The engineer that could


When Tony Alvarez (EAS'00) was a junior in high school, his girlfriend got pregnant. He had not been a stellar student up to that point, so his response was a little unusual.

"I got serious about school," Alvarez says. "I had a lot of friends who were my same age that had kids, and they ended up dropping out of school and selling drugs and things like that, and I knew it was one of those two paths."

The path he took was to Penn.

Alvarez.jpeg

Photo by Candace diCarlo

Alvarez wanted to stay in Philadelphia with his girlfriend and new son. Two schools accepted him, but Penn offered a good financial aid package. In addition, he had been exposed to Penn students through a special academic assistance program at his high school, and he was impressed.

Alvarez graduated from an inner-city high school that didn't offer a strong academic program. Courses like calculus weren't even offered. He taught himself and studied an SAT review book to prepare for the all-important college entrance exam - often while riding the bus to and from his job at a fast food restaurant in downtown Philadelphia. His SAT score was 1180 - the highest in his school for the class of 1993.

But the odds were still against Alvarez, as compared to his college peers. "They knew how to study. They had discipline. The first day of class, I was blown away. The professor may as well have been speaking Chinese to me."

And despite his financial aid package, economic, academic and family pressures led Alvarez to drop out after three years.

But two years later, he changed his mind. Now married, his second child had just been born.

"I was paying bills," he recalls. "I just got tired of the cycle, you know - the paycheck comes and it's already gone before it hits my bank account. I sat my wife down and I told her 'I'm going back to school.'

"I felt incomplete, because I had started college, and I could have finished it, but I didn't. And I wanted to show those people who helped me that their time and efforts on me weren't wasted."

Now a junior, Alvarez has just completed a quantum physics course. He earned an A, and he is taking four advanced level classes this semester. Alvarez is working toward a degree in material sciences and engineering. "I'm hoping to do research on the engineering of materials to make existing products better."

Despite the culture shock, says he never regretted choosing Penn. "I always appreciated the resources that Penn offered me, and I appreciated the help they extended to me."

It does make him angry that there aren't more minority students at the nation's more prestigious universities. He says inner city youth aren't getting enough help overcoming their particular obstacles. "We have a mountain to climb. It's full of pits and traps and wild animals and many of us get devoured by these traps and these animals, and not many of us make it over the mountain and get into places like Penn."

Now, he is trying to help some of those inner-city minorities himself. "I get together with people in my neighborhood and kind of mentor the young ones. We have Bible studies and academic tutoring. I want to see other people like me make it."

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Originally published on March 18, 1999