Iraqi ready for a new challenge: college

fadi2201.jpgBy Chris Moran
UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER

MISSION VALLEY – Fadi Shaya was playing catch-up from the day he arrived in California five years ago. He entered eighth grade in El Cajon speaking no English and with almost no formal schooling of any kind.
His family’s home outside Baghdad was blown up in sectarian conflict when he was 6. Before he and his Chaldean Catholic family were smuggled out of Iraq in a truck three years later, he had learned to fire a gun to deter the Muslim youths who had beaten him unconscious several times.

During the years he would have attended elementary school, Shaya was making deliveries by mule in Iraq and later selling tissues and lottery tickets on the streets of Greece.

He brought little more than ambition with him to Emerald Middle School and then Grossmont High.

“I wanted to go to college so bad that staying in newcomer (a high school academic program) is not going to help me. I had to advance as much as I can just to be equal to other students,” said Shaya, 18.

He caught up to them this spring when he received an e-mail informing him he had been admitted to the University of California Los Angeles, where he will be a pre-med major. Shaya graduated from Grossmont High in June with a 4.3 grade-point average.

Yesterday, he vaulted to the top of a local group of strivers known as AVID students. With his father, Salim Audesh, a delivery driver, and his mother, Hanan Essa, a community college student, in the audience, Shaya received a $25,000 scholarship from AVID, which started in San Diego in 1980 and has grown to a program serving 300,000 students in 45 states.

Then Shaya got a standing ovation from 3,400 educators undergoing AVID training who heard him tell his life story in a convention hall in Mission Valley.

AVID is a college-prep program that teaches students how to take notes, prepare for college entrance exams, succeed in their school’s toughest courses and meet the deadlines for college admission.

Olivia Wilson, Shaya’s AVID teacher, said AVID gives students something to shoot for.

“How are you going to reach for something if you don’t know it’s there?” she said.

In Shaya’s case, AVID also means money. The scholarship, a UCLA grant and his work-study job will cover most of his expenses, Shaya said. His family will help him cover the rest.

Shaya has said that the relatives in Iraq whom he has told about his success have never heard of UCLA, but they understand that being admitted to a university is an honor.

Shaya credits his quick advancement to six hours a day of reading in addition to his regular schoolwork. His AVID teacher gave him extra books to read when he finished his English assignments. He wrote down new words and their definitions in three-section notebooks and committed them to memory.

By the end of high school, he had taken eight Advanced Placement courses, for which high school students can earn college credit.

“I am living the American dream,” he said.

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