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Associated Press Newswires

Victor Nivar, Who Saw His Father Slain, Becomes The First In His Family To Go To College

AP Education Writer

September 13, 2003
Copyright ©2003 Associated Press Newswires. All rights reserved.

EDITOR'S NOTE - This story is the first in an occasional series over this academic year about Victor Nivar, a freshman at Kutztown University. Like tens of thousands other freshmen this fall, Victor is the first in his family to go to college.

KUTZTOWN, Pa. (AP) - The campus orientation session at Kutztown University wasn't going well.

None of the 20-odd students slouched on benches outside the student union wanted to share much about themselves - one freshman even refused to give her name.

Finally, a young man with intense, brown eyes and a white 'do rag pulled tight across his skull stepped up. "My name is Victor Nivar," he said in a strong, confident voice. "My major is psychology, I'm excited to get it done and I want to get started."

Victor, 18, has been doing what needed to be done for a long time. It's how he has overcome obstacles unimaginably more daunting than an awkward silence to become the first person in his family to enter college.

This is a young man who saw his father slain, whose family has struggled on the edge of poverty, and yet who still earned grades that were good enough to win him an acceptance letter.

Nonetheless, he couldn't have made it this far - from the Bronx to Bethlehem to the expansive Kutztown campus in southeastern Pennsylvania - without three people: his mother, a teacher and an admissions counselor. It's also their dream that Victor is fulfilling, perhaps even more than his own.

It's a vision that Priscila Martinez, Victor's mother, has for his younger brothers and sister, too. "I want them to be able to stand by themselves," she said. "To travel around the world and to be able to take care of their families."

Exact figures on the number of first generation students who are part of this year's college freshmen class are not tracked. Educators say it is clearly a number in the tens of thousands of the estimated 1.4 million who started college this fall.

However, statistics indicate that Victor is emblematic of today's first-to-college students and the hurdles they face making it to graduation.

He was born to a Puerto Rican mother and a Dominican father, and his enrollment exemplifies a College Board finding that, among Hispanics and blacks who graduated last spring from high school and took the SAT exam, more than 50 percent aspired to be the first in their family to attend college. (By comparison, only 31 percent of the white test-takers would be the first to attend college.)

A U.S. Department of Education study found that first-generation students generally come from low-income families and received their high school diplomas from academically challenged schools in poorer districts. Their dropout rate is higher than that of students whose parents earned a bachelor's degree.

Again, Victor's life reflects those findings. His mother is a factory worker supporting four children on a $12.55-an-hour job packing bulk spices for pizza parlors. She raises her family in Bethlehem, a community with schools and an infrastructure devastated by the economic decline of Bethlehem Steel.

Despite financial aid, scholarships and a work-study program that will go toward his $10,786 bill for tuition, room and board over the next year, the ability to cover book costs and other miscellaneous expenses weighed heavily on Victor in the days before his departure for Kutztown.

"I'm not worried about flunking out. I know I'm not going to go to a party the night before an exam and miss a test. I'm not like that," he said. "I just don't know how I'm going to pay for it."

One thing going for him: Victor already learned life lessons about makings ends meet.

Always frugal, his mother scrimped and saved in order to move her family last year from a housing project and into their own home in south Bethlehem.

The address may have changed, but Priscila Martinez's edict remains intact: Until every homework assignment is completed, the television remains silent and dinner is left unserved.

Now 38, she was 17 when she moved from Puerto Rico to the Bronx. It was there, on the day she dropped out of high school, that she met a young man - Victor Nivar. Eventually, the couple had four children.

On the day the younger Victor started sixth grade in 1996, his father was involved in a scuffle during a pickup basketball game. As the entire family left their apartment building that evening, Nivar's antagonist suddenly emerged from behind a trash can, knife in hand, and attacked him. Nivar died of stab wounds at a hospital.

On the night of the funeral, Martinez's mother took Victor and his siblings to Bethlehem, a community with a flourishing Hispanic population where his grandmother had relocated some years before.

Eventually, the family moved into a housing project there.

"It was a dramatic change, even though we had family down here," Victor recalled.

An electrician who sometimes supported his family with odd jobs, the elder Nivar died without an insurance policy, Social Security or a pension.

Martinez was left with nothing.

"Just my four kids," she said.

She is still unable to discuss the events that thrust her oldest son at age 11 into the role of protector for his two younger brothers and a younger sister.

When he talks about his father's death, Victor is circumspect. "I can't blame anybody," he said quietly. "Things happen."

The only choice, Victor found, was to try to keep moving on. "You have to do what you have to do," he said.

The person most responsible for helping Victor find that resolve was Billy Staples, who turned his back on the corporate world a decade ago to teach at a school "where no one else wanted to go."

From the moment he arrived at Bethlehem's Northeast Middle School, Staples began to shower special attention on troubled kids passing through his seventh-grade English class. In September 1996, the principal at Bethlehem's Northeast Middle School, asked Staples to help out a sixth grader.

The student, the principal explained, had just witnessed his father's murder. Only later did Staples learn that Victor had spent the better part of his first days at Northeast hyperventilating and crying uncontrollably.

It was the brown eyes - doleful and inquisitive, sad and playful - that hooked him. "His whole life story was in those eyes," Staples said.

Since he began teaching, the hyper-kinetic Staples has singled out 150 kids in an effort to keep them from succumbing to drugs and other vices that can derail their lives.

A student taken under Staples' wing is never abandoned. He attends their middle, high school and college commencements, toasts them at their weddings, and commiserates with them in prison if they stumble. He's also attended the funerals of 15.

If they abide by a few basic rules for two months - daily school attendance, maintaining their grades and staying out of trouble - Staples will also do everything in his power to introduce them to an athlete or celebrity role model.

A basketball fan, Victor wanted to meet the Harlem Globetrotters. While some kids struggle to stick to his rules, Staples didn't have any problems with Victor.

"Do you think Victor ever missed school or didn't do his homework?" he said. "Are you crazy? Have you ever met his mother?"

Victor still considers his visit with the Globetrotters a few months after his dad's death to be a turning point in his life.

Staples, he said, "kept me away from everything" in the projects. "He was the first person to throw out a hand to me." In the months and years that followed, Staples helped transform an emotionally depleted teenager into a study of grim determination.

"It's going to be a long process," Staples told Victor. "But use the respect and love you have for your father to draw strength and power."

Through middle school and then the years at Liberty High School, the prospect of college hung abstractly on the fringe of Victor's life.

Despite working two jobs to help his mother support the family, he maintained a 2.9 grade point average. Still, tired of the classroom, Victor figured his formal education would end with a high school diploma.

To appease Staples and his mother - who used the GED she obtained while working full-time as inspiration - Victor started studying college catalogues during his junior year. He signed up to take the SAT.

Then the third leg of the platform that would launch him into college entered Victor's life: Carlos Ojeda. Like Victor, Ojeda was a first-generation college student. And like Victor, he overcame a tragic loss - the death of a beloved infant godchild.

Credited with helping to boost Kutztown University's minority enrollment from 5 percent to 16 percent in three years, Ojeda had his first encounter with Victor during a recruiting visit to Liberty High School.

A former admissions officer who this summer shifted to the classroom to teach business courses, the 28-year-old Ojeda used his life story to attract minority students, especially Hispanics, to Kutztown.

"You talk to them in their own language and let them draw their own conclusions," he said.

Ojeda convinced Victor of at least one thing: If he did decide to go to college, Kutztown - 45 minutes from Bethlehem - would be his choice.

Even the addition of Ojeda's voice to those of Staples and Martinez wasn't enough to fully convince Victor that he'd be filling out anapplication at the start of his senior year.

"Did I want to spend another four years in school? And pay for it?" Victor wondered.

The question of staying in Bethlehem or venturing off to Kutztown and beyond tugged at him through the summer of 2002. Then, Victor thought about the standard he needed to establish for his brothers and sister, and he knew what should be done: He had to go to college.

The question of what to study came next. Grateful for the emotional support that had changed the course of his life, he started to think about one day giving back by becoming a guidance counselor.

Returning from a family vacation in the waning days before the start of his senior year, Victor announced his decision.

"I just looked at my mom," he recalled, "And I said, 'Mom, I'm going."'

Remembering the moment a year later, Priscila triumphantly poked Victor in the arm: "I knew it," she smiled, proudly.

"I knew it before he believed it."

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