Diagnosed with autism when she was a toddler, Ahra Sung has far exceeded doctors’ dour projections for her achievement in the classroom. She earned a Bachelor of Science at York College in the spring, but didn’t stop there. This fall, Sung began work on a master’s in York’s Pharmaceutical Science and Business program, the lone program of its kind in The City University of New York.
That kind of academic success might have seemed anything but certain for Sung, the daughter of Korean immigrants, who grew up in Flushing, Queens. But guided by her motto, “don’t let your disability define your ability,” Sung has long refused to be held back. She says she placed out of special education classes in kindergarten and was taking advanced courses by the time she was in high school at The Queens School of Inquiry. To get where she is today, she took full advantage of York’s robust system of supports for students with special needs.
During her freshman year in 2014, Sung registered with York’s Center for Students with Disabilities and sought help through TRIO York Enrichment Services, a federally funded program that provides academic assistance and enrichment services through workshops, counseling, academic coaching and adaptive technology.
She participated in a photo exhibit, “See Me,” which featured students and college employees who were striving to conquer developmental or physical challenges. The exhibit, conceived by York’s Counseling Office, was on display in the campus library for more than a month.
“When I first came to York, I was struggling a lot socially and with where to go for help,” says Sung, who isn’t shy about discussing the benefits of York’s support system. “Now I know where to go, and the TRIO office helped me with my graduate school application, as well. I check with them to let them know how I’m doing.”
To be sure, her journey has been anything but easy. Sung readily admits there were times she felt like giving up. Sometimes, the York College student support staff helped her keep pushing; she also learned to rely on self-styled solutions. Sung is easily distracted, and it is not uncommon for her attention to wane; in response, she has learned to hold onto small, soft plush toys that she says help her stay “in the moment.”
“Once Ahra is focused on a subject, she can think it through to its end,” says Daniel Robie, a York College assistant professor of chemistry. “I try to give her topics that are so interesting that she focuses on them immediately.”
Sung thrived under Robie’s mentorship, completing a research project about crystal formations in Rochelle salt. She presented her findings at the Annual Undergraduate Research Symposium, sponsored by the American Chemical Society’s New York Section and held at York College in May.
The project turned out so well that Robie’s colleague, professor Deb Chakravarti, who serves as director of York College’s U.S. Food and Drug Administration Partnership program, got Sung placed in an internship at FDA’s Northeast Food and Feed Laboratory (NFFL) located on York’s Jamaica, Queens, campus.
“You have to build people up to succeed, and my colleagues were very supportive [of her],” Chakravarti said. He spoke with Kent Herman, deputy director of the NFFL, who agreed to give Sung an opportunity over the summer. During the experience, Sung got a feel for state-of-the-art analytical techniques like inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry, used for the detection of trace metals such as arsenic, chromium, cadmium, mercury and lead in feed samples and other commodities.
Robie is optimistic about Sung’s prospects moving forward. “I have high expectations for Ahra in the M.S. program,” Robie says. “I have encouraged her to devote a lot of time to her work, since well-spent study time is the key to success.”
The City University of New York is the nation’s leading urban public university. Founded in 1847, CUNY counts 13 Nobel Prize and 24 MacArthur (“Genius”) grant winners among its alumni. CUNY students, alumni and faculty have garnered scores of other prestigious honors over the years in recognition of historic contributions to the advancement of the sciences, business, the arts and myriad other fields. The University comprises 25 institutions: 11 senior colleges, seven community colleges, William E. Macaulay Honors College at CUNY, CUNY Graduate Center, Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY, CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies, CUNY School of Law, CUNY School of Professional Studies and CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy. The University serves more than 275,000 degree-seeking students. CUNY offers online baccalaureate and master’s degrees through the School of Professional Studies.