Camden honors graduates who overcame adversity

Alesha Figueroa-Falcon with grandmother Maria Burgos. Figueroa-Falcon used drugs, was arrested, but decided there were no more excuses for not succeeding.
Alesha Figueroa-Falcon with grandmother Maria Burgos. Figueroa-Falcon used drugs, was arrested, but decided there were no more excuses for not succeeding. (MATTHEW HALL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 14, 2014

Until Thursday night, Alesha Figueroa-Falcon had reserved her story for doting teachers, concerned counselors, and close friends.

The Woodrow Wilson High School senior is class president, in the top seven in her class, and headed to Richard Stockton College in the fall to study marine biology.

At an awards ceremony at Camden County College to celebrate 24 graduating seniors from Camden who have overcome adversity, she told of her struggles, personal tragedy, and the resolve it took to reverse her family's trajectory.

Figueroa-Falcon's father has been serving a 35-year prison sentence for murder since she was 2. Her mother died of leukemia when she was 5, sending her into foster care and then to live with her grandmother.

She was almost expelled from Pennsauken Technical High School, gravitated toward peers involved in drugs, and was arrested at 16.

"Before, I really felt like I could use the excuse that I didn't have anybody, so I could do anything I wanted," she said. "I had to stop making excuses for myself, because I wasn't going to go down the same path."

Figueroa-Falcon, who will always say that somebody has it worse and shies away from listing her many accolades, was one of the students honored by the Camden City School District in a ceremony hosted by Mimi Jones, a disc jockey at WDAS-FM.

Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard, who emigrated from Iran when he was in fourth grade, told the students that "when things come easy, you let your guard down, but with adversity, you sharpen your mind, body, and spirit.

"You're stronger for what you've gone through. I hope you're as proud of yourself as we are."

The teenagers have battled homelessness, survived cancer, lost parents and close relatives, run in gangs and had the courage to run away from them. At a young age they refused to let those circumstances define their attitudes or their futures.

In Camden, dozens more students will be celebrated at backyard barbecues and family dinners, young heroes whose stories will be cited to challenge the city's grave education statistics.

Camden County Freeholder Scot McCray told the group to keep it up. "You've heard so many people tell you you have potential," he said, "but it means nothing unless you put it into action."

Principals and counselors from the city's five district high schools spoke about the 24 students and presented each with a trophy and certificate.

Essence Johnson, who will attend Fairleigh Dickinson University in the fall, overcame being homeless in the middle of her freshman year at Dr. Charles E. Brimm Medical Arts High School.

Markus Rabb-Peace battled bone cancer during high school and underwent chemotherapy while continuing to pursue his passion for art at MetEast High School. He will attend Savannah College of Art and Design in the fall and has been cancer-free for a year.

Wafa Farhat, who emigrated from the Palestinian territories last year, addressed the crowd in a timid but clear voice, thanking her family and community for their support. She will attend Camden County College in the fall and hopes to become a translator.

Tears flowed often and freely as students thanked fathers, mothers, teachers, and friends.

Karim McLaren's father has been in prison since McLaren was 2, and his mother, who is in the country illegally, continues to fight threats of deportation, a fear that weighed heavily on him as he spoke after receiving his award.

"I really don't want my mom to go nowhere," he said. "I love her too much for her to leave now." McLaren will attend the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York to study acting.

Maria Burgos, Figueroa-Falcon's grandmother, sat beside her at the ceremony and with tears in her eyes praised her granddaughter's perseverance: "All that she's done, has been because of her, not me."

Figueroa-Falcon overheard and protested, now tearing up herself, "What are you talking about? You've been my home."


jterruso@phillynews.com

856-779-3876 @juliaterruso

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