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The Will to Win

Graduate Juan Arteaga escaped the inner city, overcame difficulties at BC, and now prepares for law school

By Jack Dunn
Director of Public Affairs

It was in his sophomore year at Hartford Public High School in Hartford, Conn. that Juan Arteaga, a summa cum laude graduate of BC's Class of 1999 would make a decision that would change the course of his life.

Surrounded by increased gang violence in the Casa Verde Sur Public Housing Project where he lived, and attending a school that was about to be stripped of its accreditation, Arteaga realized that what his mother had been telling him for years was true - that a college education was his only chance of escaping the cycle of poverty and violence that had consumed so many of his neighbors and friends.

Committing himself to his studies in a way he had never done before, Arteaga advanced his grades significantly enough his junior and senior years to apply to Boston College. A few months later, he was offered admission with the condition that he attend the University's Options Through Education Program, an enrichment program designed for academically and financially disadvantaged students.

With relatively low SAT scores, poor study habits and no familiarity with a college environment, Arteaga realized that it was an offer he could not refuse.

Arriving at Boston College in mid-June of his freshman year, Arteaga would spend six weeks taking courses, learning study skills and acclimating himself to the academic and social aspects of college life. It would prove to be an invaluable experience.

Juan Arteaga-"I might have made it academically through BC without OTE, but socially, I never would have made it."

"I came here doubting my academic ability because I had been told throughout my life that the schools I had attended were inferior," said Arteaga, whose English is slightly accented by the native Spanish of his Puerto Rican immigrant mother. "Through OTE I got the confidence I needed to focus on my academics because it provided me with an extensive social network before the school year began. In retrospect, I might have made it academically through BC without OTE, but socially, I never would have made it."

Upon the start of classes in September, Arteaga was introduced to the world of Boston College, a culture unlike any he had experienced before. Sitting on a Newton bus on his way to his first classes, Arteaga was stunned by the summer travel stories recounted by his more privileged classmates. In class, the white students, although friendly, were often reserved in their outreach, causing him to turn inward and eventually question his own decision to come to BC.

"I had come from an overwhelmingly black and Puerto Rican school and neighborhood and it was hard to acclimate myself because I was afraid of saying the wrong thing," said Arteaga. "It was really difficult here for me at first."

By the end of his freshman year, the academic pressure and difficult social transition had caused him to seek a transfer to another school, a decision he was ultimately talked out of by Housing Director Robert Capalbo, Arteaga's mentor in the Mays Mentoring Program.

"I told him, 'Juan, you have to take advantage of this opportunity,'" said Capalbo. "'You are smart enough and dedicated enough to succeed. Don't let it slip away from you.'"

Arteaga decided to remain at BC, to the relief of Capalbo, AHANA director Don Brown, and an increasing number of faculty who took notice of his exceptional intelligence and writing ability. Among them was Assoc. Prof. Virginia Reinburg (History), who was Arteaga's instructor in a core history course during his first semester.

"Although he spoke infrequently in class, out of shyness I believe, he always offered an astute comment when he did speak." Reinburg said. "But his first term examination was astounding: In a 50-minute class, in response to my rather standard and straightforward essay question, Juan wrote an exam that I would have thought was written by an MA student. His mastery of the facts, his ability to synthesize what he had learned from primary sources with what he had learned from a textbook and my class lectures, and his remarkable talent for writing made me realize that he was a gifted student with a bright intellectual future. To this day I consider him one of the two best students I have taught in terms of his ability and accomplishment."

Bolstered by a new-found confidence in his academic ability, Arteaga began to compile an impressive record of academic performance that would eventually culminate in some of the University's highest honors. With the support of UGBC, which he credits with helping to bridge the gap between minority and majority students, and the AHANA Office, he would eventually assimilate into the culture of his new surroundings, finding comfort in a place that had initially seemed so daunting.

"By keeping an open mind and interacting with students from different backgrounds, I learned how to succeed," said Arteaga. "I also learned that there were a lot of good white kids who wanted to get to know me and other AHANA students but who themselves were afraid of saying the wrong thing. Eventually we found a common ground and learned to focus not on our differences but on our shared interests."

By the end of his senior year, Arteaga had accomplished more than he had ever dreamed during those first difficult months at Boston College. He has been inducted into the Order of the Cross & Crown, the Phi Alpha Delta History Honor Society, Who's Who in American Colleges and Universities , the Gold Key National Honor Society and the AHANA Program's Academic Honor Roll. He was named the co-winner of the Oscar Romero Scholarship given to a Latino junior for outstanding performance and community service and, most recently, he was informed that he had been named to the Phi Beta Kappa honor society, becoming the first OTE student to achieve this distinction.

Arteaga will attend Columbia University Law School in the fall.

"Looking back, I realize that I succeeded because failure was not an option," says Arteaga. "I was the torch-bearer of too many people's dreams, including those of my mother who worked so hard for me, and my friends from the neighborhood who didn't have the same opportunities. They all kept me going."

"Juan took advantage of every opportunity and worked very hard to make himself into the talented student and wonderful person he is today," says Capalbo. "He is very devoted to his mother of whose sacrifices he is keenly aware, and he possesses a desire to give back to his people and anyone outside of the mainstream. I know we will hear great things of him in the future."

For his part, Arteaga finds himself at peace with his years at BC, despite the occasional difficulties it provided. "I got a quality education at Boston College," says Arteaga. "Even though it was not always easy, I am glad that I came here. The fact that it wasn't easy made me a better person because it made me grow up. A lot of students, faculty and administrators contributed to my success. They listened when I needed to vent and supported me when I needed support. I view my success as their success. I would definitely recommend BC to minority students, despite the occasional transitional difficulties. Diversity makes you a better person, because it makes you think things through. BC did that for me, and I am grateful for that opportunity."

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