the situation that America is in,” he said, after that event. “I hope students make rational decisions and do their research on both candidates before casting a ballot. Be sure to vote down the ballot and find out who your local representatives are as well.”
Born in Queens, Ramesar was a member of the Urban Male Leadership Academy (UMLA) at BMCC, and will transfer to Hunter College, CUNY in Fall 2021 to earn a bachelor’s degree in English.
“My career plan is to become a public defender and help those who cannot afford an attorney,” he says. “I know our criminal justice system is broken and I believe that by representing individuals as their defense attorney, I can change people’s lives.”
Process to select a a valedictorian highlights many outstanding scholars
Other students considered for the honor of serving as valedictorian or dean’s award recipient are Bilingual Childhood Education major Raghda Aboushanab, Criminal Justice major Lucas Agudelo, Science major Bibi Ali, Science major Lilia Fedora, Computer Science major Liron Hayon, Business Administration major Fahmida Kabir Simran, Early Childhood Education major Lisa Leopold, Liberal Arts major Tara Navarro, Bilingual Childhood Education major Lena Roca, Communication Studies major Rim Saab and Computer Science major Yinon Shirazi.
Science major Lilia Fedora was born in Ukraine and moved to NYC at age 19. Despite the language barrier, difficulties with immigration and separation from her family, she stayed on course to pursue her dream of becoming a pharmacist and enrolled at BMCC, completing her studies while working full-time at a retail e-commerce company.
In Fall 2021, she will enter the professional phase of the Doctor or Pharmacy program at The Arnold & Marie Schwartz College of Pharmacy and Health Science at Long Island University.
Having grown up in Egypt to parents who were teachers, Raghda Aboushanab immigrated alone to the United States at age 17.
“In the beginning, having young children and the language barrier were obstacles in continuing my education,” says Aboushanab, who first enrolled in CUNY Start at BMCC to raise her language skills and gain college-level reading and writing skills, then the BMCC Summer Math Immersion.
Aboushanab is now earning her bachelor’s degree at City College of New York, CUNY.
“My goal is to be a math educator who is capable of creating amazing students who truly relish school, and are able to understand math problems easily,” she says. “Furthermore, I want to support students who encounter language barrier concerns. That is why I choose to be a bilingual teacher with a concentration in mathematics.”
Bilingual Childhood Education major Lena Roca enrolled at BMCC 25 years after graduating from high school.
“I wanted to change careers and needed to start from the very beginning,” says Roca, an aspiring public school teacher who, like Valedictorian Carvalho Santos, was a member of the BMCC Panther Partners mentoring program.
“They taught me everything I needed to know about how to navigate academia,” she says. “The Panther Partners made it easy and even kind of fun. In addition to the know-how I gained from the program, I gained friends! It was truly a gift to have walked by their info table when I was trying to register for my first classes!”
Roca also benefited from services at the BMCC Writing Center.
“I was able to learn how to organize and present written ideas in a way that is standard for the academic world from the tutors there. They helped me get my first ‘A’ on an essay and I used that knowledge to get As on most of the ones after that, too.”
Another scholar who started college as an older student is BMCC Computer Science graduate Yinon Shiraz.
Born in a small town outside Tel Aviv, Israel, Shiraz went straight from high school to three years serving in the Israeli Defense Forces as a paratrooper. He then worked for a few years as the manager of a Tel-Aviv restaurant.
Now at Columbia University, he is pursuing his degree in computer science.
“I hope to become a software developer after graduating from Columbia University since the technology industry appeals to me greatly,” Shiraz says. “Despite the technical nature of my education, I plan to do more than write computer code. I hope to obtain a position that will allow me to utilize the leadership and critical thinking skills and make a real impact on the ethical and moral dilemmas that the technology industry faces today.”
Scholars excel despite challenges of learning English and a global pandemic
What many of the valedictorian and dean’s award recipient applicants share is having selected BMCC as part of their entry to New York City, after growing up in another country.
“As a foreign student, I felt welcomed at BMCC,” said Shiraz. “I was able to spend time in the BMCC Writing Center and improve my English. It had been eight years since I’d graduated high school, and they helped me transition back into an academic setting.”
Something else the candidates share—besides a 4.0 GPA—is having excelled academically despite the limits placed on their experience by remote learning and the coronavirus pandemic in New York City.
“It was hard not to have in-person classes, not seeing classmates and having to sit down for way too long—sometimes for more than 12 hours a day doing homework and attending Zoom classes—but I can see many benefits from these turbulent times,” says Valedictorian Carvalho Santos.
“I was super overwhelmed during the transition to distance learning but was still able to launch the first BMCC Art Contest in Fall 2020—an encouragement to be creative during these hectic times,” she says.
Finishing a degree via distance learning “helped me to be more innovative and find new ways to interact, complete projects and participate in class. There were family losses, family members becoming unemployed, uncertainty, anxiety and discouragement sometimes, but it helped to remind myself of why I came to the U.S., why I was getting my degree, and what awaits me in the future.”
- The BMCC valedictorian for the Class of 2021—which includes graduates from Summer 2020, Fall 2020 and Spring 2021—is Studio Art major Fernanda Carvalho Santos
- Santos, who grew up in Brazil, has transferred to study photography and art in a BFA program at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC)
- Writing and Literature major Josiah Ramesar, president of the Student Government Association, is the Dean’s Award Recipient