Cucinotta Makes Most out of Second Chance

Christina Cucinotta

When Christina Cucinotta first enrolled at UAlbany, she envisioned pursuing a career as a biochemist, developing cosmetics derived from natural components rather than the mass-produced, potentially harmful products that dominated the market at the time. UAlbany offered an affordable education close to her home. Bolstered by the promise of a graduate scholarship upon completion of her bachelor’s degree, the decision was an easy one.

The year was 2006. Cucinotta was an excellent student at her high school in Niskayuna, earning Advance Placement credits in chemistry to ease the transition into her first choice of major at UAlbany, biochemistry.

Unfortunately, Cucinotta’s first experience with college life was anything but smooth. Classwork piled high and she found herself unable to meet course expectations. She was at a complete loss as to what had changed to make her time in college so overwhelming and strenuous as learning had always come naturally to her.

The answer came by way of a diagnosis of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in 2010, a learning disability that affects executive functioning. Even though her question had been answered, the damage was done. Her GPA had tumbled and she was academically dismissed in 2011.

The road back to UAlbany started with getting a better sense of who she was. The diagnosis was the beginning of understanding what made her unique, starting with a new approach to the way she managed her world so that she could create her success. 

She credits her mother, an award-winning piano teacher who specializes in teaching students with disabilities. Cucinotta called her mom her cheerleader and biggest support as she learned to live alongside her disability. 

“She sent me articles, showed me tips and tricks, helped me build my skills and new behaviors and assisted me with building the structure I needed to succeed,” Cucinotta said. 

After leaving UAlbany, Cucinotta began working in the hospitality field and eventually enrolled at SUNY Schenectady in the hospitality program. Her efforts to understand how to turn her differences into strengths paid off when she graduated with an Associate of Applied Science in Hotel and Restaurant Management in 2017. 

Her next steps were less simple.  As she was preparing to open a small gelato business with her fiancé in 2019, the COVID-19 pandemic brought their plans up short. It was the perfect opportunity to complete her bachelor’s degree, but she was faced with two options: apply to other schools and start her education from scratch, or finish what she started at UAlbany — which also meant rebuilding her GPA.

Her first choice was to enter UAlbany’s School of Business, an ambitious goal at her standing. 

“After speaking to the University, I was informed that the process would take at least five semesters,” Cucinotta recalled. “And if I had any hope of achieving my goals upon my return to school, I was going to have to work hard – I had to make up the ground lost with a 1.61 GPA on my return.” 

After consulting family and weighing her options, it was her father's remarks that untangled the decision. “As I was laying out my list of pros and cons, he said to me, very simply, ‘Tina, the three years will pass. You can be 35 with a degree, or 35 without a degree. Everything else is the same, no matter which direction you take.’ My decision became crystal clear.”

Cucinotta approaches her 35th birthday later this year. Supported in no small part by her fiancé, she will have earned a Bachelor of Science in Accounting to accompany her associate’s degree, and will be halfway through earning her Master of Science in Forensic Accounting in addition to working her way through the testing requirements for her CPA license. 

“Nick has been my steadfast rock as I’ve been hanging on through each whirlwind of a semester,” she said. “He made it so that I only had to worry about learning my material. I’m just beyond grateful.”

In addition to the support of her family, Cucinotta is grateful for the boost provided by taking Intermediate Accounting I with Associate Professor of Accounting William Riccardi. The course is regarded as among the most challenging and demanding courses in the accounting and finance curriculums.

“The class presents topics at a breakneck pace. I don’t think I walked out of a single lecture without my head spinning. But Dr. Riccardi really taught me what I needed to know,” she said. “He took the time and made the effort to build out the course in a way that made sense, presenting topics that progressed in difficulty and at the same pace that my understanding did.”

Cucinotta also credits Riccardi with having the flexibility to help her overcome some of the challenges her ADHD presents by allowing her to record his lectures to assist in her review.  

“I’ll admit that I still regularly review those lectures, if not to recall the topics of the course, then to re-create a space where I learned at the highest level I may ever have,” she said.

The Disability Access & Inclusion Student Services (DAISS) has also proved to be a valuable resource as Cucinotta worked to rebuild her academic standing and succeed where she had previously stumbled. 

Cucinotta also credits Senior Associate Director of Financial Aid Meryl Schwalb, who helped her find ways to overcome the financial challenges that came with being a full-time non-traditional student. With federal and state assistance exhausted and facing challenges to pay after losing one of her part-time jobs, Schwalb found a place for her in the federal work-study program. She also informed Cucinotta about the University at Albany Foundation scholarships application — a collection of more than 200 scholarship funds available to assist UAlbany students.

Schwalb and the Foundation identified Cucinotta as eligible for a scholarship through the Edna Craig Memorial Scholarship Fund. Established in 1980 through the will of Edna Craig ’21, the scholarship seeks to assist seniors in overcoming financial obstacles such as those Cucinotta faced. 

“Without being asked, she made it work,” Cucinotta said of Schwalb. “Without her, I wouldn’t be here.”

For Cucinotta, “here” is preparing for the 2023 undergraduate commencement ceremony, which takes place on May 13. 

And as she prepares for the next steps along her career path, Cucinotta offers advice for students who may one day follow in her footsteps across the graduation stage, especially anyone facing the challenges associated with ADHD or other disabilities.

“If you are finding yourself being challenged in a way that is insurmountable, no matter how hard you are trying, reach out to the resources the University has in place for you,” Cucinotta implored. 

When she returned to UAlbany in 2021, it was those resources that helped Cucinotta succeed in ways she once thought would be impossible.

“I think my story holds an important message for those young and old – it’s never too late to start.” 

Christina is one of several students highlighted in the Class of 2023 Graduate Spotlight. Their stories embody the brilliance, resilience and creativity that define what it means to be a Great Dane.