A Salutatorian Second to None
Joanmaris Cuello, the Salutatorian of the Bronx Community College Class of 2019, is persistence personified.
“I have never missed a class at BCC since the first day I started. Good days, bad days, terrible days. I’ve had reasons to miss class, but I made a commitment that I would better myself and I wasn’t going to let that go.”
These past years were not the first time Joanmaris has been on the BCC campus. “My mother was a student here in 1996 and she was pregnant with me at the time. She didn’t get to walk at graduation. She had to leave as soon as I was born — due to my disability, she had to devote a lot of her time to taking care of me.”
As a child, Joanmaris used a wheelchair to get around, an experience she describes in her essay “Ableism and Me” in Thesis, the BCC literary magazine. Today, Joanmaris gets around with a cane.
“During high school I just wanted people to recognize me for what I had to offer, not how I physically appeared to them.”
Joanmaris achieved that recognition at BCC where by her own description, she has “thrived”— especially after becoming a part of the College’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs initiative. “Getting help from the ASAP advisers really helped me along the journey.” As an example she cites her struggles with a math class. “I took matters into my own hands. I went to tutoring, I did some self-study, and I ended up passing that class with an A. That drove me to keep wanting to go down that path — I really enjoyed getting that “A”. I no longer wanted to be satisfied with only getting Bs.”
While at BCC, Joanmaris was suddenly faced with the emotionally devastating suicide of her nephew, only a few months younger than herself. “I didn’t know he was suffering. Mental health is not talked about in the Hispanic community. Our cultural background is what makes us strong, but we’re not invincible.
“After learning of my nephew’s death, I made the decision that I was going to come to class the day of the funeral. My mind was in two different locations. I was paying attention to the classwork, but I was also thinking about what I would be seeing at the funeral that evening. Through my tears, my sorrow, I still held my head up high.”
Also helping Jeanmaris cope in the aftermath of tragedy was her involvement in BCC’s Peer Support and Career Development training program — known as “Get PSyCh’D” — which trains students pursuing careers in the mental health and social services sectors to provide outreach to their peers.
“With my nephew’s suicide I needed an outlet. I didn’t just want to swallow my sorrow and keep it inside. Joining Get Psych’d, I was able to connect with other peer mentors who have been through challenges of their own, like homelessness, depression, being part of the LGBTQI community. I gained connection with them, something I had never felt with any other group of people before. They helped me through the process of grieving and mourning the death of my nephew. When I was vulnerable in front of them, they were accepting of my emotional side.”
Joanmaris finished her associate degree in human services requirements last December and has already completed a rigorous five-class semester at Lehman College, where she plans to get her bachelor’s and her master’s in social work, with the long range goal of being a licensed clinical social worker helping young adults deal with mental health issues.
“Being a student at BCC changed me from the person that I used to be. I have become more outspoken, showing people — and myself — what I am capable of.”