Remarkable Students Enjoy Degree of Success
Highlights from Commencements of 2003

Graziela Ionescu & Vasili Byros
Queens College
Henry Miller
Graduate Center
Ronald Charles
City College
James O’Connor
City College
Jed Gelber
New York City Technical College
Susan Madera
Brooklyn College
Augustine Jessamy
CUNY Baccalaureate Program
Ismaele Jacques
Brooklyn College
Jerrilynn Dodds
City College

In a perfect world, this story would begin here and its jump would be a few thousand pages long, chronicling the struggles and triumphs of the more than 28,500 women and men who received a degree from CUNY in the last month.

It would give a full account of students like Emmanuel Fallah, who emerged from a Nigerian refugee camp to complete his nursing studies at the College of Staten Island and who hopes to return to aid his suffering people.

It would tell Lidija Markes’ story: growing up in Croatia, losing her father to heart disease and her country to war, yet persevering to graduate from the Borough of Manhattan Community College with a near-perfect GPA.

It would tell of Bridgete Smith, an immigrant from Trinidad and Tobago whose struggle with lupus led her to major in medical nutrition under mentorship of a Lehman College professor.

It would detail the life of John Bradley, who turned to CUNY after being laid off in the early 1990s at age 48, after 23 years’ work as a journeyman steamfitter. His B.S. is in economics; he plans to continue toward a Master’s in operations research, working with mathematical models of economics situations.

It would go on for a few pages about Sylvia Arredondo, who came to the United States as an au pair from Guatemala, and who thought her dreams of getting an education would be cut short by financial problems. A BMCC professor helped her find aid, allowing her continue engineering studies at City College, where she graduated as valedictorian.

Sadly, there is no room to tell the stories of all who passed the milestone of a college degree. Here, though, are brief stories about a few that may suggest the wealth of human experience and achievement that enriches the University.

Lab Work Impossible?
Not for this New Ph.D.

  photo of Melissa Garcia

In her early days as an aspiring scientist, Melissa Garcia was once told that the fact that she had spina bifida, a congenital cleft of the vertebral column, would rule out her working in a laboratory. Instead of taking “no” for an answer, she decided to take a Ph.D. in biology, as lab-intensive a career as can be imagined.

In the course of earning her 2003 doctorate in the Molecular Cell Development sub-program from the CUNY Graduate Center, Garcia inevitably became a lab animal, studying the mechanisms involved in visual and central nervous system development. As part of this research, she identified a novel gene that appears to play a role in “growth cone navigation” during development of the central nervous and visual systems.

Garcia’s Bachelor’s is from Hofstra University, and her Master’s is from Long Island University, where she worked on stem cell research. Afterward, she worked in Amplicon Corporation labs on mapping newly-identified genes involved in breast cancer pathogenesis, then in North Shore University Hospital labs on genes involved in rheumatoid arthritis and perfect pitch. At the Graduate Center, Garcia was the recipient of a Humana Two-Year Fellowship and a Presidential Dissertation Fellowship.

And her next job will be—Garcia seems to love rubbing it in—in yet another laboratory. She has accepted a post-doctoral position at the National Institute of Environmental Health, where she plans to study a signaling pathway that may play a role in the metastasis of cancer tumors.

Two Queens Grads (One Couple)

  Graziela Ionescu with Vasili Byros

When Graziela Ionescu met Vasili Byros in an Italian restaurant in Brooklyn that Vasili was managing for his Greek father, something clicked. “We began to talk, he asked me out, and before long, we knew we were meant for each other,” Ionescu recalls. Two days after they graduated from Queens College on May 29, they were married, and in the fall each will be taking up doctoral studies at Yale, Ionescu in ancient history, Byros in music.

Ionescu, a native of Romania, maintained a 4.0 GPA and was the College’s Commencement speaker. A Phi Beta Kappa member, she came to the U.S. after high school and soon enrolled at LaGuardia Community College. At Queens she discovered her passion for Latin, the classics, and ancient Roman history, becoming especially interested in researching the little-explored subject of the relations of the Roman Empire with Dacia, as Romania was called in ancient times.

“No other place could have helped me further my interests as Queens College did,” she says. “It had the ideal environment, resources, and professors who became mentors to me.”

Byros, a pianist born and raised in Queens by his Greek immigrant parents, is graduating from the College’s Aaron Copland School of Music with a Master’s and will continue for his doctorate in music at Yale. “The School of Music is incredible,” he says, “comparable in quality to much more expensive schools such as Mannes and the Manhattan School of Music, and the faculty are skilled in performance and have made major contributions to the field.”

Dentist Turns Cum Laude — Just 58 Years Later

  James O’Connor’s image

For most students the hiatus between sophomore and junior year is about three months. James O’Connor’s hiatus lasted well over half a century. The 84-year-old former dentist marched in City College’s 2003 honors convocation, having earned a Bachelor’s degree in philosophy cum laude. It was exactly 58 years after the Bronx-born son of Irish immigrants entered City College as a World War II veteran with sciences and a dental career in mind.

O’Connor’s big early break came when N.Y.U. accepted him into its doctoral program in dentistry even though he had no undergraduate degree. “These were special times after the war,” recalls O’Connor, who served with the U.S. Army in England. He graduated in 1951 and went on to practice in Inwood for the next 47 years.

After he retired, the notion of hitting the books again proved irresistible. “The thing is that I’m interested in education, and after I retired I felt it was important to come back to City College and pursue that degree I never got.” He found certain aspects of life “on the hill” unchanged: “This place is very demanding and challenging,” he says, “and I learned a lot from the young people here—from people who disagreed with me.” (Former Mayor Ed Koch had a similar career path: after WWII interrupted his CCNY studies, he earned an N.Y.U. law degree in 1948, but came back for his B.A. at the College in 1981.)

Nikolas Pappas, chair of philosophy and teacher of O’Connor’s Ancient Philosophy class, was impressed: “Mr. O’Connor responded to philosophy the way I want all my students to. He got into a conversation with the great philosophers. When he disagreed with them, he trusted his life’s rich experience to tell him when to re-examine his own beliefs and when he should stand firm, just as an intelligent person ought to do in every conversation.”
O’Connor, who picked up an M.A. in liberal arts at Fordham before his City College home-coming, says, “I’m proud of City College and still think of it as the ‘poor man’s Harvard.’ I’ve had a happy time here.”

A New Bus Route in Brooklyn: The Gleason Depot to CUNY BA
  Augustine Jessamy by the bus
Sometimes, late in the night, a young passenger will stay on the bus of Augustine Jessamy to the end of the line in Brownsville, talking about plans and dreams.

Jessamy, who has been driving the B35 bus along Church Avenue in Brooklyn for nearly seven years, offers the benefit of broad experience in juggling job, family and education. During those years, he spent nights at the wheel of his bus and days with his shoulder to the wheel of a college education.

He is among this spring’s graduates of the CUNY Baccalaureate Program, having completed work for a Bachelor of Science degree in business administration at Brooklyn College.

The 43-year-old native of Grenada, who came to this country in 1986, attended with the help of a Thomas W. Smith academic scholarship, which he was granted after he earned an Associate’s degree with honors from Kingsborough Community College. “That covered my tuition and books,” he says.

After he came to Brooklyn, Jessamy worked as a field inspector for an insurance company. “When I was laid off in a downsizing, I was forced to look around for any job I could get,” he recalls. “I had a young son, born in 1992, so it was kind of a panic situation. A friend of mine said, ‘Why not take the bus driver exam?’”

Jessamy took the test and passed, but the first offers were for driving in Manhattan and the Bronx. Instead, he began working for a social service agency in Brooklyn. “I worked in a facility for homeless young women with children,” he recalls. “We would screen them and house them for a maximum of six months. We prepared them to live on their own.” It was deeply satisfying work, which left him with a resolve to continue trying to help people in need. He rose from family manager to full case manager, while, starting in 1994, carrying a full-credit load at Kingsborough. “Working full-time and studying full-time was really a killer,” he recalls.

A second son arrived, tightening the financial screws. When the MTA called with an offer of a Brooklyn route, he took it. He now works out of the Jackie Gleason Depot on Fifth Avenue and 39th Street. Driving, Jessamy says, allowed him to contemplate education, because “bus drivers pick their shifts and days off approximately every two months.” He drove from mid-afternoon to the early morning hours. “I’d go to bed about 2 a.m., get up at 8 and go to class,” he recalls. Back home about noon, a few hours’ sleep, then back to the Depot.

“Had it not been for my wife, Elizabeth, taking up the slack, this would have been impossible for me,” Jessamy says. He relaxes by playing guitar and painting landscapes and by writing poetry (sample it on the website).

Prof. Hershey Friedman was Jessamy’s CUNY/BA mentor at Brooklyn College. “Whenever I called, he was right there,” Jessamy says. He was a tremendous help to me.”

Being a student gave him good credibility with his sons, now 11 and 16, who face the same challenges in their daily lives. “Between us, we set goals and then work to achieve them,” says dad. “They’ve learned that you face obstacles, but if you keep at it you’ll overcome them.”

Jessamy is studying now to get his state license as an insurance agent, and has lined up part-time work with a financial services company. The idea of continuing on for a Master’s is parked in the back of his mind, but, Jessamy says with an easy laugh, “For the moment, I plan to keep driving the bus.”

“The Strip,” then the Stage Former Beat of New Ph.D.

  Henry Miller

For 15 years, from 1965 to 1980, Henry Miller was a police officer assigned to District 3 of the then New York City Transit Police in Harlem. At that time, District 3 covered what was one of Harlem’s toughest, most crime-ridden areas, known as “The Strip,” from 110th to 125th Streets. Talk about street theater.

But all the while, Miller, newly minted as a CUNY Ph.D. in Theater, was becoming a veteran of the 1960s/70s African-American theater. Now 60, he was a founding member of the Joseph Patterson Players in the South Bronx and also worked with the Afro-American Repertory Theater in Harlem. (His wife is a retired Harlem public school principal.)

Miller’s ground-breaking dissertation, “Art or Propaganda: A Historical and Critical Analysis of African-American Approaches to Dramatic Theory, 1900-1965,” considers how the Black Arts Movement influenced African-American theater.

A MAGNET—Minority Access/ Graduate Networking—Fellow, Miller has also been an engaged theatrical practitioner as well as scholar. He has original plays and musical theater works among his credits, and, most recently directed main-stage operatic productions of Porgy and Bess in Philadelphia and Indianapolis. His one-act plays, The Christmas Eve Companion Plays: A Winter Reunion and Gifts of Parting, won awards in 1995 and 1998. His latest work-in-progress, Only Yesterday, will be a drama employing the music of Duke Ellington that takes place at the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s. Miller, a South Bronx native (his mom was “Miss Palm Café,” a Harlem beauty queen), grew up in the former neighborhood of Isaac Bashevis Singer and attended the same junior high school as Colin Powell.

From Substance Abuser to City Tech Valedictorian

  Jed Gelber smiling

Substance abuse dogged Jed Gelber for two decades—during high school on the Upper West Side, through a year at SUNY Stony Brook, a stint as a Wall Street clerk, then during an enlistment in the U.S. Marines. “I am living proof that we don’t just get a second chance in life, we get a third, fourth, or fifth,” Gelber says. “But it’s not an infinite number, and at some point you either pull yourself out of the pit or languish in it permanently.”
Even after another ten years as an abstractor for a title insurance company, Gelber had not hit bottom with his abuse. So, finally, at the age of 40, Gelber did pull himself out of the pit—and into New York City College of Technology’s paralegal studies program, the only public one of its kind in the City. “In many ways my life really did begin at 40, when I recovered from my final relapse. That’s when I enrolled in City Tech.”

He took to campus life, he says, “incredibly well.” He was rewarded with a 4.0 that first semester, a GPA he has managed to maintain ever since. “I was especially inspired by my criminal law professor, who is a supervising attorney at the Brooklyn Legal Aid Society,” Gelber says.
Gelber, always a skilled writer, kept himself afloat financially by working as a writing tutor in City Tech’s Office of Student Support Services. Though he will be enrolled at CUNY Law School next fall, he is already mulling a return to campus. “When I finish law school, I’d like to come back and teach a writing course. It will be one way I can give back.”

A remarkable irony attended Gelber’s graduation. His father Jack Gelber, a noted playwright who died just weeks before the ceremony, first made his name with The Connection, a raw look at the dead-end life of the drug-addicted. It premiered Off Broadway in 1959, the year Jed was born.

SEEK and Ye Shall Find—a Path to Yale

  Ismaele Jacques' image

Ismaele Jacques, who has been spending a lot of time with 2,3,7,8-tetrachloro-dibenzo-p-dioxin—CTCDD for short, and part of the notorious defoliant Agent Orange—will soon be departing from Bushwick to begin her studies in advanced microbiology at Yale University. It’s a remarkable leap: Jacques attended Brooklyn College as a SEEK student.

As a sophomore, Jacques convinced her counselors to let her take three of the toughest classes in the College’s curriculum all at once: Chemistry 1 (five credits), Organic Chemistry (five credits), and Calculus (three credits), earning two B+’s and an A. She joined the Minority Access to Research Careers (MARC) program in her junior year, with the goal of a career in medical research and teaching. Last summer she interned at Cornell’s Medical Center for researchers working on dermal fibroblasts. “When I’m taking a new course, it’s almost like I get high on the challenge,” she says.

Jacques arrived in the U.S. in 1991 with her parents and three younger brothers from Haiti, lived in a one-room apartment, then moved into larger accommodations in the Marcy Projects in Bushwick. After graduating from Martin Luther King High School, she entered the SEEK program, which offers financial and study support to promising students.

Leaving Bushwick is not without tension for the 21-year-old Jacques. Getting into Yale worried her less than getting to Yale. “I’m claustrophobic,” she said. “I sometimes get severe panic attacks on trains, and I can’t fly. I was afraid this might limit my choice of schools. But I was really proud. It was the first time I had ever gone out of state by myself, and the bus ride was fine.”

Medical Dream Comes True for BLM3p Student

  Ronald Charles' image

Growing up in Grenada, Ronald Charles had the grades to attend medical school, but not enough money to do so. Like so many others, he had to make the heart-wrenching decision to leave home and emigrate to the U.S. for more opportunity, bringing his younger brother with him. Both were accepted into City College as full-time students. But they had to endure poor living conditions, and Ronald worked long hours at low-paying jobs to support them both. Despite these hardships, he established an outstanding academic record and was named a Minority Access to Research Careers Scholar, which paid his tuition and a monthly stipend for his research. He graduated from City College this June and, fulfilling a lifelong dream of becoming a doctor, he has won a Salk Scholarship to medical school.

As a MARC Scholar, Charles worked in Professor Carol Wood Moore’s lab on a project to determine the function of an unknown and conserved protein in yeast—the novel BLM3p gene, which is one of many yeast genes whose function is unknown. Recently, similar genes were found in humans, and BLM3p is considered likely to be very important in multiple organisms. Charles is particularly interested in understanding how cells respond to damage of DNA and how this gene might help in repair. His research paper on the subject, “Functional Characterization of BLM3p, a Protein involved in Resistance to Oxidative Damage to Saccharomyces cerevisiae,” helped him to win his Salk award, which he will enjoy at Weill Medical College of Cornell University.

A College Nightmare with a Dream Ending

  Susan Madera's image
Susan Madera remembers well how—long ago, in 1978—her dream of going to college “turned into a nightmare.” Like many a New Yorker, she was bilingual: English and “neighborhood” (hers being Little Italy). A very intimidating teacher of Speech 101 at Brooklyn College made so much fun of her “neighborhood” idioms that she dropped out after one semester. Marriage, the birth of two sons, and a steady rise to head of a word-processing department at Morgan Guaranty followed. Then she resigned to be a full-time mom and began to think about a return to college. In 1999 Madera came to Queensborough Community College, and this June received her Associate’s degree with honors in English. She just made her publishing debut with “One Voice,” an essay describing her life story that QCC English chair Sheena Gillespie included in the 5th edition of her Across Cultures (Allyn & Bacon), a collection of essays on multicultural experiences. Adapted here is the happy ending of her essay.

I was lucky enough to get a position as a typist in a very prestigious company, Morgan Guaranty. I began my career in the typing pool, typing on an IBM typewriter. Within a year, word processors came into the office, and I was thrilled to be picked as one of the people trained to use one. Eventually, they made me an offer I could not refuse: I headed a department of word processors in the investment research division. I left Morgan on maternity leave with my first child. Upon my return, I was trained to be on the new IBM computers, and become supervisor of an even larger group of people. But once our son was born and I looked into his sparkling eyes, I knew I could not leave him to the care of a baby-sitter. When I returned three months later, it was to resign my position.

I am still a supervisor, but of our home. Michael is now twelve years old, and Matthew is six. I want our children to have the benefit of a strong background in English. I know the downfalls of not speaking properly, and I do not want them to experience them, as I have.

To say that I have conquered all my fears of the English language would be untrue. Twenty-one years after walking away from Brooklyn College, I am back in school at Queensborough Community College. What was the first class I decided to take? Why English, of course. I am doing well in my class, and I am proud of myself. I am also quite glad that QCC has decided to give me the three credits I earned in Speech at Brooklyn College, although I barely passed, with a grade of D. I could not have taken that class again.

Over the years, I have gained confidence in myself as a writer. The way I speak does not exemplify who I am; however, my writing is a true expression of the person I am inside. When I write, words come from deep inside of me, and spill out onto the page. I never stop to correct myself, as I would if I were speaking. I may speak two languages, but I write with one voice.



New Distinguished Professor Applauds Her Students


On January 27, when the Board of Trustees formally appointed Jerrilynn D. Dodds a Distinguished Professor, the architectural historian, formerly on the Columbia University faculty, spoke briefly but passionately about her City College students. Referring to her new title, Dr. Dodds said:

It is a title I owe most of all to City College students—students from the School of Architecture, with their piercing intelligence, their staggering drive and dedication, and their knowledge of a world which I only knew as an intellectual construct before I came here...If my writing was about cultural interaction when I first came to City College, it was the questioning, the deep intellectual curiosity and life experience of School of Architecture students that gave it the complexity or depth it required...

Multiculturalism, that word by which we have come to distinguish part of the City College experience, is not on any level some kind of compensatory consideration there, a kind of politically correct, working-class consolation which one might weigh against the competitive excellence of a private college education.

It doesn’t work that way. City students are intensely stimulating; they are intellectually challenging and alive. And further, I believe that City students, because of their deep understanding of the urban world of negotiated identities and ambivalent boundaries, understand more about the world which is to come than any other college students I know. Their life experience, together with their City College education, gird them uniquely to lead this generation. They are prepared for leadership in this international, urban world more than any Ivy League students I have taught...



Class of 2003: Remarkable Students Enjoy Success

York Hails New President; Farewell at John Jay

Weathering the Budgetary Storm

Bronx Borough President on Education

The Virtual Orchestra, a Reality

Obstacles & Perseverance—Salk Keynoter

ING Direct Kids Funds 9/11 Family Scholarships

Guggenheims for Three Faculty

Teaching the Holocaust at Queensborough

$10M Donation at Brooklyn College

Athletes Capture 43 All-American Honors

City Tech Student Drapes Hussein Statue

Four Distinguished Profs Named

Chemists Rejoice Over New Spectrometer

A Film Festival and a Life Celebrated

The Food of Life—Italian Style

Poems of Praise from a “Baruch” Life

Lesbian & Gay Studies Center Enters 2nd Decade

NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein Speaks Out

Celebrating 500th Anniversary of Artist of the Erotic