Isiah Cruz knows that the cards are stacked against him. Born in North Bergen and raised in Union City in a working-class family, the 17-year-old St. Peter’s Prep senior is well aware of the challenges facing inner-city kids when it comes to educational advancement. No one is going to just hand him the law degree he covets so passionately.
Rather than stand by the wayside, he has spent nearly every moment working towards his goals.
“The presumption around here is that we can’t go to good colleges because they’re expensive and we don’t have the right background,” said Cruz. “I don’t focus on that.”
This past October, Cruz was accepted into a Saturday program at Columbia University in New York called the High School Law Institute. It provides high school students the chance to engage in seminars and participate in mock trials to strengthen their writing and public speaking skills.
The program, which runs on a semester schedule through April, focuses on constitutional and criminal law. It culminates in a mock trial seminar where the students are pitted against peers from a similar program at New York University in a courtroom-style showdown.
“The presumption around here is that we can’t go to good colleges because they’re expensive and we don’t have the right background.” – Isiah Cruz
The tattle-tale ends up dead. Cruz was chosen to defend one student, charged with murder.
“To be in a real courtroom setting, it’s exciting and realistic,” he said.
Working on a dream
Cruz’s mother Lilian had Isiah when she was 18. She said that despite her age, she knew that she had to set goals for herself if she was going to successfully raise her children. Isiah has a 12-year-old sister, Veronica.
“I told him all the time, you set goals for yourself, and then you accomplish them,” said Cruz, who worked her way through college and obtained a teaching degree. “He understood that from a very early age. I never had to ask him if he’d done his homework or anything like that. He just does it.”
After enrolling in St. Peter’s Prep, a Jesuit school in Jersey City, Cruz became involved in nearly every facet of student life, but always with his sights set on law.
“Most of what I do at school somehow relates to law,” he said.
Aside from his rigorous class schedule, Cruz served as class president his junior year, is currently the president of the school’s law society, and is a member of both the National Honor Society and The Ignatian Scholars (Prep’s leadership organization). For kicks, he jumps hurdles for the school’s track and field team.
But none of his extra-curriculars are as impressive as his part-time job at Connell Foley, LLP, one of New Jersey’s largest law firms, which operates an office in downtown Jersey City. One of the firm’s partners happens to be Prep’s Chairman of the Board of Trustees, Phil McGovern, who often speaks at the school about his career in law. Isiah attended one such talk last year.
“Isiah came home one day, very excited, and said ‘Mom, this lawyer spoke at school and I’m going to ask him for a job,’ ” said Lilian. “And he did. He went down there and he sat in the waiting room and had an interview.”
“I remember when he came in, I smiled at him and heard him out, and about a week later I offered him a job,” said McGovern. “He’s a smart kid. He’s got a diligence for detail and a willingness to learn.”
Last fall, McGovern wrote a letter of recommendation to various college admissions offices around the country on his behalf.
The road ahead
“Yale, Columbia, Princeton, Chicago, Amherst, Williams, USC, Stanford, U Penn, Miami, Brown...” said Cruz, listing the colleges and universities he applied to this past fall. “Those are the main ones, there are a few others, but those are the important ones.”
Cruz and his family are currently in frustrating limbo between December and March, when colleges mail out acceptance letters. Until then, he can only hope, but he hopes confidently.
“Education means a lot to me, and I’ve always worked hard, and I really hope it pays off,” he said. “I’m proud of where I come from and of what I am.”
Of all the professions, though, why law?
“As a lawyer, you see a genuine connection between effort and reward,” he explained. “It doesn't matter where I’m from or how much money I have. It’s how hard I research the case and whether I can convince the jury.”