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BY SYDNEY PEREIRA
The man who has led Borough of Manhattan Community College for nearly a quarter century — and who saw it through the greatest crisis in its history — will be stepping down at the end of the summer.
Since BMCC President Antonio Pérez took the helm of the Downtown school in 1995, he has presided over a 40-percent increase in enrollment, and a doubling of the number of Associate degree programs.
But even in light of BMCC’s strong growth during his tenure, Pérez’s most remarkable achievement was simply keeping the school running in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001. When World Trade 7 came down, it collapsed against Fiterman Hall, doing irreparable damage, and making BMCC the only college building in the U.S. ever lost to a terrorist attack.
“I knew that we had lost that building,” Pérez recalled, “and then that’s when the planning began. That next morning, [we were] coming in and trying to figure out what we’re going to do. We had no electricity, no power, no water.”
Undaunted, Pérez quickly set a goal of reopening what was left of the BMCC campus just three weeks after the attacks, and he succeeded, figuring out how along the way.
“There wasn’t a manual telling you what to do,” Pérez said.
Other aspects of the school’s recovery were long-term projects. It took more than a decade of fund-raising, planning, and construction before Fiterman Hall was eventually reopened in 2012.
Born in Puerto Rico and raised in Harlem, Pérez’s journey through higher education is not unlike many of the students who have gotten their start at BMCC under his watch. Neither of his parents even graduated high school, so some had doubts about Pérez’s prospects for college.
“My guidance counselor told me, ‘Tony, you’re not college material,’ ” Pérez said.
One teacher even made a deal that he would pass Pérez on his English Regents exam if he promised not to go to college and instead join the Marines.
But rather than signing up with “the few, the proud,” Pérez joined the many who sought a second chance at higher education through a community college. His experience at Bronx Community College, sparked his lifelong interest in the two-year institutions, and his appreciation of their importance in jump-starting students’ education.
“I think that’s probably why I’m so passionate — because I see myself in them,” Pérez said of the students at BMCC, many of whom are immigrants or speak English as a second language. “They come with that desire to learn and have all these hopes and aspirations, and for me, just being with them I get excited.”
And just as Pérez went on to greater things, the upward trajectories of BMCC’s alumni inspire him.
“When they tell me their stories, I see my story,” he added. “At time I get goosebumps when they tell me about their successes.”
Under Pérez’s leadership, BMCC achieved the third-highest upward-mobility rate of any two-year college in the U.S. last year. Around 41 percent of students move up in their household income, according to a study by the Equality of Opportunity Project, as reported by the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Since Pérez’s appointment 23 years ago, the student body has grown from 16,300 to 27,000, and the number of associate degree programs has more than doubled. New majors — such as forensic accounting, geographic information science, gerontology, gender and women’s studies, and financial management — aim to reflect what students want in the changing economy.
One of the keys to student success at BMCC for Pérez has been keeping its doors open seven days a week and providing classes from 7 am to 11 pm, making education as accessible and convenient as possible.
But a particular challenge Pérez has grappled with has been math remediation classes. During his time as president, he saw that many students fail math remediation courses multiple times — preventing them from moving on with their education.
“One of the things that, as president of the college, I felt like I couldn’t solve is really how to provide remediation to these students in a way that’s not burdensome,” Pérez said.
To help address the problem, Pérez developed an smartphone app called “Hidden Chalk,” which helps students practice math on the go through videos and interactive exercises.
The app just helps students with math right now, but Pérez hopes to expand the program to other subjects, turning a device that tends to compete for students’ attention into a tool for easier studying.
“Students spend more time on phones than they do with anything else,” Pérez said. “Why not put [studying] with something that they feel comfortable with? So when I asked the kids when I did my first beta test, they said, ‘well sometimes I forget my textbook or I don’t remember my notebook or I’ll skip class — but I always have my phone.’”