He Turned Right and Changed His Life – Andy Perales
Two months before his 41st birthday, Andy Perales will receive his associate’s degree in Human Services and graduate with honors. The Paterson resident is a member of the Phi Theta Kappa (PTK) Honor Society, the international honor society for two-year colleges. He is a scholarship recipient and one of two PCCC students named by the New Jersey Council of County Colleges to this year’s All-USA Academic Team. Andy was also awarded the Human Services Academic Excellence and Commitment to Service Award at the May 21 Graduate and Academic Awards Ceremony.
The recognition for academic achievement has been a long time in coming. “At some point my life took a left turn, and I got on the wrong path,” says Andy.
A good student in middle school, Andy found the lessons came easily to him. “I just listened and picked up on what the teacher was saying,” he explained. He sang in the school choir and was a member of the student council. “I was always very social,” said Andy.
But in his teenage years, Andy took a detour. Personal and family challenges dominated much of his life. “I wasn’t thinking about school,” he said. “Other things became the center of my life.” Preoccupied, he failed to graduate from high school with his class, but later attended night school to earn his GED (high school equivalency)
Over the years, Andy worked at various jobs, including construction, house painting, hair-cutting and more. “I’m multi—talented,” he joked. He married the love of his life, a woman he had known since their teen years. Tragically, after only four years of marriage, she fell ill and died. Not long after, while Andy was still grieving for her, his mother and best friend also passed away.
“I was at my lowest point and knew I had to make a change,” said Andy. He felt his life lacked a clear direction, and he set out to fix that.
When a series of events brought him to live in Paterson, Andy knew what he would do. “I walked out the door one day and turned right.” That was the way to PCCC…and to a whole new life.
Now in mid-life, Andy has fulfilled the promise he demonstrated in middle school, earning good grades and becoming involved in student life. For the past year, Andy served as treasurer on the executive board of Alpha Eta Chi (AEC), the PCCC chapter of PTK. He has been part of the AEC team that achieved the most successful year in the chapter’s history.
“PTK has opened so many doors to me,” said Andy who recently, along with others on the AEC team, attended Catalyst, the annual PTK international convention, held this year in Orlando, Florida.
“It was fantastic,” said Andy. “There were speakers, educational forums, and a lot of fellowship with other members.” Regarding the many awards Alpha Eta Chi collected at the event, which gives recognition to chapters for their accomplishments, Andy noted, “It was really great to get the acknowledgement for all our hard work.”
Looking back over his two years at PCCC, Andy confided that he, at times, has felt like the “old man” in the class, surrounded by typical college-age students. But he found a creative way to bridge the age gap while helping others. “I had the idea to approach a fellow student and offer to help him with his English papers, if he tutored me in algebra,” said Andy. The exchange went well and prompted Andy to organize more study opportunities like that. “I enjoy helping others,” he said.
Andy also assisted in establishing a new initiative at PCCC called Men of Color, a support group primarily for minority male students. “We started out with eight of us,” says Andy, proud of the group’s success. “Now we have approximately 60 members.”
Most days, Andy arrives at PCCC early in the morning and stays until late evening. He has a work study job on campus, but there’s another reason why he practically lives at the College. “The people here became my family,” he explained, expressing particular gratitude to Professor Jennifer Gasparino, a Human Services professor and advisor to PTK. “She has been like a mother, encouraging and advising me.”
Accepted into a bachelor’s degree program at Rutgers-Newark, Andy hopes to eventually earn a master’s degree and go into private practice as a counselor, specializing in marriage and family or teen issues.
“Right now,” he admits, “I’m having some separation anxiety about leaving PCCC.” But it won’t be for long. Andy will remain vitally connected to the College next year as a PTK Alumni Executive Board member. When he took that right turn to PCCC, Andy came home.
Written and photographed by Linda Telesco