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One On 1 Profile: Hunter College President Jennifer Raab Builds A New York Institution

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A compelling journey is often part of the resume of any influential New Yorker, but Hunter College President Jennifer Raab can pinpoint exactly what started the journey of her lifetime -- a school bus ride through Manhattan. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following One On 1 profile.

Growing up, Hunter College President Jennifer Raab had an outlook unusual for many college presidents.

"I never expected to be sitting in this office. it wasn’t clear to me I would ever get to go to college," says Raab.

That might seem unusual coming from Raab, who has degrees from Cornell University, the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton and Harvard Law School.

She grew up in Washington Heights, raised primarily by a single mother without much money. One of the keys to Raab's story was her leaving the neighborhood to attend the then all-girls Hunter College High School.

"In Washington heights, 10 girls went downtown to take the test and three of us 'made Hunter.' And we were all told, 'You can't go downtown and become a man-hater and a snob. You don’t leave the hood.' And it was one of those few things my mother said: 'You’re getting on that bus,'" says Raab.

More than 40 years later, Raab oversees all of Hunter, including the college and graduate schools like the School of Social Work in its new location in East Harlem.

The refurbished Roosevelt House, site of Hunter's Public Policy Institute, was the home of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt before FDR was inaugurated as president in 1933.

"So between November 8, 1932 when he wins until March 1933, he’s here planning his adminstration and cabinet," says Raab.

Since becoming Hunter's president in 2001, Raab has been credited with raising the school's academic, financial and public profile.

"We make a joke here that you can get three MFAs at Hunter College for the price of one at an Ivy League school uptown and we're proud of that," says Raab.

Hunter is often named among the Best Value Public Colleges by Princeton Review and USA Today.

But when the one-time litigator and Landmarks Preservation Commission chairman was first considered for the position, there was significant opposition.

"I was a career changer and I knew I had a lot to learn. And I thought it was fair for people to doubt whether someone with no background in academia could do this job," says Raab.

She is often included on lists of the "most powerful women" in New York. Her view of being a college president has changed since her first days on the job.

"Someone I worked with said, 'You can’t go on this way.' I said, 'What do you mean?' You can’t have a call sheet three pages long," says Raab. "You have to decide: are you an internal president or an external president? Are you going to stay here and deal with the things we do every day or go outside and represent Hunter College?"

The reality is, it's both and a lot more.

Raab is married to New York Post political columnist Michael Goodwin and they have a teenaged daughter.

Time spent promoting Hunter means that Raab has faced the same dilemma as many other working parents in New York.

"If you don’t go to an event that night because you’re chosen to go home to put your kid to bed, you think about whether you should have been at that event. Maybe there was a donor who would have donated to Hunter College and that would have made a difference and why go home?" says Raab. "And every night you don’t go home, you think about some influential story you could have told or an example you could have set or just a comfort level."

As an attorney, public official and now college president, Jennifer Raab has long interacted with New York's powerful and influential. But who she is can still be traced back directly to the old neighborhood and her home at Fort Washington Avenue and 173rd Street.

Life was anything but easy. Raab had a sister who was institutionalized and later died at the infamous Willowbrook State School for the Mentally Handicapped.

Raab's father died when she was only eight. The message from her mother was clear.

"'We are picking up the pieces and we are moving on.' She dealt with the tragedy in her life by moving past it quickly. And there are probably issues from that, but it provided for me a model of incredible strength," says Raab.

Hunter College High School, and as she puts it,"the intensity of the classroom" also provided a model for her.

"That really changed my life. It made me feel I could be a college graduate but even more importantly, I could be a scholar," says Raab. "I could learn in a deep way and that really changed who I thought I was."

Her education actually began on the bus ride to school, from Washington Heights, through Harlem to the Upper East Side, an experience Raab calls "pivotal."

"1960s, abandoned storefronts, true deep poverty in Harlem, that the world really wasn't a just place. Because when I got off the bus, I got off the bus at Fifth Avenue and 68th Street and it was clear to me, even as a 12-year-old, that there were haves and have nots," says Raab.

That experience fed an early passion to work for change. Raab served in Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's administration, but in 1989, when she was first invited to meet then-mayoral candidate Giuliani, she was skeptical.

"I was a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat, very liberal, a lawyer not in love with prosecutors and I said, 'Should I meet this guy? This does not sound like me,'" says Raab. "I got up in the morning and said, 'Another adventure.' We met and there was an immediate click."

Raab's time at Hunter has not been entirely smooth sailing. There was the initial dissension over whether a non-academic should be president of the college. There have been occasional student protests over issues like diversity and open enrollment.

Her influence at the college and beyond is unquestioned and the same was true in her previous places of work. But Raab believes there is still a subtle discrimination against women.

"If there’s a room full of people with a tall man, everyone assumes he’s the boss if you just show everyone a picture. So we all know it exists," says Raab. "My daughter doesn’t think there is a glass ceiling. Isn’t that amazing? Isn’t that a blessing? But should I give her any doubt and should I try make her cautious? Because I think there still is a glass ceiling in some places."

The realities of running an institution like Hunter require forward thinking. But Raab has a passion, a respect, even a love for the path she's taken, coming full circle.

"I really believed my success happened right here. I thought I had a chance to give back and help others. While that was perhaps a bit arrogant to think, well you could change these lives, it was a real passion to do something positive," says Raab.

After Raab became president, she helped create Manhattan Hunter Science High School, a school with primarily low-income students, much like she was when she attended Hunter College High School.

The curriculum at Manhattan Hunter Science High School is designed specifically to prepare students for studying in college.

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