“We can, and do change lives,” said Barbara Marcus, President and Publisher of Random House Children’s Books, as she welcomed guests to the Fall Fanfare ceremony held in a conference room of the Random House offices in midtown Manhattan.
The ceremony recognized 30 Education Fund Fellows receiving $10,000 each, thanks to the Women's Forum of New York, which strives to encourage women over the age of 35 to continue their undergraduate college education.
The strength to change
One of the awardees, Emilie Unterweiger, just earned as Associate in Accounting degree at BMCC and began classes in Fall 2014 at Columbia University’s undergraduate writing program.
She shares with the other awardees, a story of struggle and resiliency.
“I dealt with a lot of bullying as a kid … and I spent ten years in a relationship with domestic violence,” she says.
During that time, she also struggled with alcohol abuse, and when a friend fatally overdosed, “I helped his girlfriend get back on her feet and began to think, maybe my instincts aren’t always wrong … I had stopped trusting myself.”
The experience of helping someone else pull their life together, as well as having another friend “step up and say, ‘You need to get out of this, it’s killing you’,” gave her strength to leave, she says.
“All I could think about was suicide and how I could end this life. I couldn’t imagine there was any other way to escape that life I was in. The concept that I could just leave him was completely novel to me.”
Becoming a writer
At BMCC, she felt inspired by two of her professors: Holly Messitt and James Tolan.
“I had Holly for English and she just really opened my work up again. I guess I’d been writing in the dark for a long time … She opened up the world of poetry to me. I hadn’t written poetry since I was a teenager.”
At the same time, she acquainted herself with the work BMCC professor and poet James Tolan, and with Messit’s and Tolan’s encouragement, as well as their example of what a writer’s life can be, she took the leap from accounting, to creative writing as the focus of her academic career.
“I wasn’t used to that, that kind of encouragement for my writing, to have someone say, ‘You’re really good at this and need to pursue it’,” she said.
At BMCC, Unterweger was a BMCC Foundation Scholar, and was notified of the opportunity to apply for the Women’s Forum award by BMCC Scholarship and Special Services Coordinator, Sussie Gyamfi.
“I applied the week of final exams in December 2013 and we heard back from them in July 2014. By then, I had already been accepted into Columbia so I was praying for money,” says Unterweger.
“I also got a scholarship from Columbia, the Merrill and Judith D. Litsey Scholarship, and a small scholarship from the alumni association at Finch College in New York City.”
Prestigious guest speakers
The Women’s Forum of New York, founded in 1974, is comprised of over 450 leading women in the professions, arts and business life of New York.
The Fall Fanfare event celebrating scholarship winners from 2013 and 2014 featured not only Barbara Marcus of Random House, but Marcy Syms, President of the Sy Syms Foundation.
“We’re all about growing from experience,” she said, “and women’s resiliency to succeed.”
Joyce Brown, President of the Fashion Institute of New York commented on the “transformational power of education,” and other speakers included 2004 Education Fund Fellow Marina Udovic, as well as President Jennifer J. Raab of Hunter College, and President Lisa Staiano-Coico of City College of New York.
A reception followed the award recognition ceremony, made possible by Random House.