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Robert Treat Academy Inspires Graduate to Return to Newark

Read this essay as it originally appeared in the Newark Patch

This spring I graduated from Barnard College in New York City. Out of 605 graduates to walk across the stage at Radio City Music Hall, I was the only one from Newark, N.J.

As a child of Newark and the daughter of immigrants from Ecuador, it was not supposed to be my destiny to be admitted to a prestigious college like Barnard, much less graduate in four years.

There are many factors working against young Hispanic girls growing up in Newark; from crime to drugs, from teenage pregnancy to a general sense that we just do not belong in the Ivy-covered buildings of great universities.

I was lucky enough to avoid the pitfalls that could have put my life on a very different path. And I say "lucky" because my future really was decided by Lady Luck, more specifically a lottery.

My parents decided to sign me up for the lottery for admission to Robert Treat Academy, a new charter school not too far from our home that was being opened by The North Ward Center, in 1997.

Although my parents did not know exactly what a charter school was – indeed few people did at the time – they liked the education I received at The North Ward Center's preschool, therefore they placed me in the lottery process.

My parents told me later that they were very nervous during the lottery. As names were called, they prayed each time that it would be me. Each time it was another name. Finally, their prayers were answered. I was one of the last names picked. My mother still has my lottery ticket, which she keeps as a reminder of how far I've come.

It was clear from the start that Robert Treat Academy was going to be very different from the district school I would have attended if I did not get picked in the lottery. We had a longer school day, a longer school year and eventually we would have classes on Saturday.

We were constantly reminded that we could achieve whatever we set our mind to. Every day we repeated a mantra to work hard, be kind to others and be the best we could be. It never occurred to any of us that our options were limited because we were minorities living in an inner city.

By the time eighth grade rolled around, I learned that I would be the class valedictorian. The high school placement officers at the Academy suggested I consider attending a boarding school. I was accepted into seven boarding schools and chose the Lawrenceville School, where I received a full scholarship.

The shock of moving from Newark to the leafy campus in Lawrenceville made me homesick. Though I had graduated from Robert Treat Academy, I knew that I could always lean on the staff there during rough times, especially Theresa Adubato, who was the assistant principal at the time and now is principal. I called her as often as I called my parents. Echoing my mother's words, she let me know I would be welcomed back with open arms anytime, no matter what happened at Lawrenceville.

However, after my first semester I gained more confidence as I realized I could compete on a level playing field with students who came from more privileged backgrounds. I began to make friends, join clubs and participate in athletics. The next time I called Ms. Adubato, my once hesitant voice was more confident. I thanked her for placing me in what would become my second home, a school where friends became more like sisters.

I graduated with high honors from Lawrenceville, only to be once again was faced with the dilemma of picking my next academic home. I chose Barnard College for its plethora of intellectual, driven, high-achieving women; peers I could aspire to.

Still, I never forgot how The North Ward Center contributed to my current success and the lessons taught by its founder Stephen N. Adubato to give back to the community.

At the age of nineteen, I decided to become involved with the North Ward Center's Newark Business Training Institute. I was offered a summer position as an ESL teacher. I was able to connect to my students, composed of Newark's resilient immigrant community, and even helped them register to vote, study for citizenship exams, and apply to college. It was a rewarding experience.

After graduating from Barnard, I decided to return to Newark and give back to the school that had given me so much. I will be a fifth-grade instructional assistant, training for my certification. I hope to emulate my favorite instructor at Robert Treat, the late Ms. Regina DiNunzio. She taught me to try new things and be intuitive to other's feelings, as well as helped me found the Student Council at RTA. I still look up to how devoted she was to her students.

I am grateful for the start that I received from The North Ward Center, and I am now the youngest member of its Board of Trustees. I hope to dedicate my life and talents towards giving back to the Center and the city that made me who I am today: A proud Newark Latina woman capable of achieving whatever I set my mind to.