One Student's Path From the South Side to the Ivy League
Two weeks ago, the principal of Chicago's Gary Comer College Prep wrote about how 100 percent of the school's seniors earned acceptances to four-year universities. This is the second of four student stories.
On June 16, I will graduate as part of the first senior class from Gary Comer College Prep. I am proud to say that I'm the first GCCP student accepted at an Ivy League school. This fall, I will enroll as a freshman at Dartmouth College.
Living on the Dartmouth campus in Hanover, New Hampshire will be a different world than what I've known. I live in the impoverished Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. I was born to a single mother who, along with my grandmother and aunt, filled the void left when my father abandoned us. They strove to keep me on track and safe: My house looks like an average suburban home, but walk in any direction, and the smell of freshly cut grass is overpowered by the odor of cigarettes and alcohol. Asphalt streets and cement sidewalks have huge cracks and deep potholes. Buildings and houses are abandoned and boarded up.
The mostly black youth in my community work toward two dreams: money and respect. However, these dreams are not pursued through educational means, but through street hustling and gang-banging—only a few blocks away from my house is the main dividing line between the gangs of Chatham and the Grand Crossing communities. I've become an expert at which streets and paths to take to avoid becoming a victim of gang violence.
Even though I've never been in a gang, I haven't always been the best student. At my elementary school I learned how to joke around and fight—behavior that was inconsistent with the expectations set by my family. In middle school, I became a lazy, careless student roaming the streets.
Because my grades were so poor, I wasn't allowed to participate in my school's eighth grade graduation—I had to attend summer school to graduate. Seeing my family's disappointment triggered the beginning of a dynamic transformation in me.
During that summer my mother received a call from Gary Comer College Prep. She'd applied to get me into the school, and now a spot was open if I wanted it. I'd heard about Gary Comer at my elementary school's high school fair. The principal, Mr. Troupis, came to talk about his brand-new school's intense academics, uniforms, and structured environment to help students stay focused and work hard. He wanted us to not only go to college, but graduate from college. At the time, it sounded like the craziest thing I had ever heard. I didn't want to wear a uniform in high school, and I definitely wasn't thinking about college.
When I first met with Mr. Troupis to talk about whether I should enroll at GCCP, I remember him saying, "You're going to work hard, but it will be worth it. It's your decision, Travell." I knew this was my opportunity to push myself, so I decided to take on the challenge.
My first couple of weeks at GCCP were rough. I wasn't used to following directions or doing homework. But, I adapted, began to take chances, tried different things, and strove to always be the best at what I was doing. I've been captain of the football team for three out of four years and played quarterback even though I never thought about playing football until I got to high school. I've also been active in baseball and track, in which I've been captain for the past two seasons. I've helped create Horizons Club, where we seek to diversify and broaden our knowledge of various cultures, religions, and backgrounds. I've also joined the Spanish club, math team, and the National Honor Society.
Because of my hard work and dedication—not just to schoolwork, but also to shaping my character and identity—I've received the opportunities of a lifetime. During the summer of 2010, I attended a science and math program at The College of William & Mary. Last summer I went to Princeton University for a program called Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America. It’s been amazing to learn in a college environment, work with peers who challenge my ways of thinking, and learn more about myself and the world outside of the South Side. I appreciate the opportunities presented to me, and I am glad that I took advantage of them.
Growing up, I never thought I could get away from the negativity of my surroundings, but thanks to my family and GCCP, I've triumphed over the barriers that hold back so many of my peers in my neighborhood. In August I'll head to Dartmouth, and four years from now, I will make everyone proud by walking across a stage to accept my degree in physics and head to graduate school. When that happens, I'll be a black male who becomes a different kind of statistic—a college graduate.
Photo courtesy of Gary Comer College Prep