Community college turned on the light

Noel F. Khalil

Growing up in the Bronx, a borough of New York City, as the son of two immigrants from the island of Jamaica, I attended Catholic schools. School was a struggle for me, because I had difficulty staying focused.

By the time I entered Cardinal Hayes High School, my lack of concentration caught up with me. In my junior year, I received a “pink slip” in the mail telling my parents that I was dismissed for academic reasons.

My West Indian mother was crushed and promptly kicked me in the posterior —- literally.

I then reported to my neighborhood public high school, where I met Ms. Thomas, an English teacher and guidance counselor. Ms. Thomas encouraged me to express my creativity and made me feel unique, which ignited in me a renewed interest in school. However, my grade-point average was so low, it was doubtful a four-year college would accept me. So, I began my first year out of high school at Bronx Community College.

Bronx Community College was a very urban school, and what it lacked in attractive facilities, it made up for in dedicated teachers. BCC, like other community colleges across the nation, prepares students to continue their education at four-year universities or colleges or, alternatively, teaches them a technical skill that offers a lifetime of meaningful employment or entrepreneurial opportunities. I chose the university track. I was able to take remedial classes that were immensely helpful to me.

During my tenure at BCC, my mother received a call from my old guidance counselor, Ms. Thomas, informing her the University of Rochester was looking for young inner-city students to apply to the school. So I applied as a transfer student and, to my surprise, was accepted.

The University of Rochester was a wonderful experience, and the curriculum at BCC had properly prepared me for the tough university regimen. I eventually graduated with honors, earning a bachelor’s degree in education.

I was presented with the opportunity in 1985 by Herman Russell to run his real estate development operation at H.J. Russell & Co. In 1991, I started Columbia Residential, a multifamily development and property management company, which today employs 272 individuals and has an annual payroll of $13 million. Additionally, between our real estate development activities and property management operation, we have an annual economic impact of more than $100 million.

To summarize how this lost boy built a successful business, it boils down to my parents, Ms. Thomas, my mentor Herman Russell, and the education provided to me at BCC and the University of Rochester. However, the catalyst that changed my life was the opportunity to attend Bronx Community College, which created an environment that “turned the light on” and eventually led me to pursue a degree from the University of Rochester.

I support President Barack Obama’s proposal to provide greater financial support to students who attend community colleges. Without my community college experience, I would have missed out on higher education and lacked the resources to start my own company.

I would only suggest to President Obama that it should not be a completely free education, but that each student should have some “skin in the game.” Perhaps a nominal fee of $250 per semester would be more appropriate.

Through subsidized community college education, America will have more well-equipped young people who will have the opportunity to gain a higher education and enter the workforce with a degree or skills and a passion for success. In Atlanta alone, we have spectacular community college options. Employers like me would readily welcome its graduates into our workplace.

Noel F. Khalil is founder and principal of Columbia Residential, an affordable housing developer based in Atlanta.