Saturday, September 24th, 2022
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From Muddy Floors to the Halls of Harvard

Leonel SilvaLeonel Silva remembers beds floating down the streets in his home country, the Dominican Republic, in 1998 after Hurricane George hit.

“It was cold, wet and our floor was muddy,” says Silva.

Silva was just 6 years old when the hurricane hit and soon after, his two siblings and mother would join his father in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

“Lancaster reminded me a bit of our little village in the Dominican Republic,” says Silva. “While the culture and language were different, the people were very warm, and accepting and helpful. It’s one of the reasons I’ve stayed here.”

Silva grew up fast, having a child when he was a senior at McCaskey High School. He graduated high school, was accepted into the economics department at Millersville University and while a full-time student, worked as a server at Willow Valley as well as part-time at RR Donnelley.

“I lived on campus and would bring my daughter to Gaige on the weekends,” says Silva. “Thanks to people like DR. KIRSTEN MADDEN, my advisor, who was there whenever I needed her, I managed to graduate in four years. My junior year was overwhelming; here I was a full-time student, working two jobs and having a young daughter. I was ready to throw in the towel, but Dr. Madden pushed me forward. She has a heart of gold. She believed in me, and she cared – she would ask about my daughter. That made all the difference.”

At Millersville, Silva says he wasn’t as involved as he would have liked to have been because of work, but he managed to play club soccer. He stays in touch with his 6’3” former roommate. “I’m 5’ 4” and when I walked into my dorm room and saw this huge guy from Philly, I thought I was going to die,” laughs Silva, “and on top of it, he went by the name of Sledge. He turned out to be a teddy bear, and we still stay in touch. I didn’t realize how diverse Millersville was – it’s one of the things I love about it.”

Since graduating from Millersville, Silva has been the associate director at ATTOLLO in Lancaster. It’s a rigorous college access/leadership program founded by the Children Deserve a Chance Foundation and is based on the belief that “Dreams Don’t Work Unless You Do.” Attollo scholars receive the mentorship and resources necessary to triumph as leaders at their schools and their communities. Over 341 scholars in seven school districts spend 550 hours each year engaged in Attollo programs.

“I fell in love with the organization,” says Silva. “I met the founder, Jordan Steffy, who is the most dynamic person I’ve ever worked with. Attollo was the right place to be. We mentor the students and we are mentored back. I grew a real passion for education.”

Later this summer Silva will leave his job to head to Harvard, where he has been accepted to continue pursuing his passion at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

“Jordan really pushed me to go for it,” says Silva. “At every single pivotal moment in my life, someone has been there for me. There has always been someone there to push me when I needed it, to push me forward and out of my comfort zone.”

After graduate school, Silva says he plans to come right back to Lancaster. “I consider Lancaster home. I want to pay it back. I want to be a role model for my daughter and make it easier for her. My parents didn’t speak English, and we didn’t sit around a dining room table talking about colleges. I had to navigate college on my own. I want it to be easier for my daughter and for the thousands of high school students in Lancaster. We cannot pay it back, so we must always pay it forward.”

Silva says he will miss his daughter while he’s away, but that she will visit him and is excited to see the museums. “I got her a Harvard sweatshirt just like mine,” says Silva. “We’re twinsies. But right now it’s time to learn. I’m just getting started and the world has endless possibilities for all of us.”

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