Long Island City, NY—April 23, 2014—Cristina Mihailescu, a LaGuardia Community College Honors student, was facing a major dilemma. The international student and 40-year-old single mother of two young daughters was graduating in June with the hope of transferring to a four-year institution, but financial constraints were making it seem impossible.
As an international student who must pay exorbitant tuition costs, even Baruch College, an affordable City of University of New York college that accepted her into its bachelor’s program, seemed unattainable.
But that was before Cristina was awarded the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation’s 2014 Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship, which will provide her with as much as $30,000 a year for up to three years to complete her bachelor’s degree. The LaGuardia scholarship recipient was among 85 finalists selected from 3,705 applications representing 737 community colleges from 48 states, two U.S. territories, and the District of Columbia. It is the largest cohort in the program’s 13-year history.
“It is like a miracle,” said a still-shocked Cristina who said she was afraid she would wake up and find out it was just a dream. “One year ago I was struggling to make it from semester to semester and was wondering if graduating from LaGuardia was possible. Now, I feel like I was reborn. I can start dreaming big because the scholarship has not only eased my financial burden, it has opened the doors to so many opportunities.”
Dreaming big now means having the opportunity to apply to such selective institutions as Columbia University and New York University’s Stern School of Business where she will pursue a degree in economics. The dream extends to a master’s in economic development and a career at the United Nations where she hopes to help developing countries find sustainable solutions to their economic problems.
Her desire to aid developing countries was planted years ago when she was growing up in communist Romania. “It was a time where human freedom was denied, people lived in poverty, basic food products were scarce and electricity was rationed,” said Cristina, who recalled studying by candlelight because the electricity was shut off in the evenings. “Looking back, I don’t know how people survived.”
At the age of 23, Cristina fled Romania after landing a job as a bartender on a cruise liner. “I knew I had to grab any opportunity, so when the job on the cruise ship came I jumped on it,” she said.
The cruise liner took her around the world and six years later she finally arrived at her desired destination: The United States. “I always dreamt of coming to America and completing my education so I could make a contribution to society and make the world a better place,” she said. “I know it sounds cliché, but this is what I truly want to do.”
Cristina added that this was the dream that her mother–a single mom who raised Cristina and her sister on her own, worked hard, but always had time to help others—wished for her. “She was my greatest inspiration,” she said. “Her example has given me values by which I have come to understand are the two most important things in life: realizing one’s full potential while helping to make the world a better place. I have been inspired by her integrity, dedication, work ethic and charity, and have sought out activities that reflect my life philosophy, educational goals and professional aims.”
The émigré settled in Queens and dedicated herself to raising her two daughters. All that time she wished to go back to school, but her devotion to her children and her financial constraints put her dream on hold. She finally got the opportunity in 2011, when, at the age of 37, she enrolled in LaGuardia as a business administration major.
But after being out of school for 17 years, she began her college experience with a host of insecurities. “During my first semester, I said to myself, ‘do I belong here? How am I going to manage.’”
Despite feeling completely “lost” at first, Cristina refused to give up. She concentrated on her studies and took advantage of the college’s resources—tutoring and department review sessions—and soon her professors were handing her back perfect exams and papers. Today, she manages to maintain a perfect 4.0 G.P.A., while juggling family responsibilities and dealing with her constant financial challenges.
“Cristina is a fighter with the determination of a champion,” said Accounting Professor Rajendra Bhika. “She sees difficult periods of her life as opportunities for great learning and triumph, and believes that education is the only way she will be able to face the difficulties that are still to come.”
The same intelligence, energy and commitment she brought to the classroom were also on display in her extracurricular activities: a member of the Honors Student Advisory Committee, the student-centered collective of the Honors Program that organizes transfer activities; representative of a student delegation of Mozambique at the 2013 Model U.N. conference; a participant in UNICEF’s 2013 “Fulfilling the Promise” challenge; and an accounting tutor.
Throughout her time at LaGuardia, the college provided support in several ways. While she was taking classes, Cristina was able to enroll her youngest daughter, Sophie, in the Early Childhood Learning Center. And since her international student status allows her to work on campus, her part-time job as a tutor paid a small stipend. Currently, she is on a paid internship at MetLife’s Legal Affairs Department.
“I am not sure I would have been able to pursue a degree at LaGuardia, if not for the support of the institution, its professors and staff,” said Cristina. “To me, LaGuardia was my second home, a secure environment where I knew I could get encouragement and guidance.”
“Cristina’s achievements are simply outstanding,” said Dr. Gail O. Mellow, president of LaGuardia. “Despite insurmountable obstacles, she persevered and accomplished what she set out to do. And LaGuardia and its faculty and staff were always there to help make sure her goals were attained. The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation is to be applauded for recognizing and supporting the talented students that emerge from LaGuardia and other community colleges.”
With graduation in June, Cristina is busy working on her transfer applications to several selective, private institutions. But, wherever she decides to go, she said that with strength and perseverance, she is determined to achieve her ultimate goals for her and her daughters.
“Every time I look into their eyes,” she said, “I know that I have to work harder to show them that we can achieve our dreams regardless of any obstacles we encounter.”
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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.