May 15, 2023
A popular adage declares that “age is just a number” — but ageism is real. According to the nonprofit AARP, two out of three workers between the ages of 45 and 74 have seen or experienced ageism in the workplace. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), ageism is one of the last socially acceptable prejudices.
These realities have not deterred graduates age 60 and older who earned their associate degree at Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC/CUNY) and will proudly cross the commencement stage at the Barclays Center in their billowing blue gowns on June 8.
Pollyann Austin, age 61, earned a 4.0 GPA at BMCC, majored in Gerontology and completed her degree in December 2022.
Jacqueline Santiago turned 60 while completing her Liberal Arts associate degree at BMCC, and has been awarded a full scholarship to Columbia College, Columbia University for Fall 2023.
Once laughed at for speaking “Broken English,” Pollyann Austin earned a perfect 4.0 GPA
For Pollyann Austin, attending BMCC was a late-in-life choice that percolated for decades and was kicked off by helping her first-grade daughter with her mathematics homework.
“Every one of the problems I helped her with, I got wrong,” Austin recalls. “As a parent, I realized I couldn’t help her, and that’s when I became more involved in every activity her school offered, and learned basic math, myself.”
In August 2009, Austin took her GED (high school equivalency) test, and completed a medical office assistant program at SUNY BEOC, the State University of New York, Brooklyn Employment Opportunity Center.
“I graduated with honors from that program,” she says. “Then, I took a position as a home health aide with Partners in Care, which has a policy that if you work there a year, they will pay for your college tuition.”
Seizing the opportunity for tuition assistance, Ms. Austin enrolled at BMCC.
“I have always talked to my children about the importance of a college degree,” she says. “People told me, ‘You’re too old, no one would hire you’ — but I knew they were wrong.”
Around that time, she says, “I overheard my son telling his friend, ‘I’m going to college. If Mom can do it, I can, too.”
She proudly shares that her oldest son has served as a U.S. Marine for 20 years. Another son has earned his bachelor’s degree in Information Technology at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY. Among her daughters, one earned a bachelor’s degree in political science at Albany University in upstate New York; one is completing her doctoral degree in physical therapy at Hunter College, CUNY, and another is earning a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience at Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont.
Ms. Austin grew up in a rural village in Guyana, and was raised by her grandmother. She returned to live with her mother in the more urban environment of Georgetown, Guyana, when her grandmother passed away.
“It was hard living in the city after living in the country all that time,” she says. “The other kids said I spoke ‘Broken English’ and some of them even laughed at me.”
In 1996, Ms. Austin left Guyana and moved to New York City, first living in Queens, then Brooklyn, and joining up with the father of her first son, who was already living with him.
Ms. Austin feels good about her choice of having majored in Gerontology at BMCC.
“I have learned so much from the elderly because they have experience and can give you good advice,” she says. “Some are lonely and have no one, and they enjoy being in my company. They tell me, ‘You are so kind. Continue being kind, it will come back to you.’”
Still working at Partners in Care, she is now equipped with an associate degree in gerontology and eligible for a wider range of positions in her field. “I’m updating my resume, and looking at my options,” she says.
To other potential BMCC students who are older or unsure about attending college, she has this to say: “You just have to commit yourself. It’s dedication and hard work. It wasn’t competitive, it was a very supportive experience. The younger folks were very nice in class and treated me with respect.”
She also credits the support she received from BMCC professors. “I’m especially grateful for the support of my professors who responded patiently to my questions, helped me develop study skills, and gave me the courage to speak in front a group without fear.”
“Pollyann was a dedicated and determined student,” says Lisa Grace, Deputy Chair of the Health Education department and Gerontology Program co-coordinator. “She is proof that learning knows no age limit. Her passion for knowledge and determination to succeed is an inspiration to us all.”
“Simply put, Pollyann was the glue and the ‘mom’ for our class,” says Professor Rosalind Conway of the Speech, Communications and Theatre Arts department.
“Everyone respected her opinion and conferred with her on their assignments. Not only was she an ‘A’ student who worked a full-time job in the demanding field of social services, Pollyann has a heart of gold and the determination and discipline of an Olympian. As an educator, Pollyann inspires me to keep teaching. I’m so proud of her.”
The scholarship to Columbia “is the confirmation I waited 40 years for,” says Jacqueline Santiago
When Jacqueline Santiago first enrolled at BMCC, her daughter’s teenagers were living with her. “They were so supportive about me going back to school,” she says. “I also didn’t realize the extent of the support I would get at BMCC, from many departments and the professors themselves.”
Ms. Santiago actually started at BMCC in Spring 2018, but left after just one semester, to care for her mother, who passed away in January 2020.
At that point, she returned to BMCC. “When my mother passed, I realized that I had learned so much during her process, and looking at what life is really about. I asked myself, ‘What do you want now?’ That little voice in the back of my head said, ‘I’m older, but I still want to see my name on that degree.’”
Part of the reason she chose to delay college to care for others, she said, “goes back to that old cultural stuff,” referring to expectations around gender roles, and putting others first.
At BMCC, she found professors who “got it,” and provided support as well as positive examples.
“Dr. Glenny Valoy is a social worker and teaches in the Human Services program. Her support has been amazing to me,” says Ms. Santiago. “Culturally, as Latinas, we share certain things about our backgrounds, the cultural messages about women that we’ve gotten — and she gets all that.”
“Jacqueline was a phenomenal student and is a phenomenal human being,” says Professor Valoy. She emphasizes that educators need to focus not just on a student’s academic needs, “but how gender, culture, ethnicity and multiple role demands, intersect.”
In Ms. Santiago’s case, she says, “I supported her academic journey by embracing her multiple and complex social roles to help her succeed. Jacqueline’s experience depicts that of many women, especially Latinas and other women of color who juggle multiple roles or choose one over the other, many times putting their academic ambitions on hold. As a Latina myself, I shared with Jacqueline my own journey in higher education, to remind her that in spite of all that, academic success is attainable.”
Ms. Santiago, who lives in Teaneck, New Jersey, grew up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
“My parents were Puerto Rican and they came to New York in the great migration of the fifties,” she says. “Dad was a baker. We didn’t have a lot and my parents always said, ‘The only thing we can leave you is educated.’”
Beginning her classes during the pandemic, Ms. Santiago pushed herself to achieve a 3.86 GPA and applied to the School of General Studies at Columbia College, Columbia University for Fall 2023.
“I want to go into social work and in my application essay, I wrote about service and how important it is to me, especially after my mom had been on hospice and my experience with visiting nurse services. They made sure she was getting through that last stage of her life with dignity, a high quality of care and comfort,” says Ms. Santiago.
She explains that, as a member of BMCC’s Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society, “my application to Columbia was pulled and looked at. I then received a phone call from the scholarship committee advising me of my selection — which was a Godsend because getting in is one thing, being able to attend is another!”
Having applied “on a whim” — Columbia was the college she envisioned attended, when she was in high school — she says she “forgot all about it. Then, when I received the acceptance letter, I broke down in tears. I realize now that it was the confirmation I had waited 40 years for. Confirmation that the first-generation little girl had what it takes to make the Ivy League. And most importantly, that the voice in me that wouldn’t die, was right.”
Recently divorced, Ms. Santiago says she had lost important benefits, “and Columbia gave me a full scholarship, right down to the health insurance.”
She explains that the School of General Studies scholarship is for nontraditional students and veterans, people who are older, have families and work.
“I want to get my bachelor’s degree in Psychology, then go into the MSW program at Columbia,” she says. “You’re never too old. We have a saying in Spanish, ‘If the outcome is good, it is never too late.’ You will be fulfilled in ways that you never imagined.”
To young women and others feeling pressure to put their education on the back burner, and to older women worried it’s too late to earn their degree, she has this to say: “The world is open to you. Take advantage of every step. Keep seeking till you’re satiated and then seek some more.”
Graduates over age 60 earn GPAs over 3.5 and inspire older as well as younger students
Other BMCC 2023 graduates over age 60 who excelled at BMCC with GPAs over 3.5 include Moichin Chiew, Louis Simeone, Robert McInerney, Melida Edwards and Carl Sharp.
Ms. Edwards, whose husband passed away during the Covid pandemic, has been working for the New York City Department of Education as a secretary at a high school. She was accepted to the Human Services programs at both John Jay College of Criminal Justice and Medgar Evers College, CUNY, for Fall 2023.
According to Mr. Chiew, “If I can achieve this stage of my education, I am sure everyone who is younger than me can achieve this and even a much higher level. We just need to put more effort in class and work harder.”
Mr. Simeone says that as an older student, he benefited from services at BMCC such as tutoring.
“For me, it takes tutors, notetakers, a mentor and great rapport with my professor,” he says. “I have hearing impairment and short-term memory loss, so my time at BMCC involved three laptops and three tablets at all times, as well as subtitles and transcripts in order to achieve that GPA.”
He wants to share his story “to inspire another older person — or a young person — to believe in themselves. It’s also a way to give back to BMCC for all the amazing support including scholarships, being chosen as a BMCC Ambassador and making the Dean’s List twice. It’s a dream come true for me.”
Mr. McInerney, who became unemployed during the financial crises of 2008-2009, struggled with housing and employment, which prompted him to return to college. He eventually landed a job at an investment firm that helped him get back on his feet. During this time of re-establishing himself, he met and married his partner David, learned to drive and bought a house.
“During that awful and stressful time, BMCC was my home, my safe place,” he says. “The college gave me hope, kept me safe and kept my dreams alive.”
After relocating to Putnam Valley, Mr. McInerny transferred to Westchester Community College (WCC) for a year, then returned to CUNY, to the School of Professional Studies (SPS). With new degrees from WCC and SPS, he also had enough credits to earn an associate degree from BMCC, “the college that meant so much to me.”
- Pollyann Austin, age 61, earned a 4.0 GPA, majored in Gerontology and completed her associate degree in December 2022
- Jacqueline Santiago turned 60 while completing her Liberal Arts associate degree and won a full scholarship to Columbia College, Columbia University for Fall 2023
- Both graduates raised families and put their goals on hold for decades — but once at BMCC, they thrived, as have other graduates age 60 and older