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Climbing from truant to Phi Theta Kappa honors

In life, no matter how many mountains Luis Feliz faces, he keeps climbing over them.

This year, Feliz, a 23 year-old honor student at LaGuardia Community College, received an award from Phi Theta Kappa International Honor Society of the Two Year Colleges inviting him to join the 20-member All State U.S.A Academic College’s First Team, an elite group of the state’s best and brightest community college students.

“The award was not only an acknowledgement of my hard work, but the hard work and dedication of the chapter members,” said Feliz. “If it was not for my experience at LaGuardia, I would never have been able to give back in such a big way.”

He was also the recipient of the 2009 Coca-Cola Bronze Scholarship and the 2008 Kaplan Educational Foundation Scholarship.

However, Feliz was not always a high-ranking academic achieving student. In fact, there was a time in his life when getting an education wasn’t even a priority for him.

Feliz was born in the Dominican Republic. In 1993, he immigrated to the United States with his mother. They soon discovered that Feliz’s father had a separate family, while still being married to his mother. On her own in a new country, not knowing any English, Feliz’s mother realized she had to stand on her own two feet.

His mom tried to balance work, supporting her family and keeping a roof over their heads; but it became too much to handle. She had to send Feliz to live with his grandmother in the Dominican Republic. He spent years traveling back and forth between the U.S. and the Dominican Republic, which negatively affected his school performance.

When Feliz became a teenager, he decided to work (without his mother knowing), instead of attending classes at William Cullen Bryant High School in order to support his family.

“During the eighth grade, I worked 40 hours a week at a bakery and got a school record for truancy,” Feliz said. “By the 10th grade, I stopped attending school altogether to work as a dishwasher and cashier at an Asian restaurant at [LaGuardia] airport.”

“I was helping my family. My parents, they are the type of people that, although they might be going through hell, they are not going to make their kids aware of that. But, I knew that my parents were struggling,” said Feliz.

“At that time I really didn’t think about myself. My sister was doing well. She was going to John Bowne High School. So, I was like I’ll work … I’ll save enough money to send my sister to college. I don’t need to go to college. I’m not even that bright; let my sister have that opportunity. That’s how I thought at the time. For me, I was basically sacrificing my dreams because I didn’t think I had anything to offer.”

On his lunch break from work, Feliz would go to a bookstore in the terminal and start political discussions with people. There, people challenged his opinion and encouraged him to read recommended books. Here, his passion for literature and pursuing his education was renewed. He decided to go back to high school.

Being out of school for so long, Feliz had to make up a full year of missed high school course work and had to re-teach himself how to read in English.

“Do you know what if feels like to be in the dark, groping towards the correct pronunciation of a word, fumbling, learning like a child taking his first steps…That is how I felt relearning to read,” said Feliz. “To make up for my time out of school, I read late into the hours of the night and on weekends, and I kept a notebook where I wrote down every word I didn’t know.”

Initially, he was discouraged but he pushed himself by thinking he had to “be diligent or perish.”

“I had to put up with the snickering in the hallways [and] feeling alienated,” said Feliz. “And I had to not let them get in the way of my long term goal.”

With a resilient attitude and support from his teachers, he graduated high school at the age of 20.

At LaGuardia, Feliz has received the Phi Theta Kappa Most Distinguished Chapter Officer Award for establishing several scholarly programs on campus. He has organized a college-wide book drive, which collected more than 1,000 books. These books were then donated to Better World Books, an organization that funds literacy initiatives around the world. His passion for literature prompted him to start the Renaissance Reading Circle where he and other students meet once a week to discuss such literary work.

Feliz’s activism extends beyond his college campus. He is a member of the NO RAIDS Committee. In his Jackson Heights community, he has taught ESL and civic literacy to working class immigrants at the New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE) organization.

“My students used to come from work with their work boots, work clothes. They used to come tired, fatigue, the weight of the world on their shoulders,” said Feliz. “And yet they came with a determination to learn, they came in with a bright smile and a positive attitude. To me, that was inspiring.”

In the future, Feliz has goals of attaining a doctorate degree in English with hopes of becoming a college professor.

“I firmly believe that the purpose of education is to translate the lessons [learned] to the society that I live,” he said.

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