BMCC Students Build Houses, Tour Colleges and Gain Skills

May 12, 2016

College spring break signals time for relaxing and going to the beach. At Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC/CUNY), spring break signals something else: building community and giving back. This past spring break, April 22 to April 30, over 70 BMCC students traveled to one of four locations: Durham, North Carolina; Upstate New York; Washington DC and Atlanta, Georgia. They helped construct new homes, attended a leadership conference, took part in team-building activities, visited museums, sat around campfires, gazed at the night sky and strengthened their bonds.

Peer Mentor and Leadership Training Retreat

Nineteen students in the BMCC College Discovery (CD) program traveled upstate to stay at the Frost Valley YMCA and take part in the Peer Mentor and Leadership Training Project. Their retreat, held April 27 through April 29, was made possible by a $10,004 grant from the CUNY Office of Special Programs for a Peer Mentoring and Leadership Training Program, and the grant project was created by Professor Vanessa Rozzelle and CD Director Pedro Perez.

Professor Rozzelle, along with Justyna Jagielnicka, Adrian Solomon and Nelson Izquierdo of the CD program accompanied the students upstate. “We targeted second-semester freshmen to attend the retreat,” Rozzelle says. “We thought it was important to establish some team building and help prepare them to serve as peer tutors to incoming freshman in the Fall 2016 semester.”

The students took part in wall and tree climbing, she says, and focused on civic responsibility, “such as learning how to get people to vote, and advocate for higher education with public officials.”

“Most of the students had never experienced dorm-style rooms or been in a place where they did not have Wi-Fi,” said Director Perez. “Even the food was a new experience. There was no sugar in the beverages. It was farm-grown foods, and we had family-style meals where everyone had a responsibility. They were really pumped about having been through the team exercises when we got back to the City. They showed me videos, pictures; it was quite an initial transformative event.”

Peer Mentors: Ponder the Stars Retreat

Twenty-five BMCC students, many of whom are peer mentors through the Office of Student Affairs, took a bus upstate to attend the Ponder the Stars Retreat and stayed in the Frost Valley YMCA in Claryville, New York, April 27 through April 29.

Denise Dellaporta, Student Life Specialist for Peer Mentoring, Leadership and Student Success in the BMCC Office of Student Affairs, chaperoned the group. They also met with an assigned facilitator from the Frost Valley YMCA.

“This year I had gotten the impression from the peer mentors that students feel overwhelmed; that they have personal stress and other issues. I wanted to focus on getting them to put everything down and take a breath,” says Dellaporta. “The students hiked and cooked ‘s’mores’ over a campfire. They ate meals together and took part in team- and trust-building exercises similar to the sport of zip lining, a metaphor for letting go.”

Vice President of Student Affairs Marva Craig, who has seen the impact of retreats on urban students over many years of spring breaks, says that students in the Ponder the Stars retreat “came away with a deeper appreciation of nature, a stronger sense of self-awareness, and a greater understanding of interdependence and emotional well-being.”

Social Justice and Leadership Retreat

Flying all the way to Atlanta, Georgia, 16 students and two BMCC staff chaperones attended the National Student Leadership Diversity Convention from April 22 to April 25. “This allowed them to address the most critical topics of diversity and social justice challenging our campus and communities,” says Vice President Craig.

Chaperones for the trip were Melissa Aponte and Mariana Torres-Chapen, both Assistant Directors in the Office of Student Activities.

Students spent a day and half at the convention, says Aponte. “They attended workshops on social justice and diversity, and were impacted by a keynote speaker who assumed the role of various characters representing groups that are excluded or not accepted in society. The focus was on diversity that goes beyond race and ethnicity, to include gender, accessibility, learning disabilities and LGBTQ issues. It encouraged us to think more broadly about what diversity is: We all have a story. And everyone has faced some challenge, so I think that really struck the students.”

For the rest of the break, she says, “We took a day trip to the Civil and Human Rights Center in Atlanta, a social justice-themed museum, and we did a walking tour, a scavenger hunt where the clues led us to historical sites around downtown Atlanta.”

The group, comprised of club leaders, peer mentors and members of student government, even attended a Braves versus Mets baseball game. “They are from many different majors, and most are continuing at BMCC,” says Aponte, “so we hope they will implement what they learned in their leadership activities at BMCC.”

Habitat for Humanity Retreat

Twelve BMCC students flew to Durham, North Carolina for an Alternative Spring Break retreat along with chaperones Nereida Montijo, Assistant Director for Student Involvement and Civic Responsibility in the BMCC Office of Student Activities, and Wilfred Cotto, Veterans Services Specialist in the BMCC Office of Student Affairs.

The group stayed from April 24 to April 30 at the Chestnut Ridge Camp and Retreat Center outside Durham, sleeping on bunk beds in a large cabin setting. They ate breakfast at another building on the grounds, and then headed off to five Habitat for Humanity sites in four days. Following an orientation, they assisted with interior and exterior construction tasks, helping build homes for families in need.

“They went right at it and did everything they were asked to do, as if they had been doing that kind of work all their lives,” says Cotto. “They used power tools. They measured, they cut. They did landscaping, which required spreading top soil, planting seeds and trees, and they painted walls inside the house.”

Back at their base camp, he says, the students took part in trust- and team-building activities. “There was one exercise where the volunteer would be blindfolded and had to follow a path in an open field, relying on instructions from their team mates,” says Cotto. “So it required a lot of trust, building trust.”

The students also took a tour of the University of North Carolina, went kayaking and canoeing, and attended a dine-in theater, “which was really new to them,” says Montijo. “In fact, one student had never been on a plane before.”

After the BMCC student visit, Blake Strayhorn, Executive Director of Habitat Durham, commented in a letter to the leaders of the group that “Each student was hard-working, inquisitive, respectful and fun. Our construction staff developed special bonds with each of them and we were sad to see them go …Durham Habitat has hosted 13 Collegiate Challenge groups in 2016, with the last group scheduled to come in mid-May. Your group came after 11 other incredible groups; and yet I must say that the best was saved for last.”

Black College Tour

In another trip that took place during spring break, two student groups, the BMCC Urban Mentors and Leaders Association, and the BMCC Honor Society of Black Student Scholars — the gender-neutral arm of the Urban Male Leadership Academy — took an overnight trip to Washington, DC and toured two historically black universities: Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland, and Howard University in Washington, DC.

We called it the Black College Tour, said Ashtian Holmes, Director of the Urban Male Leadership Academy in the BMCC Office of Academic Affairs. He chaperoned the group of 40 students along with Nordia Whyte, a Professor in the BMCC Science Department. They took a bus that left New York on April 26, spent the night at a hotel in Laurel, Maryland, and returned the next day.

“Both college tours were excellent,” says Holmes. “Some of our students are seriously thinking about transferring to a college we visited. They received materials about scholarships, life on campus, and we even had the opportunity to talk with one of the athletic coaches at Morgan, who we happened to run into, when we passed by the gym.”

The group also visited the National Mall in Washington, DC. “They got to see the White House, the new Dr. King Memorial, museums, and then we ate dinner and headed back to BMCC,” says Holmes. “Especially with students born and raised in New York, many haven’t experienced a lot of travel out of state. CUNY is a tremendous option, but it’s good to expose them to institutions built around the specific needs of students of color and happen to be close enough to take a bus to. Those universities and colleges with a rich historical tradition of black scholarship, have a powerful impact on them.”


share this story »


  • More than 70 BMCC students participate in Alternative Spring Break activities in April
  • They traveled to North Carolina, Georgia, Washington, DC and Upstate New York for retreats
  • Activities ranged from college tours to trust-building activities to volunteering for Habitat for Humanity

share this story »