Diana Moreno and her brother Joseph are two of the three Union City students who survived the Ivy leagues and graduated this year.
Joseph Moreno graduated from Columbia University, and Sanddy Marchena, the valedictorian for Union Hill High School's class of 1998, graduated from Brown University last month.
"I didn't think that I had the opportunity to go to a school like Columbia," said Joseph, who graduated number 3 in his class from Union Hill High School in 1998. "I thought that if I got into Rutgers, that would be really good."
The three graduates were the first in many years to get into Ivy League schools, but now they have set an example for younger neighbors and siblings to follow. Diana and Joseph's younger sister, Joanne, is a senior at Brown University. Other Union City grads currently attending top schools include Crystal Proenza, who graduated as the valedictorian of Emerson High School in 2000 and is currently attending Columbia University; Huwaida Hassan, last year's valedictorian at Emerson High School, who is attending Yale University; and Isis Burgos, Union Hill's valedictorian from the class of 2001, who is attending Brown University. The class of 2002's Union Hill valedictorian will also be attending an Ivy League school in the fall, the University of Pennsylvania.
According to the vice principal of Emerson High School, Nellie Chapman, Diana is the first person from Union City to graduate from Harvard in 31 years. Joseph is the first person graduating from Columbia in close to 10 years and Marchena is the first person of Dominican descent to graduate from Brown University from Union City.
"This shows that our community, which is 99 percent Hispanic, has the potential to go to the Ivy Leagues," said Chapman. Chapman was the assistant principal at Union Hill while all three of these students were in high school. "These students are role models for [others]," she said.
Diana, who stayed at Harvard for five years and studied literature, will be working for a corporate law firm in New York as a legal assistant. She hopes to attend law school eventually.
Marchena will be moving to Chicago, where he will be working for Oak Brook Bank. Joseph, who studied political science and environmental studies, has applied for positions in political consulting firms and municipal government.
Any other students from Union City and other urban areas also have the potential to get accepted to Ivy League schools. However, only doing what is required in class may not open the doors for you.
"You have to take the AP courses and have summer internships to stand out, especially coming from this community," said Marchena, who had an internship with Rutgers University the summer before his senior year. "If it wasn't for my summer internship, I wouldn't have gotten in to Brown. This shows recruiters that I am willing to go above and beyond."
Joseph and Diana agreed that taking the Advanced Placement (AP) and honors courses offered in high school also helped them.
"My AP classes prepared me the most," said Joseph. "But also the teachers that we had at Union Hill really encouraged us to do more than the minimum requirements. At Columbia I had to learn the basics, but I also had to be able to apply it to real life."
However, Diana said that sometimes you have to find your opportunities outside of your high school. "There aren't too many obvious opportunities at Union Hill," said Diana, who took classes at St. Peter's College in physics and calculus while still in high school. "You have to be determined and persistent. Those are the kind of people who do well in the Ivy League schools."
The three students also said that studying hard for the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) early would help. "That is the kind of test that you need to practice," said Joseph.
Leaving the nest
Sometimes, even the best preparation can not prepare students for what lies ahead.
"It was a rude awakening," said Marchena about his first couple of months at Brown. "You do what you do here [in high school] in four years, in one semester at Brown."
"I knew that it was going to be difficult, but it didn't hit me at first because I did really well at Union Hill," said Joseph. "The expectations were a lot higher. It was more of a challenge than I originally thought."
However, all three of the graduates agreed that the increased workload shouldn't outweigh the opportunities that attending these schools can offer.
"Keep your eyes open and really explore," said Joseph. "It is very important to do things academically, but they should take advantage of every opportunity that college offers you."
"A lot of students don't realize that there is so much more out there then what is in Union City," added Joseph, who did get the opportunity to travel with his family while in high school. "When I got to college I realized that there is even more out there."
Diana advises students to ask a lot of questions. "Take advantage of what is there," she said, adding that many of the students at these schools come from generations of lawyers or doctors. "I can't just go home and ask my dad what I need to do to get into law school."
However, some students may have the potential to get into these schools but are afraid of leaving home.
"My biggest thing is to have courage," said Marchena. "A lot of these students are smart but they are afraid of leaving the nest. If they are not scared they'll make it."