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Queens College a choice place for students

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At the turn of the 20th century, the hill on which Queens College now sits was a scary site for many young students.

The campus was home to a reformatory, a destination for “wayward boys,” said Queens College President James Muyskens.

“It used to be said to little boys that if they didn’t behave, they would be sent to the hill,” Muysken said.

But today the very same Spanish Mediterranean buildings that inspired fear in the borough’s children now inspire students to succeed.

Founded in 1937, Queens College has enjoyed recognition as the “jewel” of the City University of New York’s system for years.

The students at Queens College, as well as those who attend the other CUNY colleges, will have to pay a tuition hike in the upcoming school year. The CUNY board is expected to pass a hike of $800 later this month, bringing undergraduate tuition to $4,000 a year.

Still, Muyskens believes Queens College remains a bargain.

“We just had our commencement, and we had the class of 1943 come,” Muyskens said. “The story they tell is the story our current students will be able to tell, that they have lived very successfully from what the college has given them.”

With 16,600 students, Queens College offers a number of different academic programs. Many of its undergraduate departments are known for their strong faculty. Accounting, Psychology, Sociology, Computer Science, English and Education are the most popular majors, while the Jewish Studies Program has a record high enrollment.

More than a third of the students are working toward graduate degrees. The Aaron Copland School of Music has a strong national reputation and the Graduate School of Library and Informational Sciences is the only one of its kind in CUNY.

In recent years, the school and its professors have earned several accolades. Anthropologist Roger Sanjek won the prestigious J.I. Staley Prize for his book, “The Future of Us All.” The school itself was included in the Princeton Review’s book, The Best 345 Colleges.

The college has produced a fair share of famous graduates. Comedian Jerry Seinfeld, musician Paul Simon, novelist Susan Isaacs and Michael Goldstein, former CEO of Toys ‘R’ Us all attended the school as well as state Comptroller Alan Hevesi, Queens Borough President Helen Marshall and U.S. Reps. Gary Ackerman (D-Bayside) and Joseph Crowley (D-Jackson Heights).

Reflecting the borough, the school is a destination for immigrants from around the globe. Some 44 percent of last year’s freshmen class were born outside the United States.

Muyskens, who was named president of Queens College a year ago, is the school’s first permanent president since Allen Sessoms, resigned in 2000.

Sessoms left the school in a cloud of controversy, criticized for failing to raise enough money to construct a planned AIDS research center to be headed by Dr. Luc Montagnier, the co-discoverer of the AIDs virus. Sessoms also had somewhat of a stormy relationship with the students.

Having replaced interim President Russell Hotzler, Muyskens wants to restore and boost the school’s prestige.

As part of that effort, CUNY is establishing three new business majors at Queens College.

The first students will be accepted into the three majors: Finance, International Business, and Actuarial Studies this fall, said Elizabeth Hendrey, the chairwoman of the Economics Department.

The majors are designed to meet the increasing demand for business programs in the CUNY system.

But unlike many other business majors, the students will have to take an ethics course as well as electives in topics such as the environment and globalization.

“The idea is to develop a social conscience as well as business training,” Hendrey said. “If you look at the scandals in business over the last three years, it points to a need for building these type of courses into business programs.”

While the faculty of Queens College enjoys a strong reputation, other aspects of the school are a well-kept secret.

“Sometimes I think the real attractiveness of the campus, the fact that it is really an oasis in the city, is not known by many,” Muyskens said.

Timothy Duffy, the 19-year-old president of the Day Student Association and a resident of Port Washington, L.I., said it was the campus that convinced him to attend the school.

“The campus is so beautiful,” he said. “It is filled with greenery and trees... It’s a mesh of the suburban and the urban. There’s a terrific view of the city from the quad.”

But Duffy finds the students, not the college’s buildings, the most impressive aspect of the school.

He noted many of the students juggle jobs with their studies. Yet they manage to participate in more than 100 clubs and organizations.

“I think people who come here really have a grip on reality,” Duffy said. “It’s real life, where you have to work and have to go to school. You’re not on this campus where you have dorms, where you would be out of touch with reality.”

Duffy also praised the school’s diversity. Some 45 percent of the student body is white, 21 percent is Asian, 16.5 percent Hispanic, about 9 percent black and 7.5 percent other categories, according to statistics provided by the school.

“If there is something that makes Queens College the best campus, it’s because of its diversity,” Duffy said. “One day you can go to an Indian dance festival with Indian music, and the next week in the same place, you might have a culture night with Spanish culture and Spanish food, salsa and meringue.”

Still, the school needs to improve its representation of certain ethnic groups, said Maureen Pierce-Anyan, director of the college’s Office of Minority Student Affairs.

Pierce-Anyan noted about 20 percent of the borough’s population is black, while the college has a much lower percentage of black students.

Pierce-Anyan said the school requires that its students have an SAT score of at least 1100.

“A black student who meets that profile is being competed for,” she said. “If we want to have them, we have to get our publicity out there.”

Pierce-Anyan said the school needs to develop more programs that encourage networking among minority students. The college already has several such projects, including the Role Model Program, in which students meet with high-achieving black women at their places of work.

“I see what it does to the young ladies,” Pierce-Anyan said. “They come back, and they are really much more serious students.”

Having such a strong connection between the college and people in the community is a key to the school’s success, Muyskens said.

During the summer, hundreds of children flood the campus for summer programs. Throughout the year, Queens residents visit the school for concerts and other performances.

“We want to make sure that the people who live around us to see it as a real asset for themselves,” he said. “It’s often called the people’s college, and that’s exactly what we want to be.”

Reach reporter Alexander Dworkowitz by e-mail at or call 718-229-0300 Ext. 141.

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