May 15, 2015 — Kirssy Martinez, one of the two Valedictorians of Bronx Community College’s Class of 2015, gives new meaning to the term “non-traditional student.” Like many community college scholars, the 27-year-old liberal arts major did not follow a straight path to center stage at BCC’s May 29th commencement ceremony — but instead faced an extra, daunting challenge. “I was always afraid of being deported,” she explains. “For years, I didn’t even try to apply to college because I didn’t want to be asked for my social security card.”
Arriving in the U.S. at age 14 from the Dominican Republic — she stayed with a succession of relatives in the Bronx while successfully completing high school and “living in the shadows.” Her life changed dramatically in 2012 when the Obama administration announced a much-heralded plan to defer legal action against young people like Kirssy Martinez — “childhood arrivals” without proper immigration documentation, but who met certain criteria.
“Being assigned a social security number changes everything, “ she explains. “You automatically become someone.”
Her next big break came when she became an early beneficiary of Scholarship Program. This national fund provides highly motivated, low-income DREAMers with the financial assistance to afford a quality education.
Kirssy’s school of choice was Bronx Community College. Determined to make up for lost time, she chose a demanding load of five courses a semester, gamely balancing classwork alongside her responsibilities as a young wife and mother. Still, she successfully earned the credits needed to complete her associate degree in two years, racking up a perfect 4.0 grade point average. Now she has emerged from under those legal shadows and moved into the spotlight, making history as The City University of New York’s first “The DREAM.US” scholar named class Valedictorian.
As the daughter of a former college professor who is now a junior high school principal back in Pantoja, Santo Domingo, Kirssy always expected to attend college. But with her legal status in question, she didn’t know how or when. As a young child in the Dominican Republic, she had been an excellent student. But in her early teens she began losing focus. That’s when her mother decided to send her to live with an aunt in the Bronx — someone she believed could help her get back on track.
Kirssy eventually planted roots in her adopted home, holding down waitressing and babysitting jobs, all the while hoping to do more. When that first door opened, Kirssy seized the opportunity to move forward with her life. Finding quality child care was her first big hurdle, which ultimately drew her to Bronx Community College. “Out of all the schools I considered, BCC provided the best child care available.” Access to the College’s low cost, on-campus facility, she says, “was critical to my academic success.”
She got another boost when, based on the high scores on her placement exam, she was accepted into the College’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP). This CUNY-wide initiative, widely acclaimed for its high student success rates, provided her with the close, hands-on support and advisement she needed to graduate in two years.
Kirssy Martinez has already been accepted into City College and Columbia University. She wants to major in political science and eventually go on to earn a Ph.D. Her plans are to teach at the college level and be involved in community outreach — which she is already doing as the founding president of BCC’s Dreamers Club.
“We share our stories and keep each other informed about our legal rights and what scholarships are available,” she explains. “Politics are important and it is important to understand them.”
Kirssy has another big dream that remains unfulfilled — to see in the flesh her family in the Dominican Republic, who she has not seen in 13 years. Because her immigration status is still uncertain, lawyers have advised her not to leave the United States. Her mother, meanwhile, has not been able to obtain a tourist visa. “Yes, we can Skype, but most times I would just prefer to talk to her on the phone,” Kirssy sighs. “Being able to see her but not touch her has been the toughest part of being here.”