Headed to College, Against All Odds

Troubles at home, at school, and with language, but now their futures await
Despite winning roughly $30,000 in local scholarships, Francesca Denaro still needs to work all summer before she heads to Marist College, where she will study finance. Judy D’Mello

Three students who graduated from high school in East Hampton, Sag Harbor, and Bridgehampton this month are a study in getting ahead despite the odds.

For Francesca Denaro, who graduated from East Hampton High School on Friday, the difficulty was that she was on her own, with only her older brother for support. Santiago Salvidar is the first member of his family to go to college, and perhaps high school. He explained that his father, hobbled by alcoholism, was dependent on his wages. The third student, Cristina Guadalupe Espinoza Paucar, arrived from Ecuador to join her father in Bridgehampton, enrolling in the 10th grade there although she spoke no English.

Francesca was born and raised in East Hampton. Her mother died when she was 2, and her father, a chef at the Ross School, cared for her and a brother who was seven years older, until his death shortly after her freshman year of high school.

“I don’t know how my dad did it on a single income. He worked magic,” she said.

Shortly after her high school freshman year, however, her father died, leaving the adolescent girl and her brother, who had recently turned 21 and worked as a fisherman, in a state of shock. What followed was an untimely glimpse into adulthood; her brother suddenly had to be a parent and she took on the role of household budget keeper, filing the family’s taxes and applying for health insurance.

She had a job at the Hampton Chutney Company in Amagansett, where she still works, and clocked in as many hours as possible. She has never resented being thrust into adulthood during what might instead have been carefree teenage years, she said, although when she is at work and sees parents and kids bonding over lunch, she gets wistful.

While college hunting, Francesca fell in love with Marist College, in the Hudson Valley. “The campus is breathtaking, and I loved everyone I met there,” she said. A hardworking student, she knew that despite receiving mostly “As”, the choice of college would depend solely on financial aid.

St. Lawrence University, near the Canadian border, made her “an unbelievable offer,” she said, but she appealed to Marist and explained the constraints she and her brother faced. She revisited the college with the hope of convincing them to make a more substantial financial offer. She did and will head to Marist this fall, where she plans to major in finance, a subject she said her situation had helped her “become pretty good at.”

Santiago Saldivar grew up with nine family members from Mexico, crammed into three small rooms in an apartment above the Italian restaurant Il Cappuccino in Sag Harbor. His father was a dishwasher and money was always tight, said the 18-year-old, who will start a two-year program next month at Suffolk Community College in Riverhead.

That he is heading to college at all, he said, is entirely due to Pierson’s teachers and guidance counselors who were determined not to let him fall through the cracks when, as a 14-year-old, he grew rebellious and uninterested in school. Having worked to help his family since he was 10, he thought college was not for him, but for students whose parents were lawyers or business owners.

“My math teacher, Ms. [Linda] Sendlenski, was an angel. I was failing my math class and she called the principal and said she would tutor me every day at her house, for free. I ended up passing math that year,” he said recently while sitting outdoors in Sag Harbor with his girlfriend, Emily LeRolland.

Santiago explained that his mother left when he was about 5 and that he somehow believed it was his fault. He now knows his parents’ troubles were due to factors that he had nothing to do with.

“I love that school. They helped me so much when I had no one to turn to‚“ he said. In fact, his father became dependent on his son’s wages, which he earned by working long hours as a busboy at Il Cappuccino.

The money he earned helped pay for rent and, on occasion, his father’s fines for driving while intoxicated. “There was always something my dad needed the money for,” he said.

Santiago admits that seeing others show up for school in the latest Air Jordans, for example, made him jealous while he was reliant on clothes bought on sale at Kmart. But living in one of the wealthiest enclaves in America also helped him see what success looked like. He became determined to carve out a better future, he said, although he ended 11th grade with a C-minus average.

A Pierson guidance counselor, however, told him about the State University of New York’s Education Opportunity Program, offering academic support and financial aid to those who for a number of reasons could not gain admission. He got into the program. “I’m so excited,” he said. “They give you tutors and all the help you need to make sure you succeed. And it continues when you transfer to a four-year program.”

 Santiago’s girlfriend, who has attended private schools, said, “I’m so proud of where he has come from and what he has done.”

Cristina Paucar left Ecuador to join her father in Bridgehampton, where he worked as a mechanic. She entered school as a 10th grader speaking no English. Yet, this fall she will attend the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan, one of only 25 students selected for their textile/surface design program. She will also be the first in her family to attend college.

Cristina is grateful to Ninfa Boyd, Bridgehampton’s bilingual teaching aide, who worked with her from day one. “It’s not easy when kids come here as teenagers,” Ms. Boyd said. “In 10th grade, Cristina had to sit through discussions on capitalism versus communism — in English.”

Cristina recalled how stressful it was not to always comprehend what was going on around her. She had to force herself to concentrate, she said, and to work extra hard.

With small classes — there are 14 students in the class of 2017 — Bridgehampton helps English language learners by providing a bilingual education. They attend general education classes in English but have access to all materials in Spanish. Homework during the first year is done in both English and Spanish.

“It’s double the work,” said Ms. Boyd, but “very important for them to comprehend the material in their own language.” By the second year, they switch to English only.

Cristina’s high school resume shows that she made the honor roll in all three years, even winning outstanding achievement awards in almost all subjects. Today, any evidence of stress has been replaced by a seemingly permanent smile.

She said she had made her father extremely proud. Initially, he had wanted her to go to nursing school but was pleased that a Bridgehampton teacher recognized her talent and guided her toward art school.

Cristina said she hopes to return to Bridgehampton and help inspire other young students who come here in search of the American dream.

Cristina Paucar, a Bridgehampton graduate, will attend the Fashion Institute of Technology this fall. Judy D’Mello