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The Nation

Hard Knocks as College Prep

Victor Nivar, who saw his father slain, becomes the first in his family to go to college. He wants to set an example for his siblings.

September 14, 2003|Steve Giegerich | Associated Press Writer

KUTZTOWN, Pa. — The campus orientation session at Kutztown University wasn't going well.

None of the 20-odd students slouching 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 doo-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 the right thing for a long time. It's how he has overcome obstacles more daunting than an awkward silence to become the first person in his family to enter college.

This is a young man who has seen his father slain, his family struggle on the edge of poverty, and yet 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 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 typical 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 Latinos and blacks who graduated last spring from high school and took the SAT, more than 50% wanted to be the first in their family to attend college. (By comparison, 31% of the white test-takers would be the first to attend college.)

A 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 have earned at least a bachelor's degree.

Victor's life reflects those findings. His mother is a factory worker supporting four children on a $12.55-an-hour job packing spices for pizza parlors. She raises her family in Bethlehem, a community devastated by the 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, a small borough in the rural Pennsylvania Dutch land of Berks County.

"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."

But Victor already has learned life lessons about making ends meet.

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

The address may have changed, but Priscila Martinez's edict has not: Until every homework assignment is completed, the television remains silent and dinner is 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 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, his mother took Victor and his siblings to Bethlehem, a community with a flourishing Latino 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.

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

Priscila 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 brothers and a sister.

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

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