Raquel Irizarry, an amiable older woman with soft skin, brown, greying hair and deep smile lines around her mouth, would walk past Brooklyn College admiring not only the green lawns and blooming trees, but the sense of opportunity.
But in her sophomore year of high school, Irizarry stopped attending. Transitioning after two moves made the high school environment unwelcoming, her classes too easy and college seemed like a distant financial burden. For her, working was the best option.
From there, in her words, like many high school equivalent students, “life had gotten in the way.” She had to support her father after his stroke and then support her son after she got married, but with her son all grown up, Irizarry said she felt it was time to find herself and pursue her love for social justice.
It had been 35 years since Irizarry stepped in a classroom and only armed with a GED certification that says she has high school-level academic skills, college seemed like a distant dream and her hopes of furthering her social justice work through education were dismal.
“It’s important to speak out. We observe a lot of things on a regular basis and we just walk past it or say that’s the way the world is, that’s the ways things are, and I no longer feel that way,” said Irizarry enunciating her words with a passion. “I realized that if I wanted to do more in the world I needed to come from a level of authority or some kind of expertise.”
But with recently changed academic standards within the four year colleges in CUNY, a GED or high school equivalency wasn’t enough.
However, in 2013, the year Irizarry applied, instead of getting a rejection she got a letter of acceptance from a program within Brooklyn College called BC Bound.
The program was founded and crafted in 2013 by Sharona Levy, Professor, Percy Ellis Sutton, a SEEK professor, Steven Lerner and Penelope Terry, director of undergraduate admissions and recruitment. Funded by the Black Male Initiative, the BC Bound program is designed to provide opportunity to high school equivalent students and provide them with tools their first semester that will help them transition back into school and ultimately succeed.
Levy explained that the average time it takes a student to graduate from a four year institution is about six years and for community college, it’s similar or more. Turning students away from Brooklyn College was not only adding obstacles into an already challenging path, but discouraging students.
“If you have to start at a community college and you have to come back, how many years are you looking at if your goal is a bachelor’s?” said Levy. “But if you want the shot and you have the right tools and it looks like you can handle it, why shouldn’t you have the opportunity?”
Irizarry had applied to a laundry list of schools and had heard nothing back. Then in October 2013, amidst her work helping with superstorm Sandy relief, she got the letter she wasn’t expecting, a letter many told her would never come – an acceptance.
“It was something like a window or vortex opened in the universe… They let me in. So my feeling was just go for it. My attitude was just get in the door.”
Opening doors for eager students, according Levy, has always been part of CUNY’s message. The initiation of BC Bound was just another push in the right direction.
“There’s a dream and a drive there to change their lives. That’s the amazing thing, that BC is there to be there for that. Because that’s what I think CUNY was established to serve – the regular tax paying residents of NYC to educate and better themselves. To me, this is what BC was famous for and what they’ve done for decades.”
The program’s goal is to have a 40 percent success rate – on par with the national average. Achieving that number, the founder believes, is grounded in the way BC Bound students’ first semester is structured. The program is rigorous, and based on national trends that show that hands-on programs increase high school equivalent students’ chances of graduating.
Students in the program are part of “learning communities” or “cohorts” designed to help them build a network for support. Their first semester is structured to ease students back into education. The cohorts of about six to 15 students attend full time from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. A schedule that is supposed to help them adjust to the structure of college. They take three courses, pre-calculus, english and a college prep class that covers everything from studying to time management, together in their own classroom. They take one core class course together in a mainstream classroom and then they each choose an elective to take individually. Each student must maintain a “C” or a 2.00 GPA to stay in the program. The transition, for many, isn’t easy.
“Coming back after all of those years and sort of starting fresh and having to reawaken the process of learning was a challenge initially.”
For many of the students, the transition is rough. Going from dropping out of school or taking years off to a full time school schedule is not only academically challenging, but emotionally weighing.
“They say, ‘I don’t know how to do this. I don’t know how to read a 30 page chapter and prep,” said Levy. “Emotionally they think they’re having a harder time than they are. They think they’re worse than other students. That other students aren’t having this trouble. They think that because they didn’t complete high school that they are having trouble.”
It’s these emotional challenges that get between these students and graduation day. For many, this constant mantra of “I can’t do this,” mixed with the things that may have kept them from completing high school – finance, family, social, self-esteem or health issues – can make taking on this rigorous schedule seemingly impossible.
“There was no question that they could intellectually handle Brooklyn College, but what had kept them from succeeding in the past were other issues,” said Levy. “So the things that were going to impede them were outside the college. For some there have been physical challenges, mental illness challenges, for some it has been gender identity issues…They’re a group that each one has a different story. So for some, sometimes even the best students, and all of a sudden you around they’re not there. That’s our biggest challenge. We can help with academics, but we can’t change your lives.”
To manage these personal issues students are encouraged to meet regularly with academic advisers, and show up for tutoring sessions and interact with Hunter College social work interns. The services are there to give students assistance with their personal lives so that they can focus on school. These tools are crucial during the first semester and open to use throughout their time at Brooklyn. But the students, according to Irizarry, have built their own networks of support.
Irizarry explained that they have leaned on each other for help with everything from classes to personal problems. They have encouraged and pushed each other. “We wanted to make it work. We wanted each other to succeed. Not just for ourselves but for each other,” she said. “My mantra was those who succeed do it together.”
Now in her senior year and nearing the end of her bachelor’s degree and looking towards a master’s, Irizarry looks back on the transition. “It was a challenge re-learning the process of learning- It went from being a challenge to a pleasure.”
Despite personal struggles and the difficulty of transitioning back to school, for many of the BC Bound students, attending school is a second chance.
“One of the wonderful things about coming back to college is that reinvigoration of learning for me and people in the BC Bound experience. We are coming at it from a very different perspective,” said Irizarry. “We aren’t coming at it from ‘we are going to college because this is the next leg in our maturation…’ We have been through that soul searching. We are on the other end of that rainbow. We come here with a lot more dedication. We really want to succeed and achieve those goals we put on the shelf or maybe even thought that wasn’t a possibility.”
According to Levy, bringing these dreams to the forefront builds a sense of drive that has pushed many of the BC Bound students to do well. She explained many of the students have high GPAs, two of them made the honors program and one even came in second in a math competition.
Irizarry explained that despite their stories BC Bound students have the ability to succeed and, to her, that is rooted in this program’s ability to open doors and the individual’s dedication.
“There are people of different age ranges, different ethnic backgrounds, people of different religious, backgrounds. Everybody’s story is different as to why and what happened to them derailed them, but what’s really, really important is that because they’ve made this conscious decision to come back, these are people who have goals and dreams.” She explained that they are were different and their dreams ranged from becoming artists and writers to doctors and business owners but they all had this opportunity in common. “They would not have gotten this chance to do this if it hadn’t been for this program.”
BC Bound’s first cohort will be graduating in the Fall.
For Levy, this rate is not the only success, but being able to restart this journey is an accomplishment. “They’re very brave and it’s inspiring what they’re doing. I tell them whether you succeed at up Brooklyn College or wind up here. This is not a failure because you are the bravest one to start this, coming back.” To her any student who attempts to change their life is a star.” – idk where to put this.