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LaGuardia College boasts high rate of Latino grads

When Juan Genao first enrolled in English as a Second Language classes at LaGuardia Community College a decade ago, the Dominican immigrant had set his sights on a career in computers - that way, he figured, he could bury his head in the machine and avoid speaking his adopted tongue.

"I had no English skills. I actually learned the language here at the college," said Genao, 29, who graduated from LaGuardia in 1998 and is now working toward his bachelor's degree at Baruch College. "I wanted computers because I thought I was not going to learn the language that well. I didn't want to talk to people."

But in the end, Genao did so well learning English at LaGuardia that he ditched computers in favor of the more people-oriented field of human resources.

"It was a liberation," he said.

Genao is one of hundreds of Hispanic students who graduate every year from LaGuardia, which boasts one of the nation's highest community college graduation rates for Latino students. Hispanics statistically attend college in high numbers but log the lowest graduation rate among the nation's ethnic groups.

Just how well LaGuardia does by its Hispanic students is clear from statistics released by the U.S. Department of Education for the 2000 - 2001 school year.

Although LaGuardia ranks 43rd among American community colleges for the number of Hispanic students enrolled, the school soars in the rankings to fifth nationwide for the number of Latinos who make it to graduation.

"It says a great deal about the faculty and staff who are here at LaGuardia and their deep interest in making sure that students don't just have access to college but really have access to success in college," said Dr. Gail Mellow, LaGuardia's president.

The impressive statistics have caught the attention of Borough President Helen Marshall, who visited the college to celebrate the success of its Hispanic students Tuesday at its Latino Student Recognition Day.

Mellow attributes LaGuardia's impressive graduation rate to an approach that eases a student's transition into college, citing an award the school won last year as one of the nation's 13 Institutions of Excellence in the First Year.

"That's really a combination of creating a warm and welcoming environment for Latino students," said Mellow, who pointed out that many of them are first-generation students. "They don't have anyone in their family who's ever gone to college. It can be a big hurdle."

School administrators also credit an aggressive ESL program with giving immigrant students a strong foundation in English as well as the college's proactive emphasis on setting students' sights on a career path.

Denise Muñoz has seen both sides of that equation. As a LaGuardia student she won a spot at a five-week intensive program at Barnard College, which opened the door for her to do psychology research with Barnard professors the following summer. Now, having just received her bachelor's degree from Barnard, she has joined LaGuardia's staff as a career counselor.

"I really try to give them that foundation and not allow them to feel lost," said Muñoz, who moved to Brooklyn from Colombia as a 1-year-old with her parents and six sisters. "Sometimes you go to a city college and feel like you're just a number. I really want them to know that they're not alone, and I will do anything to help them because LaGuardia helped me."

For Genao that help changed his life. When he emigrated from the Dominican Republic in 1991, he joined his mother manufacturing sweaters at a sweatshop in Brooklyn.

But through LaGuardia he secured an internship in the human resources department of NYU Medical Center, and he now works as a supervisor in the receiving department at LaGuardia, which gives him free tuition to Baruch, another CUNY school.

"After getting a foundation like that, I will say that the sky's the limit," he said. "It's like you can do anything you want now."

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.

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