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Graduation Is Family Affair for Mother, Gifted Teens

June 15, 2003|Nita Lelyveld | Times Staff Writer

Daniel and Verena Firpo enrolled at Cal State L.A. at the same time. He was 12. She was 10. Their mother had to drive them. Each day, Ngoc-Dung Firpo sat mending clothes or reading in the car, waiting for her children's classes to end. Eventually, she decided she might as well take some classes herself.

On Saturday, Daniel, 17, and Verena, 15, graduated with bachelor's degrees. Their mother received a master's.

In all, Cal State L.A. conferred 5,200 degrees in its graduation ceremony, one of many taking place Saturday across Southern California. In the crowd were many with special reasons to be proud -- some the first in their families to attend college, others who already had families of their own and had worked for years before they got the chance to enroll.

Verena Firpo, who majored in biology, was Cal State L.A.'s youngest graduate this year. The university accepts numerous young students through its Early Entrance Program, which provides them with special counseling and support .

Ngoc-Dung Firpo, 53, said the experience of being so young at college was hardly unusual for her children, who spent much of their childhoods in special classes.

It was obvious early on that they were learning very fast, she said. As she changed Daniel's diaper one day, the 15-month-old pointed to an H on his T-shirt and named the letter. It turned out he knew the entire alphabet, she said.

"He was obsessed by what he knew. He couldn't sleep at night. He'd be trying to make the shapes of letters with his fingers," she said. "We'd just lie beside him."

The children skipped grades throughout elementary school. Their parents gave them extra instruction at home, enrolling them in a special long-distance math program through Johns Hopkins University when the local school's math classes were not enough. It was hard to keep up with their curiosity, their mother said.

"They asked a lot of questions," she said. "Whatever they asked, I told them."

Fortunately, she knew most of the answers. Her latest degree is her second master's. She graduated from college in Vietnam in 1974, and got a master's in education from San Francisco State in 1984, just three years after coming to America.

On Saturday, though, she said she did not want to be in the spotlight. She and her husband, Rodolfo, an Aerospace Corp. engineer, sat in the audience behind the graduating classes, trying to spot their children as they went up to the stage.

After picking up their diplomas, Verena and Daniel said they were ready for a break. They said they could not wait to dive into a summer of doing nothing, sounding for all the world like any other teenager.

"I've had senioritis like crazy this week," Verena said, grinning. Her plans for the summer: "Sleep. Eat. Watch TV. Web surf. Gain about 20 pounds. Do nothing."

Ngoc-Dung Firpo, however, said she liked being back in school and is raring to go on. She's now considering starting work on a doctorate, depending on where she has to drive her children to graduate school.

Though Cal State L.A. officials celebrated the Firpos on Saturday, they said the graduating class had plenty of other wonderful stories. Some involved students whose paths to college were long and hard.

Sergio Garza, 33, who got his bachelor's Saturday, has a daughter two years younger than Verena. But Garza, who was born in Mexico City, did not know English in 1984 when he arrived in the United States. He took English classes, received a high school diploma, and worked for 10 years as a restaurant manager at the Velvet Turtle near Chinatown. Along the way he went to a community college and earned an associate's degree. He then began his freshman year in college, and his world magically opened up.

At Cal State, where he went to study psychology, Garza stumbled into a class taught by archeologist James Brady, an anthropology professor.

Under Brady's guidance, Garza fell in love with exploring caves and ended up participating in major expeditions to Mexico and Guatemala. Because of the research he has done, he also had a chance to deliver professional talks in Milwaukee and Denver.

Next year he'll begin graduate work at UC Riverside, where he received a dean's fellowship. "I've been very fortunate," Garza said Saturday.

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