NEW YORK — For all graduates everywhere, that moment of finally grasping diploma in hand is a magic one. But for some, the graduation ceremony marks a triumph not just over exams, research papers, and reading lists, but, more important, over circumstances.
Several years ago, Corey Freeman, Namjin Cho, and Pedro Rojas were focusing their time and energy on the logistics of their daily lives. None of the three was pursuing any activity likely to lead toward a college graduation ceremony. Yet on June 5, they were among the 1,169 students receiving associate's degrees from New York City Technical College of the City University of New York in Brooklyn. All have immediate plans to pursue further degrees as well.
The ability to enter and exit the world of formal education - without ever definitively closing the door on the prospect of further attainment - has long been viewed as one of the unique strengths of the system in the United States. For students like these, that ability has meant the chance to transform a life.
Corey Freeman had been out of high school for several years and was working as a security guard at NBC in New York when a random act of violence turned his world upside down. He was walking home late one night. A stranger in a passing car threw a bottle and then aimed a bullet at him. The incident left him blind.
As devastating as the experience was, Mr. Freeman says he quickly reached a resolve not to give up on his life prospects. "If I had just laid down and died," he says, "then the people who threw that bottle at me, the violence and negativity, would have won. I was too young, too full of energy, not to do something with my life."
Inspired by the example of a blind counselor who worked with him during his rehabilitation and who had earned his college degree, Freeman decided to go back to school. He began taking classes at City Tech in the fall of 1997. "Before the incident I was just drifting," he says. "I had no idea what to do with my life." But shortly thereafter, he fixed on the idea of becoming a counselor so he, too, could work with the disabled.
Freeman has a gentle yet authoritative manner of speaking. It is with a bit of a rueful smile playing on his lips that he contrasts his academic experiences in high school and college.
"Math and things I couldn't handle then, I can handle now," he says, remarking on the fact that despite his disability, he finds school easier at this point in life. "It's funny, because I have the same brain now that I had then, but now I have more confidence, more persistence, and I'm more motivated."
Using a Braille typewriter, books on tape, and the services of student workers who read out loud to him, Freeman has completed his associate's degree in human services with a 3.6 grade-point average and is now continuing to study full time for a bachelor's degree. He hopes eventually to pursue a master's in social work.
"I don't want to make it sound like I think I did something great, because I don't," he insists. "But I will say this: It's like sports; you want to win the championship, so you just keep pushing."
The process, he says, requires not just one victory, but one hard-won victory after another. "You can never get too complacent or too comfortable."
"Coming to City Tech was the greatest experience of my life," says Namjin Cho, who just graduated with an associate's degree in computer science.
But it was adversity that originally brought her to the school.
She was a newlywed with an infant son when her husband left her. Ms. Cho - who had immigrated to the US from South Korea 15 years earlier - was working as a file clerk, a job she felt would not be sufficient to support herself and her son.
"I was devastated," she says. "But I realized I would need a better education to provide a better life for us."
So with the help of federal and state grants, she enrolled at City Tech. She chose the school because it was the only college in the city offering free child care. Her church helped her raise money for living expenses, and she took odd jobs babysitting, typing student papers, and sewing.
Cho combined child care with homework in the evenings by reading her textbooks out loud to her son. As a result, Aleexsan, now 5, knows how to calculate the area of geometric figures, and tells his mother enthusiastically, "I love pi-r-squared!"
At first, there were moments when the effort to stay in school felt exhausting and solitary, and Cho occasionally cried herself to sleep. "But I found that studying hard and getting good grades is very therapeutic," she says, now laughing.
She discovered that she loved the thrill of solving difficult math problems, and she gloried in the accomplishment of reading five plays by Shakespeare. "Now I feel like I know what people are talking about," she says.
This month she graduated from City Tech with a 4.0 average, which earned her a full scholarship for further studies at Brooklyn's Polytechnic Institute.
Her goals after she completes her bachelor's degree are clear: "A good job as a computer programmer with a good salary, and a nice house on Long Island with a big backyard for my son to play football."
And then, someday, there's one more dream to fulfill: "I'd like an MBA from Columbia University," she says, giggling a little, hand over her mouth. "That would be hard, but why not?"
With a perfect 4.0 average, Pedro Rojas graduated as valedictorian of the class of 2001 at City Tech College. He also received the Paul Doyle Award from the school's English department for a research paper on the Arthur Miller play "Death of a Salesman."
It was no small accomplishment for an immigrant from Ecuador who arrived in the US in 1993 with only a few dollars to his name and little knowledge of English.
Although Mr. Rojas once held what was considered a well-paying job in his native country - industrial maintenance at a plant run by a US company - he left because he dreamed of a more expansive life that would allow him to travel and to further his education.
Once settled in the US, however, he began tending bar in New York and found he enjoyed the good money he could make. For a time, he says, "ideas of school faded away."
But that contentment didn't last. "I always wanted to learn, to make myself better," he says.
Pride motivated him as well. "The stereotype that people have is that Hispanics are always in a service industry. I wanted to show that Hispanics can do something more."
He remembered that as a high school student in Ecuador he had been fascinated by a project about radio telescopes and the search for sound in the universe. He discovered that City Tech offered a major in telecommunications and enrolled there with help from a National Science Foundation scholarship.
Despite a full academic schedule, Rojas continued to work and to send money to his family back in Ecuador, helping all seven siblings through high school and one sister through college, and enabling two sisters to establish their own business. He also served as a math tutor at City Tech.
"I'm feeling good," says Rojas, who is quick and energetic, with lively dark eyebrows that frequently shoot up above his wire-rim glasses. "I look back at the books I've read and the tests I've passed, and I say, 'I've done this!' "
Rojas is now looking for a job in the telecommunications field - noting ruefully that at first he will likely earn less in that field than he did tending bar - but he already plans to begin working toward his bachelor's degree in telecommunications technology at City Tech this fall.
Someday he'd like to retire to Italy, but that's not where his attention is turned right now. "I'm not a dreamer," he says. "I like to have my feet on the ground."
Going to school while working has involved some sacrifices, he admits, particularly in terms of his social life. "I haven't gone out in 2 1/2 years," he says. "School takes its toll."
However, he adds quickly, "I have no regrets. I made the right choice."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor