Two LaGuardia Community College Students Recognized by an International Honor Society

Long Island City, NY—March 27, 2014—Two LaGuardia Community College students, who three years ago immigrated to the U.S. to pursue a college education despite the financial, language and cultural hurdles they would have to clear, were honored by the Phi Theta Kappa International Honor Society for the Two-Year College for their outstanding scholarship, leadership and service to LaGuardia.

Juan Cifuentes a native of Colombia, was selected to PTK’s 20-member All-New York First Academic Team and was named a Coca-Cola Community College Academic Team Bronze Scholar.  Kat Lam, who emigrated from China, was nominated to the All-New York Second Academic Team.  The students were selected from a pool of over 1,400 applicants from New York State community colleges.

“Juan and Kat join an elite group of the state’s best and brightest community college students,” said Dr. Gail O. Mellow, president of LaGuardia.  “They epitomize the majority of international students who come to this country seeking a better life and look to the community college as a gateway to higher education, a promising career and entrance into the middle class.”

“LaGuardia has inspired me to build my skills and to achieve my academic and career goals,” said Juan, who plans on transferring to a four-year college and, ultimately, becoming a certified public accountant  “And it is wonderful that PTK and the Coca-Cola Foundation recognize community college students, like me and Kat, who have taken full advantage of the opportunities their colleges provide.”

The Coca-Cola Foundation has also awarded Juan a $1,000 scholarship that will help pay for his tuition at a four-year college.

Kat, a biology major who is planning on becoming a physician-scientist, agreed.  “I am delighted to receive the recognition from All-USA because it is an important milestone for my efforts in science research and advocacy work for attracting more underrepresented students to STEM.”

Juan arrived in this country in 2011 with no knowledge English, but a strong desire to attend college.  He enrolled in LaGuardia’s CUNY Language Immersion Program (CLIP) and after one year of intensive English language instruction, he was able to mainstream into the College’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) as an accounting major.

Accounting proved to be a perfect fit.  Juan excelled in his classes maintaining a perfect 4.0 G.P.A.  His high G.P.A. was his ticket to LaGuardia’s Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society where he became an active member.

To make sure that he was on the right career path, Juan participated in New York Needs You, a career development program that supports high-achieving, low-income, first-generation college students realize their career aspirations.  There he attended Saturday workshops conducted by experts in different field and received valuable advise from his mentor.

Juan’s successful transition to his new country inspired him to advise immigrants who had academic aspirations.   After completing the CLIP program, he was hired to tutor students in English and to encourage them to continue their education.  He also volunteered at the Riis Settlement House, a non-profit organization that supports English language learners, where he counseled participants who were interested in attending college.

“It is Juan’s desire to help others that truly distinguishes him,” said Marian Blaber, senior administrator of LaGuardia’s adult and continuing education.  “Juan possesses a willingness to give more than what is strictly necessary or expected, and he often speaks of his desire to ‘give back’ by helping others succeed.”

He also gives back to his family in the form of financial support by working part-time as a bookkeeper in a small accounting firm.

Juan will be graduating this summer and plans on transferring in the fall to either Fordham University or  University of Albany – SUNY where he will pursue a bachelor’s degree in Accounting.

“Three years ago, I came to United States looking for new opportunities, but I did not have knowledge of English and sufficient support to decide what my next steps were going to be,” said Juan. “Despite my negative situation, my desire to do my best inspired me to learn English, obtain a degree, and develop professionally at the same time.  LaGuardia made this all possible.”

When Kat and her mother emigrated from China in 2011 they were faced with the challenges that many immigrants encounter.  With little money they had not choice but to rent a room in Flushing where they shared a bed.  While her mother worked in a local bakery, Kat worked at a supermarket and a shoe store, and in her spare time went to the library to improve her English.

By the spring of 2012, with a solid command of English and enough money for tuition, Kat enrolled at LaGuardia as a biology major with a goal to become an oncologist.

There she entered a rich academic environment where she excelled in her biology classes.  At the same time she discovered she had a passion for research.  Her research on the effects alcohol has on the courtship, mating choices and fertility of fruit flies won her first prize in a national science poster presentation competition.

“Kat is a superstar,” said Dr. Preethi Radhakrishnan, a biology professor faculty research mentor.

Interested in further enhancing her research experience, Kat volunteered as a research intern at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.  She also worked as a medical assistant at a Flushing medical center that specializes in gastroenterology and hepatology.

Between her studies and on- and off-campus research, Kat finds time to be an active PTK member and an executive member of the college’s Honors Student Advisory Committee, a student-driven collective of the Honors Program.  She has led a number of events designed to help students with the transfer process.

Recognizing that community college science students who aspire to medical and other science careers are often not connected to existing research and transfer opportunities, Kat compiled a seven-page document outlining strategies for two-year science majors; it has emerged as an important transfer resource and advisement tool.

“Kat is not just a gifted young scientist,” said Dr. Karlyn Koh, English professor and director of the honors program.  “What is most unique and impressive is her ardent commitment to using her talents and knowledge to create opportunities for her peers.”

Kat will be graduating in December with a 3.98 G.P.A. and by the following fall she hopes to be enrolled in the pre-med program in one of her top choices—Cornell, Johns Hopkins or Barnard.  But wherever she goes, she hopes to do research.

“I never thought I could achieve all that I have,” said Kat.  “I have to thank LaGuardia, especially the Honors Program and the Natural Science Department, for the academic experience and the opportunities it gave me, and the faculty who supported me.”

Sponsoring PTK’s All-New York Academic Team award, are the New York Community College Trustees, the Association of Presidents of Public Community Colleges, the Faculty Council of Community Colleges and the Phi Theta Kappa International Society.  The Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation sponsors the Coca-Cola Community College Academic Team program by recognizing 50 Gold, 50 Silver and 50 Bronze Scholars.

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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 to learn more.

Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society is the largest honor society in American higher education with more than 1,285 chapters on two-year and community college campuses in all 50 of the United States, Canada, Germany, Peru, the Republic of Palau, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, the British Virgin Islands, the United Arab Emirates and U.S. territorial possessions.  Nearly 3 million students have been inducted since its founding in 1918, with approximately 131,000 students inducted annually.