Going to Smith College Against All Odds

Yenelsa Duran is headed to Smith College, early decision. (Photo/Sarah Tan)

It is not unusual for Yenelsa Duran and her two younger brothers to hear gunshots as they sit in their family’s third-story apartment in Tremont, finishing homework and waiting for their mother to come home from working the late-night shift at a fruit market. The buzzer is permanently broken in Duran’s building off the Grand Concourse, and police sirens and the sounds of loiterers on the steps are constant distractions.

It was something of a surprise, then, even to the 17-year-old Dominican immigrant, when she opened her early decision acceptance letter to Smith College, a small but prestigious all-girls school in Massachusetts.

A few years ago, before enrolling in the Bronx Center for Science and Mathematics, Duran would not have believed college was in her future.  A senior now, Yenelsa will be the first in her family to enter college.

“If I had attended a different high school, I wouldn’t have even applied to Smith,” Duran said softly.  A small red “Smith 2012” pin was proudly displayed on her grey uniform vest. “The college advisor was the one who told me about the college and encouraged me to go to the visitation program.”

She spoke quietly about student government, where she is the president. She joked about how she is bad at math. Her lightness and laughter betrayed the obstacles she has had to overcome. Even the principal noticed that when he first met her at the open house for the Bronx Center, “there was something special about Yenelsa.”

Duran’s success is a combination of a determined work ethic, her supportive mother and friends, and the mission of the Bronx Center. Founded in 2006 by its principal, Edward Tom, the public high school works to prepare its primarily low-income student body — 80 percent qualify for free lunch — to be college-ready by graduation. The school provides free Kaplan SAT prep classes to all its students, takes them on free college tours and offers emotional and academic counseling through the college application process. A class devoted to applying to college called “College Knowledge” is mandatory for all students beginning junior year. Part of the class work is applying to at least a few CUNY schools.

The 9th -through-12th grade school is small, with only about 100 students in each grade. The school does not screen, which means there are no admissions requirements. Its graduation rate of 85 percent soars about 15 percentage points above the city’s average, and almost 70 percent go on to college.  Tom said that the school strives to “create a magnet school for one of the neediest communities.”

Duran hardly sailed through the coursework. She described her junior year as probably the most difficult year of her school career.

“Sometimes I don’t know how I had the strength to just continue that year,” she said.

Aside from all her school requirements, Duran had to care for her younger brothers because of her mother’s job. She described missing after-school activities to rush home early. If she had to stay late, she had to scramble to call a neighbor or cousin to see if anyone could cover for her while she went to test prep.

After late nights spent at school, the walk home from the bus stop added more anxiety to her day.

“One time, I was walking home and it was late. I passed a group of guys and then I heard gunshots and I just ran,” she said. “I think it’s fair to say we’ve seen a lot go on in this neighborhood.”

Her mother, Maria Cepin, immigrated from the Dominican Republic in 1993 and never had the chance to attend college. Still, she recognized how important it would be for her daughter.

“I know that education is the base of the nice future. If she goes to college, tomorrow I’m going to see her as a professional,” Cepin said proudly. Duran said she tells her mother everything. “I want to tell her she can be whatever she wants, because education is the first step.”

After initially enrolling her daughter in their local zoned elementary school on Walton Avenue, Cepin began to look for better public schools. Eventually, she was able to enter her daughter in a lottery for the Jonas Bronck Academy, a well-respected public middle school on Fordham Avenue. Yenelsa got in, and then heard about the Bronx Center when Tom came to speak at her school.

“But it’s not just the school, it’s Yenelsa,” Cepin added with a smile.

Though Duran has always worked hard and excelled in school, she didn’t always have her eye on Smith College. Her guidance counselor said she suggested that Yenelsa apply to Smith because she believed it would be a good fit.

“I saw a lot of qualities in her that would help her succeed at Smith, she has a lot of potential,” said Ana Henriquez.

At first however, Henriquez said that Duran was not even thinking of applying out of state.

“Her mother depends a lot on her with her younger siblings so that was a point of her apprehension,” she added. “That’s what was holding her back.” Earlier in the year, Henriquez wanted to nominate Yenelsa for a scholarship program that would send students to a number of private, out-of-state colleges. At the time, Duran said she didn’t want to be so far away from home.

However, Henriquez was eventually able to speak with both Duran and her mother and convince Duran to go on a visitation trip to Smith in November.

“That was her turning point, November 11,” Henriquez said. “She just felt that she connected so much with women there and something clicked.  She said, ‘I can do this.’”

Now that her senior year is winding down and her workload is lighter, Duran is both excited and nervous to go away from home and the Bronx for the first time. She said she hoped that her going away to get a better education would help set an example for both her younger brothers and for other children in her neighborhood or in similar situations as herself.

“This is my home, even though it isn’t a good place,” Yenelsa said. “One day, maybe people will look up to us despite the fact that we lived in a place that wasn’t the best, and we can help students with similar roots continue, because they’ll know that someone out there went up and made the best of themselves.”


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