Succeeding by Degrees : Youth Overcomes Adversity, Embraces Future as a Doctor

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For as long as he can remember, John Castro has wanted to be a doctor. The 17-year-old Kennedy High School senior said he is determined to break his ancestral chain of impoverished farming families scraping for a living in Colombia. So three years ago, his parents, Enrique and Ofelia Castro, packed up everything they owned and came to America with a dream for the future for their teen-age son and young daughter.

Initially unable to speak English, John studied hard and completed language courses in only two years--about half the usual time. As his parents labored at menial jobs, John took tough courses to prepare for college.

The dream was almost shattered a year ago when Ofelia Castro died in a tragic fall down the stairwell of their Van Nuys townhouse. John said he was devastated by the loss, but with the help of teachers and counselors, he picked himself up and worked harder than ever.

"I tried to focus and keep studying because that is what my mom wanted me to do. It's what my dad wants, too. For me to become a doctor is his dream," said the soft-spoken, serious-minded teen-ager.

He will graduate this month in the top 10% of his class and has been accepted at UCLA, where he will begin premedical studies in the fall.

"John is not by any means a self-pitying young man," said his math teacher, Kathy Faught, who helped obtain crisis counseling for the grieving teen-ager after the March, 1994, accident. "He is really special. He defines resiliency ."

She pointed to John's sense of humor, gentle smile and balance of character as attributes "that just hook you and make you want to teach another year."

John's teachers and counselors attribute his success not to any particular genius but to sheer determination and hard work. "He knows how to prioritize," Faught said. "He is extremely motivated. He decided the things he was going to do and wanted to excel in and then he did it."

Tough courses he tackled in preparation for a biology major at college include math analysis, calculus and physics. He was named the outstanding foreign language student at Kennedy High for his advanced skills in reading and writing Spanish, but also studied French to boost his qualifications for college.

The determined young honors student has completed several advanced placement courses to give him a head start in college. He said he plans to enter a work-study program to help pay for his education. While he has secured about $7,000 in financial aid toward his first year's tuition and expenses of $12,000, he is confident he can raise the rest.

"I believe that if you work hard enough for things, everything will be fine," said the lean, auburn-haired youngster. He worked for a while translating brochures into Spanish and as a telemarketer for a real estate saleswoman, but lost the job recently after the saleswoman quit.

To help make up for the loss of wages that his wife earned as a secretary, John's father now works two jobs: from 4 to 6 a.m. delivering daily newspapers, then from noon to 9 p.m. as a custodian at UCLA.

John, who has his own car, picks up his 5-year-old sister, Maria, from child care after school, prepares dinner and sees that she is ready for bed before their father arrives home. On weekends, John frequently takes his sister to football games or other entertainment, said Patricia Olsen, a counselor at Kennedy.

"He's really been the mom for her," Olsen said.

Olsen described John as "very quiet, very mature. He has a handle on things even though he is hurting inside. He worries about his sister and father more than himself. If someone knew him, he would inspire them."

"His family has always talked about John becoming a doctor, ever since he was real little," said Luis Enrique Castro of Granada Hills, John's paternal grandfather and a retired accountant. The 67-year-old Castro, who also sought opportunity in America almost 40 years ago, claims credit for persuading his son's family to move here.

Virtually penniless when they arrived, John and his family lived with his grandfather for a year before moving into a rented apartment in Canoga Park. As the family members worked and pooled their money, they finally saved enough to purchase the Van Nuys townhouse two years ago.

Enrique Castro originally had worked in the cafeteria at Panorama Community Hospital, then later used salesmanship skills, honed in Colombia, to sell cars for a Valley dealer. He quit that position to accept employment at UCLA because the job offered medical insurance and other benefits for his family, John said.

The example set by his parents is his greatest inspiration to succeed, John said. "I want to do it for my dad because he has worked so much. He does not speak good English, but he tries very hard. Now that mom is gone, he is working harder and sacrificing his time to be with us."

In an essay he wrote for a scholarship contest, John said he wants to set "an example for the rest of my family who are mostly farmers and low-income people."

With a 3.54 grade-point average, John was accepted at several universities, including Loyola Marymount, Florida State and several University of California campuses. He picked UCLA, he said, because he wants to stay close to his father.

John also is being considered for several scholarships, said Karen Whicker-Ellis, college counselor and gifted student coordinator at Kennedy. She said he stands out in his class of 440 seniors because "he is extremely polite, mature and appreciative of his teachers and counselors."

"He has tapped his potential to the fullest."

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