Health issues. Busted car. Missed classes. But this Detroit student is going to Harvard.

Jun 28, 2017 by


Chastity Pratt Dawsey –

Alexis Carter’s family had two vans that were frequently out of commission. So the honor roll high school student often would walk the two miles from her home on Detroit’s east side to University Prep Science and Math high school.


One day on her walk home from school last year when she was 17, Alexis said a man sidled up to her and asked her name and favorite color. With the man walking uncomfortably close by her side, Alexis opened her cell phone and whispered to her mom, “I need you to come get me now!”

The next day, her mother walked her to school with a pocket knife. The episode is part of a remarkable journey that shows how it sometimes takes a lot of help – and persistence – to realize big dreams.

Alexis suffers from asthma and said she missed weeks of school during her sophomore and junior years because of illness or vehicle troubles. Her family gets public assistance and for periods hasn’t had heat or water at their home.

Alexis was determined, though, to get into an Ivy League university, so over the past two years, a teacher and neighbor helped drive her to a charter school that doesn’t offer bus service for its students.

Alexis’ obstacles aren’t unusual in a city that struggles with generational poverty and access to transportation and quality education. In Alexis’ neighborhood, 60 percent of youths live in poverty and only 13 percent of residents have a college degree, according to U.S. Census data. Citywide, 25 percent of residents don’t have a working car and the city has subpar public transportation.

The hurdles Alexis faced may be common, but her outcome was extraordinary.

On March 31, an email arrived in her inbox confirming the extra help and effort had paid off.

She’d been accepted to Harvard University, one of the most prestigious and selective colleges in the world. She was awarded financial aid and merit scholarships that will cover all costs, including tuition and housing, worth about $65,000 per year.

High achiever, high obstacles

In elementary school, Alexis decided she would be the valedictorian of her eighth grade class. She did that.

In middle school, Alexis told her family she had decided that she would go to an Ivy League school. At the time, she had no idea of what it would take but felt she belonged at the best university.

“Harvard is the ultimate,” Alexis said.

After a man followed Alexis as she walked home alone, her mother, Tosha People, began walking with her. She carried a knife for protection. (Bridge photo by Brian Widdis)

Her mother transferred Alexis from another charter school to University Prep Science and Math when she entered 10th grade because it offered advanced placement classes. Those courses are the types of classes that Ivy League schools expect potential students to take.

Alexis could handle the classes, but getting to school proved a challenge. Since tenth grade, she missed more than 60 days of school, according to school administrators. Each year, she missed about two weeks due to  asthma attacks, throat infections and bouts of the flu.

She was fighting a battle that is common in neighborhoods like hers: Alexis and all her four siblings have asthma, which is more prevalent both among African-American children and those living in low-income areas. Other absences were due to lack of transportation because the family often couldn’t afford gas, insurance or repairs to their vehicles.

“Her attendance was spotty. She would miss one or two days in a week,” said Zetia Hogan, the principal at University Prep Science and Math.

But even when Alexis was marooned at home, she held tightly to her aspirations and work ethic.

“Alexis is naturally smart,” Hogan said. “She is a doer. She would email to get her assignments and turn them in. She never let not being unable to get to school stop her.”

Alexis maintained a 3.9 grade-point average partly because teachers allowed her to make up missed work and submit assignments by email. She said she spent long nights at her family’s shared desktop computer completing school work when she couldn’t get to school, People said.

Alexis is the middle child among five. Her mother, People, fell down stairs about 15 years ago, shattering her leg and ability to keep a job. Her father, Ferlando Carter, works as a parking attendant.

During periods when the family’s vans weren’t operable, her mother would have to walk her two youngest children to school, then come home to walk Alexis to school. At one point, much of their house was without electricity because of a malfunction, forcing the family to huddle in the dining room, the only part of the house where there was electricity and heat.

“The world had come crashing down on us,” People said.

This year marks the fourth graduating class for University Prep Science and Math High, which opened in 2010 in a glass-fronted building near the Detroit riverfront. Of the school’s 114 graduates this year, 98 are headed to college. They collectively won about $5 million in scholarships, Hogan said.

That’s a rate of about 86 percent of seniors enrolled in college, double the rate of Detroit Public Schools last year (41 percent), according to state data. Statewide, the rate was 61.5 percent last year.

Hogan has worked at the school for three years and said she believes Alexis is the only University Prep Science and Math student ever accepted to an Ivy League school.

This year, nearly 40,000 students nationally applied to Harvard and only 5 percent, or 2,056 students, were admitted, Harvard data show.

Help from a teacher

During four years of working in Detroit, social studies teacher Andrew Llaneza said he noticed something in some students: Being financially in need does something to the spirit.

It makes some teenagers too proud to ask for help. It makes others doubt they can get into an elite college. Or fit in there.

Indeed, an expanding body of research has found that poverty has far-reaching negative effects on academic, mental and even physical health. The dropout rate of students in low-income households is four and a half times than the rate of higher-income peers, while research has documented links between poverty and depression, asthma and anemia, according to the American Psychological Association.

But Alexis never doubted her dreams, said Llaneza, who met the teen when she was the only sophomore among seniors in the psychology class he taught. This year, she didn’t win senior class president but went on to lead the student government group.

“Alexis is a very positive person. No matter what card she was dealt, she had the ability not to take pity on herself and not feel bad but have that mentality of optimism that she could overcome those types of things,” Llaneza said.

After Alexis failed to show up several times for school, Llaneza asked her what was wrong and found out about the family’s car troubles.

He offered to help. Her house was less than 10 minutes out of his way to and from his home in Ferndale, just north of Detroit.

For nearly two months that year, Llaneza would pick up Alexis and drop her off at home. That meant she would attend school on a teacher’s schedule – arriving an hour early and leaving an hour or more after dismissal.

On more than one occasion Llaneza wondered if he could get her to and from school safely. The trip required him to maneuver his 2005 Toyota Corolla around potholes and winter-slicked side streets.

The girl’s home is near the Heidelberg Project, an outdoor art installation that includes several vacant houses decorated with found objects from stuffed animals to shoes. It can look dangerously creepy at dawn and dusk.

“Alexis is a pretty special student,” Llaneza said. “I was just happy to help.”

A voice in the darkness

Deciding not to miss school on one winter morning, Alexis ventured out into the early morning darkness alone last year.

The neighborhood had few street lights and plenty of abandoned homes and overgrown vacant lots to fear. After Alexis had taken only a few steps onto the sidewalk, she said a car pulled up alongside her and the driver rolled down the window.

“Alexis! Where are you going,” the voice in the car asked. “Get in this car.”

Alexis Carter, 18, of Detroit, is headed to Harvard University next year despite missing several weeks of school due to illness and transportation problems. Her mom, Tosha People (right) walked her to school some days, and neighbor, Yvonne Shepherd (left), drove her to school for weeks last year. (Bridge photo by Brian Widdis)

It was Yvonne Shepherd, a neighbor from across the street.

Shepherd’s family had lived on Preston Street for four generations and she knew just about every family. Even in the dark, Shepherd recognized Alexis.

Shepherd had to drop off her own child at daycare and get to work at Henry Ford Health System, where she is patient advocate. But the sight of the high school sophomore walking through the shadows of abandoned homes forced her to stop.

“I didn’t know what kind of grades she got, I didn’t care. But you know what? She was making the effort. That’s what mattered to me,” Shepherd said.

“It was just about neighbors. I knew if it was me and my boys needed help (People) would’ve done the same thing for me. So I left out early to make sure I got her to school on time until her mom got her transportation fixed. It was way out of my way, but I didn’t care.”

That morning, and for weeks afterward, Shepherd drove Alexis to school.

Shepherd said she was pleased, but not shocked, when she found out Alexis was Harvard-bound.

“I was all down in Georgia with my family bragging on you like you’re my niece, showing your prom picture off,” Shepherd told Alexis recently. “People asked me, ‘Who is that?’ I said, ‘That’s family, she lives across the street. She’s going to Harvard!’”

Alexis was accepted to 11 schools, including Yale University. She didn’t get into her top choices. Princeton University rejected her and Massachusetts Institute of Technology wait-listed her.

She said she plans to take off the first semester because she needs to work to earn money for the move to Harvard. She plans to start classes at Harvard during the second semester next year.

She has decided to become a heart surgeon.

Source: Health issues. Busted car. Missed classes. But this Detroit student is going to Harvard. | Bridge Magazine

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