June 2013 Issue
May 23, 2013

Education - the path to the American Dream

Author: Darryl McGrath and Sylvia Saunders
Source: NYSUT United

One student rose above poverty to excel at the University at Albany.

Another emigrated from Hong Kong and, barely speaking English, entered community college because he wanted a better life than his father's.

Another is ready to discover the opportunities at a New York City public college. Others are beginning their careers after graduating.

This spring, these students and countless others around the state can proudly declare: "I am the first in my family to go to college." They credit their teachers, counselors, professors and mentors - all of them NYSUT members - with helping to make this achievement possible.

"As I read these stories and hear from students directly, I'm reminded of the 'power of education,'" said NYSUT Vice President Maria Neira, who oversees educational policy for the statewide union.

"We must continue to make sure that public higher education remains accessible and affordable, and that programs and services are in place to help students succeed," she said. These are among the many reasons why NYSUT members will turn out in the thousands at the One Voice United rally June 8 in Albany to fight for the future of public education.

They will send a clear message that NYSUT will keep fighting for fair and equitable funding for pre- K through higher education and for the restoration of programs that improve academic performance.

And, they will call for the passage of the DREAM Act so students brought here as undocumented immigrants can be eligible for financial aid for college and have access to higher education opportunities. For students who come from the working class, from immigrant families and from backgrounds steeped in poverty and personal challenges, the promise of public education is especially poignant. The following stories - a mere few among thousands - remind us why public education cannot be co-opted by corporate interests and why being the first in your family to go to college - and graduate - is truly part of the American Dream.

Maria Ospina


When Maria Ospina started her sophomore year at Copiague High school, she didn't speak a word of English. She came to Long Island from her native Colombia with her mom, Liliana, who works long days cleaning offices.

"It was so scary," Ospina said. "I was 15 and my whole life was in Colombia. At first I didn't even speak." But thanks to a number of educators who offered countless hours of help and encouragement, Ospina is headed to CUNY/Queens College as a McCauley Honors scholar this fall. "I'm very proud that I'm the first in my family to go to college, but I couldn't have done it without my teachers," Ospina said.

When asked to pose for a photograph with her most influential educator, Ospina couldn't pick just one. "Can I have more?" she asked. "They're all like moms to me!"

She said ESL teacher Samantha Pedgano not only helped her learn English, she was her lifeline. "I was with her for two years in ESL and she helped me so much," Ospina said. Social studies teacher Yoleidys Swerdloff, who is fluent in Spanish, worked closely with Ospina through global and U.S. history classes. It was a gift to have a subject area teacher who was bilingual, Ospina said. "We cried together and we laughed together."

She also formed a special bond with her AP Spanish teacher, Flor Melgar, who came to this country from El Salvador at the same age Ospina did. Ospina credited school counselor Jean Ophals-Poten for helping her navigate the complicated college admissions process.

"Her progress has been absolutely amazing," Ophals-Poten said. When Ospina took her PSAT, she got a 24 on the English comprehension portion. Just two years later, she scored a 610 on the critical reading component, giving her an excellent overall score. "She had many options because she worked so hard," Ophals-Poten said.

Ospina is hoping to become a child psychologist, possibly in a school setting. "I want to help others the way my teachers have helped me," she said.

Vadim and Viktoria Belous


The parents of Vadim and Viktoria Belous emigrated from Belarus to Buffalo 22 years ago. Their father used his technical degree in electronics to start an appliance repair business. Only Viktoria was born in the U.S.

Vadim believed his father's opportunities in the U.S. might have been greater with a college degree. Viktoria saw the multiple jobs and long days her parents worked and thought there was a better way. Vadim entered the University at Buffalo first and graduated with a degree in electrical engineering. He now works for an engineering firm outside Buffalo.

Viktoria followed her brother to the University at Buffalo two years later. Both were admitted to the Educational Opportunity Program, an academic support service that helps students receive tutoring, mentoring and financial aid. They even had the same adviser - Lani Jendrowski, a senior counselor and a member of United University Professions.

"I owe everything to her," said Viktoria, who is to start a job as a paralegal and plans to attend law school. UBuffalo's law school is a top choice.

"(Jendrowski) was the best," her brother agreed. "She helped me out pretty much from A to Z. That was one thing that I learned: She cared for me more than just as a number."

Tony Cheung


When Tony Cheung got his first job 15 years ago in a restaurant in his native Hong Kong, his father, a carpenter, had a serious talk with him. He showed his son his hands so Cheung could see the calluses and scars inflicted by a lifetime of manual labor.

"If you want to work, you can always go to work, but if you miss the time to learn, you may not go back," Cheung, now 31, remembers his father telling him. The words galvanized him to change his life.

Cheung's grandfather, a naturalized U.S. citizen and a resident of New York City, sponsored Cheung's immigration to the U.S. five years ago. Cheung could barely speak English, but he had an unstoppable confidence and applied to CUNY's Borough of Manhattan Community College. He was able to defer his admission for a year of intensive study of English as a second language, and then started at BMCC as a major in multi-media art.

This spring, he completed an internship at the BMCC Office of Public Affairs under the supervision of Thomas Volpe, a member of the Professional Staff Congress. Cheung graduated from BMCC in May. None of his family could make the expensive trip from Hong Kong to New York City for the milestone; his grandfather was too frail to attend. Cheung credits many faculty members who helped him, including an English professor whose motto to his students was "Be good, do good, have good."

"That's what I always remind myself; that's why I work hard," he said. "It's tough as an immigrant."

Cheung could return to Hong Kong, degree in hand, but is considering staying in the United States. "It's a rainbow of nations here, so it's more interesting to me," he said.

Kalima Johnson


Kalima Johnson grew up in public housing in Brooklyn with her mother and two brothers; her father left the family when she was 6.

She remembers boarded-up apartments around her family's unit and elevators with no lights. She also remembers one terrifying day when police conducted a drug raid in her building and swept Johnson up with the suspects. She was released within hours, but found the experience traumatic and demoralizing.

"People don't think the United States is a Third World country, but there are places that are like a Third World country," Johnson says. "Everyone I knew was poor."

Despite these challenges, Johnson graduated from high school as valedictorian and entered the University at Albany through the Educational Opportunity Program. Johnson found support from faculty and staff, such as her EOP adviser, Claudio Gomez, a member of United University Professions. As she settled in at UAlbany, "I looked around, and I just felt comfortable" Johnson said.

She graduated in May with an impressive list of accomplishments: an internship at the State Senate, study abroad in Senegal, and recipient of the UAlbany President's Award for Leadership and the UAlbany Spellman Achievement Award.

"I want to go to graduate school for public policy and work in education, because it was education that got me out," she said.