Long Island City, NY—As LaGuardia Community College student Freda Raitelu reflects upon the last two years of her life she still finds it hard to believe how it has changed so dramatically.
In that short time, the 32-year-old single mother enrolled at LaGuardia as a liberal arts major; joined its Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society; became an executive member of the Honors Student Advisory Committee (HSAC), the student arm of LaGuardia’s Honors Program; and was elected the 2012-13 student representative on the Northeast Regional Honors Council (NRHC) executive board. And to top it off she was the first community college student to receive the 2012 national Student of the Year Award from the National Collegiate Honors Council (NCHC), the association of honors programs at two-and four-year colleges across the country.
“My whole life has turned up-side down,” an exhilarated Freda exclaimed.
But before this period, the scholar and campus leader who lives in Ridgewood described her life as stuck. At the age of 16 she became pregnant and had to drop out of high school. And five years later she was diagnosed with chronic kidney disease, a condition that sentenced her to 10 years of dialysis.
While spending over 13 hours a week attached to a dialysis machine, Freda tried to pursue a college degree after earning a GED, but the physical and mental effects of dialysis took its toll and she was forced to drop out. “I had always wished to pursue education, so despite my illness I went for it, but it was impossible,” she said.
Then on December 30, 2010 at 9:27 a.m. Freda received a phone call that she had been waiting for over 10 years—there was a match for a kidney transplant. While recovering from surgery, Freda said she realized that she had a second chance at life. “The opportunity to reconfigure an identity outside of my illness was mine for the taking,” she said.
Two months after the surgery she enrolled in LaGuardia and happily immersed herself in the academic experience. Despite a heavy academic schedule that includes demanding Honors Courses, Freda maintains a 3.862 GPA. “I fell in love with education and really embraced it,” she said.
With her solid academic credentials she joined the College’s honor society, PTK, and became a key executive member of the HSAC, a student-led collective focused on enriching LaGuardia students’ college experience by promoting academic, civic engagement and scholarship opportunities.
As a member of the HSAC, Freda leadership skills blossomed. Along with her peers on the 20-member committee, she assisted in freshmen outreach activities, organized workshops that provided students with information on transfer and scholarship opportunities, and built strong peer-to-peer networks. One event she is especially proud of was a mock vice presidential debate where she played the role of Vice President Joe Biden. During the well-attended event, the issues of education, immigration and universal healthcare were covered during the lively exchange.
Freda also counsels students who come to the HSAC office seeking academic advisement and support. “I find it really extraordinary to be part of a committee that functions to inspire all students to aim high, stay informed and be pro-active in their academic pursuits,” she said.
She also helped spearhead events encouraging students to take advantage of the Honors Program, which offers small, rigorous classes, faculty mentoring, and scholarly and networking activities. “The Honors Program provides students with the ability to see beyond what they can see as regular students,” said Freda. “We try to convince students, many of whom are intimidated by Honors classes, that they should take on greater academic challenges.”
“Freda is one of HSAC’s guiding voices and clearly understands the mission of the Honors Program to provide students with academic, leadership and civic engagement opportunities meant to cultivate thoughtful and engaged citizens and future leaders,” said Dr. Karlyn Koh, English professor and the Honors Program director.
Her commitment to the Honors Program extended to the regional community when she was elected to the NRHC’s executive board. And last month the NCHC, a professional association of undergraduate Honors programs, presented Freda with its 2012 Student of the Year Award for her stellar academic record and her contributions to her college community, especially through her service on the HSAC. The award comes with a $1,000 gift.
“Freda has turned her life around over a very short period of time; she has overcome formidable life adversities and has earned every achievement she has accumulated so far,” stated Dr. Koh in her letter of recommendation to the NCHC. “Her determination and will to succeed are palpable, and are even more compelling because of her capacity and desire to inspire her peers and give back to the program, the College and wider communities.”
Freda will continue to be an active member of HSAC until she collects her diploma in the spring of 2013 and goes on to pursue a degree in education or public administration at one of the colleges on her dream list: Sarah Lawrence, Columbia, NYU, Smith and City College.
And after that? “I still want to become an educator on some level, but I also see myself in 20 years opening a non-profit in an urban community, where I can help young people cultivate their goals and dreams and help bring them into fruition.” said Freda. “It happened to me and I am so grateful.”
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LaGuardia Community College located in Long Island City, Queens, was founded in 1971 as a bold experiment in opening the doors of higher education to all, and we proudly carry forward that legacy today. LaGuardia educates students through over 50 degree, certificate and continuing education programs, providing an inspiring place for students to achieve their dreams. Upon graduation, LaGuardia students’ lives are transformed as family income increases 17%, and students transfer to four-year colleges at three times the national average. Part of the City University of New York (CUNY), LaGuardia is a nationally recognized leader among community colleges for boundary-breaking success educating underserved students. At LaGuardia we imagine new ideas, create new curriculum and pioneer programs to make our community and our country stronger. Visit www.laguardia.edu to learn more.