Press Release: Bill Moyers to Address CUNY Graduate Center Commencement

Time and Place: Thursday, May 26, 2 pm, at the Manhattan Center: 311 West 34th Street

Graduates: 298 Doctorates and 45 Master's degrees to be awarded. (Profiles on the following pages trace the journeys of three foreign-born students on their path to a Ph.D.)

Speaker: Bill Moyers, pioneering public-interest journalist and television producer. Moyers is thought of by many as the conscience of American journalism. For more than 20 years, he has brought to the public frank and thoughtful examinations of everything from politics to poetry, religion, and environmental destruction. Moyers served as press secretary to President Lyndon Baines Johnson; he later became publisher of Newsday and a commentator on CBS and NBC news. He founded, with his wife Judith Davidson, Public Affairs Television, the company that produced his watershed programs of "deep-think" journalism, such as "Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth" and "God and Politics." The winner of numerous Emmy and Peabody awards, Moyers retired in 2004 from his role as producer and host of the PBS series "NOW with Bill Moyers."

Honorary degrees (Doctor of Human Letters): Harry Belafonte, the widely celebrated singer, actor, and producer, whose impact as an activist--on behalf of victims of social and racial injustice, poverty, war, AIDS, and famine--has been as great as that of his legendary career as an entertainer. Dr. Mathilde Krim is a scientist and Founding Chairman of the American Foundation for AIDS Research who has worked tirelessly to research and educate the public about the disease since it became known. Charles Joseph Tanenbaum is a noted philanthropist and curator and collector of historic documents.

President's Medal: Bill Moyers (see above).

Student Speaker: Caterina Y. Pierre, Ph.D. in Art History Graduate Profiles (CUNY Graduate Center 2005 Commencement)

Following are stories tracing the path to a Ph.D. of three graduates who were born outside the U.S. To summarize:

Mia Mia Thi, who with the aid of her parents' life savings escaped revolution in her native Burma (now Myanmar) and learned a new language and culture on her way to a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering.

Esther Gitman, a Croatian-born Holocaust survivor and Israeli army veteran who gave up a multi-million dollar jewelry business to return to her birthplace and study how others had been rescued from the Nazis.

Anatoliy Kharkhurin, a Russian who emigrated first to the Netherlands then came to the U.S. to apply his own multidimensional experiences to studies of bilingualism, biculturalism, and creativity, combining his pursuit of a Ph.D. in Psychology (Experimental) with writing poetry.

Mia Mia Thi
Ph.D. in Engineering
Cellular Communication and Mechanotransduction in Response to Fluid Sheer Stress

Dr. Mia Mia Thi had a very carefree life in her home country of Myanmar (formerly Burma) with her sights set on becoming an engineer, she says, when her education was brought to a halt by political turmoil. While she was a student at Rangoon Institute of Technology in 1988, a political uprising in Burma resulted in the loss of many students' lives and the indefinite closing of universities, colleges, and schools. With the country under the rule of a military dictatorship and the educational system virtually shut down, she says, "precious years of my educational life were wasted, and my future was in a state of oblivion."

Fortunately, she was one of few Burmese students who were able to continue their studies abroad, though not without obstacles. Leaving behind her family, and supported with the financial sacrifice of her parents, who contributed money from their life savings, she came to the U.S. facing a new culture, a new language, and the need to catch up on courses and lost time. With the help of an uncle who teaches at Columbia University (Dr. Ronald Findlay), she moved to New York and enrolled first in Hunter then City College in order to take advantage of its engineering courses. After a couple of years, her soon-to-be husband joined her from Myanmar, and she helped to get him acclimated. Driven by an awareness of the debt she owed her parents, she developed a strong work ethic --- "I thought that time was money," she said --- and graduated Summa Cum Laude with honors in engineering in 1995.

As a senior at City College, she had become interested in biology and bioengineering. She took a course in biomedical engineering with Distinguished Professor Sheldon Weinbaum, who recruited her for The Graduate Center's Ph.D. Program in Engineering. With the support of a Robert E. Gilleece Fellowship, she worked under Weinbaum and her co-advisor David E. Spray, a faculty member of CUNY and Albert Einstein College of Medicine, studying cell-to-cell communication and mechanotransduction (how cells sense environmental changes and send signals throughout the cellular network or how cells convert biophysical signal to cellular response). She says she took longer than some students in the program to complete her Ph.D. because she focused on experimental work, which is more time consuming than the alternative of computer modeling. She also had a baby along the way.

Now, as a mother and a research fellow at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, she is able to enjoy life more. But her productivity hasn't slowed down: her dissertation research has led to two major papers, published with her mentors, and she was just awarded a Ruth I. Kirshhstien National Research Award (post-doctoral fellowship) from the National Institute of Health/National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

"It was a long journey," says Dr. Thi of her road from the political chaos and shattered dreams of her youth in Burma, to settling in the U.S., to ultimately receiving a Ph.D. in Engineering. "I never imagined that I would have encountered so many obstacles....It's a relief." Her husband, child, and mother will all be there at commencement to congratulate her at the journey's end.

Esther Gitman
Ph.D. in History
Rescue and Survival of Jews in the Independent State of Croatia (NDH), 1941-1945

In 1999, at the peak of her business career as a successful entrepreneur, Dr. Esther Gitman decided to pursue a Ph.D. in Jewish history--embarking on a personal quest to understand the circumstances surrounding her own rescue from Nazi and Ustashe occupied Sarajevo as a young child. For Dr. Gitman, it was one of many calculated risks in a lifetime of obstacles that have been turned into opportunities with a singular commitment and desire for a better life.

In 1941, as a toddler, Dr. Gitman and her mother managed to reach the Italian Zone of occupation, with the help of friends and neighbors. (Her father had died in 1940.) Aided by Croatian partisans, they eventually made it to the safety of southern Italy. They lived in Italy briefly, moved back to Yugoslavia after the war, and eventually settled in Israel. As a child, she struggled with new languages and cultures, as well has her family's poverty. In 1958 she entered the Israeli army, served in one of its most prestigious combat units, and later supported her family while her husband pursued a Ph.D. in Engineering. She planned to get a degree herself, but moved yet again. After the Six-Day-War in 1967, she, her husband, and infant child immigrated to Canada. She eventually earned a B.A. in History and Sociology at Carleton University in Ottowa.

In 1972, they came to the United States, "a country that gave us a chance to rise as far as we could imagine," she says. Dr. Gitman completed a master's degree in criminal justice at Long Island University/C.W. Post and was considering an academic career. However, in 1981, with a $1,000 loan, she started a jewelry business which eventually became a multi-million dollar company (named IEG), selling products to retail stores all over the country including Macy's, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Lord & Taylor.

Prompted by questions from her daughter about her family's experience during the Holocaust, Dr. Gitman decided pursue another dream of getting a Ph.D. She enrolled first in The Graduate Center's Liberal Studies Program and then in its Ph.D. Program in History, and in 2002-2003, she was awarded a Fulbright to Zagreb, Croatia. During that year, she spent every working day poring over original source documents. With special permission from the Ministry of Science and Technology, she copied anything that had to do with the rescue or escape of Jews during the Holocaust. What she uncovered was a story of the human desire of countless ordinary people to help the Jews survive. She brought back copies of thousands of documents, and even created a database of the names of Jews who were rescued from Croatia.

"Most people write about the atrocity. I wrote about the rescue," she says. Her mission is to show that even in the darkest hours of human history, there is the light of human generosity--in this case, the thousands of people who put themselves in harm's way to help the Jews--without which she wouldn't be where she is today. Her Ph.D. is only the beginning of her efforts to tell this story of the desire of ordinary people to rescue and save, she says.

Anatoliy Kharkhurin
Ph.D. in Psychology - Experimental
On the possible relationships between bilingualism, biculturalism, and creativity: A cognitive perspective

Dr. Anatoliy Kharkhurin is a truly international, interdisciplinary scholar who has drawn on his own multilingual experience as well as his varied educational background in computers, literature, and psychology, for his research into psycholinguistics. Born in Moscow, he immigrated to the Netherlands at the age of 19. He received a B.A. in Computer Science and an M.A. in Cognitive Science and Artificial Intelligence form the University of Nijmegen, and an M.A. in Literature Science (Philology) from the University of Amsterdam.

Dr. Kharkhurin came to the U.S. in 2000 to enroll in The Graduate Center's Ph.D. Program in Psychology. He has studied under Professor Arthur Reber at Brooklyn College, doing research on "implicit learning" and the relationships between bilingualism, biculturalism, and creativity. As a National Science Foundation fellow, he returned to Moscow to collect data for his dissertation. His hypothesis was that bilinguals show advantages on creative tasks, not simply because they speak two languages, but because they participate in two cultures.

Creatively adept himself, Dr. Kharkhurin is also a published poet - he writes in Russian and translates his own poetry into English - and has invented a genre of "cognitive poetry," in which he uses the experimental techniques of cognitive science. He recently received a job offer of assistant professor at the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates and is considering a postdoctoral position at the Rene Descartes University in Paris.

Submitted on: MAY 1, 2005

Category: Commencements | Press Room