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VOL. 22, NO. 23MAY 21, 1997

A Student of His Life:

GS Valedictorian Came From 'At Risk' Childhood

Antonio Luis Antonio Luis Freitas

By A. Dunlap-Smith

It was an epiphany, he says of the day psychology professor Geraldine Downey introduced her seminar by addressing some of the very questions that he had been asking himself. He had been wondering how kids growing up in difficult and even violent circumstances--kids called "at risk"-- learn to cope, and how those circumstances affect them, for he, the valedictorian of the School of General Studies (GS) with a better-than-straight-A average, was once one of those kids.

  Antonio Luís Freitas's compulsion to understand his past life and to find meaning in his present one brought him not only stellar grades but a college experience unlike most.

  "I never thought I'd go to any college," Freitas, 28, says. Now he can go to any graduate school, having been accepted at all 12 to which he applied. Next semester he begins graduate work in clinical psychology on a Ford Foundation Fellowship at Yale, a program that took just five of 400 applicants.

  GS Dean of Students, Rick Ferraro, is awed by Freitas' drive: "He makes Horatio Alger look like a slacker." Horatio Alger, moreover, was not a poor Hispanic kid who grew up on the Lower East Side.

  Living on the Lower East Side in the 1970s was affordable for the Freitas family, supported by his father's salary as a musician, but it was dangerous. When Mrs. Freitas struggled to keep muggers from taking her cash on a neighborhood street, she was killed. Antonio was four years old.

  Despite the hardship, he did well in school and attended Bronx Science. But "by high school I stopped studying because I got interested in parties and girls and hanging out," Freitas says. He had several scrapes with the law for defacing property with graffiti and fighting. He dropped out in 10th grade, and worked in construction in Brooklyn, believing his school days were ended.

  Freitas made enough money in construction to live well for a young man without a high school diploma. "But I began to want my life to be more meaningful," Freitas says, "to do things that have more profound and lasting effects."

  A friend helped him get into SUNY/Purchase where he spent a year before coming to GS as a Higher Education Opportunity Program (HEOP) student. Back in school after eight years, Freitas burned to study, and the discipline he had acquired as well as the job skills served him well. He routinely rose at 5:00 A.M. to get extra studying in before classes. His hard work got him a position as a teaching assistant and invitations to work on his professors' research projects, which led to his name appearing on several papers. "Doors open for you if you're motivated," Freitas says modestly.