Diverse Alumni Find Common Ground, Career Success at Fordham
By Jennifer Spencer
Nilda I. Soto, TMC ’74, assistant dean
for the Office of DiversityEnhancement, Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
Though separated by 35 years, two first-generation college students found support from their Fordham community as they pursued their goal of a college education and careers they love.
Both Nilda I. Soto, TMC ’74, and Luis Ciriaco, GSB ’09, were admitted through the Higher Education Opportunity Program (HEOP), a New York State initiative to help students who would otherwise not be able to attend college due to economic or academic challenges.
Bronx native Soto was admitted to Fordham as a part of the first HEOP class at the Rose Hill campus. She said that despite the turbulent times during which she attended Fordham, she felt she received an excellent education.
“This was the 70s,” she said. “There was a lot of activism—against the war, for women’s rights, the Black Panthers; this, that, and the other.”
“But no matter what our feelings were, we all feel we got an excellent education from Fordham,” Soto said.
Soto, who is now the assistant dean for the Office of Diversity Enhancement at Albert Einstein Medical College, said she developed great relationships with and drew support from her fellow students.
“I got to meet a lot of interesting, dynamic individuals,” Soto said. “My Fordham peers are a very impressive cohort, doctors and lawyers and a state judge and bankers—a lot of great things came out of our group.”
Attending college as a minority student in the 1970s was not without challenges. Soto told the story of an African-American classmate, Alvin Leonard, FCRH ’73, who grew up in the Bronx.
On Leonard’s first day of orientation, the administrator leading the session began by cautioning the new students to be wary of the students at nearby Roosevelt High. Moments later, the students were called upon to introduce themselves.
“Alvin was the first one,” Soto said. “He looked like a football player. He gets up and looks at the students, and says, my name is Alvin Leonard, and I graduated from Roosevelt High in the Bronx.”
Soto said that while she and her peers faced occasional discrimination, the overall atmosphere of Fordham in the 1970s was one of support.
“My experiences were more sweet than bitter, but there were instances and certain expectations because we were black and Latino; that we were not as smart,” she said. “But we found more people to be very supportive, and we flourished, graduated, and went on to great things.”
HEOP also connected Soto with her first job. She worked as a counselor in the HEOP office at Fordham after graduation, the starting point of her career in higher education.
Some 34 years later, Luis Ciriaco was also admitted to Fordham thanks to HEOP.
Luis Ciriaco, GSB ’09, is a financial representative at Northwestern Mutual.
Ciriaco’s parents, who emigrated from the Dominican Republic to the Bronx, worked long hours to ensure that Luis would have an opportunity to attend college.
“I always grew up thinking college, college, college,” Ciriaco said. “It was drilled in me. My dad’s quote was, ‘If I could ever leave you something, it would be your degree and career.’”
Ciriaco, who is now a financial representative at Northwestern Mutual, said that HEOP not only helped him be admitted to college; it helped him succeed. Through tutoring and mentoring services, Ciriaco had help and accountability making it through school.
HEOP also helped him find his way to the Career Services office.
“HEOP always had career workshops—resume boot camp, professional dress; I even remember going to a dining etiquette class. It was a good experience, and really got me prepared to look and act professionally,” he said.
Ciriaco said that Career Services helped him understand diversity recruitment and how he could best leverage his experience to achieve his goal of graduating college with a job.
“Every company has a budget for diversity,” Ciriaco said. “Make sure you look at that angle.”
Ciriaco continues to be involved with Fordham, representing Northwestern Mutual at career fairs and events and serving in a mentorship program. He said he advises students to keep their eye on the prize.
“It is very important to work hard and focus. Don’t let any distractions get in the way. We do have a lot of fun, but these four years are really going to influence the next 50 years of your career,” Ciriaco said. “Have fun, be passionate, but don’t screw it up and don’t close the doors of opportunities.”
Soto said she advises students today to build great relationships as a foundation for success.
“You need to be mentored. You need to learn to network. You need something more than just your transcript. Identify individuals who will help you along the way.
“I think this nation is becoming more and more diverse,” Soto said, “and coming out of an institution like Fordham, you’re getting a good solid foundation.”