Finalists for Valedictorian Share Their Experience at BMCC: “This Community Is Here For you.”

Commencement 2024

June 3, 2024

At Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC/CUNY), where over 17,000 students are enrolled, it is a great honor to be among the finalists for any award. This year’s Valedictorian, Animation and Motion Graphics major Sally Li Weitzner, was selected from a small pool of finalists whose 4.0 GPAs and impressive academic achievements will continue to serve them well—whether they’ve chosen to enter a bachelor’s degree program or employment in their field of choice.

The 2024 finalists for BMCC Valedictorian are Madelin Acosta, Michela Barbiero, Christina Carruso, Eefke De Bont, Kalelo Dukuray, Kaya Fader, Ron Gassner, Mariana Restrepo, Lais Sinhorele and Martina Turroni.

Madelin Acosta: “Pour all your enthusiasm into all you do.”

Madelin Acosta
Madelin Acosta

“I was born and raised in the Dominican Republic,” says Early Childhood Education major Madelin Acosta, who works as an Infant and Toddler Teacher’s Aide and Supplemental Instructor at BMCC.

She also dedicates herself to the pursuit of theater and dance, “constantly refining my craft, and with a passion for art in all its manifestations—be it acting, dancing or drawing.”

At BMCC, she says, “My professors often believed in me more than I believed in myself.”

She adds that the resources at BMCC “are plentiful and enriching.”

These have included free tutoring and opportunities to connect with others through the Literature and Writing program, “which stimulates our creativity to the fullest,” Acosta says. “Turns out, I have discovered that I can write, and I am not as bad as I thought.”

Having completed her degree requirements at BMCC in Summer 2023, Acosta is now enrolled at Brooklyn College, CUNY. “I want to earn my master’s degree in Early Childhood Education and Special Education,” she says. “In the future, I aspire to become a professor, perhaps even here at BMCC.”

She urges other students to remain persistent, “even if it seems that everything is working against you. Pour all your enthusiasm into all you do and keep striving to be the best version of yourself.”

Michela Barbiero: “Let us listen without judgment.”

Michela Barbiero
Michela Barbiero

Michela Barbiero is an Art Foundations/Studio Art major with a Concentration in Digital Imaging. She completed her associate degree requirements in Fall 2023.

“I was born and raised in Italy, in a small town near Venice, where I have always nurtured a deep passion for art,” she says. “This passion led me to spend hours sketching and carrying my colors everywhere I went. My journey has taken me through various fields, with a particular focus on cultural heritage preservation.”

That focus let her to construction sites in Italy, and work “meticulously restoring ancient building facades using spatulas, trowels and mortar, as well as performing delicate treatments on wooden handcrafted objects with chemical solutions and scalpels in small laboratories.”

After moving to New York, Barbiero reinvented herself as a cookie artist, “where my new tools became piping bags and royal icing, enabling me to create edible works of art.”

Even with these successes under her belt, college felt daunting, she says.

“My first week at BMCC was full of doubt and fear,” she says. “With a low level of English proficiency, communication was challenging, and I even considered leaving.”

At BMCC, she found the support and tools she needed.

English-language courses and free math tutoring through the BMCC Learning Resource Center were helpful during this time. Barbiero also rented laptops and scientific calculators through the BMCC Library, as well as “immersing myself in an impressive collection of books.”

Outside of class, she took part in drawing and photography clubs, and joined the Achievers group for kayaking trips. “This enhanced my sense of belonging at BMCC,” she says.

Her mentors included faculty in the Art Foundation Program. “They not only helped me develop a strong portfolio of works but also played a big part in boosting my confidence and belief in myself,” she says.

After BMCC, she plans to pursue a career in a museum or art gallery setting; in cultural institution or company where she can apply her skills in digital imaging, graphic design and restoration techniques.

Barbiero’s message to fellow graduates is, “Let us carry with us, the lessons learned here, in this place so diverse and beautiful: the lessons to cultivate compassion and empathy, to listen without judgment, and to strive for understanding, even in the face of adversity.”

Christina Caruso: “Embrace your imperfections, for they make you perfectly unique”

Christina Caruso
Christina Caruso

Criminal Justice major Christina Caruso completed her associate degree in June 2024 and is a member of the Phi Theta Kappa Honors Society, the Achievers Society of BMCC, the Pre-Law Society of BMCC, and the Criminal Justice Academy.

“Despite facing struggles and personal setbacks, I never gave up,” says Caruso. “This journey has taught me that our past does not define us; second chances exist, and it’s our actions in the present that shape our future.”

A single mother, Carruso has persevered in her studies despite a traumatic brain injury incurred during a car accident that continues to cause debilitating migraines and headaches.

“Back in 2006 the car flipped four times and I cracked my skull open,” she says. “From that I get severe migraines and sustained a back injury. I was the passenger, and thankfully my daughter was not in the car.”

None of these setbacks has dissuaded her from getting 4.0 GPA and staying true to her goal to be a lawyer.  “I want to advocate for the innocent and address injustices within the judicial system, especially against minorities,” Caruso says.

“The unwavering support and guidance of my academic advisor, BMCC’s pre-law advisor Rick Naughton, and English Professor Jan Stahl, have been instrumental in my success at BMCC,” she says. “

In Fall 2024, she plans to enroll in the dual program at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY to pursue both bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

“I am excited about the possibility of gaining hands-on experience through an internship with a criminal law firm,” she says. “This would enable me to put my academic knowledge to practical use and further equip me for a fulfilling career in the field of Criminal Justice.”

Her advice to the BMCC Class of 2024 is, “Trust and believe in yourselves. Embrace your imperfections, for they make you perfectly unique, with the ability to overcome any obstacle and achieve anything you set your mind, heart and soul to.”

Eefke Rozemarijn de Bont: “Whoever lent you a helping hand, take a moment to thank them.”

Eefke Rozemarijn de Bont
Eefke Rozemarijn de Bont

An international student from the Netherlands, Psychology major Eefke Rozemarijn de Bont worked for a few years before enrolling at BMCC and completing her degree program in Spring 2024.

“Back home, I was an average student and never explored my full potential due to personal losses in my family, which led me to prioritize work over school,” she says.

After working a few years, she committed to pursuing a career in Psychology. “I am driven by a curiosity to understand the intricacies of the body and the brain, and how they influence our behavior,” she says. “That is why I have come to the United States to immerse myself in the fields of Psychology and Neuroscience.”

Her advice to students is, “Don’t hesitate to ask questions. I made it a habit to ask countless questions each day, and it greatly aided my understanding, expanded my knowledge, and reinforced the realization that we cannot navigate this journey alone.”

BMCC, she says, “was more than just a place to attend classes; it provided me with opportunities for personal and professional growth.”

Being a peer mentor and supplemental instruction enhanced her communication skills and work ethic. Being an Out in Two scholar was a significant financial help.

In addition, says Rozemarijn de Bont, “The diversity of backgrounds represented at BMCC has broadened my perspective and enriched my understanding of the world.”

Having been accepted by four colleges for Fall 2024, she selected Brooklyn College, CUNY as her next school and will earn a Bachelor of Science in Psychology with a minor in Neuroscience.

Her advice to fellow graduates is, “It’s often the little things that carry us through the toughest days.”

This could mean, “a kind smile from campus staff, the cafeteria staff remembering you like ketchup on your bacon egg and cheese, or your professor extending a deadline by one day. Perhaps it is that one person you talked to in class who made all the difference.”

In the end, she says, “Whoever lent you a helping hand along the way, take a moment to thank them.”

Kalelo Dukuray: “BMCC’s diverse and welcoming student body has a place for everyone to find friends who motivate them to keep going.”

Kalelo Dukuray
Kalelo Dukuray

Kalelo Dukuray completed his associate degree in Computer Science in Fall 2023. “I’m African American born and raised in the Bronx to Gambian immigrant parents,” he says.

“When I was 10, I moved to Africa and ended up staying there for 13 years, during which I got to meet the other half of my family and learn about our culture as Soninke people.”

During that time, he also studied Arabic and completed high school, then took a five-year break to work and plan his next step.

“Eventually, I came back to America at the age of 23 and applied to college, becoming the first in my family to do so,” he says.

“My parents never finished high school, let alone go to college, but my mom always stressed how important education was. Her desire for her children to have educational opportunities, shaped by her unfulfilled dreams due to the circumstances she was brought up in, is a driving force in my academic pursuits.”

Heading to City College of New York (CCNY), CUNY in Fall 2024, Dukuray says he plans to pursue a bachelor’s degree in computer science.

His academic success so far, was due to his diligent work ethic, he says, “my consistent belief in my capabilities to achieve anything I set my mind to and most importantly, the unwavering support from my friends and family throughout my time at BMCC.”

He also completed internships related to computer science while attending BMCC, and says the College provides an environment where he can “learn without feeling inadequate. The teachers were incredibly supportive, always willing to answer even the simplest of questions. The relationships I built with them played a huge role in helping me achieve the success I did.”

To fellow graduates and incoming students, he says, “College can be daunting, and it’s not something you want to tackle alone. BMCC’s diverse and welcoming student body has a place for everyone to find friends who can motivate them to keep going.”

Kaya Fader: “There is a place for each and every one of us in this beautiful world, and each of us is taking that place and owning it.”

Kaya Fader
Kaya Fader

Writing and Literature major Kaya Fader entered the workforce directly after graduating from high school.

“I worked hard to make ends meet,” she says. “Although financial instability remained a constant burden, I was able to independently support myself and excel in my career. During this time, I was engaged in independent, informal study in my areas of interest – I wanted to go to school!”

Finally, she says, “after nine years working in the call center industry and several promotions, I made the decision to enroll to college full-time. This decision was driven by my love of learning and a burning curiosity about the world.”

Since enrolling at BMCC, she says, “I have taken classes with many professors who have challenged me, listened to me, and have provided me with a better quality of education than I could have ever dreamed of.”

One example, she says, is Professor Geoff Klock, “whose classes were not only challenging and enlightening, but who instilled in me tools that have helped me improve my confidence both inside and outside of the classroom.”

Fader also says she received tremendous support through the Out in Two scholarship program.

“The generous scholarship has helped to alleviate some of the financial burden of attending college, which has allowed me to focus more on my studies,” she says.

“Additionally, I have found a unique sense of community through Out in Two and I’ve had the privilege of working with my incredible advisor, Maria Ramirez, who has been especially supportive through intense transfer application processes this semester.”

After graduation, Fader plans to transfer to a four-year college and earn a bachelor’s degree.

“My primary plan is to learn as much as I can about religious and spiritual beliefs, cultural history and related topics,” she says. “I hope to begin writing professionally while in school, remain focused on my personal growth, and relish the joy of learning.”

To inspire her fellow graduates, she says, “You are important. There is a place for each and every one of us in this beautiful world, and each of us is taking that place that is ours and owning it.”

Ron Gassner: “We are called upon to navigate the murky waters of decision-making with integrity and conviction.”

Ron Gassner
Ron Gassner

Ron Gassner, an army veteran from Jerusalem, Israel, completed his associate degree in Computer Science at BMCC in Fall 2023.

Gassner first enrolled at BMCC in Spring 2020, balancing the demands of college classes and a full-time job, “while facing unforeseen challenges, such as the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic,” he says.

“I funded the entire degree on my own, with no financial aid,” he says. “I chose to prioritize my education, dedicating countless hours to achieve my academic aspirations. There’s no magic formula for success; it’s the result of sheer hard work, determination and unwavering focus.”

At BMCC, faculty and staff provided unwavering support and flexibility, he says, “and this ensured that I never felt overwhelmed.”

In addition, he accessed the free tutoring options at BMCC. “The personalized attention and expertise provided by these tutors was invaluable, empowering me to overcome obstacles and excel in my studies,” he says.

Now, Gassner is continuing his studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY, where he will earn a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science.

Next, he envisions himself in a Master’s program, applying his keen interest in both technical innovation and strategic management as he explores opportunities in either Computer Science or Business Management and Marketing.

To the 2024 Class of BMCC, he says, “We find ourselves at the intersection of opportunity and responsibility. In a world where the lines between right and wrong blur, and ethical dilemmas abound, we are called upon to navigate the murky waters of decision-making with integrity and conviction.”

Mariana Restrepo Alegria: “This community is here for you.”

Mariana Restrepo
Mariana Restrepo Alegria

Animation & Motion Graphics major Mariana Restrepo completes her degree requirement this Spring 2024. “I am a 22-year-old undocumented student who came to the U.S from Colombia in January of 2020,” she says. By that time, her father was already living in New York, and her parents thought the move to New York would be the best choice for her.

“I grew up and spent 18 years of my life in a very small city of Colombia named ‘Tulua,’” Alegria says. “I do not have a lot of negative things to say about my childhood, even though I have a vivid memory of seeing my city listed as one of the most dangerous cities in the world when I was only 11 years old.”

Her parents, she explains, “had to endure one of the hardest times in Colombia which were the 80s, the 90s and the early 2000s. The horrors they describe have given me enough perspective to see why we needed to leave that place.”

Arriving in New York at the age of 18, “I realized I had two identities in two different cultures,” she says. “I learned English quickly but that still did not make me feel like I belonged here just yet.”

As part of the BMCC community, Alegria apreciates “the professors, advisors, counselors and other staff who made sure I had everything I needed, in order to succeed. The resources and financial aid I have been able to get in the last two years have been a tremendous motivating factor that continues to keep me striving for even higher standards.”

Once she graduates from BMCC, Alegria plans to pursue a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering at City College of New York (CCNY), CUNY.

“I will be able to get the adequate training to work alongside my dad, who is starting his own Elevator Company here in New York City,” she says.

To her fellow graduates in the Class of 2024, especially those from immigrant families, she stresses that, “It is not easy to succeed without any support. For this reason, I want you to know that this community is here for you.”

She encourages students to strive for the benefit of their communities rather than for personal gain: “In the end, the only thing that is worth rooting for is not only how we can make our lives better, but also how we can create a positive impact in everyone’s life.”

Lais Sinhorele Pereira da Cunha: “Let’s all dive in for our next journey.”

Lais Sinhorele Pereira da Cunha
Lais Sinhorele Pereira da Cunha

In the words of Lais Sinhorele Pereira da Cunha, who completed her associate degree requirements in Psychology this spring, “I was born and raised in a Brazilian favela. Every resource was valuable and limited. I had to use my pencils until they were tiny, I had to reuse notebooks that had some clean sheets from the previous school year, and on birthdays I wouldn’t get toys for gifts, but clothes.”

Still, she says, she’s extremely grateful for her experience. “I learned to respect others and nature,” she says, “to be grateful for what I have, and to always look for better things in life.”

Those values inspired Pereira da Cunha to apply for a scholarship to study English when she was 12, which led to her first job at age 17, as a receptionist in an English-language school.

“As the years passed, I became an English teacher who taught at schools and also at an NGO in a favela,” she says. “All that experience prepared me to move to the U.S. by myself as an au pair when I was 21 years old, and to later join college, a dream long wished for!”

 At BMCC, she says, “I committed myself to my classes, understanding that the environment I was in would help me to grow as a person and as a professional.”

“Every professor gave me insights and motivated me to be my best self,” she says. “The great diversity of faculty and students on campus is really inspiring.”

After graduating from BMCC, Pereira da Cunha plans to transfer to a four-year university and complete a bachelor’s degree.

“So far, I have applied to Hunter, City College, Baruch and Lehman College,” she says. “I was accepted into all of them, but I haven’t made my final decision as I am still waiting to hear back from Columbia and NYU.”

Her advice to fellow graduates is not to approach life as if tiptoeing into the water. “Life is too fast to spend time ‘tiptoeing,’” she says. “You got to the end of that beautiful swim at BMCC, now let’s all dive in for our next journey.”

Martina Turroni: “Believe in your own timing and path.”

Martina Turroni
Martina Turroni

Communication Studies major Martina Turroni completed her associate degree requirements in Fall 2023. “I was born and raised in a beautiful, tiny city in Italy,” she says. “After graduating from high school with a focus on foreign languages in Italy, I decided to visit NYC for three months. At the time, I wanted to pursue a career as a dancer, which led me to later move to Los Angeles for six months.”

In 2017, Turroni says, she received a scholarship to study at a dance school in NYC. “I studied dance professionally for two years and loved it,” she says. “However, I realized I wanted to expand my knowledge and challenge myself, and I started college.”

Turroni says she has always loved the process of learning and contributing to discussions. “Growing up a dancer, I was taught discipline and consistency at a young age, which allowed me to not give up or let negative thoughts get in the way of my goals.”

At BMCC, she says she was able to connect with “great professors, some of which inspired me immensely, teaching me that it is never too late to start studying.”

Attending BMCC gave her access to incredible spaces, tools and libraries, she says. “At BCCC, l also found a great community of fellow students, creating bridges between cultures and ages.”

As of now, Turroni has almost completed her first semester at Baruch, where she is majoring in Communications with a minor in Business.

“Being here feels like a great honor and pleasure,” she says. “Coming from a different country, I would have never thought of doing most of the things I have done so far here.”

Her advice to fellow graduates is, “Believe in your own timing and path. I started college at the age of 26, late compared to most. I was proud of what I had done before college, but I was eager to move forward.”

She adds that “for all the times you will hear voices trying to discourage you, know that somewhere else not too far away, there is a crowd cheering you on.”

She says she found at BMCC “the best and most loyal supporters, people that stood by my side and trusted my vision, professors and fellow students that inspired me immensely.”


  • The 2024 Commencement Valedictorian, Animation and Motion Graphics major Sally Li Weitzner, was selected from a small pool of finalists whose 4.0 GPAs and impressive academic achievements are just the beginning of their moving stories.

  • Ten runners-up for valedictorian share their experience coming to BMCC from the Bronx, the Dominican Republic, the Netherlands, Colombia, Israel, Gambia, Italy and more.

  • At BMCC they find academic support, communities that share their interests, career opportunities, mentors and more.

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