In her early life in the African nation of Togo, Samsiya Ona was a sickly child and her mother suffered from ulcers, necessitating frequent trips and long waits at a local, understaffed hospital. “I felt that, if I were a doctor, I could help my mother,” Ona said. “It’s always been my path.”
At 18, Ona and her siblings left Togo to join her father in New York. The next year, like hundreds of thousands of immigrants past, present and future, Ona found her way to The City University of New York, first through an English-language program at Hunter College, then entering Lehman College in the Bronx, “scared” but focused on her goal. She graduated summa cum laude in 2011 with majors in biology and anthropology/biology/chemistry, was awarded a Soros Fellowship for New Americans in 2013, and graduated from Harvard Medical School in 2015. She is a resident in obstetrics and gynecology at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Such academic trajectories are far from rare at CUNY. The University has a proud history of providing educational opportunity to all New Yorkers, regardless of background or means, and that includes a long tradition of welcoming immigrant students in search of the American Dream. Despite many challenges, from language barriers to economic hardship, many immigrants and children of immigrants have been – and are – among CUNY’s highest academic achievers.
Two of CUNY’s 13 Nobel Laureates – Robert Aumann, who won the Nobel Prize for Economics, and Arno Penzias, who won the Nobel for Physics – were Jewish immigrants from Germany, while other CUNY Nobelists were born to immigrants,. In addition, Intel Corp. co-founder and City College alumnus Andrew Grove, who called CUNY “the American Dream Machine,” came from Hungary; while Rhodes Scholar Zujaja Tauqeer, a 2011 graduate of Macaulay Honors College at Brooklyn College, was granted asylum in the U.S. with her family after fleeing Pakistan.
The University has long been recognized by immigrants as an educational Ellis Island, gateway to a high-quality, affordable education and upward economic mobility. From the late 1800s through the first decades of the 20th century, the influx of immigrants hungry for education for themselves and their children drove expansion of New York City’s public colleges. Today, with 24 campuses in five boroughs providing a full range of degree programs, CUNY’s quality, affordability and welcoming culture offer students – native-born and immigrant – unbeatable value and unlimited opportunity.
Today, CUNY students claim 205 countries of origin and speak 186 languages. Of 245,279 undergraduates in Fall 2015, 52,107 were foreign-born. According to University data, 36.3 percent were born outside the U.S. mainland, and 44.5 percent spoke native languages other than English.
CUNY has demonstrated a commitment to New York’s immigrant communities that is deeply rooted in its 169-year-old mission to educate “the whole people” regardless of background, national origin or means. The University is the national higher-education leader in providing immigrants – regardless of documented status – with comprehensive, confidential citizenship and immigration services and support, from legal services to assistance with paperwork. The centerpiece of these efforts is CUNY Citizenship Now! which over more than 20 years has grown into the nation’s largest, university-based legal assistance program, providing free citizenship and immigration law services to students, their families and all New Yorkers.
CUNY Citizenship Now! counselors and lawyers staff six New York City centers, which are recognized by the U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals, as well as the offices of 34 City Council members. Since 2004 the program has also staffed a popular weeklong call-in phone bank, co-sponsored with the New York Daily News, which provides immigration and citizenship information and counseling in some 45 languages.
For most immigrant students, however, CUNY is a beacon of educational opportunity, with many examples of the heights students can achieve despite economic and cross-cultural challenges. They are students like Nigeria-born James Ladi Williams, an MPA candidate at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School, who graduated from CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice in 2015, the year he was named a New York City Urban Fellow.
They include Amal Elbakhar, a native of Morocco who earned her B.A. in 2011 at Macaulay Honors College at Hunter College, won a Coro Fellowship in 2011 and a Soros in 2015, and graduated from Harvard Law School last year. And Evgeniya Kim, who immigrated from Uzbekistan, is a 2010 graduate of Macaulay at Hunter and a Soros Fellow, and attended Yale School of Management, earning her MBA in 2016.
Jake Vaynshteyn, from Ukraine, graduated from City College in 2009, won a National Science Foundation Fellowship in 2013 and earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in 2016. Ecuador native Dahlia Ordonez, Hunter ’13 and also a 2013 NSF Fellow, is a Ph.D. candidate in molecular and cellular biology at Harvard.
They are scholars like Robert W. Fernandez, a formerly undocumented immigrant from Peru, who graduated from York College in 2013, won a Soros Fellowship in 2014, and is a Ph.D. candidate in biophysics and biochemistry at Yale University. Fernandez, who eventually gained permanent residency status, said, “I was lucky. I was able to find schools that accepted undocumented immigrants, I had a supportive family, a quality high school education, and a network of supportive professors and mentors who helped me wriggle through the system against the odds.”