Summer 2001

Some Remarkable 2001 CUNY Grads


"There will always be borders to cross, challenges to face," says native Ecuadorian Pedro Rojas and New York City Technical College valedictorian. He knows whereof he speaks, having crossed the border the hard way in 1993 with $70 dollars in his pocket. His parents had put up their farm home in Cuenca as collateral to finance the trip, and an arrest in Mexico cost most of his funds in the form of a bribe. Once in New York, Rojas made the time-honored restaurant business ascent from busboy to waiter to bartender, the last gig helping him, he says, "to make friends and learn more about American culture."

Pedro Rojas hopes to pursue a career in satellite technology.

Now a permanent resident, the associate degree grad in telecommunications (with a 4.0 GPA) expects to continue at City Tech for a bachelor's and pursue a career in the satellite technology field. "I crossed a physical border to come here, but also the borders of language, education, getting ahead." Leaving no doubt about his focus on education, Rojas not only repaid his parents' loan but has devoted part of his earnings to helping seven siblings in Cuenca with their high school studies and one sister with her college expenses.

Rojas' degree is but one of approximately 28,000 that City University officials estimate will be granted in the 2000-2001 cycle, ranging from certificates up to the Ph.D.

As always, the flurry of black-robed processions, the resounding of Elgar's "Pomp and Circumstance" march, the huge audiences of proud, teary parents and relatives, and the heady fumes of commencement rhetoric became most intense at CUNY between late May and early June. This year's 20 commencements unfolded, as usual, like a series of July Fourth fireworks worthy of one of Macy's barges in the East River.

The fireworks were, appropriately, of the intellectual kind. Among the distinguished speakers were former First Lady and now Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (York College), a Nobel Laureate in Economics, Harry Markowitz (Baruch grad), and Harold Levy (Baruch undergrad), and pioneer media psychologist Ruth Westheimer, who returned to Lehman College, where she taught for seven years in the 1970s. Combining his official installation with commencement, President Eduardo Marti spoke at the Queensborough Community College ceremonies.

Graciela Ramirez en route in the New York City Marathon.

Many brilliant careers in education and public service were marked by special awards and honorary degrees. Among the recipients this year was the eminent environmental leader and biologist Barry Commoner, who was honored by Queens College, where he brought his Center for the Biology of Natural Systems in 1981, and the CUNY Law School presented an Honorary Doctor of Laws to E. Clinton Bamberger, who established the Legal Services program under President Lyndon Johnson and has worked in law clinics on five continents. Congressman Charles Rangel, a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus, received City College's prestigious Presidential Medal. A Hunter College Honorary Doctor of Science went to Dr. Irwin Redlener, co-founder and president of the Children's Health Fund and president of Children's Hospital at Montefiore, who has been a leader in the delivery of health care to children.

Notable careers in the arts were not slighted. The lyricists and screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green received Doctors of Music from the Graduate Center and performed several satirical gems to the clear delight of the graduates. The author, actor, and humorist Malachy McCourt was both speaker and Presidential Medal recipient at Bronx Community College, and two venerable choreographers, Gerald Arpino (long associated with the Joffrey Ballet) and Laura Dean (founder of her own company), were awarded Honorary Doctors of Humane Letters by the College of Staten Island. The only female performer to have won an Oscar, an Emmy, a Tony, and a Grammy, Rita Moreno, came away from City College with an Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts. Outstanding alumni were also given just deserts by their alma maters. CUNY Trustee Kathleen Pesile (BBA '75, MBA '77) received a not only a D.H.L. from Baruch, but also the President's Medal from her other CUNY alma mater, the College of Staten Island. Brooklyn College presented Alan Dershowitz ('59) with an Honorary LL.D.

Computer engineering whiz Kettly Joseoph took much more than an associate's degree away from QCC

Splendid and inspiring as all the degrees honoris causa are, many of CUNY's newly minted graduates, like Pedro Rojas, have tales to tell equally deserving of applause. In some cases their stories are ones of triumph over adversity, astonishing perseverance, or just plain old-fashioned ingenuity and resourcefulness. These remarkable tales of the CUNY mortarboard could fill several Decamerons. Just a few can be celebrated here. Graciela Ramirez, for example, has become highly proficient at crossing finish lines. She's been cruising over the one at the New York City Marathon annually since 1993, a year after a bullet from her ex-boyfriend's gun left her a paraplegic at the age of 26. On June 6 she crossed another finish line in Central Park-in magna cum laude style. At Hunter College's commencement at Centerstage in Rumsey Playfield, the native of Mexico received her B.A. in computer science.

A dedicated athlete-tennis, swimming, track-Ramirez regularly visits public schools to speak on violence and tutors students in math on Roosevelt Island, where she lives full-time in a hospital. She speaks highly of the welcoming "family" she found at Hunter's Access Center for the disabled. A pure product of CUNY, Ramirez studied English in evening classes at Kingsborough Community College, then (aided by a Belle Zeller Scholarship) graduated from LaGuardia Community College in 1998. And what is on the other side of her next finish line? A Baruch College MBA, she says.

A native Haitian transformed into a fluent English speaker in just three years, 23-year-old Kettly Joseph, a computer engineering grad, carried an armful of honors away from Queensborough Community College graduation ceremonies, to wit: a NYC-AMP research assistantship, a CUNY Student Leadership Award, QCC's prestigious John F. Kennedy Memorial Award, and a $13,000-a-year scholarship to Polytechnic University. Somehow, Joseph, who built a complete microprocessor as part of her AMP research, also found time to represent Queensborough on the tennis and volleyball courts.

Lina Salama Benum raised six children, then became a successful deliverer of social services.

After a 25-year hiatus-and with the youngest of six children waving good-bye on the way to first grade-Linda Salama Benun decided to dust off her own schoolbooks and head for Brooklyn College. "Now we both agonize over homework and tests together," she wrote in her 1997 application to the CUNY BA Program. While raising her children, Benun and a group of friends began a campaign to make home visits to the elderly and sick in her community. Today, the social service agency she founded as a volunteer is called Sephardic Bikur Holim; it has a multi?million-dollar budget, a 36?member board, and a staff of 12 full?time social workers. For this experience, plus her work in teaching Bible studies, Benun was awarded 12 prior experiential learning credits by the CUNY BA/BS Program. An accomplished artist, especially in painting and photography, she combined course work in Psychology and Art to create an area in Art Therapy and graduated summa cum laude last January with a B.S. in this field. Benun begins advanced studies this fall at the Hunter College School of Social Work.

Healing appears to run in the family of Alfredo Gomez-Beloz. The grandmother of the native Chicagoan was a currandera, or healer, in Mexico, and he has just earned his Ph.D. in Biology from The Graduate Center, with a dissertation on a remarkable wound-healing plant called ohoru (a.k.a. Symphonia globulifera) used by the Winikina Warao peoples of the Orinoco River basin. Among his vivid memories of this exotic project was the nailbiter of finessing a 1993 Venezuelan law designed to protect the intellectual property rights of indigenous tribal medicine savants, living with his wife and three-year-old at an isolated mountain research site 7,000 feet up, and, on the lighter side, joining a local band called Los Microbios Brothers on guitar. "I taught them some Beatle tunes like 'I Saw Her Standing There' and 'I Feel Fine.'" Gomez-Beloz has been working as a Project Coordinator at the Health Research and Policy Center of the University of Illinois since February.

Alfredo Gomez-Beloz with a bigtime frond of the Orinoco River basin.

Four years ago, at the ripe age of 16, Rivka Eizik and her friend Yael Katz hatched the idea of establishing a daytime summer camp on a backyard site. They started with 40 girls age 6 to 13 and five employees, and in no time the venture turned into a fully licensed enterprise, Camp H2O, based at a Spring Valley, New York synagogue. Its eight-week summer program last summer served 150 Jewish Orthodox girls, employing a staff of 30 and earning a significant profit. The hook? Learning to swim is guaranteed: "Our success rate is close to 100%." Also included: CPR instruction, computer graphics, horseback riding, hiking, and daily religious instruction. The June graduate in Biology from Queens College recently won an East Coast Collegiate Entrepreneur Award for her prodigious business acumen.

Rivka Eizik, head of mass transport at her Spring Valley summer camp.

The 28,000 CUNY degrees awarded in 2000-2001 consist of about 8,500 associate, 13,000 bachelor's, and 5,300 master's degrees. At its June 6 commencement, the Graduate Center conferred 243 doctoral degrees. CUNY's official record-keepers note that about one half of these degrees were earned by African American and Hispanic students, and about two-thirds of degree recipients were women. They also note that, since central record-keeping began in 1966, the City University has awarded almost 900,000 degrees. The astonishing Millionth Graduate mark is just a few years away.