By Gary Peterson
Bay Area News Group Columnist
Poor eyesight wasn't the only problem Qwanesha Smith had during her first two years of high school. But it epitomized the obstacles she has overcome to put herself on the threshold of becoming the first member of her family to attend college.
The manner in which she worked around her inability to see what her teachers were writing on the blackboard is illustrative of her resolve.
"I would either come after school and spend hours copying down the notes, or I would stand up in class the whole time," said Smith, 17, a senior at Antioch High. "So I'd be at the front of the class by the teacher's desk standing up and I'd be looking at the board and copying down the notes like that."
With the help of Students Rising Above, a nonprofit program that aids high school students from impoverished backgrounds, Smith was able to obtain glasses. A 4.2-GPA student, Smith will graduate in June and study nursing at Cal State East Bay.
"She's very thoughtful and considerate," said Michelle Parsons, Smith's mentor in the program. "She comes from a hard background. You'd never guess by meeting her."
When Smith was 2 years old, her father went to jail for seven years.
"We don't have a close relationship," she said. "And he has an addiction to crack cocaine, so that's been difficult to deal with."
Smith lives with her mother and 22-year-old sister. She has other siblings on both her mother's and father's side, but she says the extended family is not close.
"The main thing I've struggled with is my mom because of the situation with my dad and him not being there," Smith said. "That added a lot of stress to her. So that's another thing that motivated me to do so good in school. I wanted to not add any extra stress to my mom."
Smith has done better than good. In addition to her stellar GPA, she achieved a perfect score on the California High School Exit Exam. She has worked on the student newspaper all four years, rising from honorary contributing writer to sports editor to editor-in-chief. As a freshman, sophomore and junior she was a math tutor for seniors who were at risk of not graduating. She's even tutored family members, recently helping her brother get his certification as a licensed vocational nurse.
"Even if it was a school night, he'd come over to my house and I'd stay up with him until like 3 o'clock in the morning helping him with his math skills and quizzing him on the different information from the huge textbooks that they have," she said. "My mom is a CNA (certified nursing assistant), so it's not anything new. I've always been interested in medicine."
In what little free time she has, Smith writes poetry and is active in her church.
She applied to a number of colleges and was accepted by USC before settling on Cal State East Bay. That's not to say her road to college has been without twists and turns.
Smith credits her uncle and aunt, Kwaume and Noreen Frederick, of Pittsburg, with offering her support and a place to stay when her home life was in tumult.
"They've been really helpful," she said. "If there was ever an appointment or an interview I had to go to, they would take me ...."
Kwaume Frederick gladly returns the kind words.
"Anything she needs from me, I'm just trying to be her support group," he said. "I have a big family. But anything that comes up that she needs, we find a way for her. ... I know she's trying to do her absolute best."
There were many opportunities for his niece to stumble, but she never did, Frederick said.
"She always made very good choices. She keeps good associations. She's very selective. I think that will take her a long way," he said.
Smith said she focused on the bigger picture to keep herself motivated.
"I just always knew that if I worked really hard and got good grades it would be worth it," Smith said. "I've always been really big on learning from others' mistakes so you don't have to make the same ones. I know too many people, like young girls who are pregnant, or they drop out of school, or they're going to continuation school and they're not going to graduate because they don't have enough credits. I can't allow myself to fall into that same trap."
If anything, she inspires to keep others from stumbling. Frederick said that he brags about Qwanesha so much that his kids are motivated to "outdo her." The grandmother of one of Smith's friends once called to thank her for being such a good influence on her granddaughter.
"I'm really proud because I know so many people who have come from the same background as me," Smith said. "They make up all the excuses in the world -- they can't do this because their dad is in jail, or their mom doesn't care about them, and they live in a single-parent family. I'm proud because I feel like I've accomplished a lot as far as grades and extracurricular activities and avoiding becoming a statistic."