In news coverage of college debt, affirmative action, legacy admissions, and workforce readiness, there’s a lot of buzz about what the value is in getting a college education. I sat down with that question in mind as I spoke with Jovanni Lezama, a 2016 Guttman Liberal Arts graduate who went on to get a degree in Journalism from Lehman College in 2018. The 29-year-old digital marketing strategist works from his home in East Harlem, where we spoke about his path to and from Guttman, being born into a family of achievers, and what to do when you come to a crossroads.

Jovanni Lezama, Guttman Class of 2016

You came to Guttman back in the “early days,” in 2014, two years after we opened. What drew you?

Well, I was a so-called “super senior”—it took me a long, long time to get through high school and I was in a place where if I didn’t graduate from there, I just wasn’t going to graduate. My friends were sitting around, applying for colleges. I was looking for something new, and the college then was called “The New Community College,” so I figured, why not? It was a shot in the dark. I had a loser mentality.

That seems hard to imagine. I mean, you were chosen to be a Peer Mentor at Guttman, got your A.A. in two years, your B.A. two years after that, and successfully landed a job in a fast-growing industry. What changed?

It didn’t happen right away. On the first day, I vividly remember walking down the hall with my schedule in my hand, thinking to myself, “OK, I’ll pass QR, pass English, probably fail Stats… If I get a 2.0, I’ll be fine.” What I needed at that moment was the assurance that I was going to be fine. And that is what Guttman excels at. In classes, the professors make you feel important, and in small conversations with the staff and advisors, they act like you have value. For a shy, timid kid who wanted to express himself, to get out there, they lifted me up, they saw potential. I needed structure, I needed someone to draw me a map, give me a foundation. That’s not for everybody. For some people, that’s a negative. It’s too protective, and I get that. They want to pick all their own classes, go to a college with a lot of choices. But Guttman’s approach paved the way for me. It’s absolutely what I needed. Drew Bennett, Danny Ambrose, Danny Cordova, Bindi Patel. They saw something in me, and I wanted to show them that I saw it, too. They gave me a fresh start, like I could stamp my name in Guttman lore if I wanted to.

That sounds like you already had a seed of something in you that you wanted to grow? It’s not like you were coming in empty-handed.

True, I come from a family of achievers. You know, the classic immigrant story. My family works hard and has a business, and my uncle, my brother, everybody’s hungry and they build their kingdoms. I’m inspired by that. But I knew I wanted something different and had no idea what. Being a Peer Mentor in college was really big for me. I could help other people from what I knew from my experience, and it was a job I really loved.

Do you love your job now?

It’s funny you ask that, because I’m kind of at a crossroads. Once my professor Dr. Allen pulled me aside and said, “Hey, I think you have the mindset that you could become a millionaire if you want at an early age.” Now, I’m not a millionaire, but I’m doing well for my role. At Lehman, I started out working in their TV studio, in social media. I knew from that, that I wanted a job with a salary, a bi-weekly paycheck. Friends pointed me to a corporate conglomerate in digital media and urged me to apply. I had about twenty interviews and landed a job in Search Engine Marketing. I’ve worked with huge companies over the years, like HBO, Turner, and Black Rock. I’ve gotten good promotions and have met some extraordinary people along the way. So yeah, I’m making ends meet and I’m good at a career I never thought I’d be in.
Look, we live in a world where money is important, where it’s our bread and butter. But I have to say, in thinking about the days I spent as a Peer Mentor at Guttman, I’m wondering if my path is leading me to a job where I’m less looking at an Excel sheet and more at other people, having those small conversations that can challenge what they think is possible, to encourage them to see something more. I’m no longer the “6th best player” in a team of 5, but a captain and a leader ready for anything.

I’d say it’s no accident that we’re having this conversation now.
I’d say you might be right.

–Dr. Claire King is an inaugural Guttman faculty member and Special Projects Advisor to the President.