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Three 2007 Grads Who Triumphed Over Adversity


Phyllis Cohen Stevens
Deputy Director of News Services

(718) 997-5597

Maria Matteo
News Assistant
(718) 997-5593



FLUSHING, NY, May 18, 2007 -- Earning a college degree is always a significant achievement. But it becomes an extraordinary achievement when it is accomplished in the face of overwhelming odds.

Three of this year’s Hispanic-American graduates from Queens College – Irene Gonzalez Roman, Marilyn Zapata and Jennifer Cruz – have triumphed over adversity to complete their college education. One persevered despite severe complications following cancer surgery; another was a former single mother on welfare; and the third was one step away from homelessness. On May 31, these determined women will finally receive their Bachelor’s degrees. These are their stories.

Irene Gonzalez Roman: Facing Cancer While Juggling Full-Time Work and School

Irene Gonzalez Roman, 47, had family and life-threatening health problems that would have ended the dream of a college diploma for most people. A mother of three who lives in Levittown, Long Island, and whose parents and grandparents were from Puerto Rico, Roman is a full-time paraprofessional. She works at Edward R. Murrow High School in Brooklyn and took an unpaid leave only this semester to complete her courses. Since 1999, she has been taking two classes at a time at Queens College, majoring in English and minoring in Education. She expects to be teaching English in a New York City high school this September.

What is unusual about Roman is that she has succeeded despite immense challenges: In 2001, after both in-laws died six months apart, her husband, an electrician for the NYC Transit Authority, had a heart attack that required two stents. In 2002, Roman was diagnosed with stage-three thyroid cancer; even when she had surgery to remove her lymph nodes, she didn't drop out of school or stop working.

After the surgery, Roman suffered a setback and became gravely ill. She developed lung tumors, nearly lost a kidney, and had such a bad reaction to radiation that she went down to a size two dress size. Through this ordeal, she only missed five days of school and work.

Roman says that “school, family, and work” gave her the strength and courage not to give up -- “My faith in God and the administrators at Queens College who believed in me encouraged me to keep going when I thought I couldn't take that extra step."

Marilyn Zapata: Former Single Mother on Welfare is Aspiring Scientist

Working more than 40 hours a week and going to college would be a tall order for many people. But Marilyn Zapata of Woodhaven, Queens, thrived on this regimen. As proof, Zapata was chosen to address her fellow students yesterday as valedictorian of this year’s Business and Liberal Arts (BALA) program at Queens College. “I’m very determined,” she observes. “And I think nothing of getting only three hours of sleep.”

The diploma Zapata will receive represents the fulfillment of a long-deferred dream. She first entered Queens College in 1971 over the strenuous objections of her mother, a widow who expected the older of her two daughters to quit school and go to work. “She would throw my books out,” Zapata recalls. Within a year, the frustrated teenager—by that point married to a man from Ecuador and a mother herself—left college to care for her infant son. At 21, she was divorced and living on welfare. “My ex-husband refused to pay child support,” she says.

In 1978, when her son entered kindergarten, Zapata got a job as a clerk for a television repair company. Subsequently, she became a sales representative for Verizon. Promoted in 1988 to technician, she was in her new position for all of 20 days when she had a serious setback: She was hit by a car and suffered injuries that left her bedridden.

A year later Zapata was back at Verizon, assigned to a clerical spot until she was fully healed. Watching her son continue his education—he had won a scholarship to Pace University—she resolved to finish her own, and took some classes at Queens College. Ironically, none of that coursework counted in 1998, when, to meet new professional standards established by her employer, she began pursuing an associate’s applied science degree in telecommunications at Queensborough Community College.

“I thought I was as dumb as a box of rocks when it came to science,” Zapata recalls. “I spent vacations getting tutored in physics.” Her efforts paid off: She made the dean’s list, collected several awards, and graduated in 2002 as the valedictorian of her class. Her confidence boosted, she returned to Queens College, where she minored in the BALA program and majored in psychology, “to better understand myself and other people.” She also discovered that she loved research. “I could work 12 to 14 hours a day in that environment,” she notes.

Now Zapata hopes to continue her studies in either neuropsychology or general psychology. “It’s a privilege to be able to go to school,” she says. Her goal is to teach at the college level and do research. But for the immediate future, she’ll still be juggling work and classes: With a year or two to go before she qualifies for a pension from Verizon, she doesn’t want to quit her day job.

Jennifer Cruz: Once Nearly Homeless, She Aims to Help Abused Children

On May 31 all of Queens College’s graduating students will have cause to rejoice. But Jennifer Cruz, who turns 22 that day, has additional reasons to celebrate. Living on her own, she has juggled two part-time jobs to put herself through school.

Raised (and still living) in the Bronx, where she attended Preston High School—a private institution in Throgs Neck—Cruz had hoped to continue her education at Manhattanville College. She chose Manhattanville both for its academic offerings and its residential campus. “I wanted to study at a school where I could stay in a dorm,” she says, citing a difficult family situation. Her plans changed a week before she was to matriculate: Her father, a firefighter born in Puerto Rico, had earned so much overtime working at Ground Zero that she became ineligible for financial aid.

Cruz enrolled instead at Lehman College. Two months into her first semester she began living with her best friend’s family. In the spring she was on the verge of moving into a homeless shelter when her aunt offered her a temporary place to sleep: the couch in her one-bedroom Bronx apartment.

Transferring to Queens College after Manhattanville rejected her once again for financial aid—“Maybe I wasn’t meant to go there,” she muses—Cruz was thrilled to land a work-study slot at the college’s Child Development Center. But by junior year she had worn out her welcome at her aunt’s flat. “I showed up to class not knowing if I had a place to sleep at night or even if I had enough money to buy lunch,” she recalls.

Previously employed part-time as a cashier, Cruz dropped that job for a better position with a financial services firm. She also rearranged her class schedule to take a part-time job that opened up at the Child Development Center. With two incomes, she scraped together enough money to lease her own apartment in September 2005. “Ever since then I have been living month to month, making sure that I had enough money for rent, while also trying to maintain my grade point average above a 3.0 to keep my Vallone Scholarship,” the senior reports.

A psychology major, Cruz will continue working at the Child Development Center after her graduation. Long-term, she plans to study for a master’s degree and open a school for children victimized by domestic abuse or alcoholism. “Everything happens for a reason,” she concludes. “I know that all my challenges will help me work with children in the future.”

Queens College of the City University of New York (CUNY) is dedicated to the idea that a first-rate education should be accessible to talented individuals of all backgrounds and financial means. Founded in 1937, the college offers an exceptional liberal arts curriculum, with over 115 undergraduate and graduate majors and a variety of specialized honors programs. Located on a beautiful, 77-acre campus in Flushing, Queens College enjoys a national reputation for its liberal arts and sciences and pre-professional programs. Its more than 18,000 students come from over 140 nations and speak scores of languages, creating an extraordinarily diverse and welcoming environment.




 Office Information

Deputy Director of News Services
(Position vacant)

(718) 997- 5597

Maria Matteo
Assistant Director of News Services
Queens Hall, Room 270B
(718) 997-5593

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