Messages of Perseverance and Hope from BMCC's Valedictorians

Dequan Gambrell and Dorotea Levy Szekely, valedictorians of BMCC's class of 2019. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Jun. 03, 2019

In two joyous and emotion-filled ceremonies last week at Madison Square Garden, more than 4,600 students graduated from Tribeca's Borough of Manhattan Community College. Like CUNY community colleges across the city, the majority faced special challenges. Many were the first in their families to go to college, many came from other countries, and many had to balance school work with full- or part-time jobs to support themselves or their families.

Each has a different story to tell. This year’s two valedictorians, Dorotea Levy Szekely and Dequan Gambrell got a chance to tell theirs. Below are excerpts from their speeches.

Dorotea Levy Szekely

After dreaming of going to college nearly all her life, Szekely is graduating from BMCC at age 63. A full-time grandmother while going to school as a liberal arts major, she was told by a teacher, when she was young, that she would "never be capable of even finishing high school." She will be attending Hunter College in the fall.

Why did I bother coming to BMCC to get a college degree in my 60s? The reason is because, it is never too late. So much beauty and meaning in those five little words, that give you hope and optimism. And, you know, my time at BMCC was even better than what I had dreamt.

You see, each one of you, my classmates, impressed me with your empathy, your kindness, your openness. Not a single one of you asked me “what are you doing here,” or “just how old are you?”  You were supportive and appreciative and warm and candid.

One cold December night I was waiting for the bus on Chambers Street, and I heard a voice behind me saying: be safe Dorotea, take care. And that you did, you cared for me, as I deeply care for you. I want to take this moment to thank each and every one of you, my fellow classmates, BMCC Class of 2019.

I now wish to thank my family. My husband of 45 years who is clapping away thinking I am finally graduating, not knowing I am about to announce the topic of my PhD.  My three children turned mentors, who never cease to encourage me, and my grandchildren who keep telling me, “You are such a nerd!”

Class of 2019, please remember this: It is never too late. It is never too late to make a new friend. It is never too late to say you are sorry for something you did. It is never too late to start a new hobby, or to change your mind, or to agree with someone or something you didn’t before. It is never too late to tell someone you love them. And most importantly, it is never too late to chase your dreams.

For me, my dream took 50 years to become reality. I hope your dreams take less time, but however long they take, it is never too late to chase them. Fortune favors the bold, but fortune also favors those who persevere. It is never, ever, too late.

Congratulations, you turned this dream into a reality. Now dream on, think of your next dream, the time is perfect, and it always will be.

Thank you


Dequan Gambrell

In his speech, Gambrell, 24, acknowledged the struggles of many of his fellow students and encouraged them to continue to triumph over them in their future lives. He will be attending the University of Michigan in the fall, concentrating on creative writing and art and design.

When I first enrolled at BMCC I had been living in a homeless shelter with my family for three years. Food was a struggle, stability was mythical, but I knew then what I’ve always known: That my education would be my escape, as it is for many of us today.

I had attended six high schools, two junior highs, and two elementary schools, all around the United States. That untraditional path gave me a skillset, perspective, and passion that pushed me to where I needed to be.

So, in the words of the great poet Rilke, I ask you this:

“Why would you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any miseries, or any depressions? For after all, you do not know what work these conditions are doing inside you.”

All of us sitting here today have experienced setbacks, disappointments, and tragedies in our lives. And all of us have triumphed today over every one of them. We have used these moments of tension to forge us into the resilient, reliable, thoughtful, fair, and compassionate scholars, freethinkers, and problem-solvers that we have proven ourselves to be today.

There will be hard times ahead, when you give your all for a less-than-desired result. When you don’t receive what you believe you deserve. When the world confuses you and fights against everything you think you want. For those times I have some advice that has helped me over the years:

Use your anger productively. There’s a lot of it to be had in a world full of injustice and greed, but find the source of your emotions, and find an outlet that helps someone else. It never fails.

Take initiative. Apply to your dream positions, take every rejection as a lesson and a blessing, and never stop applying. Don’t tell yourself it’ll go to someone else. You can be everything they need.

Don’t take anything personally. Not the bus that passes your stop, the end of a relationship, the doors that will at some point slam in your face. Remain detached and hopeful. That is reliable peace.

Occupy your time building skillsets you treasure. Do a weird internship, go pineapple farming in Hawaii, form a collaboration, teach your talents to younger generations.

Find something to learn and to contribute wherever you are. Don’t ignore your own gifts. Surround yourself with people who believe in your potential as well as your success, who refuse to let you belittle yourself, the trial of your struggles or the merit of your accomplishments. And nurture those relationships.

Be flexible to the world’s shifts and demands. Be aware of your ego at all times. Learn how to sacrifice for others, and your own growth. Practice investigating perspectives and interests other than your own, and I guarantee you’ll be pleasantly surprised by what the world rewards you with.

Congratulations and thank you, Class of 2019.