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1st-in-Family Freshmen End the Year Exhausted

Danny Hernandez and Victor Nivar never socialized, just studied, worked and, when possible, went home, about 45 minutes away.

June 06, 2004|Steve Giegerich | For the Associated Press

KUTZTOWN, Pa. — Outside, a classmate did cartwheels on the lawn to celebrate the end of the school year at Kutztown University.

Inside Rothermel Hall, however, freshmen Danny Hernandez and Victor Nivar could barely summon the energy to clean the dormitory room that they'd called home the past eight months.

The first in their families to attend college, Danny and Victor were on the verge of another accomplishment -- finishing their first year successfully.

But neither felt like celebrating. They'd spent a grueling school year studying, working and, whenever possible, commuting home to Bethlehem, about a 45-minute drive away. Final exams had topped it all off, leaving them bleary-eyed and exhausted.

"It's a job," Danny said, summing up his feelings about college. Victor nodded in agreement.

Indeed, that's how the childhood friends treated their stay at Kutztown.

Over eight months, they did not attend a single social function, athletic event or concert. Time at school was devoted strictly to academics -- nothing else.

At least one expert, Gregory Roberts, who runs a mentoring program for first-generation students at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, said such devotion to scholastics is exemplary.

"We find that if we can get low-income, first-generation students through the first year, then we have a more successful retention rate," Roberts said.

But another consequence is that Victor and Danny tasted little of campus life.

A world unto themselves, they limited social interaction to perfunctory greetings to classmates and a handful of Rothermel residents they'd see in the corridors and lobby.

Except for meals at the dining halls, trips to the library and attendance at Latino student association meetings, their life at Kutztown was confined to their dorm room.

As they prepared to leave for the summer, Victor and Danny hoped to say good-bye to a handful of faculty and staff. Neither could think of a single classmate they wanted to wish well over the summer.

Carlos Ojeda, an instructor in Kutztown's business school and a former admissions officer, said Victor and Danny were unusual in that they lived on campus but had the social habits of commuter students.

Agreeing with Roberts that the roommates had the correct priorities this year -- scholastics above all else -- Ojeda is nonetheless pushing the pair to expand their college experience beyond academics when they return in August.

"They were friendly and they talked to other students, but they pretty much just hung out with each other," said Ojeda, himself a former first-generation college student.

"To the degree that other students bonded, it wasn't there because they went home so much," he added.

Looking back, Victor and Danny have no regrets about passing up social opportunities. "We haven't been to one college party," Danny said. "Our college life is home."

The reason for the endless commute between Bethlehem and Kutztown was partly necessity and partly choice.

Strapped for cash, Danny began pulling two and sometimes more late weekday afternoon and evening shifts at the Bethlehem auto parts supply store that has employed him since high school.

Remaining in Bethlehem to study until the wee hours of the morning, he still managed to make it to class in Kutztown each day.

"He's a machine; I'm in awe of him," said Billy Staples, a Bethlehem middle school teacher who pushed Victor toward college and took Danny under his wing this year as well. Victor's family moved to the eastern Pennsylvania steel town from the Bronx years ago, after his father was slain in New York.

While Danny worked this semester, Victor volunteered at the Bethlehem Boys & Girls Club, coaching a basketball team and helping out with other activities. In February, there was suddenly another reason to return home regularly: a steady girlfriend, a sophomore at his alma mater, Bethlehem's Liberty High School.

"I was afraid it might be a distraction, but it's not," Victor said. "It's someone there to be supportive."

Then, during the last weeks of school, a problem with his mother's health forced Victor to return home even more frequently.

Surgeons successfully repaired a double hernia incurred by Priscila Martinez at her $12.55-an-hour job at a Bethlehem area spice factory, where she often has to lift heavy boxes. The problem came on top of another setback -- the death last fall of the man who was a grandfather figure in Victor's life.

"It seems like something always pops up," Victor said with a shrug. "Things that don't need to happen always happen to me for some reason. I'm used to it. I'm not surprised anymore when things like this happen."

Martinez's recovery hampered her ability to care for Victor's two younger brothers and sister. So despite days already stretched by a full class load, studying, a part-time on-campus work-study job, his obligations as a coach and the budding romance, Victor felt that he had no alternative but to pick up the child-care burden.

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