Returning CUNY student creates program for first-generation students



Emanuela Gallo, Editor-in-Chief

Characterized as a “quintessential CUNY story,” a first-generation college student in his 70s returned to City College after almost 60 years, earning two degrees in 2020 and creating a program that helps first-generation college students.

“I just never wanted to die without a diploma,” Ciro Scala said to The New York Times for a profile published on Jan. 14.

He grew up in Brooklyn, living with his Italian immigrant parents and four siblings. They lived without warm water, air conditioning or a shower until they moved to Staten Island.

After Scala graduated high school in 1959, he attended City College while working a clerical job in Manhattan. However, Scala eventually dropped out.

In addition to his two-and-a-half-hour commute to campus, his parents expected him to work to support the family.

“The whole idea was to get a job,” Scala said. “High school, yes, but after that, college was not discussed.”

Even without higher-level education, he found success. He began in a mailroom before working his way up in the textile industry. However, he regretted not having a degree.

“I lived a life,” he said. “I felt I was successful. But without that diploma I was not whole. I didn’t want to leave that legacy for my grandchildren.”

When he returned to City College, he found camaraderie with fellow students despite the age gap between them. These first-generation students, like him, struggled to reconcile their future goals with insecurities, finances and their parents’ cultural values.

These relationships inspired Scala to work with Andrew Rich, the dean of the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership at City College, to develop a program for first-generation college students.

“A big part of Ciro’s program is at the earliest point possible to help students realize how they can take full advantage of this place,” Rich said.

The workshops focuses on facing personal challenges such as imposter syndrome, and helping students reach professional success via fellowships and internships.

“Ciro brings a distinctive commitment and compassion to making sure these kids make it through college,” Rich added.

In 2020, Scala earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s degree in history.

A year later, he became a substitute teacher for Mary McDowell, a Brooklyn private school that specializes in children with learning differences.

“A grandfather returns to @CityCollegeNY nearly 60 years after he dropped out, earns two degrees, befriends students whose life stories parallel his own, and finds ways to help them and many others,” CUNY tweeted on Jan. 22 regarding The New York Times article.

Scala’s story relates to a recent report from the Center for an Urban Future, which advocates for helping adults with some college credits complete their degree.

The report, titled “Reengaging Adult Learners to Complete College Degrees,” found that almost 700,000 working-age New York City residents have some college credits but no degree.

The report supported replicating the Tennessee Reconnect initiative, a 2017 program that addressed the challenges of returning adult students in Tennessee. Tennessee Reconnect assisted their students with financial aid, pre-enrollment services and hands-on counseling to its about 31,000 applicants.

About 60% of Tennessee Reconnect initiative participants stayed enrolled or earned a degree, while over 2,000 students completed a credential.

One of the challenges outlined in the report is the lack of flexible course scheduling for adult college students. Most classes at CUNY take place during the day, which may not work for adult learners with work and family obligations.

The report characterizes KCC Flex at Kingsborough Community College as a “promising pilot program.” Participants can choose among nine associate degree programs offered online and on evenings and weekends.

“We realized that less than a third of the student population was over the age of 25,” Kingsborough Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Joanne Russell said. “So we started [KCC Flex] as an equity issue, realizing that we needed to serve our adult students better . . . and that flexibility has been so important.”

Similarly, the CUNY School of Professional Studies allows students to complete a “customized” bachelor’s degree program fully online. However, these programs are unique in the CUNY system.

“A relatively modest investment on the scale of Tennessee’s Reconnect initiative … could be a particularly efficient way of helping expand economic opportunity in a city where the vast majority of newly created, well-paying jobs are requiring at least some form of postsecondary credential,” the report reads.