The 2nd Act in His Unlikely Pursuit: A College Degree
The following piece is from The New York Times. It was written by Kenneth Rosen.
By: Kenneth Rosen
Born and raised in the Queensbridge Houses in Long Island City, Queens, the largest public housing development in the country, Derrick Lawson dreamed of a life outside the projects. Perhaps one day his interest in computers would earn him a respectable job, and he would make his way to TriBeCa. But college was never part of the plan.
“I had this mind-set where all I knew was Queensbridge,” Mr. Lawson, 21, said last month.
At age 2, he moved with his parents and sister from one side of the housing complex to the other. A bullet hole in the wall above his bed offered a glimpse at the life of another young boy who had lived there years before — Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones, better known by his hip-hop alias, Nas. The rapper, who exposed the struggles of life inside Queensbridge with his debut album, “Illmatic,” found stardom among performers like Jay Z and Busta Rhymes, both from similar neighborhoods.
“Other than them, nobody I knew personally was able to come out the projects and become successful or anything like that,” Mr. Lawson said. In an 2002 television episode of MTV’s “Diary,” a young Mr. Lawson was seen in the background as a camera crew accompanied Nas on a tour of his old childhood residence. Nas pointed out the bullet hole in his old bedroom. Toward the end of the segment, he ruffled the young Mr. Lawson’s head. “Stay in school; get those grades up, little man,” Nas said before exiting.
That encouragement was soon overshadowed. When Mr. Lawson was 9, his father was stabbed outside of their building during a confrontation and later died.
Hopes of leaving Queensbridge diminished. As Mr. Lawson saw it, no one left the projects, except in handcuffs or a body bag. He wanted out, to pursue a degree in computer science, but his dream seemed far-fetched. College “was for geniuses,” Mr. Lawson said, and he had no idea where to begin.
According to data from the most recent census survey, there are 871 people in the Queensbridge development 25 to 34 years old — and of those, only 8.5 percent have bachelor’s degrees. During his junior year at Long Island City High School, Mr. Lawson was referred to Urban Upbound, a nonprofit organization that brings economic and educational resources to public housing neighborhoods. The group offered career guidance, budget counseling, tax preparation and, most importantly to him, SAT tutors. He found a mentor in Bishop Mitchell G. Taylor, the group’s founder and chief executive.
Despite some procedural hiccups, Mr. Lawson did well on his SAT and, through Pell and TAP grants, received full tuition assistance to Onondaga Community College in Syracuse, a member school of the State University of New York. He relied on loans for housing and food. But his grades slipped, and after his first semester he was put on academic probation and lost his TAP assistance.
To him, these were signs that he did not belong.
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