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Grads honored for overcoming obstacles credit their supporters

A magnitude 7.0 earthquake. The death of a parent. Physical disability. Algebra 2.

Those are just some of the obstacles faced by 193 members of the class of 2012 who convened on Tweed Courthouse last week for a reception of Remarkable Recipient Award winners. Each high school principal can nominate one student for the award, now in its sixth year.

GothamSchools spoke with some of the honorees at the event to find out what helped them through their toughest times — and what academic work will stick with them even as high school fades into the past.

Tashelle Woods, School of Legal Studies, Brooklyn

Tashelle Woods is not only the first in her family to go to college, but the first to graduate from high school, and maybe even complete the ninth grade. Woods suffered the loss of both parents and five half-siblings, and she also endured myriad health problems, including lymphedema, asthma, and a cancerous mass on her thyroid. Undaunted, this fall, she will attend Alpharetta State College in Georgia, where she plans to study biology or health science. Inspired by her own doctors, she aims to be a pediatrician or a pediatric nurse.

What helped her through her toughest times: “My doctors are my outlet for me. I’m very comfortable around them. They made this whole process of me recovering and getting diagnosed with different things easier. Growing up it was just my mother — I call her my mother, but she’s my grandmother — and she’s 69 right now, so a lot of things, she was not up to par about, she didn’t have knowledge about.

“I met my best friend freshman year, around the time I was diagnosed with lymphedema, which is the swelling around my knees. Around that time I really didn’t want to come to school because I was ina lot of pain. It hurt to walk. I picked up a job at McDonalds and standing up for eight hours changed my world, it hurt that much. I met her in ninth-grade in algebra class and it started out because she made me laugh when I didn’t want to… I’ve been living with her and her family since August. She goes with me to doctor’s appointments, when my ankles are swollen she massages them for me. That’s the kind of relationship we have, and I’ll do them for her. It’s just like having my grandmother here without having my grandmother here … It’s a blessing to have both of them. It makes everything easier.”

An academic experience that made an impression on her: “A project I’ll remember would be my yearbook. That’s my first extracurricular activity ever, and I really enjoyed it. I really liked being around different people, different personalities.”

Kevin Koo, High School of Dual Language and Asian Studies, Manhattan

When Koo was 10, his father died, forcing his mother to move the family back to Malaysia, where she could better support Kevin and herself. But she valued education, so when Koo was in 10th grade, he came back to New York to finish high school — without her. For three years, Koo has done what many don’t until they’re adults: He prepared his own meals, did his own laundry, and paid his own expenses. This fall, he’ll enroll at SUNY’s Buffalo branch.

What helped him pull through his toughest times: “I would think a support system is very important to one person. I call my mom occasionally. I tell her about the struggles I go through and she’ll give me support. I know it’s not physical support but it’s still very important to me, mentally.”

An academic experience that made an impression on him: “I worked in group projects which were a very fun activity because I got to talk my friends and have fun and do work at the same time.”

Alfred Laro, Forsyth Satellite Academy, Manhattan

Why he was selected: Laro struggled academically during his first two years of high school, he said. But during his junior year, he turned his grades and behavior around. His teachers and principals noted his transformation and selected him for the award at the last minute, Laro said. He will attend Borough of Manhattan Community College in the fall and hopes to eventually graduate from John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

What helped him get through his toughest times: “My principal has a bond not just with me but with all the students. He was a very close friend to me.”

An academic experience that made an impression on him. “My principal saw that I needed help networking, and would tell me to go job shadowing. I would tell him that I couldn’t miss class, because I needed to catch up on my credits, but finally I did job shadowing at Goldman-Sachs. I didn’t get to meet the chairman, but I met a few representatives and it was a good experience. I got to understand how business works, so even though business wasn’t really my deal, it was a good experience.”

Daniel Gillen, Beacon High School, Manhattan

Gillen has been completely blind since he was a toddler. But that didn’t stop him from becoming a high-profile amateur pianist; he knew the circle of fifths when most people were learning to read. Gillen will attend Haverford College in the fall to study physics and music.

What helped him get through his toughest times. “My support network included a lot of people because I started out in a vision-impaired class and then I jumped into a mainstream class setting in middle school, and that really set the stage for success. After that, I was in a 30-kid class and still I had my same counselor I’ve had since I was in kindergarten, and my vision instructor. In high school things got more and more general-ed based so I was able to participate in mainstream activities.”

An academic experience that made an impression on him: “I took a junior year physics course and even though the majority of people in those class were seniors, I wanted to push myself. I was only in Algebra 2 math, but there was only basic trigonometry which we didn’t really cover. Yet in physics there were only a few formulas using those trig ratios and I understood what they were and when to use them. I got a near perfect socre on my project for that class. It was all about outer space and how we apply mathematical formuals that we use on earthbased physics in another planetary setting where you get different results, like those dealing with gravity that is weaker than ours, which I can find quite interesting, so I can one day find out physically how a game or a dance might play out on Mars or something. Some of the math is relatively simple… it’s somewhat magical.”

Bern St. Pierre, Humanities and Arts Magnet High School, Queens

Less than a month after the 2010 earthquake destroyed his home in Haiti, Bern St. Pierre moved to New York with his older sister, to live with his aunt. He couldn’t speak English at all. Two years later, he is planning to attend Nassau Community College in the fall.

What helped him get through his toughest times: “I had a teacher who really helped me. She’s actually moving to Florida right now but she really helped me out, selecting courses, telling me what to do. My senior assembler helped me a lot with college applications. Another teacher really helped me, too, she’s like a mother figure to me. She’s Haitian too, so she would really push me. My parents too are my motivation. I didn’t want to let them down. My dad just got here Sunday for my graduation and I’m grateful to them.”

An academic experience that made an impression on him: “On my first try, I passed my English Regents, something I didn’t really expect. Those types of exams, I wasn’t used to it. The Living Environment Regent, I couldn’t pass it at first. To be honest, I don’t really like science that much, and when you don’t like something, it can be harder. But I stepped up and I actually passed it and was able to graduate.”

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