Angela Anselmo: Encouraging Academic Achievement for All
Anselmo holding the mace at the 2010
commencement ceremonies, for which she
serves as the Chief Faculty Marshall.
In 1996, when Baruch College disbanded its Academic Skills Department and officially abandoned remediation programming, CUNY signaled a new emphasis on achievement and excellence. It was seen by most Baruch College faculty and administrators as a necessary and welcome step in reclaiming the stature and reputation that CUNY colleges had enjoyed in the 1940s and 50s. But some faculty, including Angela Anselmo, a Baruch counselor with a Ph.D. in Bilingual Developmental Psychology, worried about the “access” side of the CUNY commitment to “access and excellence.” She worried especially about the fate of Black and Hispanic students from New York’s underperforming public schools — would they be excluded from everything a college education had to offer?
Anselmo saw the SEEK program as a unique pathway to a college diploma. SEEK, which stands for “Search for Education, Elevation, and Knowledge,” was established in 1966 by the New York State legislature to offer educational opportunities to young people who might otherwise fall through the cracks. When Anselmo took over as SEEK director at the behest of Baruch’s then-president Matthew Goldstein “it was at a point of very low morale,” she recalls.
These days, Anselmo still worries about New York’s underserved minorities, but the SEEK office is a vibrant and upbeat place. Approximately 680 Baruch students are in the program, which offers tutors, financial aid, and counseling to students from financially and academically disadvantaged backgrounds.
Much of the energy that emanates from the SEEK offices on the second floor of the NVC comes from Anselmo herself. She is a radiant, determined woman, with a unique and hard-earned understanding of the obstacles — financial and psychological — that SEEK students must overcome. “I grew up in the South Bronx projects,” Anselmo says. “I know what it is to have low self-esteem, to feel you’re not good enough.” She can still vividly recall her sense of being an outsider, one who didn’t belong at elite Barnard College, which she says she attended for one semester as the “token Puerto Rican.” That was in the 1960s, and Anselmo went on to graduate summa cum laude from City College, earn a Ph.D. from Yeshiva University, and build a long and distinguished career as teacher, counselor, and administrator at Baruch College
In 2005, having wrestled with questions of identity throughout her life, Anselmo, along with her sister Dr. Alma Rubal-Lopez, co-authored a book, On Becoming Nuyoricans. Part autobiography, part reflections on culture and pedagogy, the book was a defining moment in her intellectual and personal odyssey.
Despite her own success story, Anselmo believes that things haven’t changed all that much for today’s youth, especially for those of Hispanic or African-American heritage. Many still struggle with issues of identity as they try to answer the age-old questions: Who am I? Where do I belong? Recently, she has been using the arts to help her students express their often inchoate feelings. This summer, a group of incoming SEEK students took part in a song-writing workshop organized by Anselmo and the Interrelations Collaborative and led by composer and musician Jim Papoulis (who has also written music for the Obama campaign). “It’s a way of using music to empower the students,” Anselmo says. The results amazed her. “The song was all about heart and finding strength within,” also a recurrent theme in the SEEK program, she says.
Despite excellent retention and graduation rates among her students, Anselmo sees an urgent need to “improve the pipeline,” especially for Black and Hispanic males, many of whom remain unaware of the opportunities available to them. “The communities that are underrepresented in higher education are the ones that that are increasing most rapidly in our population,” she notes. We rank just eighteenth in the world in literacy,” Anselmo says. “If we don’t change that, the US will lose its edge and standing in the world.”