The College Discovery program, active in all six CUNY community colleges, just celebrated its 50-year anniversary in a gala celebration at the CUNY Graduate Center.
Pedro Pérez, Director of BMCC’s College Discovery Program, opened the event.
“Turning 50 is scary,” he said, “but tonight it is cause for celebration. Why? Because for 50 years, College Discovery has provided counseling and academic support to over 160,000 students in all six CUNY community colleges who otherwise might not have been able to complete their degrees.”
He summed up the “three pillars” of College Discovery: counselors, academic support and stipends.
Cheryl Williams, CUNY Associate Dean of Special Programs, read a proclamation from the office of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio honoring the College Discovery program, and Hostos Community College CD Director Maria Grieco read a proclamation from the New York City Council.
New York City Council member Inez Barron talked about College Discovery’s potential to reach “untapped human potential,” and its ability to “encourage students to realize there is no limit to what they can achieve.”
Poor in income, wealthy in ambition
Jay Hershenson, Sr. Vice Chancellor for University Relations put the College Discovery program into historical perspective.
He credited the work of Candido de Leon, “who went door to door in the designated poverty areas” doing outreach for the program, eventually serving as president of Hostos Community College from 1971 to 1977.
The College Discovery program “was classified by some as providing hope for students who were ‘economically and educationally disadvantaged’,” Hershenson said.
“These are very cold and misleading bureaucratic terms. Our students were poor in income, but wealthy in ambition and rich with talent.”
He also explained that College Discovery and SEEK “were the first programs anywhere in the nation to be offering pre-freshman summer skills instruction, and now we have thousands of students in summer skills programs all across the CUNY system.”
Putting college within reach
Frank Sanchez, CUNY Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs, recalled the struggles of his mother, in achieving her academic goals.
“She was an immigrant child; one of nine, with a third-grade education, undocumented until she married my father,” he said, and noted the impact of CUNY's “deeply caring staff advisors and mentors,” not unlike those found in the CD program, who supported her success.
“College Discovery not just champions students’ lives, but is impacting generations of lives,” he said.
A video screened at the event featured early photos of College Discovery staff and students, and testimonies of today’s graduates.
A presentation declared BMCC student Raymond Lopez winner of the College Discovery logo contest, and current College Discovery students circulated among the guests, distributing lapel pins with the new design.
Milga Morales, an alumni of the CD program at Queensborough Community College also took the stage, and recalled a high school counselor who told her about College Discovery, enabling her to attend Queensborough then Brooklyn College.
“College was not within my reach,” she said. “I was in an honors English class, but my grades were not high enough for a scholarship.”
The College Discovery program not only provided academic support, “the CD stipend helped with my two trains and two buses from Brooklyn,” she said.
The magic of Dickens and DNA
1967 BMCC alumni Robert Hill drove from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to share his experience in one of CUNY’s first College Discovery programs.
“No program like it existed in America that would give this kid and 65 others like me, $22.50 a week to live at home and go to BMCC,” he says.
“We were told to wear a dress shirt and tie, don’t take the elevator, and there was mandatory tutoring. That was 1965 to 1966.”
During that time, “the first combat troops arrived in Vietnam, the Celtics won the NBA championship and Malcolm X was murdered in Harlem,” he remembers. “There were the uprisings in Watts, and the Supreme Court established the Miranda Rights.”
Hill, who went on to earn a bachelor’s degree at NYU, also remembers reading Chekhov by candlelight during the blackout in New York City when he was a BMCC student.
“That was where I discovered the magic of Dickens and DNA,” he says.
Getting a head start
A more recent College Discovery alumni, Brian Olsen, graduated from BMCC in 2005 then earned a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry, with a minor in physics and mathematics, at Hunter College.
Olsen is now enrolled in the biochemistry Ph.D. program at the CUNY Graduate Center, and works as an adjunct lecturer at Lehman College.
His research looks at “how water behaves inside protein cavities,” he says, and seeks to prevent the side affects associated with painkilling drugs.
Olsen earned a GED after dropping out of high school. He chose BMCC in part “because I tested into remedial math and I needed to go to a school that could help me make up my deficiencies,” he said, adding that while his goals were still forming, “I knew I wanted to study whatever those little particles are that make up living things.”
At BMCC, he worked in a tissue culture lab with biology professor Patricia DeLeon, who “let me start research early,” he says, adding that he also worked with Professors Nanette Van Loon and Shanti B. Rywkin.
He stresses that both the counselors in the College Discovery program and the research opportunities he found at BMCC enriched his academic experience.
“It’s a head start that really does make all the difference.”
Olsen and many other CD alumni were among the guests at the event. The College Discovery 50th Anniversary celebration ended with the cutting of two enormous sheet cakes, rolled out into the audience.