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Lost on campus

Getting in is just the first hurdle. Fitting in and thriving can prove even tougher.

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The Valedictorians Project

Each spring, the Globe publishes “Faces of Excellence,” a feature highlighting the big dreams of that year’s valedictorians from Boston high schools. In a long-troubled school system, these faces, many of them black and brown, inspire hope for the future.

But their experiences since high school graduation are sobering. We spent months tracking down more than 90 city valedictorians from 2005, 2006, and 2007, and to be sure, we found success stories, sometimes against great odds. But we also found stories of tragedy, hardship, and even homelessness.

As a group, the Boston valedictorians fell short of the achievements of valedictorians from surrounding communities — less likely to graduate from college, less likely to earn an advanced degree, less likely to earn a middle-class income. Their stories raise troubling questions about opportunity for the least advantaged — proof that, for some, even finishing first isn’t enough.

Many Boston valedictorians are what one Harvard researcher calls “doubly disadvantaged” at college because they are from struggling families as well as high schools that do little to prepare them for higher education. Thrust into an alien, privileged world, they try to get through classes while holding down overnight jobs, coping with crises back home, or even struggling with limited English.

Many valedictorians from 2005 to 2007 said that they experienced culture shock, social isolation, and a deep disconnect with their classmates, sometimes going so far as to switch schools or drop out.

In the end, though, almost 80 percent graduated with a four-year degree, a testament to grit, talent, and often a little help.

“A lot of BMWs”

At first, Trung Trinh loved Boston College, the manicured grounds, the stately buildings, and his first new friends. For six weeks in the summer of 2005, he and several other urban students had the campus to themselves. They lived in the dorms, took classes, and toured the city with advisers on hand to help every step of the way.

Then summer ended, and the campus flooded with BC’s 14,000 other students. To Trinh, it was a tsunami of rich kids. “I definitely saw a lot of BMWs pull up to the Newton campus,’’ recalled Trinh. “It definitely made me feel like, ‘Do I even belong here?’ ”

Trung Trinh, who manages a T-Mobile store in Dorchester, leaves his home in Malden that he shares with his wife and other family members. After he dropped out of Boston College in 2005, it would take him eight years to earn a bachelor's degree from UMass Boston.
Trung Trinh, who manages a T-Mobile store in Dorchester, leaves his home in Malden that he shares with his wife and other family members. After he dropped out of Boston College in 2005, it would take him eight years to earn a bachelor's degree from UMass Boston. (Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)

Trinh started life in a refugee camp in Malaysia, where his parents had fled from their war-ravaged homeland of Vietnam. His family made it to the United States, and he made it to the top of his graduating class at Boston’s now-closed Academy of Public Service in 2005.

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BC selected him for its Options Through Education program, which helps urban students transition to campus. But Trinh never recovered from the culture shock he experienced once the program was over. At a school that cherishes its rich history, its Eagles sports, and its Boston clout, Trinh couldn’t relate — he didn’t even know that BC was connected to the Catholic Church. If he had issues on campus, he had to figure them out on his own. No one in his family had been to college. He started skipping classes and withdrawing from his new friends. On weekends, he bolted home for refuge. Soon his grades plunged and he began to worry that he would lose his financial aid. He didn’t feel as if he belonged.

Trinh dropped out before the first semester ended. “I packed up all my clothes and I took the subway home. And I told my parents I am not going back,’’ said Trinh, who earned his bachelor’s eight years later at UMass Boston. He now manages a T-Mobile store.

On his own

Sitting in a massive Boston University lecture hall 13 years ago, Jose Barbosa couldn’t keep up. The courses moved too quickly. His professors seemed remote. There was little back-and-forth, and he fell behind, placed on academic probation after one semester.

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A relative newcomer to the United States, Barbosa — the 2005 Jeremiah E. Burke High School valedictorian — started learning English at age 13. (He credits American cartoons for some of his language skills.) He had been raised by extended family in Cape Verde in a shack with no electricity, the nearest phone a 3-mile walk. When he finally joined his parents in Boston, he had never seen a computer.

He came to BU on a scholarship, to study aerospace engineering. But no one told him he had to take physics. He was barely making it in calculus, chemistry, and aerospace engineering. “I felt very disappointed in myself,” said Barbosa, who needed to maintain a good GPA to keep his scholarship. “I felt like I wasn’t prepared to be there.”

He began to study harder and meet frequently with tutors and professors. It did not work. His grades sank. He lost his confidence and his scholarship and withdrew from BU after three semesters.

“I felt like I’d let everyone down who was expecting great things from me,” he said.

Barbosa didn’t give up on higher education, instead transferring to the significantly smaller Mount Ida College. He soared in the more intimate environment and graduated in 2010 with a business administration degree. Now he works as a financial reporting officer at State Street.

Stressed out

Telma Tavares didn’t see the warning signs. In her Uphams Corner neighborhood, people simply pushed past their psychological pain. Tavares did likewise. Then, one day in her junior year at Smith College, she collapsed and landed in a psychiatric ward.

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Telma Tavares, at her home in Uphams Corner in Dorchester, excelled as a star student at the John D. O'Bryant School of Mathematics and Science, one of the city's three prestigious exam schools.
Telma Tavares, at her home in Uphams Corner in Dorchester, excelled as a star student at the John D. O'Bryant School of Mathematics and Science, one of the city's three prestigious exam schools. (Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)

Prior to that moment, Tavares had surpassed expectations. The teenager from a tight-knit Cape Verdean family had risen to become the 2005 valedictorian at the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science, one of the city’s three prestigious exam schools. She had a 4.76 GPA and was the pride of her family.

She struggled initially to adjust to Smith’s tony campus but worked to fit in, joining the rugby team, becoming a resident assistant, and morphing into a Smith woman — smart, confident, self-assured. That changed in the fall of 2007, in her third and most difficult year of college. She had been laboring through the clinical portion of her psychology studies, which had intensified along with her duties in the dorm. She was also stressed out over some personal problems: Her boyfriend in Boston was in jail again. On top of that, she had barely been sleeping.

Just as she was settling down for the night, she got an urgent call about a student who had attempted an overdose. She raced over to deal with the matter, but the incident rattled her, as though she had failed somehow. By the time she got back to her own dorm room, she felt all her problems overwhelming her. “I started feeling like I couldn’t breathe,’’ Tavares recalled. “I reached over and grabbed the phone and called 911.”

Doctors told her she had been hallucinating, hearing voices, though Tavares said it was a panic attack. She never returned to Smith. The college told her to take a year off. But Tavares said Smith made it difficult for her to return. She went on to earn her degree at UMass Boston.

Night job

Cesar Matos, the only son of Puerto Rican parents, was raised in a Roxbury housing development where gunshots regularly pierced the night. His mother, gripped by depression and illness, had worked in day care when Matos was a boy. His father, in and out of the home, cobbled together an income from his occasional stints as a mechanic, handyman, or cafeteria worker.

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A week before Matos began at Boston University, his mother took her own life. He started classes anyway, on a scholarship that covered only tuition, working two to three nights a week at a mental health hospital in Jamaica Plain to make ends meet. “I was making money to live,” said Matos, the 2007 English High valedictorian. He was also managing a rigorous physics course load and hanging out with his girlfriend, now his wife. “I didn’t get the best grades,’’ he said.

But his part-time job had an added benefit, exposing him to patient care and a career in nursing. Though his BU degree is in physics, he went on to earn a nursing degree from UMass Boston and is currently a nurse at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Never give up

For Fara Gaston, it’s been a long, hard fight since that splendid day in 2007 when she graduated as valedictorian of now-closed Monument High School with dreams of becoming a doctor. She struggled for two years as a biology major at American International College in Springfield before she had to withdraw. All she had ended up with was a mountain of debt.

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But she never gave up. “I’m used to crushing it,’’ said Gaston. “But once I realized it was far beyond my reach, I just had to stop and start thinking of an alternative.” She decided to pursue a nursing degree. Over the next five years, Gaston moved home, landed a job, and enrolled at Bunker Hill Community College. She then transferred to Roxbury Community College, where she loaded up on science classes. Again, it was disheartening. “Oh my goodness,” said Gaston. “I spent numerous days crying, trying to think was this even for me to begin with.”

While searching for nursing programs, she discovered Bloomfield College in New Jersey, which waived her application fee and accepted her community college credits. Gaston became active in Bloomfield groups, worked as a resident adviser, and got her biology degree in 2016 with a 3.0 GPA.

After that, she took a desk job at a cord blood bank and started cramming 40 hours a week for the medical school entrance exam. She enrolled last spring at American University of Antigua, a Caribbean med school that places students in US hospitals for rotations.

Now 30, Gaston expects to graduate in 2023, 16 years after her journey began. But her course is still daunting. Medical students often borrow more than $100,000 to pay for their education, and Gaston already owes an estimated $80,000.

Learning the language

Like many first-generation students, Lizbeth Y. Ruiz thought she could manage college on her own. Instead, she floundered almost immediately at UMass Boston 11 years ago. It’s no wonder: she could barely understand some of the things her professors were saying in class. A native of the Dominican Republic who grew up speaking Spanish, she had been in the United States for only four years when she went off to college. Yes, she was the 2007 valedictorian at Boston International High School, but that was a small, specialized school for students who did not use English as their first language.

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She felt lost in a maze of confusion, often baffled by her professors and unable to find a major or an adviser fluent in Spanish to better assist her. “It was very hard, because I didn’t know where to go,’’ Ruiz recalled.

Lizbeth Ruiz, who struggled with language issues as a student at UMass Boston, now works as a paraprofessional in second-grade teacher Eleanor Hanno's class at the Lee Academy Pilot School.
Lizbeth Ruiz, who struggled with language issues as a student at UMass Boston, now works as a paraprofessional in second-grade teacher Eleanor Hanno's class at the Lee Academy Pilot School. (Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)

Then, in her second semester, a friend told her of an adviser who was also from the Dominican Republic. She was in high demand, but eventually, Ruiz met with her. “Every time I went to see her, we spoke in Spanish,’’ Ruiz said. “She also came from the Dominican Republic, so we had that connection. I felt comfortable talking with her.”

Their conversations started out with the adviser making light jokes, but then they would get serious about what classes Ruiz needed to take to complete her degree. She ended up mastering English and graduating with a sociology degree in 2012. She even made the dean’s list one semester. UMass Boston has since boosted the number of professional academic advisers on campus, including seven who are fluent in Spanish, officials said.

Meghan Irons can be reached at meghan.irons@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter on @MeghanIrons. Malcolm Gay can be reached at malcolm.gay@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @malcolmgay. Follow Eric Moskowitz on Twitter @elmoskowitz.

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