Brooke Hauser’s new book, “The New Kids,” follows a year in the life of students at International High School in Prospect Heights, a small school that caters to immigrants.
Among the book’s many highs and lows is a moment at the end of the Class of 2009’s school year when five students receive college scholarships from Jerry Seinfeld’s foundation. Fifteen students in the city received the scholarships, and five were members of International’s Class of 2009. (Another moment is prom, the event that led to Hauser’s 2008 New York Times story and inspired the book.)
We recently spoke to three of those winners, now college juniors. They are Mukta Mukta, seen wrestling with her religion and independence throughout the book; Freeman Degboe, a ham who introduces himself to Seinfeld as “the next Jerry Seinfeld”; and Marie Feline Guerrier, a mini-celebrity in Brooklyn’s Haitian community.
Mukta, who immigrated from Bangladesh in 2002, is now a junior nursing major at the University of Vermont. Degboe, who came to the United States from Togo in 2006, joins her there and is now studying film and television. Guerrier, a Haitian immigrant, is now studying health sciences and nursing at Long Island University.
How did you end up at International High School?
MM: In 2002 I moved to Nebraska first, and I went to school there for two and a half years. I was here in March at the very end of the year, so I started in New York with sixth grade. I was in a middle school in New York and one of my teachers – an English teacher – told me about International and she told me it’s a great school, it’s a new school, and it’s a small school with less students and I got in.
FD: My father moved first and then he brought the rest of us to Brooklyn. During that first week we tried to go to different schools. We went to I.S. 292, but they only took my little sister because they said I was too old. So, they sent us to this office and they told me to go to International High School. I went there and they told me to come back after break – I think it was second semester. I didn’t have to take any tests; I just showed my transcripts from Togo and they accepted me.
MFG: My dad had a friend of his who knew about high schools and who referred me to International High School. My high school experience started shaky, but I said to myself I am in the United States and the reason I came here was for a better future. Especially for Haitians, graduating is a great thing and they believe in education. My family worked hard to bring me here so it’s my job to work hard, not just to make then proud but to help me in the future.
What was your most memorable high school assignment?
MM: Writing the college essay. The college essay was really meaningful for me because I got to know myself better, knowing the fact that I don’t believe in religion and questioning religion – my religion and religion and beliefs in general. It was a strong side of me that came out.
FD: My college essay. They push you a lot to actually re-think the reason why you left your country and how you struggled and the way you think about what you’ve been through and what you want in the future. Or, in my U.S. Government class with Mr. Rice we wrote about gender differences after watching this documentary called “Born into Brothels.” Living in Brooklyn, we were all homophobic at the time, but writing this essay and learning about what’s going on – it changed my thinking completely. So I went from being one of the homophobic guys to being someone who learned how to tolerate everyone else.
MFG: I did so many things that I enjoyed. In science I remember building a bridge. This is the time when we worked as a group and that is something I adore. We worked in groups to build bridges not just for one class but for weeks. Also in social studies one research assignment helped me to see what I really am. I did an essay about human pigmentation and what makes our skin color the way it is. It was amazing and I got to present in front of the whole class to tell them why their skin is the way it is.
What life lessons did you learn by being a student at International?
MM: I learned that being where I’m from is very special because, you know, seeing myself right now in Vermont, people find it fascinating, being from another country and having another language, having that culture.
FD: It’s just so different because there are so many ethnicities and I got to talk to people that I wouldn’t have talked to back home. I learned so much. I like to see different people, to see what kind of similarities we have. In Vermont there’s not as many immigrants here; the population is more white. When I first came here there were only three black guys in my building, and I was really nervous. But then I had my first hall meeting with the resident adviser and we all got together and went around and I’m like, “I’m from Brooklyn and I speak five languages.” After that people started coming up to me. The guys were like, “Oooh that’s so cool!” So the whole floor became my friend.
MFG: We are individuals but at the same time we are so connected to one another. I’m Haitian, but if you are white or Jamaican or Latino, we are different groups but we are also connected. I think it’s amazing going to a school with all immigrants, it’s huge diversity. It’s beautiful. This is the place where I had the opportunity to learn about people of different races, different cultures. It helped me to grow as a person.
Do you think International prepared you for college?
MM: International really prepared me for college in terms of getting into the college process, applying for college, getting scholarships that I would have never found on my own. But the one thing that I would argue is that International did not prepare me for the tough classes. All of the classes that I took here, I’m like I haven’t learned this at all. I guess it’s not challenging enough compared to the position I’m in right now.
FD: It was a big shock, but I would say I was very well prepared for most classes in college. In the classes most of the people were born here or they come from schools that really prepare them. I thought I could just jump in. UVM is a big school so the zoology courses are really hard. Either you went to a school that really prepared you for it or you struggled.
MFG: I am really prepared for my classes. Like when I first came here I was getting As and Bs in all my classes. They’re easy if you put your mind to it and do all your work. It’s not that different than high school, I just put my time into it and everything is perfect.
MM: I’m majoring in nursing so I’ll be graduating next year with my BS. This was my second choice though. In my advisory we did an activity where they asked us what career did you want to get into. And I always wanted to get into the medical field, but being a doctor was my first choice. I had a lot of immigration issues going on at the time, and at that point I was legal, but I didn’t have a green card or a U.S. passport and that created a problem. Because of the immigration issues I had to choose nursing because I have my visa to be in the U.S. until 2012. So, if something goes wrong at least I’ll be closer to completing my program. If I chose pre-med, what am I going to do after? Am I going to be here or not?
FD: I actually switched my major from zoology to film and television. When I started the zoology major, I decided I didn’t like it. They gave me biology, chemistry, calculus and I never had calculus before in my life so I had to get out of it. We did some science in high school, but it wasn’t really at that level. The professor wrapped up everything we did in high school in like two days. So, I switched my major completely. It’s way better. It’s a lot of reading and the reading is really, really hard, but it’s English so it’s better than science. I can just take a dictionary or ask the professor if I don’t understand something.
MFG: I’m a nursing major student but I’m in the health sciences program right now and I’m going back to the nursing major next semester. The number one thing is that I want to keep my GPA high and so I don’t want to be in a program where I can’t keep my GPA high. I want to be in a program where I can catch up.
What should New York City do to help immigrants like yourselves get a better education?
MM: It’s really important to start sort of slow. But at the same time, to remember that you need to progress, to go up instead of staying at the same level. You need to give them real world experience instead of keeping them in hiding. There were a lot of things we were not taught in high school that other students knew. The more you increase the capacity, the higher up students are going to go.
FD: I would say they have to do more to really push them to learn English faster. For me, it was easy because I learned English before I came here so I picked it up faster, but others that didn’t know English struggled more and I think some of them didn’t even go to college. Some of them I never heard them talk English and I’m just wondering how they graduated.
MFG: To make students feel comfortable with the country to be more successful. To do more group work because it helped me so much to know the outside world. As a Haitian immigrant who came to this country not knowing English, things were kind of harder for me. My English wasn’t great, but it was my job to adapt myself to this school and this country. I would sit with students who were from other countries so this helps you to speak the English language more.
Did you read “The New Kids” yet? Thoughts?
MM: It got published? I’m going to have to buy it. I’m so busy with classes and exams.
FD: I started reading it. It’s very true. I’m not really like that anymore, but a lot of people tend to tell me that all I do is flirt around, but I think that’s the way that I am. Guys in America don’t really compliment women. Where I’m from, men compliment the ladies all the time, they smile at them, but here, they take it as flirting.
MFG: I bought it and I started reading it. I love it. That’s the first book I will read, I will focus and read it. It is so true, it’s reality. She paid attention to everything. I love it. It’s real life. It’s what happens in New York City schools.