Last week, Yahoo! News and The New York Times gave us the stories of Chris Navas and Gac Filipaj—two individuals who sprung from humble circumstances to attain Ivy League degrees.
In Chris Navas’ narrative, a cascade of coincidences leads an academically apathetic young man to earn a spot at Dartmouth University’s medical school. The story begins when Navas, a high school dropout who holds a day job building boilers, signs up for a 200-level “behavioral neuroscience” class—simply because it works for his schedule. Normally a “do just what it takes to pass” kind of student, Navas didn’t expect to be good at neuroscience. Nevertheless, he found himself captivated by the teacher’s descriptions of breakthrough neuroscientific research and began reading unassigned chapters in the text. Before long, Navas had secured a spot in the honors neuroscience program and was working at a lab that studies learning and memory. He will begin medical school at Dartmouth this fall.
Navas explains his fortune as a force of luck. “The mentors made the difference,” he said, according to The New York Times. “I was just some kid working in a boiler company. I had no vision of becoming a doctor. I got lucky, over and over.”
Navas’ story certainly suggests fate played a hand in his scholastic path. After all, Navas signed up for “behavioral neuroscience” on a whim, without plans to become a doctor or a neuroscience major… without even particular interest in the topic! But, since there’s no lesson in luck, I’d prefer to highlight aspects of agency in Navas’ tale.
Chris Navas strikes me as a person who not only is tremendously brave, but also delves heart and soul into the activities he enjoys. As The New York Times explains, post-high-school, Navas had no plan. He picked up work as a secretary at a refrigeration company. One day all the mechanics were out, so Navas’ boss sent him to fix a broken refrigerator. Navas rose to the occasion, undaunted by his lack of training in refrigeration mechanics. He took school lightly because it wasn’t his thing, and didn’t worry too much about the future. Instead, he worked fervently at bodybuilding, his passion. When he became aware of his fascination with neuroscience, he pursued it relentlessly. He didn’t tell himself it was too late, dwell upon past mistakes, or focus on competition that lay ahead. He just did it because he loved it.
Similar bravery, passion, and perseverance can be seen in Gac Filipaj. Middle-aged and nearly done with law school, Filipaj was forced to start his life over when he fled Montenegro (then a Yugoslavian republic facing civil war) in 1992. Once in America, Filipaj lived with his uncle in the Bronx, worked as a restaurant busboy, and began to ask after the best schools in NYC. When he learned of Columbia University, he applied for a job.
Filipaj’s native language is Albanian, so his first hurdle as a degree-seeking American was to learn English. Once fluent, he took on the challenge of balancing Ivy-League-level coursework with a fulltime job as a janitor at Columbia. Yahoo! News reports Filipaj regularly pulled all-nighters during exam time or to finish a paper. Then he would go to class, and then to his 2:30–11:00pm shift at work.
Twelve years later, Filipaj donned a cap and gown to receive his bachelor’s degree—with honors—in Roman and Greek classics. In graduating, Filipaj reveals himself as someone who is able to take life as it comes and who won’t be discouraged, no matter the work required nor the magnitude of setback. Ultimately Filipaj would like to attain a master’s degree or a Ph.D. in Roman and Greek classics, so he can teach. For now, he is trying to get a “better job,” perhaps as a supervisor of other custodians.
Filipaj and Navas’ experiences demonstrate the power of hard work, passion, and faith in one’s abilities to trump even the most disheartening circumstances. When you love something and are determined to succeed at it, no task is too hard and no amount of work is too much. In turn, no goal is beyond your reach.
These Key SAT Words are Expertly Identified by Sentia Tutors
Apathetic: marked by lack of interest or concern
Fervent: having or showing great intensity of spirit
Disheartening: very discouraging