New Suffolk attorney and New York Times best-selling author Regina Calcaterra didn’t listen when she was told to get a job after high school instead of pursuing a college degree.
It wasn’t feasible, her foster care counselor explained, because she simply didn’t have the social and economic means to obtain a higher education. A couple of Ms. Calcaterra’s teachers at Centereach High School countered that argument, telling her it was possible for her to join the 2 percent of foster care children who graduate from college.
Defying the odds, a middle child of five siblings who grew up on Long Island streets before landing in foster care, Ms. Calcaterra graduated from SUNY/New Paltz in 1988 with a degree in political science.
Overcoming disadvantages will be a key topic in her first-ever commencement speech, which she’ll deliver in May to her alma mater’s Class of 2016.
“SUNY/New Paltz kept the light burning on my journey out of foster care by showing me the path forward — a light that could have easily dimmed elsewhere,” Ms. Calcaterra said. “It provided me opportunities I never knew existed.”
Ms. Calcaterra attended SUNY/Stony Brook first, but struggled there because the setup wasn’t suited to someone with her background. (The university has since developed programs designed for foster children, which Ms. Calcaterra described as a great addition to the campus.)
As she fell behind in her studies, Ms. Calcaterra found the lack of family support was hindering her ability to succeed in college. She decided to try New Paltz, which many of her high school friends were attending.
“I didn’t have a safety net,” she said. “The only reason why I transferred was because they were there. My friends were my safety net.”
At first, Ms. Calcaterra planned to become a teacher, for which one of the requirements was a history class.
The only one available that fit her schedule was international politics at 8 a.m. taught by now retired professor Lew Brownstein, whose class later sparked her interest in a career in public policy and law.
Mr. Brownstein’s lectures on female oppression in African countries changed her outlook on life.
“It was the first time I realized how lucky I was,” she said. “There are enough resources and opportunities in the U.S. for anyone to succeed. They have to figure out how to harness those opportunities and believe in themselves.”
The school’s smaller classes, with just 25 to 35 students, as well as its strong support for first-generation college students, also helped her along the way.
Last year, nearly 28 percent of students enrolled were the first in their family to attend college, Ms. Calcaterra said.
“It was a smaller setting — I would get so much more attention than if I was in a larger school,” she said. “Getting special attention from a professor was very encouraging for someone in my situation.”
Ms. Calcaterra has stayed in touch with her alma mater and has participated in numerous college events. Last spring, she was a distinguished speaker and panelist for a women’s summit. In January, she also joined the SUNY/New Paltz Foundation Board.
A former chief deputy for Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, Ms. Calcaterra ran unsuccessfully for New York State Senate in 2010. She currently works as an attorney for the State of New York.
Her memoir, “Etched in Sand,” was released in 2013 by a division of HarperCollins. It rose to No. 2 on The New York Times best-seller list and remained there for 17 weeks.
Her second non-fiction book, “Girl Unbroken,” will be published in October.
Ms. Calcaterra described the new book as an “equal” rather than a sequel. It expands on the plight of her sister, Rosie, who was taken by their mother to Idaho in a way that would be considered kidnapping by today’s standards.
“I alluded to her story in ‘Etched in Sand,’ about how terrible things happened to her,” she said. “Since readers have worried about what happened to Rosie, HarperCollins agreed with me writing her story. It takes place during the same time as my story and explains how she survived.”
Ms. Calcaterra said anecdotes about her upbringing will be included in her commencement speech. When asked how she’s preparing for it, she said her experience talking to audiences about her life has provided her with the best prep work possible.
She’s in the process of narrowing down the topics that resonated the most with people she’s spoken to and zeroing in on the most influential details she’s shared with others.
Then she’ll have to trim it down to a lean a seven minutes.
“Getting a college degree takes you out of the stands as a bystander and puts you on the field,” she said. “Once you’re on the field, you have to learn how to play with others. You’re always going to be a part of the team, so how you treat people matters.”
Photos: (Top credit: SUNY/New Paltz courtesy photo) Regina Calcaterra with now retired history professor Lew Brownstein, whose class at SUNY/New Paltz sparked her interest in a career in public policy and law. (Middle credit: Courtesy photo) Regina Calcaterra’s college ID photo.