Updated: May 18, 2019
By Aldana Cerrate
For 5 years, Valeri Al-Touma—a student in Syria, a war-torn country—did what she had to do to keep studying. She heard bombs in the distance, but went to school anyway. At one point, the water and heat got turned off, and then the electricity. She didn’t let that stop her. She studied by candlelight and went through other unfortunate situations, which would be unimaginable for other students. She learned a great deal from these experiences.
“When you believe in education, no matter what, you will go to school and finish it,” Al-Touma said and that is exactly what she did. Shortly after finishing high school, she came to the U.S. with her mother, having only her father here to support them. Survival had become a new priority.
Al-Touma spoke very little English and enrolled in PCCC’s English Language Studies (ELS) program—first, a Prep class over in Adult Education and then, level 020 on the credit side. The support of the ELS faculty members played an essential role during her first year at PCCC. They encouraged her to join different math and science clubs. She excelled in all of her courses and then, moved on to her major: Biology. She acknowledges that “without ELS, I wouldn’t be where I am now.” The same is true for Phi Theta Kappa (PTK).
“I didn’t have family here, only my dad and mom—but as soon as I got into PTK, the environment and everything made me feel like I had found new friends and a new family.” She was shy, but when she joined PTK, she overcame it and felt she belonged there. She is now president of PTK, but when she first joined she had never imagined being in that position.
Another positive influence on Al-Touma has been Professor Jennifer Gasparino, faculty member and advisor of PTK; she inspired her to be the best version of herself.
“She is the one who actually believed in me,” Al-Touma said.
Professor Gasparino pushed her to overcome her limits and encouraged her to run for president of PTK, and in May 2018, she decided to believe in herself like her professor did and ran for president. After she won, she assumed the many responsibilities that came with the position. She had to go to numerous events such as community service activities and regional conventions, where represented PCCC and spoke in front of people from different schools.
As a PTK member and president, she spent a lot of time helping other people, participating and organizing activities, to help people who needed it the most. Her reason for doing all of this was not to include it on her resume, but to give back a small part of what she felt she received from this school. “Both PCCC and PTK transformed me into who I am today,” Al-Touma added with with a proud smile.
She knew for a long time that she wanted to be a dentist, but it wasn’t until she attended SCHPEP, a six-week summer program at Rutgers University, that she realized she was passionate about it. In this program, she had the opportunity to shadow surgeries, make dental rotations, meet other dental students, and much more. “When I got to wear my first white coat and to shadow surgeries, I reassured myself that that’s what I want to be,” Al-Touma said.
Now, she is graduating from PCCC, following her dream of becoming a dentist. After graduating, she plans to attend a 4-year university, and after getting a bachelor’s degree, to go to dental school. She has applied to all local universities and has been accepted by all of them, including Rutgers University, Seton Hall University, and Montclair State University. She has also applied to Johns Hopkins University, Columbia, Cornell and Long Island University. “I haven’t received a response yet, but I would like to go to Johns Hopkins University.” After she transfers, she will probably still be part of PTK at PCCC as an alumni because she wants to contribute to the community.
Overall, Al-Touma feels like she has grown a lot and in many ways. She has grown as a student, as a leader and as a person. She wants to go on a global mission helping people in need, especially refugees. “Everything is possible,” she added “When you work really hard for your aspirations, nothing can’t stop you from achieving them. I did everything I could at this school and it has paid off. I am very satisfied and happy that I came to PCCC in the first place. It’s been a wonderful journey.”
Valeri Al-Touma 2019 GALA Speech
Good Evening everyone!
Three years ago, I had to leave my homeland, Syria, and come to the United States aiming for a better and safer life. In Syria, as the country was at war, living in the midst of war taught me that being armed with education is the way to win the fight against the darkness and ignorance. It is the only weapon that gives women the strength to fight for their rights, it arms the weak to fight back, and empowers those who have failed to stand up again.
My educational journey in the United States began at PCCC when I first enrolled as an ELS student in the Spring of 2016. Learning a new language and adapting to a new society has been one of the hardest challenges I have faced; not knowing how to speak English at all made gestures my only language to communicate with people.
During my ELS journey, I was lucky enough to meet great professors who supported and helped me maximize my learning. Having learned just enough to converse in the US, I was now faced with an even greater challenge – college level courses in English. So I just had to speak, to use the language.
Shortly after finishing ELS, the STEM faculty advised me to join Phi Theta Kappa. To be honest, I was very scared to take such a step, I thought I was not ready. However, I did it! And I am glad that I did. This step has actually changed my life. In a country where I do not have a family and I lack the feeling of belonging, PTK became my family. A family that supported me, believed in me and pushed me so hard to get out of my comfort zone and surpass my limitations. A family that made me feel that I belonged again.
In May 2018, I was elected as the President of Alpha Eta Chi, PTK chapter at PCCC, entering a new challenge; a challenge that was a turning point in both my personal and educational journey. This challenge has shaped me into a better person, the person I am today. Phi Theta Kappa has also given me the chance to give back to the community through service work on and off campus. It has given me the privilege to network with faculty and administration that otherwise, I would not have had. With the unconditional support of my Advisor Professor Gasparino, who believed in me, the help of the STEM department providing me with countless opportunities of Summer internships and research, TRIO counseling, and, of course, the guidance and support of my biology faculty who helped me to pave the way in my academic journey, I was able to overcome ALL of my obstacles and yet, to succeed. Having a great support system at school, from STEM to my biology faculty, and PTK has empowered me to become the best version of myself.
Unfortunately, my journey at PCCC is about to end! But, I think I can say that it could have not gotten any better. During these 3 years, I was able to maximize my PCCC experience through community service, summer internships, clubs and organizations, as well as attending regional and international conventions.
Last semester, fortunately enough and based on my academic performance and community service, I was awarded several scholarships, among these, was the SGA Fund Scholarship which has helped me to focus more on my academics and gave me the ability to outreach further academic resources and books through which I was able to augment my learning experience. Hundreds of students, like me, are struggling financially in order to support our education. Giving us financial help and support is very important to improve our academic performance and increase student retention at our school. Being here at the Foundation Gala, sharing my story with all of you, is evidence that scholarships make dreams happen. Thank you!