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Blankfein attends LCC graduation

Freda Raitelu, who graduated at the top of her class, describes her struggle with kidney disease as she tried to pursue a college degree. Photo by Philip Newman
TimesLedger Newspapers

LaGuardia Community College, which seems to operate under the motto Ad Astra Per Aspera — “To the stars despite adversity” — last week heard commencement speakers who understand that concept.

Lloyd Blankfein, chairman of the Wall Street investment banking giant Goldman Sachs, and Freda Raitelu, student representative of LaGuardia, are acquainted with adversity, which both overcame.

Blankfein grew up in the East New York section of Brooklyn, which he said “was and is a tough neighborhood.”

He said his father sorted mail for the post office “at night because it paid 10 percent more than a day shift.” He told of living in a housing project “in a small apartment with my extended family, including my grandmother, my sister and my nephew.”

“Growing up, my biggest goal was just to get out of East New York,” Blankfein told the graduates at the Javits Convention Center in Manhattan June 6.

He said college “was an intimidating place for me,” but he graduated from Harvard and spent three more years at Harvard law school.

But after a few years, he quit his job as a lawyer.

“For the first time, I was feeling financially secure,” Blankfein said. “But I knew I wasn’t passionate enough about what I was doing. I got a new job at a small Wall Street firm and we got bought out by a larger firm and I ended up remaining at that larger firm – Goldman Sachs.”

Blankfein has been criticized for his hard-charging leadership of Goldman Sachs and the firm’s role in the aftermath of the 2008 market collapse. His firm drew up a partnership with LaGuardia in 2010 to train potential entrepreneurs through its 10,000 Small Businesses Program.

The 59-year-old chairman offered the graduates some advice: “Confidence really matters. Most of you have made great sacrifices and overcome great obstacles to get where you are today. You built up muscles that others who’ve had an easier time don’t have. These muscles will serve you for the rest of your life.”

“Find a job you like,” Blankfein said. “Don’t let necessity in a given moment become the excuse for a lifetime of inertia. Keep trying to get yourself to the right place.

Stories of great sacrifice at every level are common at LaGuardia, and that of Freda Raitelu, 32, is only one such triumph.

She told the class of 2013, “Today, we honor every hope, every challenge and every setback we’ve ever had to endure to get here. Please take a moment to just look around you. In light of an increasingly globalized community, we have been privileged to learn and evolve as individuals on the most diverse campus on the planet.”

But it was not always thus.

Raitelu had to drop out of high school at the age of 16 and five years later was diagnosed with kidney disease, which sentenced her to 10 years of dialysis.

She tried to pursue a college degree after earning a GED, but her condition derailed her scholastic efforts. Years of hardship followed.

On Dec. 30, 2010, she got a phone call for which she had waited for a decade: a match for a kidney transplant. She now had a second chance.

Two months after surgery Raitelui enrolled at LaGuardia, sometimes wearing a surgical mask to class to avoid jeopardizing her health. She immersed herself in school, maintaining a 3.862 GPA.

“My whole life has turned upside down” said Raitelu of Ridgewood.

She became the first community college student in the nation to receive the prestigious Student of the Year Award from the National Collegiate Honors Council. She also took a leading role in La Guardia’s Honors Program.

She will attend Smith College.

As the stately strains of Sir Edward Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” issued forth and the long columns of cap and gown-clad graduates filed into the Javits Center, thousands of parents, wives, husbands, children and friends rose as one and did an about-face, most aiming cameras.

The presentation of diplomas was no less joyous but diminished from the howls of joy and five-second shouts of thanks offered on stage to love ones as in some previous commencements.

A profile of the LaGuardia Class of 2013:

• women 64 percent, men 36 percent

• 39 percent between ages 18 and 24, 33 percent between 25 and 29, 11 percent between 30 and 34, 13 percent between 35 and 44 and 4 percent between 45 and older.

• 32 percent Hispanic, 21 percent Asian/Pacific Islander, 12 percent black non-Hispanic, 12 percent white non-Hispanic, 23 percent other classifications or students declining to self-identify

• place of residence: 67 percent live in Queens, 14 percent in Brooklyn, 10 percent in Manhattan, 5 percent in the Bronx and elsewhere 4 percent

Reach contributing writer Philip Newman by e-mail at timesledgernews@cnglocal.com or phone at 718-260-4536.

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