How to life

In Setbacks, Finding Motivation

A cane-cutter’s son from Aguada, Puerto Rico, Antonio Pérez barely made it out of high school in Washington Heights in 1964. But he went on to earn a doctorate by age 27 and become a college dean by 29. Since 1995, Dr. Pérez, now 62, has been president of Borough of Manhattan Community College on Chambers Street, now the largest unit of the City University of New York, with 22,500 matriculated students plus 10,000 in continuing education.

Game plan: My goal was to get a Ph.D. and become a dean before 30 and a college president before 40. In 1986 I became president of Gateway Community and Technical College in New Haven. I was 39.

Early formative experience: My guidance and English instructor at George Washington High School made me a deal. He’d grade my Regents at 65 if I would promise not to go to college and go into the Marines. I agreed but backed off.

Why he’s not still sore: In life we each seek inspiration and motivation from negative things that happen. He didn’t realize he motivated me.

The old college try: I told my parents, I want to go to college. My mother said, “What’s that? You’re done. You got a high school diploma.” I applied to City College. They rejected me. I wound up on Mosholu Parkway as a check-sorter at Manufacturers Hanover. I paid $25 to a service that finds you a college. They picked William Penn College in Oskaloosa, Iowa. They gave me a $50 scholarship, and I borrowed $2,000 from the European-American Bank.

Why it didn’t work out: It was a Quaker school. No drinking, no dancing. No smoking. I was homesick. I was a kid from Harlem. This was during “West Side Story.” Kids wanted to know where my knife was. I moved to SUNY Oneonta for a teaching degree. Why did I pick Oneonta? The ratio. Women to men, it was 7 to 1. I met my wife, Eileen, there.

His big break: I went to SUNY Albany for a guidance and counseling master’s. I was at a conference when someone said, “You’re Puerto Rican? You speak Spanish? You have a master’s?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “We got a job for you.” I started the first department of Puerto Rican studies.

Worst moment: I was here on 9/11. I was driving along Houston Street when I saw a burst of flames from the second plane hitting. When Building 7 came down, it nipped our building, Fitterman Hall. We lost seven students.

Biggest challenge: Space. We opened a satellite site on 204th Street. We brokered a deal with Brooklyn College. We offer classes there Fridays and Saturdays. You don’t stop because you don’t have any space. By 2012 there will be a new building here. The cost: $325 million.

Proudest of: We’re open from 7 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., seven days. We never close. We have over 2,000 international students. Our students speak over 100 different languages. We have a day care center, night and day.

The perils of success: This coming semester will be the first time in the history of the college we will reject people. We will tell them other colleges they can go to, Hostos, Queensborough, LaGuardia.

Why his office is filled with antique toy cars and trucks: These are the toys I never had as a kid. How can you take yourself too seriously if you have a roomful of toys?

Disappointments: Life’s been good. I have no disappointments.

By Ralph Blumenthal
NY Times
June 22, 2009