Ed Rumley Special to the USA TODAY Network
PATERSON — Their families came to the United States from three different parts of the world: one from Egypt, another from Jamaica and the third from Peru.
In their new country, their lives have been marked by struggles. One family had its heat and electricity turned off because of unpaid bills. Another lived in a housing complex that was plagued by so much crime that police raided their apartment looking for drugs. The third depended on a local food pantry to make sure it had enough to eat.
But the struggles turned out to be hurdles, not insurmountable obstacles for those three Paterson families, all of whom have American-born children headed for prestigious colleges in 2021: Noor Hassan is going to Stanford, Mackiah Henry to Columbia and Sandra Navarro Davalos to Penn.
In the past decade, much has made of Paterson’s low student test scores and the failings of a school district controlled by the state. But Hassan, Henry and Davalos represent the latest in a growing number of Paterson students who have overcome the problems that plague the city. In recent years, Paterson has sent its sons and daughters to Princeton, Dartmouth, Cornell and Johns Hopkins.
Rosie Grant, executive director of the Paterson Education Association advocacy group, said the students’ achievements were something Paterson ought to celebrate and try to duplicate.
“When our kids get the right resources and the right support, they thrive,” Grant said. “We hope is that these don’t become isolated instances. We want to see this type of success for more of our children.”
Here’s a brief look at the Paterson achievers:
Hassan said her father had been a general contractor in Egypt and started his own plumbing company when he came to America. But business was not always good.
Sometimes, she said, there was little to eat, and her family did not know about food pantries.
“In 2018, we didn’t have heat for five to six months, including during the winter,” Hassan said. “We had one electric heater that we used.”
Hassan learned about perseverance through her father’s example.
“My father has always been the first one up in the morning at our house and the last one home at night because of his work,” she said. “Sometimes he would work 12 hours a day.”
Lately, she said, her father’s company has been doing better. Hassan, meanwhile, has been just as dedicated to her studies as her father has been to his company. She said she took inspiration from her sister, Amel, a 2016 graduate of Paterson’s John F. Kennedy High school and a third-year student at Emory University in Atlanta who wants to become a doctor.
“Noor is single-minded and dependable. She has that intangible, which I call grit,” said Brian Grilk, Hassan’s teacher at Kennedy’s Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math academy. “Besides classwork, she is always reading and self-educating. You can’t tell her there is something she can’t do.”
Hassan said her career goals include becoming a research scientist and that she is interested in the fields of psychology, anthropology, programming and neuroscience. She expressed gratitude for those who have helped her along her academic journey.
“I have learned so much in the past few months and I am confident in my abilities that I once considered to be average,” Hassan concluded. “I feel supported in a process where many are left confused and in despair.”
Henry’s parents ended up in a hardscrabble section of Brooklyn after his parents left Jamaica.
“I can remember that three times, police barged into our home and interrogated my mother and searched the rooms, under the beds, and opened all the drawers,” recalled Henry, who was in seventh grade when his family moved to Paterson. “Back then, I thought that was just what police did.”
Henry said his school in Brooklyn had better resources, including an arts program in which he learned to play the violin. In Paterson, he said, there wasn’t much in terms of music education, and one of his classes lacked textbooks.
Henry said both of his parents held down jobs, with his mother working at a nursing home in Englewood.
“However, our family did not have the financial capacity for me to take part in a lot of activities,” he said. “I did a lot on my own. For example, we couldn’t afford for me to get tutoring.”
A senior at Kennedy’s School of Business Technology Marketing and Finance, Henry plans to pursue a double major at Columbia: computer science and economics.
“When I first heard that I was accepted at Columbia, I was very excited but then overwhelmed,” he said. “I am not accustomed to being around wealthy people.”
Henry said he is not sure yet whether he will live on campus or commute.
“Everyone should do their best, no matter what the circumstances,” Mackiah concluded. “I am looking forward to a new challenge.”
Davalos said she found her career inspiration through her family’s economic struggles and the role that a Haledon-based nonprofit group, New Hope Community Ministries, played in providing them help.
The coronavirus made her family’s difficult circumstances even harder, she said. Her father, a carpenter, had been out of work because of the construction slowdown during the pandemic. Then, she and her mother both contracted the virus and her mother had to be hospitalized for a week.
“If New Hope had not dropped off food once a week, we would have gone without,” the student said.
Davalos said she sees New Hope’s community outreach director, Liz Rodriguez Smith, as her role model. The student plans to major in communications at Penn’s College of Arts and Sciences, a course of study she said she hopes will lead to a career as a public relations specialist for a nonprofit organization.
Davalos graduated from Paterson’s Gifted & Talented Academy in elementary school and then went on to Manchester Regional High School in Haledon.
Manchester, she said, was close enough to the family’s Paterson home that she could walk.