SEEK Helps Students Stay on Track
By Sherry Mazzocchi
Baruch College-The Ticker
Judges' note: At the time this appeared, Mark Smiley (B.A. Baruch 2006, M.D University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine 2011) was a household name on the Baruch campus who needed no further introduction to this audience.
Mark Smiley is a familiar face to millions of New Yorkers. A biology major at Baruch, his stellar GPA earned him a $300,000 Jack Kent Cooke Graduate Scholarship to medical school and a place in the pantheon of MTA advertisements that laud CUNY's best and brightest. But what really gives Smiley superstar status is the fact that he was a student in the Search for Education, Elevation and Knowledge program, SEEK, who had never taken a science class in high school.
SEEK Director Dr. Angela Anselmo beamed with pride when she talked about Smiley. In fact, she beams when she talks about SEEK students in general. "He wasn't even supposed to get into Baruch," she said. SEEK students come from the poorest families in the city, some having an income less than $24,000 a year for a family of four.
SEEK is a state program and receives its funding independently from CUNY. Since Baruch no longer offers remedial classes, SEEK students here are in the rare position of getting supplemental instruction in mathematics and reading, beginning the summer before their freshman year.
Students receive help with their financial aid, tutoring and, most valuable of all, a counselor. Anselmo credits the counselors' "hypervigilent" watch over the students, making sure they stay in school and focus on their work, for the success of the program.
Anselmo played a DVD that featured SEEK graduates who are now successful business professionals, lawyers, doctors and scholars. These students have a 98 percent retention rate, much higher than the overall student body retention. "We have wonderful, amazing counselors here," she said. "We are like family."
A family atmosphere pervades the SEEK suite of offices on the second floor of the Vertical Campus. Students seem happy and relaxed as they sit together on the plush sofas and chat. They stream in and out of counselors' offices. They even have the occasional birthday party - complete with cake - for staff members. Jill Rosenberg, SEEK tutorial coordinator, said counselors often act as champions for students, giving them confidence to take risks and succeed. Many of them do not have family members that encourage them to study hard in school, go to college or have a bigger dream of succeeding in life.
Rosenberg pushes students to achieve their goals. When she listens to some of their more extreme difficulties, her inclination is to tell them to take a break. "But I can't," she said. "They have to keep going." Students have to maintain their academic standing to stay in the program. "This is their ticket out," Anselmo said. "And they only get one chance."
Getting into SEEK at Baruch is competitive, but staying in is just as difficult and not just for academic reasons. Many of these students are not only the first person in their family to go to college, they are the first to speak English. They often act as interpreters for their own parents.
Since their families may lack health insurance, they can spend hours in emergency rooms, seeking medical care for a sick parent or other family member. Some students lack a place at home to study. Their families' incomes are so slender, that they rent out rooms that would have been bedrooms.
One counselor noticed that a student was wearing only a sweater and scarf on a cold January day. When counselor Alvin Zwicker asked him where his coat was, the student replied that it was not his day to wear it. His brother, also a Baruch student, was wearing it that day.
During job fairs at the college, they shared the same suit. While one brother would go downstairs to the gym and interview, the other would wait upstairs for his turn and they would exchange clothes. "Luckily, they were the same size," said Anselmo. She credits the Career Development Center for providing jackets, ties and suits for students who need them during job fairs.
"They face obstacles that you would never think of," Anselmo said. She once asked a computer information systems graduate what was the hardest part of his academic career. Now married with twins and successfully employed at Credit Suisse, he replied, "Not having a computer."
While SEEK students may lack material objects, they are clearly showered with devotion from the administration, counselors and staff. In their conversation, both Anselmo and Rosenberg's refrains are of family, support and dedication. Other non-SEEK students often envy the counseling and advisement these students receive.
Anselmo said SEEK used to have a stigma attached to it, that they were perceived as "poor and dumb." Now, when they attend leadership workshops, they proudly identify themselves as members of SEEK when meeting honor society students.
Rosenberg said this is the reason she started working with SEEK. When teaching a remedial composition course at SUNY's Fashion Institute of Technology, she saw the accelerated pace that students showed when they had someone who took the time with them.
"It was like someone poured water on them," she said, "and they just blossomed."
A student who changed her mind and college than a few times, Sherry Mazzocchi eventually became a journalism major at Baruch College. She is proud to have written for Baruch publications, The Ticker and Dollars and $ense. She graduated from Baruch College in May of 2008.