Freshman Day at Hostos Community College

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Félix V. Matos Rodríguez, Ph.D.

Greetings, everyone.  Saludos y buenas tardes.  As President of Eugenio María de Hostos Community College, it’s my great pleasure to welcome our freshman class for the fall semester of 2009.   Let me start by saying how proud we are of you, both as a "class," and for your individual accomplishments.  You are here because we value these accomplishments and because we have unwavering belief in your academic and personal potential.

This is a special event today, because, in a way, I qualify as an Hostos “freshman” myself, given that I became the new president of this institution two and a half months ago and “the new” hasn’t worn off yet.  Every morning I wake up looking forward to coming here, and most evenings the staff has to remind me when it’s time to go home, tired but happy.  From where I stand, Hostos is a great experience that just keeps getting better, and I have high expectations that it will be the same for you.

While I’m still new to Hostos, I’ve been a faculty member at Hunter College, that other CUNY campus down at 68th and Lexington, since 2000.  At Hunter, I served as the Director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies, and also taught courses on Caribbean, Latin American, and Latino history.  Being a historian, I’d like to begin by saying a few words about Eugenio María de Hostos, and why it is really significant that this college bears his name.

A writer, educator, and patriot, Hostos was born in Puerto Rico in 1839.  In an era when few people had the advantage of any formal schooling, he studied education and law in Spain at the Institute of Higher Education in Bilbao and the University of Madrid.  As a socially-conscious student, he participated in efforts to liberalize Spain’s colonial rule of Cuba and Puerto Rico and to abolish African slavery.

In 1869, Hostos came to New York and joined the Cuban Revolutionary Junta to work for the liberation of Cuba and Puerto Rico from Spanish colonialism; three years later, he returned to Latin America to promote the liberation movement.  In subsequent years, he protested the exploitation of Chinese immigrants in Peru; championed the cause of educational opportunities for women in Chile; and campaigned for the construction of the first trans-Andean railroad in Argentina.

The school that Hostos established in Chile became one of the foremost educational centers in Latin America.  During his eight years there, he wrote award-winning curricula in Spanish and history, and also published literary, artistic, and philosophical works.  When Spanish rule ended in Puerto Rico, Hostos returned there to work for the island’s independence from the United States.  In 1898, he moved to the Dominican Republic, where he was appointed director of the Central College and Inspector General of Public Education.  It was there that he died in 1903.

On September 29, 1969, the CUNY Board of Higher Education passed a resolution stating that the institution that had been called Community College Number Eight -- that was our original name then! -- would be named Eugenio María de Hostos Community College “in grateful recognition of … Hostos’ contributions to the intellectual and spiritual wealth of the Americas and to stimulate interest and pride from the large Puerto Rican community of the South Bronx….”

From a twenty-first century perspective, the Board’s resolution could have gone much farther.  Hostos was a man who had regional and global impact.  His legacy is a source of enduring pride not only for Puerto Ricans, but also for Dominicans and all others who believe in equal educational opportunity and oppose any form of discrimination based on sex, race, national origin, or other pretexts for bias.  This view is embodied in the Hostos Community College mission, which is “… to meet the higher education needs of people from this and similar communities [by] offer[ing] access to higher education leading to intellectual growth and socioeconomic mobility through the development of linguistic, mathematical, technological, and critical thinking proficiencies needed for lifelong learning and for success in a variety of programs including careers, liberal arts, transfer, and those professional programs leading to licensure".

As I look at this freshman class, I can imagine how pleased Hostos would be by its diversity.  Let’s do a little exercise.  I have here a breakdown of your class’s demographic composition.

So there you are: The City University of New York is a diverse institution throughout, and thanks to you and your classmates, Hostos is a shining example of its diversity.  Let me encourage you to take full advantage of that diversity.  My first lesson from the "art of being a student" manual -- and you will hear me talk about this often throughout your Hostos career -- is that most of your schooling and your learning will come from your fellow students and from your interactions with them.  Dealing with individuals from different cultures, religions and traditions is a vital skill for success in the workplace, in the community, in your building, and even in your family life.  Do not waste any time and don’t be shy -- reach out to those fellow students, particularly if they come from a background that's different from yours, and learn.  Learn and enjoy!  Hostos is the perfect place for this and few places have the diversity that we do.  Seek to benefit from that diversity in the classroom, in the student clubs, in athletics, in your volunteer work, and throughout your Hostos experience!

Now that I have given you some information on who Eugenio María de Hostos was, and about who you are as a class, I’d like to say something about community colleges in general and Hostos Community College in particular.

According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Education, more than 40 percent of all traditional-age college students start out at a community college. Community college graduates can go directly to well-paying jobs in the work force or to a baccalaureate degree program at a four-year institution. The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) reports that collectively we account for 62 percent of the allied health professionals and over 80 percent of law enforcement officers and firefighters in the nation.   And let me remind you of another fact that we are proud of at Hostos:  Our exit surveys show that 95% of all our graduates have a job within six months of graduation!  Moreover, the Career Services Office provides counseling and job placement services to recent graduates as well as currently enrolled students.

While not all community colleges are created equal, you can rest assured that CUNY’s two-year colleges are held to the same high standards of excellence as its four-year colleges.  That means you don’t have to worry about your credits from Hostos not being accepted by another CUNY college, if that is the route you want to follow.  Our faculty is of the utmost quality; they come from the same excellent institutions, publish in the same journals, are expected to excel at their teaching, and have the same tenure and promotion standards as their colleagues all the other 23 CUNY schools and most colleges and universities in the US.  The second lesson from the "art of being a student" manual that I want to share with you today is to take full advantage of this great faculty.  They are here to be your guides and to support you.

If I were to ask all of you why you enrolled at Hostos, I’m sure I would get a wide variety of responses, but most of them would probably include the practical consideration that an associate’s degree or a certificate program will enable you to find employment.  That’s a very good answer, but it’s not a complete one.  You may have come here primarily to prepare for a job, but we want you to leave Hostos having gained a multifaceted education as well.  Let me say this again: You may have come here primarily to prepare for a job, but we want you to leave Hostos having gained a multifaceted education as well.  Think of the range of possibilities that are open to you.  Whatever career path you choose, don’t define yourself only by what you do for a living.  Allied health professionals can write poetry.  Engineers can give examples from history.  Elementary school teachers can solve calculus problems.  Accountants can act.  As well as encouraging you to learn from your fellow students, I also urge you to take advantage of everything the college has to offer.  If you go on to a baccalaureate program at a four-year institution, the faculty there will be impressed by the firm foundation you gained at Hostos.  This is the third lesson in my manual on “the art of being a student.”

The Division of Faculty and Academic Affairs consists of the departments of Allied Health Sciences, Behavioral and Social Sciences, Business, Education, English, Humanities, Language and Cognition, the Library, Mathematics, and Natural Sciences.  This is the part of the college devoted to teaching and learning, and consequently your most profitable time at Hostos will be spent in the company of its members.

The Hostos Academic Learning Center (HALC) provides students with free support services that contribute to academic success.  Through HALC, tutorial services are available in all the basic skills and for a variety of college-level courses. Tutors work either one-on-one or in small groups to provide general course review and exam preparation. Online tutoring and self-guidance tutorials are also offered during both the fall and spring semesters. The summer/winter intersession program offers basic skills workshops to prepare students for the ACT writing, COMPASS reading, COMPASS math and CMAT exams. To strengthen students’ writing skills, study skills and test taking techniques, ACT Prep, CPE practice, grammar workshops and other themed workshops are offered every semester.  About the best piece of advice I have for incoming freshmen is this: If you find you are treading water in any of your courses and think you’re about to go under, get over to HALC.  The tutors there will do their best to put you back on solid ground.

Our study abroad programs and academic exchange programs give Hostos students and others the opportunity to increase their understanding of the history, culture, and languages of other communities and countries throughout the world.  Partners in these study programs have included universities in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Spain, and Cuba.  Through the Study/Travel Opportunities for CUNY Students (STOCS) project, students can receive scholarships to cover the cost of travel, housing, materials, field trips and some meals.  The credit-bearing courses they take typically deal with the history, culture, art, and education of the country, or beginning Spanish.  Next summer’s study abroad program will be in Puerto Rico.

Now if you’re really ambitious, the Global Scholars Program may be tailor-made for you.  This is a phenomenal initiative in which Hostos is in partnership with Columbia University to prepare students for careers in international affairs and national security. The goal is to provide participants with the educational and professional background necessary for leadership roles in such global issues as conflict resolutions, human rights, environment concerns, world trade, and public diplomacy.

Twenty-five years ago, I was sitting in an assembly very similar to this one.  As an entering freshman at Yale, I heard President A. Bartlett Giamatti deliver an address in which he told my class that “you are thrown on the resources of your own minds.”  What was true in New Haven in 1984 is true in the Bronx in 2009.  Just as President Giamatti gave us notice that we were responsible for our success, I say the same to you.  Please note that I am not saying you’re on your own—far from it.  This is a shared responsibility.  The institutional resources of Yale were there for my class, and those of Hostos and The City University of New York will be here for you.  The faculty, staff, and administration believe wholeheartedly in your potential for success.  If you join us by believing in yourselves, applying yourselves, making the most of your abilities, and taking advantage of what Hostos has to offer, there is no limit to how much you can achieve and how far you can go.

I am a big fan of graduation ceremonies.  This is when the university celebrates the accomplishments of its students, demonstrates the seriousness of its promise to students that if you come, we will educate you, and signals the entrance to a larger community of professionals.  One of my favorite parts of the ceremony is when the President, after having been presented with the names of the graduates, says, “With the authority vested in me by the charter of the State of New York and the Board of Trustees, I collectively confer upon you the associate degree that you have individually earned with the rights, privileges and responsibilities that accompany it."  It always brings down the house!  I am so looking forward to saying this to all of you two or three years from now and then shaking your hands for a job well done.  From now until that day, we'll do everything in our power to ensure you are there; that is our solemn pledge to you.
In conclusion, I want to remind you of something President Barak Obama said in his first address to a joint session of Congress on February 24th, 2009:  On that occasion, the President told Congress and the American people, “In a global economy where the most valuable skill you can sell is your knowledge, a good education is no longer just a pathway to opportunity—it is a prerequisite.”  Noting that three-quarters of the fastest-growing occupations require more than a high school diploma, the President stated the alarming statistics that just over half of our citizens have that level of education, and half of the students who begin college never finish.  To reverse this downward spiral, Obama called upon every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training.  Men and women of the freshman class, you might not have realized it, but by enrolling at Hostos, you’ve answered the President’s call; and by persisting to earn your degree, you’ll help to meet an even more important goal he has set for the nation -- namely, that by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.  Like Obama, I firmly believe that an educated electorate holds the brightest promise for our country’s future; and from where I stand today, I can see that future.  Believe it or not, it’s you.

I am certain that if you study hard, persist during the rough patches, and make use of all the support systems provided by your Hostos family and your own family and friends, you can succeed at whatever you decide to do.  Yes you can!  You can make us all proud!  The faculty, staff, and administration are all on you team and ready to extend a helping hand.  Just remember: “He OR she who perseveres, triumphs!”  “¡El que persevera, triunfa!”  The journey you have begun in the pursuit of a better life for you and your family is sure to be an exciting and rewarding experience.   ¡Gracias y a luchar!  Go for it!