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Success Stories, In Any Language

Perseverance helps two immigrants graduate at the top of their class

By Merle English

June 22, 2003
Copyright © 2003 Newsday, Inc. All rights reserved.

One came for a lark, the other to pursue higher education. But when Astrid Sussette Rodriguez and Pedro Placido Jr. immigrated to the United States in 1998, because they had to grapple with learning English, neither expected to finish at the top of their class.

The motto "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again" aptly describes their early efforts, separately, to gain admission to the City University of New York.

Both got off to a slow start, failing the entrance examination for the New York City College of Technology in Brooklyn more than once. But each persevered and graduated June 2 with nearly perfect grade point averages: Placido, of Corona, with 3.95, and Rodriguez, a Ridgewood resident, 3.93.

Rodriguez, 23, had fun in mind when, at 18, she left her native Puerto Rico with a girlfriend to come to New York to see the Puerto Rican Day parade. The girlfriend went back, but Rodriguez found work as a security guard at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, a job she still holds.

In 1999, on her first attempt at the college entrance exams, hoping to pursue studies for an associate degree in human services, "I failed the entire test," Rodriguez said.

Still, she was allowed to start some core programs at the college and was required to take English remedial courses in the summer. She took all the English language courses she could, including diction classes.

"I carried a dictionary with me everywhere," Rodriguez said. "I told everyone, 'If I say something wrong, please correct me.'"

It just wasn't good enough. But although she had failed, Rodriguez refused to be defeated.

"Even though I felt bad, I knew I had obstacles," she said. "I wasn't familiar with the language. I knew I had to work harder on my English and do it again."

She studied and did her homework while riding the subway, during her lunchtime and after work. She was up at 5 a.m., was on her job from 6:30 a.m. until 3:30 p.m., then went to school from 4 until 8:30 p.m.

"I had no social life," Rodriguez recalled, "but I had this goal in my mind." She said she told herself, "I'm going after it. I just have to be strong. Survival of the fittest. You do what you have to do."

Vitamins helped give her stamina, she said.

That fall, she passed the entrance exams and was officially registered as a degree candidate.

"I couldn't believe it," Rodriguez said. "I was thrilled. It was good to know you work hard and the effort shows."

Placido's path, at the beginning, was far more dispiriting, but he had his brother - a year younger and also named Pedro - as a fellow college aspirant. Both were born in the Dominican Republic but lived in the United States with their parents as youngsters. But they grew up in their homeland. They returned to the United States in 1998 with little knowledge of English but bent on going to college.

The brothers arrived with higher education on their minds. "That was the primary reason we came," Placido said. "We have learned from experience that not having a degree, not having education, it's really tough to live.

"My mom finished high school and never went to college, and my father never finished elementary school," he said. "We know that without education you're going to have a hard time. I want to be somebody. I want to do things. I have so many dreams I hope I'll be able to make happen."

The brothers took the college entrance exams in January 1999.

"We failed all of them," Placido said. "Reading, writing and math."

That summer, they took the remedial college preparation courses and again sat for the entrance exams that August.

"We passed reading and math, but we failed English, because writing was the hardest," Placido said.

After more remedial work in English, they took the test for the third time in the fall of 1999, and failed again.

Undaunted, the brothers attempted the writing test again in May 2000. "I thought, if I cannot do this, what lies ahead?" Placido said. "And then we passed. Thank God.

My mom used to tell us, 'If others did it, you can do it also.'

"We don't have money. We don't have connections. The only thing we had was to take advantage of education. No matter how many times I fail, I'm going to get my degree."

He earned an associate degree in electromechanical engineering technology.

Fred Deaufait, City Tech's president, spoke of Rodriguez and Placido like a proud father. "We are delighted that Astrid and Pedro chose to take advantage of the many resources the college has put in place to help students who are not fully college-ready realize their dream," he said in an interview.

It took Rodriguez and Placido three years instead of two to graduate because of the remedial work they were required to do, but both are on the college Dean's List and the National Dean's List, and are members of the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society.

Both plan to continue their studies. Rodriguez, who wants to become a college professor, will remain at City Tech for a bachelor of science degree in human services. Placido will go to Polytechnic University in the fall. Both intend to go on to graduate school.

Currently, Placido is a math Regents tutor in the College Now Program at Brooklyn International High School, where he inspires other non-English-speaking immigrant students with his own story, a City Tech spokeswoman said.

He also finds time to help his father, an ironworker, on weekends; tutors his peers at City Tech in electromechanical engineering technology, and is active in the physics and math clubs. He wants to do research, and will seek an internship at Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island while in school.

"I'm not going to stop studying," Placido said. "I'm going to get another degree after my second one in engineering, probably in teaching. I can do so many things, and

I'm grateful for that. Not everybody has such opportunities."

Rodriguez - who has 103 credits of the 125 she needs for a bachelor's degree - is applying to the CUNY graduate school to study education and psychology.

She said that when she received her diploma, "I felt so good." In August, she will celebrate her achievement with her parents and six siblings in Puerto Rico.

Finishing school at the top of their class was an unexpected thrill for the two students.

Rodriguez said she was nominated for class valedictorian, but "didn't make it. But that's OK," she said.

"I didn't plan it," Placido said of his stellar accomplishment after his inauspicious beginning. "Each class I took I was expecting to get the most out of it. Each time I wanted an A.

"I want all the students to see that everybody is capable of doing many things," he added. "I think big, but I believe in one step at a time. I feel if you do things well, everything comes back to you."

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