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The Plain Dealer

The Price Of Poverty Going From Welfare To Harvard

BY Sam Fulwood III; Plain Dealer Columnist

26 October 2004
Copyright © 2004 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved. 

Kimberly Vargas sets up for the weekly high tea at Lowell House on the campus of Harvard University. Vargas, who grew up in poverty, graduated from Cleveland public schools and is now a junior at Harvard. Setting up for tea is one of her work-study duties.

Sam Fulwood is on special assignment, writing a number of columns for The Plain Dealer's ongoing series on poverty in Greater Cleveland.

Today's column is one of several dealing with the problems of the working poor.

Cambridge, Mass. -- Like a trapeze artist, Kimberly Vargas strides with ease and comfort between the extremes of poverty and affluence.

Kimberly, who grew up poor on Cleveland's West Side, is a third- year psychology student at Harvard University. All that stands between her and a middle-class or better life are a handful of classes needed to graduate with the class of 2006.

Kimberly's parents moved from their native Puerto Rico to New York City shortly before they began their family. After Kimberly and her older brother, Emanuel, were born, the family realized that life in the big city was too hard and moved to Cleveland.

When Kimberly was 4, her parents divorced. Her mother, Maria, who had little education, struggled with little help from her ex- husband. She found a series of low-wage jobs to care for her two small children. For a while the family lived off welfare and food stamps.

"I don't know how she did it, but my mother bought a car when we were on welfare," Kim recalled.

"She needed transportation to get to and from work."

If poverty is a state of mind, Kimberly's family didn't share it.

"I didn't know I was poor because I went to school with other poor people and I lived around poor people," she said. "It wasn't a big deal. We had food to eat. We weren't like those poor, starving kids in Africa."

Kimberly's mother didn't let her kids wallow in misfortune.

"She would tell us that there are two important things in life God and education," Kimberly said. "As long as you have both, you will succeed."

Both Kimberly and Emanuel embraced their mother's words and made them their own.

Emanuel, who is in his fourth year of a five-year program at Ohio State University, finished at the top of his class.

The following year Kimberly was salutatorian at James Ford Rhodes High. She is the most recent Cleveland public school graduate and only the second in 20 years to attend Harvard.

She didn't think Harvard was for her, but her guidance counselor pushed her to apply. Nobody was more surprised than Kimberly when she was accepted.

"They send rejection letters in skinny envelopes," she said. "When I got the big fat one from Harvard, I couldn't stop laughing."

She thought of Harvard as a school for smart rich kids. She had the grades, but she didn't have $40,000 a year in tuition and fees.

"I just assumed I wasn't going to Harvard," she said.

But she won a full scholarship and works two part-time jobs on campus to earn extra money.

"Sure, there are lot of rich kids at Harvard," she said. "But I don't feel bad about what I don't have. I work and I have as much money as I need. Unlike [the rich kids], I can't call home to ask for money. But I feel more grown up than them, because I'm earning my money."

She expects to graduate in 2006 with a degree in psychology. Then, if all goes as planned, she will attend medical school possibly back home at Case Western Reserve University, so that she can be close to her mother.

Or maybe she'll move to Puerto Rico, where members of her mother's family live in worse poverty than Kimberly has ever known.

But her first priority is her mom, who still lives in Cleveland and works at a suburban Ponderosa restaurant.

"She sacrificed everything for me," Kimberly said. "I want to make my mom proud, and that's a large part of why I can't fail."

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