To make a better life–for their children, if not for themselves–has brought people to New York for centuries. How sad it is, then, for parents to see their hopes dashed when teen-agers drop out of school, fall into an early pregnancy, get hooked on drugs, or worse.

Parents of young people in urban neighborhoods justly fear the seductions of "the street," because they know
that getting into the wrong crowd can doom kids to a lifetime of low wages, inadequate housing, and struggle. Parents can’t tag along with their teens throughout the day to keep them on the straight and narrow. But there must be things they can do to help their children succeed–what are they?

This question has long tantalized Amy Suss, MD, an adolescent medicine specialist practicing at Downstate Medical Center. "I’ve seen again and again that some kids fail early–they get pregnant, or they just lose interest in school and drift into trouble, while others from the same neighborhoods and backgrounds get through all the craziness of the teenage years without a scratch. They stay in school, study hard, go to college and get ahead in life, achieving the American dream. If they can do it, why not the others?"

Dr. Suss asked Brooklyn Women’s Health to put this question to several young achievers who seemed to be getting it right. How did they account for their success?

Those interviewed for this article were:
• Christina, Dominican-American, who grew up in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood. She is currently a resident physician specializing in pediatrics at University Hospital and Kings County Hospital Center.

• Miguel, an Ecuadoran-American from Ozone Park, Queens, is a first-year medical student at Downstate.

• Kristle, born in Trinidad, moved to East Flatbush with her family when she was eleven. Now a sophomore at Brooklyn College, she is enrolled in a special program and is committed to attend medical school at Downstate.

None of these young people pointed to a single formula for success. But their lives, and their responses to the question, "How did you do it?", suggest some answers.

A Strong, Supportive Family
A common thread among Christina, Kristle and Miguel is that all feel close to their parents and extended families. All agree that the ideal parents are strong, understanding advocates for their children. Kristle describes her mother (her father lives in Trinidad, apart from the family) as a dynamic, persistent presence in the lives of all four of her children. From an early age, Kristle’s mother noted each child’s strength and encouraged him or her to excel in that field (the kids did not necessarily follow her plan, but all have distinguished themselves in something). Kristle’s mother wanted to know where her children were at all times. She gave them insight into managing their time independently and effectively.

Both Krystle and Christina warmly credit their parents for the sacrifices they made to ensure that they and their siblings took advantage of special opportunities. "My mother was always doing the research to find out which schools were best, about summer programs, and where to get money for whatever could benefit us," Christina says. Her mom rejected the neighborhood school as not good enough and organized transportation to schools farther away. "I never hung out with the neighborhood kids," Christina recalls. "Dominicans are very close. We had a big extended family, and my family were my friends."

Miguel had a harder time. Although his parents valued education, they were less savvy than Kristle’s and Christina’s folks about how to support him. "They didn’t understand that all schools are not the same," he says. "My father worked all the time, and my mother didn’t speak English, so she couldn’t help me with homework." It took Miguel longer–and some rough patches along the way–before he discovered his academic talent. For that, he thanks mentors outside the family. "It really helps to have someone in your corner, explaining things and pushing you along," he says. Kristle agrees, crediting much of her success to her mother’s drive. "It is important for parents to keep an eye on their children to make sure they are not influenced by the wrong kind of people."

Parents as Role Models
None of our young achievers’ families were well off; Kristle grew up in what was essentially a single-parent household; Christina’s parents worked hard and scraped to provide advantages to their children; Miguel’s parents never graduated high school, and his mother had health problems. But the parents of all three were hardworking, loving and communicative. They, and the family friends they exposed their children to, offered positive role models.

Research by experts confirms the common-sense notion that how parents behave has tremendous influence on teens–both direct and indirect. A study focusing on teen pregnancy found that young teens, both girls and boys, who had close relationships with their mothers were less likely than others to have sex before age 16 or 17. Another study found something that at first glance makes little sense: teens whose parents smoked were twice as likely to be sexually active than children of nonsmokers. Why the difference? The study’s author, quoted in the New York Times, speculated that parents who smoke might provide "a model of unsafe behavior, creating an atmosphere where it’s O.K. to live on the edge."


The Influence of School
Children typically spend more than a third of their waking hours in school, so it makes sense that where they go helps to mold them. Our young achievers all eventually ended up in advanced-placement programs or schools. All see this as a major ingredient in their eventual success, owing both to the strong academic programs offered, and because it put them in touch with other motivated kids. "Your peers are really important in shaping the person you become," says Kristle.

But what about encouragement from teachers, we wondered. "Was there anyone who inspired you in the earlier grades–who singled you out and prompted you to work hard?" Surprisingly, Christina, Kristle and Miguel all answered "no." Although all found mentors in the upper grades–after they were already in special programs–it was encouragement from home, not from school, that helped them get there. "Except for one teacher in junior high school, I got the feeling the teachers really didn’t care," says Kristle, referring to the neighborhood school she attended when she first moved to East Flatbush. In contrast to the strict discipline and "emphasis-on-the-basics" that characterized her Catholic school in Trinidad, she found the studies at her first U.S. school too easy, and the atmosphere too rough. She lost some of her drive, and her grades suffered.

Kristle says now that things might have kept going downhill for her if her mother hadn’t gotten on her case. Eventually, a math teacher intervened and a guidance counselor recommended an honors program at a different school. There she was challenged by higher standards, met students she could relate to, and became excited about science. A year later she qualified for the Preparatory Undergraduate Learning Science Enrichment (PULSE) program (in Brooklyn Technical HS) for minority students talented in science. That opened up many new avenues to her.

Miguel’s early school years were particularly troubled. His Latino background put him in the minority at a Catholic school he attended, and he was kicked out as a "behavior problem." Then, at public school, he fell in for a while with a group of unmotivated kids who were "just hanging out." Fortunately, Miguel caught himself before going too far down that road. Despite mediocre grades, he was given a chance to take an advanced-placement course in biology, where things began to click for him. "I loved it, and aced the course." That experience led to Miguel’s acceptance at Queens College, where remedial course work helped him make up what he missed in high school.

Focused Leisure Activities
"My mother kept me busy and off the streets." We heard a variation on this story from both Kristle and Christina. Although Christina’s parents worked, they were careful to arrange good care and stimulating activities for Christina and her sister after school and during summers. A neighbor who babysat Christina taught her to read even before she began first grade; later, she stayed after school with an aunt and was looked after by her older cousins. "My mother and aunt always made sure we wouldn’t be hanging out in the neighborhood."

Many summers, Christina and her sister were sent to stay with relatives in the Dominican Republic or Puerto Rico. When she was older, Christina’s aunt, who was a nurse, helped her land a volunteer summer job as a "candy-striper" at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital. "I was so proud to wear that uniform," she recalls.

Kristle’s after-school activities included music lessons (she played clarinet) and volunteering at church as a regular reader of the liturgy. After she joined the PULSE program, Kristle spent summers in internships, working in research laboratories at Brandeis and Johns Hopkins Universities (in Waltham, Massachusetts, and Baltimore, Meryland, respectively) and at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan.

Special Support
Just as the PULSE program opened a new world to Kristle, the Science Organization of Minority Students (SOMS) at Queens College expanded Miguel’s universe. A great turning point for him was a summer internship program in which he worked with a research scientist who became a revered role model and mentor. Miguel believes it is critical for minority students, especially, to make this kind of connection. He himself now gives a lot of time volunteering as a mentor to younger students, providing moral support along with guidance in study skills and time management.

Opportunities for this type of help are out there, Miguel says, but students and their parents may have to track them down. The way to do this is to ask –everyone. Christina suggests doing what her mother did: Build a network of contacts with school guidance counselors, and church and community organizations. Also, get to know other motivated parents and students in order to exchange information about grants, scholarships, companies that offer internships, and organizations that provide special assistance.

Peer Pressure
Although girls and women face many obstacles in our society, resisting the lure of the street is usually harder for boys, say our young achievers. Christina and Kristle point out that girls in Caribbean cultures are usually more sheltered by their families than boys, so they have fewer opportunities to get into trouble. For boys, being "cool" in the eyes of peers can work against academic achievement. Parents should try to find ways to help young men cope with these conflicts.

Will neighborhood kids be jealous or hostile to achievers? Sometimes. Our group recalled that after they entered special academic programs, their old friendships dissolved, but they didn’t see that as a problem. They quickly found new and better friends among kids whose interests were closer to their own.

Christina has given special thought to these topics, as she is now a pediatrician planning to specialize in working with urban adolescents. She has a store of advice for parents who want to help their children excel–much of it wisdom passed on by her own mother. "When you get opportunities and start to move on, some people will think you’re a snob, but you can’t pay attention to that," she says. "My mother told us to expect negativity from other people, but to be strong. We had to keep our sense of, ‘This is what I have to do to make me happy’."

What about dating? Our achievers described themselves as "late bloomers." In high school, they were too busy with studies to become obsessed with the opposite sex. "If I had a boyfriend who didn’t like that, I said, ‘Okay– goodbye’," Christina recalls. She goes on to advise parents to talk to their children about sex, drugs, and gangs when they are quite young–"way before" these things become issues. "It’s especially hard for parents who come to this country from the islands or another country, because they don’t know how it is here. But they have to learn quick–and teach their kids to resist. Talk about it now."

As for academic setbacks, Christina and Miguel have both had their share. Miguel, although he stood out in science, had to struggle with remedial courses to raise his English language and writing skills. Christina did well in high school at Bronx Science, and in college at SUNY Stony Brook, but when she first applied to medical school, she was rejected. "I loved neuroscience, so I decided if I couldn’t go to med school, I’d get a master’s degree in neuroscience and physiology," she says. "I completed a master’s program at CUNY, and I also worked in research with a child psychologist, all the while building up my credentials and confidence. Then, when I applied to medical school again, I was accepted. "That’s something else I learned from my mother," Christina adds. "Keep trying, and see setbacks as ‘obstacles,’ not as ‘failures.’ An obstacle is not the end of the story–it’s just something you have to get around."

Spiritual Connection
What else has been important to our young achievers? All say that religion has played a role. Christina’s and Kristle’s families are both strongly rooted in the Catholic church and they view their church communities as a source of strength. "Things have gone so well for me in my life that I really feel God is looking out for me," Kristle says. "I am very grateful. I want to do well partly to justify what has been given to me–by giving something back." (Like Miguel, Kristle is a volunteer mentor. She works with students at Midwood High School.)

Miguel, also Catholic originally, converted to the Mormon Church two years ago. "Its made me appreciate where we come from and where our lives are headed. It has opened up the world to me- it's like another family," he says. "Now my mother and sister have converted too. I’m glad that we can share that together."

"Be a Parent"
How should parents relate to their children to help them succeed? Do not be afraid to be a parent, urges Christina. Be a role model in the way you live your life, go to bat for your children, encourage them, find opportunities for them. But also, she says, insist that they work hard, and that they meet high standards. "I see a lot of parents who try to be friends with their children by getting down on the same level with them, hanging out together. No. That’s not it. You’re the parent–they need you to be strong and to enforce some discipline. That’s how it was in my family. Now that I’m an adult, now my parents are my friends."

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