McDonald Family Overcomes Chronic Illness, Manages Autism and Defies Ageism to Soar at BMCC and Beyond

(L-R): BMCC 2023 graduates and siblings Annika and Mikhail, as well as their mother, 2019 BMCC graduate Beverley McDonald, are building bright futures in their respective fields.
(L-R): BMCC 2023 graduates and siblings Annika and Mikhail, as well as their mother, 2019 BMCC graduate Beverley McDonald, are building bright futures in their respective fields.

May 15, 2023

When is the best time to start college? It depends. At Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC/CUNY), classes are filled by students from all walks of life and in every stage of life — from recent high school graduates, to people looking to make a change after decades in a given career or life path.

Beverley McDonald was in her fifties when she mustered the courage to enter BMCC in 2017 as a freshman.

“Growing up in Jamaica, I believed in education — I wanted to be a lawyer or a news reporter — but because of financial reasons, I never got the opportunity,” says Ms. McDonald, who moved to New York City in 1992. “I didn’t have a green card and did all kinds of jobs.”

She also got married and started her family at that time, settling in Brooklyn and staying home for eight years to raise her son and daughter.

“Then they got older,” she says. “I asked them, ‘Do you think I should go to college?’ and both said ‘Yes!’ and helped me with my application.”

Beverley McDonald goes from BMCC to a master’s degree, building a career helping students with disabilities

“I have also gotten a lot of support along the way from my husband, Colin McDonald,” says Beverley, “as well as from my church family at Victory Shiloh Apostolic Church in Brooklyn — and of course, from my professors at BMCC.”

Beverley McDonald, 2019 BMCC commencement
Beverley McDonald at her 2019 BMCC commencement

One of Ms. McDonald’s mentors at BMCC was Professor of Latin American Studies in the Department of Ethnic and Race Studies, Lissette Acosta.

“Beverley is the type of student who does not rest,” says Professor Acosta. “At first, I did not know her full story. I simply saw her motivation and commitment to learn and do well in class. Then, I learned about her life and journey (insert jaw-drop emoji) and said, ‘Oh no, we are going to do this!’ Since then, she hasn’t stopped and neither have her son and daughter, Mikhail and Annika, who are graduating this June. They will go far!”

Once she earned an associate degree in Health Education at BMCC in 2019, Ms. McDonald completed a Bachelor’s of Sociology degree at Hunter College, CUNY, and was just accepted into the master’s degree program at Pace University that is linked with Public School District 75, and will prepare her to work with students with disabilities.

Today, Ms. McDonald works through the Department of Education (D.O.E.) at P.S. 261, in downtown Brooklyn, and has big plans for the summer and fall.

“I was accepted into the New York City Teaching Fellows Program,” she says. “In addition, I will be completing a six-week training intensive through the D.O.E. this July through August. This will enable me to be certified so I can be placed in September 2023 in a Title 1 school in New York City. Also in the fall, I start the master’s program at Pace University to work with students with disabilities, something I know about personally, through my family, and now, through years of training.”

Annika McDonald channels her management of a chronic lung disease, into the drive to become a pediatric nurse

Annika McDonald, aspiring pediatric nurse
Annika McDonald, aspiring pediatric nurse

Following in their mother’s footsteps, Ms. McDonald’s daughter, Annika McDonald, and her son, Mikhail McDonald, are crossing the BMCC commencement stage at Barclays Center on June 8.

At BMCC, Annika earned an Associate in Science (A.S.) degree in Science for Health majors.

While she chose health care as her career focus, Annika shares with her brother and parents, musical talent. She plays piano, guitar and composes songs as well.

“Someday, I am interested in exploring how children in hospital settings can benefit from music as they recover from illness or surgeries. I want to know more about that,” she says.

Now, she is completing the required courses for the Bachelor’s of Nursing program at Hunter College. “I plan to become a pediatric nurse. I have always wanted to work with children.”

Annika speaks openly about her lifelong health challenges and how they have fueled her determination to work with children in a clinical setting.

“Having been a premature baby myself, I have had to overcome lung issues and being hospitalized not just for that but for corrective surgery on my leg. I had to learn to walk all over again,” she says. “I did all this while managing to make the Dean’s List at BMCC.”

“This is why I think I have a lot to offer to children with health issues and other hardships. I can help them build a fighting spirit and the belief that they can get through this. I can say to them, ‘I got through this, so can you.’”

Mikhail McDonald navigates a life with autism, and develops his remarkable musical talent

Both Annika McDonald and her brother Mikhail completed their BMCC associate degrees in the Fall of 2022 — Annika in Science for Health Majors and Mikhail in Music Performance — and both started their respective programs at Hunter College in Spring 2023.

2023 BMCC graduate Mikhail McDonald, aspiring music producer
2023 BMCC graduate Mikhail McDonald, aspiring music producer

While Annika is enrolled at Hunter College in required classes to enter that college’s nursing program, Mikhail has started the Hunter College Music program. He has also continued participating in the Continuing Education in Music (CEM) program at New York University (NYU).

“When you have a child with challenges you have to be resourceful,” says his mother, Beverley. “Sometimes a light bulb will go off in your head. I Googled five professors at NYU, sending Mikhail’s scores and telling them about his musical ability and background. Within 10 minutes, all five got back to me.”

Among other musical talents, Mikhail is regarded as having perfect pitch, the rare ability to identify musical notes by ear, without any references.

“We got him tested at the Feinstein Institute to confirm it, when he was 15 years old,” says Beverley. “He also has synesthesia, a condition in which he sees colors when he hears certain notes.”

Mikhail composes original songs, and plays piano, bass guitar, electric guitar, acoustic guitar and vibraphone. At home, he also uses an electronic keyboard. His range of talent is unique, and he is open about his status of being on the autism spectrum.

“It has been humbling to see how much Mikhail has achieved in college, even at this early stage of academic career,” says Beverley. “He is an inspiration to anyone who lives with any kind of disability, especially someone who wants to develop their creative talent. He lives and breathes music. He has passion for music and it is always with him.”

The Office of Accessibility and compassionate faculty at BMCC helped ensure Mikhail’s success

When Mikhail graduated from high school, his guidance counselor encouraged him to apply to BMCC, which is known for its robust support services, including the Office of Accessibility.

Kokou Doumassi, Student Disability Services Assistive Technology Specialist in the BMCC Office of Accessibility, connects students with assistive technology software and was a steady support for Mikhail as he completed his associate degree.

Mikhail McDonald in BMCC practice room.
Mikhail McDonald in BMCC practice room.

“Our office provides services such as accommodations and notetaking services, interpreting services and academic adjustment. On top of that, I helped Mikhail by making sure he had access to screen-reading software, as well as text-to-speech software,” says Mr. Doumassi. “This enabled him to stay on top of his reading and writing assignments. I also helped him establish accommodations such as extended time on assignments.”

BMCC Music Professor Maureen Keenan, who worked closely with Mikhail in his music fundamentals course, corroborates the observation that he possesses perfect pitch.

“He has the ability to play piano by ear, though with untrained technique,” says Professor Keenan. “Mikhail’s adaptability and passion for music drove him to eventually begin playing music from notation and his unique piano technique improved dramatically through his hard work. His kind spirit endeared him to his classmates as they all grew musically together.”

Mikhail says that the best thing about attending BMCC “was performing and singing in choir concerts with the Music department. There was a lot of happiness and celebration at the end of the semester.”

His advice to current BMCC students is, “Don’t give up. It wasn’t always easy for me, being at BMCC. The work wasn’t easy. You just have to get the help you need. Go to the Office of Accessibility. They can help you out with notes, and they can help you with classwork for music, math, history, any class you’re having trouble with. Reach out to them.”

Now pursing his bachelor’s degree, “I’m in the Jazz Ensemble class at Hunter and we’re just finishing for the semester,” Mikhail says. “It was very energetic. We had a great time getting to know each other. I play the piano. I also play bass guitar and vibraphone which is similar to a xylophone.”

Someday, he says, “I want to have a career in the music studio. I see myself working as a producer.”

Both Mikhail and his sister Annika — as well as their mother Beverley — are well on their way to the next steps in their respective academic and career journeys. Fall 2023 will be a busy semester for all three, and meanwhile, they’re enjoying their summer as a family.

“We make music together at home, and we all sing gospel,” says Beverley. “My husband Colin plays the trumpet. I enjoy singing with the family. Mikhail plays the piano and even though Annika is on her way to being a pediatric nurse, she is also very musical. She plays guitar.”

It’s satisfying, she says, to have reached the milestones they’ve achieved so far. “I always wanted to educate myself, to be able to help my family better financially. At some point I told myself, ‘Why not, give it a try!’”

The work of the BMCC Office of Accessibility and other services relates to BMCC’s strategic goals Strategic Goal #5: Strengthen BMCC’ Culture of Care.


  • Beverley McDonald made the Dean’s List and earned an associate degree in Health Education at BMCC; she was just accepted into the master’s program at Pace University to focus on students with disabilities
  • Annika McDonald made the Dean’s list at BMCC and earned her Associate degree in Science for Health majors; she is now at Hunter College and plans to become a pediatric nurse
  • Mikhail McDonald completed a Music Performance associate degree and made it to the Dean’s List at BMCC; he now attends the bachelor’s degree program in Music at Hunter College

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