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City College of New York: Imagine a place with no racial minorities or majorities

Jun 28, 2013

I don’t know about you, but when I was in school, black and white students sat mostly at different lunch tables. Even today, when I see people of different races seated together at a restaurant, I notice because it's infrequent.

And so I'm always struck when I walk into the dining center of City College of New York and see young men and women of all racial and ethnic backgrounds sitting together, talking, joking, studying. Looking around, I feel like I'm in the United Nations. There is no majority here. 19% of students are white, 18% are black, 63% are from other backgrounds. The students come from 153 countries.
The college was established in 1847 to give children of immigrants and the poor access to free higher education. On the day its doors opened in 1849, the first president of City College of New York (CCNY) described the vision -- to determine whether an “an institution of the highest grade can be successfully controlled by the popular will, not by the privileged few".  Nine graduates of CCNY have been Nobel laureates, more than any other public college or university in the U.S.

The median household income at CCNY is about $24,000. It's no longer free, but the semester tuition of about $2,700 for New York State residents is still relatively affordable.  I sat with the other faculty at the graduation ceremony this year, as the president of the college asked students who were first in their family to graduate from college to stand up. I watched as about half the students got out of their chairs to stand.

Like most places, CCNY has its problems. There’s a shortage of space, facilities are not efficiently run, and the elevators in my building take forever to arrive. The other day, the elevator doors opened up only about 10 inches, and I had to slip in sideways. But the air around me is full of heart and soul.