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University Scholars: Success stories from the most unlikely candidates
By Elizabeth Omara-Ottunu (February 28, 1997)
Two evenings a week, Heidi Avila prepares her sons lunch and selects his clothes for school the next day, then takes him to work with her. From 8 at night until 8 the next morning Heidi, a certified nurse's aide, takes care of an elderly woman with Alzheimer's Disease, snatching what sleep she can.
When she leaves work, she drops 4-year-old Este at preschool and travels straight to Hartford for a full day as an intern at the General Assembly.
Avila is a mother on welfare. She's also a full-time student at UConn, and one of a handful of students recently selected as University Scholars, the highest academic honor the University awards to undergraduates.
Just four years ago, few could have predicted Avila's success. In 1993, the year her son was born, she dropped out of Southern Connecticut State University with only one semester's worth of credit. Unable to work full-time and take care of her child too, she spent the next two years in a homeless shelter.
Avila grew up in the Hill, one of the toughest neighborhoods in New Haven. Although she won a scholarship to a private high school, Hamden Hall, she dropped out of school when her parents split up in her junior year. For several years she worked full-time, nursed her mother, who was terminally ill with cancer, and took care of two young nieces.
"College was always the plan, but somehow it kept getting put off," she says.
Avila never lost sight of her dreams, however. Determined to go back to school, she applied to UConn's West Hartford campus and for a year commuted by bus from Middletown. Last semester she transferred to Storrs. Now she is pursuing a program of studies she hopes will help her understand her experiences and those of others like her.
Condron, originally from Reno, Nev., began his studies in business and criminal justice at the University of Nevada, but dropped out after a year and joined the Army to support his wife and child. "I had no real job experience at that time. My choice was Burger King or going into the military," he says.
"What I learned in the process was something I could never have gained from college courses," he says. "I jumped out of airplanes, road marched constantly, lived in foxholes, and went for weeks without a shower. I shivered all night and struggled to stay awake during the day."
In the Army, he received some medical training, and when he was deployed with the 82nd Airborne Division to the Persian Gulf, he treated both soldiers and civilian casualties of war. Condron vowed then he would become a doctor.
But he faced other challenges. Dazed by his experiences in the Gulf War, he returned to find his wife had left him, taking their young son with her. He also suffered a bout of spinal meningitis that was almost fatal and left him with some permanent memory loss.
When he was discharged in 1993 after a four-year stint in the military, Condron felt he had lost everything. He chose not to go home to Reno, where there were "too many memories," but instead tagged along with a fellow ex-soldier who was returning to Connecticut.
Condron knew by then that completing his education was essential. "My four years in the military showed me how hard it is to get out and not have an educational background," he says. So he applied to UConn.
Although he has had to develop new memory skills to make up for his loss of short-term memory, Condron is prepared to work hard. He says the contrast with life in the military has given him a greater appreciation of college life. "The chain of command is everything to the infantry. I was reminded on a daily basis that my opinions meant nothing," he says. "Working in an academic environment, where information is shared and ideas are considered with respect, has been a fantastic experience."
Condron also plans to take a number of graduate classes and hopes to graduate in 1998 with both a bachelor's degree in molecular and cell biology and a master's in biochemistry. "I've always been attracted by doing things that are very difficult," he says. His University Scholar project involves research using X-ray diffraction to study a protein that is the target of penicillins, a technique that pharmaceutical companies use in drug design. After graduating, Condron will apply to the UConn Health Center to study for a joint M.D. degree and a master's in public health.
Avila hopes she'll be able to graduate from UConn before the 21-month limit on her welfare benefits runs out next year. She has set her sights on law school Yale, if possible and pursuing a career in civil rights, helping other women in poverty or working in low-wage jobs. She is concerned that the new Jobs First program will prevent people who are poor from getting an education.
"Education is the key," she says.
Both scholars say they are inspired by their families. "I think having a family helps to ground me," says Condron, who speaks with his son, Zachary, regularly and spends two months a year with him. "My son is my motivation for why I should stay here."
Avila hopes to set an example for her son. She makes sure she finds time to read to him each night. "I hope Este will love education as much as I do," she says.