BMCC 2019 Valedictorians Overcome Obstacles and Soar Academically

June 3, 2019

The Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC/CUNY) Office of Academic Affairs named two valedictorians for the 54th Commencement ceremonies that took place on Friday, May 31 at the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden in Manhattan.  Early childhood education major Dequan Gambrell spoke at the morning ceremony and liberal arts major Dorotea Levy de Szekely spoke in the afternoon. Both Gambrell and de Szekely inspired their fellow graduates as well as the event’s guests with moving speeches.  Before the ceremony, both valedictorians shared their stories.

Dorotea Levy de Szekely: Finding her Voice

“I was born in Argentina to German parents who escaped Nazi Germany, then I got married and moved to Germany,” says Dorotea Levy de Szekely. “From there I moved to Venezuela, and then New York in 2015.”

Life in Venezuela was traumatizing, she says, with its crumbling infrastructure and widespread hunger. “I thought of New York as the place where everything is possible. In New York I feel that I am a free person.”

Another reason Levy de Szekely, now age 68, came to New York was to become a first-time college student.

“When I started at BMCC, I told my daughter, ‘Look at these buildings! There are 27,000 students here! This is New York City!’, and she said, ‘This is America, you have a voice’ — and I feel that my voice was heard at BMCC.”

Levy de Szekely credits her professors at BMCC for that positive experience.

Working with BMCC English Professor Elizabeth Albrecht, she wrote a story using main characters from Young Goodman Brown, a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and The Drinker, which she read in the original German, by Hans Fallada.

“I wanted to show a conflict between those two characters to see whose hell was worse,” she says. “Professor Albrecht opened my eyes to what I am capable of doing,” said Levy de Szekely.

Albrecht also encouraged Levy de Szekely to submit her writing to the BMCC literary magazine, The Guild, and they accepted it for publication. “I never thought something like that would happen to me,” says Levy de Szekely.

Art Professor Patricia Genova opened other doors for Levy de Szekely. “I took her courses in drawing, sculpture and painting,” she says. “This semester I’m doing an individualized study project with her, and she sent several of my pieces of artwork to be included in the student art exhibit in the Shirley Fiterman Art Center. It has been an amazing experience.”

In Fall 2019, Levy de Szekely plans to enter Hunter College, CUNY, as an English major, “but I do not believe I can repeat my experience at BMCC,” she says. “I love the students here, and I think we are all changed by the environment of caring we experience. No one ever asked, ‘What are you doing here? How old are you?’ I found empathy in so many people at BMCC at every level.”

With a GPA of 4.0, Levy de Szekely has been offered scholarships at BMCC, “but I didn’t accept them,” she says. “I didn’t need the financial help and I thought it was unfair that someone who needed it more than I do, might not get it. It’s the least you can do to thank the system.”

Her main takeaway from BMCC is philosophical. “I am a true believer that the day I stop learning, I will be dead. I learn every day from my own mistakes and from other people and books. There is so much to do.”

Dequan Gambrell: A Passion for Education

Staten Island resident Dequan Gambrell attended six different high schools before graduating from Millennium Art Academy in the Bronx in 2014.

“First, we were in Buffalo, then Georgia. Later we lived in Philadelphia and finally, we moved back to the city,” said Gambrell. Attending new schools in unfamiliar cities every few months left him feeling isolated, so he immersed himself in books and classwork.

“I had a lot of internal motivation,” he said, though it did take a toll on his grades.

“I felt like BMCC would be a good place to get my academics back in order,” he said. “When I started classes at BMCC, I knew there was a large student body so I wasn’t expecting to get the sort of personal attention and care I received.”

Even with that support at BMCC, family troubles during his first two semesters led to time spent living in a shelter. Overwhelmed, he failed out and was required to complete an appeals process for readmission.

“The appeals process became a journey towards control of my own life,” he says. “Once that lit the fire behind me, I rose to a place where I’m able to forgive and appreciate all of my past experiences.”

Now, Gambrell is a 2019 BMCC valedictorian. A childhood education major, he says he always loved psychology and the idea of a career in education, either as a teacher or on the policy side, advocating that educators place more emphasis on teaching the fundamentals.

“Everyone who graduates high school should be able to construct a thesis and argument, and they should have a command of the essentials of U.S. history,” he says.

After high school, Gambrell spent time as a child advocacy intern with Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York City, where he learned how to advocate for himself as well as his community. He worked on collaborative research with peers, and developed presentations for legislative officials.

Inspired by a grandmother, who taught him how to read and write, Gambrell always had a passion for learning. It was his grandmother’s patience, wisdom and compassion that built much of the foundation for who he is today, he said.

“Her time with me is an important memory, especially in regards to my academic and professional paths. Now I’m pursuing writing and I tutor high school kids every week,” said Gambrell.

At BMCC, Gambrell says he was inspired Speech, Communications and Theatre Arts Professor Hollis Glaser during a mass media class. He also joined the Teacher Education club and is a member of ASAP as well as CUNY Edge.

In addition to tutoring at Curtis High School in Staten Island, he is also part of the Kaplan Educational Transfer Initiative program. Although he’s applying to a number of colleges, Gambrell was already accepted at Hunter and Brooklyn College. He says his time at BMCC has helped prepare him for whatever college experience comes next.

  • Early childhood education major Dequan Gambrell is valedictorian during morning ceremony
  • Liberal Arts major Dorotea Levy de Szekely valedictorian for afternoon ceremony
  • Both valedictorians spoke on May 31 ceremonies at Madison Square Garden

share this story »