From High School Dropout to Surgeon General – Thanks to BCC

Dr. Richard Carmona’s life story reads like the plot of a Hollywood movie, a Frank Capra movie: high school dropout and poor Hispanic kid from Harlem becomes Surgeon General of the United States.

Richard Carmona

And the 52-year-old Carmona says he owes his successful medical career to Bronx Community College, from which he graduated with honors in 1973 with an Associate degree in liberal arts.

Speaking by phone from his office in Washington, the dropout from DeWitt Clinton High School said, “Coming back from the war in Vietnam as a high school dropout, with a GED, I really didn’t have many options. But BCC was willing to let me try. I truly appreciate the opportunity BCC gave me and so many others.”

Carmona emailed similar gratitude to BCC professor and chairman of health and physical education Michael Steuerman shortly after he was confirmed by the Senate in July. “He said it was the first step in his move to higher education,” Steuerman recalls. “Until BCC, he’d met with no success in education.” In the email, the grateful graduate singled out four of his BCC professors—Henry Hermo, Gil Riley, Richard Kor, and Steuerman himself—as helping him to achieve his remarkable turn-around.

According to Steuerman, Carmona was “the prototypical adult re-entry student,” enrolling in BCC in 1970 after serving a stint in Vietnam as a decorated Green Beret medic. “He knew a lot about practical anatomy,” remembers Hermo, now an emeritus professor of biology. “He had seen a lot more than I had seen.”

It wasn’t his medical knowledge, however, that made him stand out. “He was motivated,” Hermo says. “He was out in front. He made his presence known in class by asking questions, and he took others under his wing.”

Carmona’s helping other students is what Steuerman remembers most. “He was a lifeguard in our swimming pool,” he says. “He did much more than was required. He was active in teaching other students to swim.”

At BCC, he made the Dean’s List and graduated with a 3.73 grade point average and went on to the University of California-San Francisco’s medical school, where he earned his B.S. and became valedictorian. A skilled trauma surgeon, he started the first trauma center in Tucson, Arizona, where he is a professor of surgery at the University of Arizona College of Medicine. He also helped the state create its latest disaster-preparedness plans.

The Hollywood allusion, incidentally, is not so far-fetched. The part-time sheriff’s deputy and SWAT team leader/trainer made national headlines in 1992—and inspired a made-for-TV film—when he rappelled from a helicopter to rescue a hiker stranded on a cliff just after another helicopter had crashed.

The incident is typical, BCC professors say, of Carmona’s dedication not only to his fellow students but also to his profession. “Sciences were what he wanted to gobble up,” Hermo recalls. “When he came to BCC, he wasn’t looking back, he was really looking forward. He was outstanding.”

Contents October 2002

From High School Dropout to Surgeon General – Thanks to BCC

Extending the Lifespan of Learning

The Bronx: A Thriving River Runs Through It

Chancellor's Message: Celebrating CUNY Poets

Two Bills for CUNY Signed by Governor

Colleges Set Out Welcome Mats For First “CUNY Week” Outreach

New Technology: Two Conferences

Celebrating the Pleasures of Literature

The Public and Private Lives of Eleanor Roosevelt

Capturing the Life of a Complex General

TV Boot Camp Gives Students Taste of “60 Minutes” Magic

Big Cats' Novels Change America

Imagining Hopper

New Stars in Faculty Firmament

John Jay Law Enforcement News Honored for Articles on 9/11

Preserving the History of the Puerto Rican Diaspora

Vigils, Bells, Art, Eloquence—and Silence: Campuses Observe September 11

Three WTC Workers from City Tech Receive Scholarships

Future Holds New Home, New Master’s for CUNY’s School of Architecture

N.J. State Human Resources Executive Comes to CUNY

Hostos Goes Electronic on the Grand Concourse

New Shuttle Service Eases Lehman Commute

Leap in Fall Enrollment

CUNY Board Adopts State Early Retirement Plan