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Teenage wiz rises from hardship to scholarship

Much has changed in the life of Jose Ramirez over the past 13 years.

The 18-year-old senior at Grover Cleveland High School is bound for Yale University this fall, having already won so many college scholarships that he is likely to have his education fully paid for - with some left over.

But as a 4-year-old child in the Dominican Republic, living in a small house whose roof was punctuated with holes, he could only sit on the dirt floor and watch as his uniform-clad peers marched to school every morning.

"I wish I could have gone - I never was able to go," Ramirez recalled as he sipped hot chocolate at the Dunkin' Donuts a block from his Ridgewood school last Thursday, the first day of his spring vacation. "There was no financial backbone to support five of us going to school."

Ramirez's father left the family when he was 2, which forced his mother to depart for the United States a few months later - passing each of her five children onto a different relative to raise in her absence.

But her journey was fueled by a vision for her children's future. Schools in the Dominican Republic were too expensive to afford, so she scraped out a life for herself working at factory jobs in New York. Within two years she had her family join her in America, where the education is free.

So it wasn't until age 5 that Ramirez entered his first classroom without speaking a word of English.

"The first time I was in school was when I came to the U.S.," Ramirez said.

Despite the language barrier, he finally felt at home. "All the kids were crying around me," he remembered. "I was the only one to be happy in school."

By second grade he had jumped up to the honors class, an achievement that would persist through high school, where he has already exhausted all of the advanced placement classes to be offered.

Perhaps the only thing more remarkable than the tale of Ramirez's childhood is the epilogue. He is ranked No. 2 in a class of 444 students, president of the honor society, and captain of the Science Olympiad, Chemistry Olympiad and the debate team.

To top it off, last month Ramirez won a prestigious scholarship from The New York Times, which recognizes students who have overcome tremendous odds to achieve academic and intellectual success. He will spend the summer writing for the Science Times, a section of the newspaper he reads with relish every Tuesday.

The Times award is one of many grants he has already won to finance his education, with more expected down the road.

After applying to as many scholarships as he could, a chore that forced him to get to school by 7 every morning for months, Ramirez continued to arrive at that hour to help his classmates with their own applications.

"He's wowing me," said Roslyn Sternlieb, his college counselor at Grover Cleveland, who said Ramirez is the first student she has seen go to Yale in her decade at the school. "He wants to be the success so he can take care of everyone else" in his family, she said.

Ramirez is a young looking 18, with a neat wisp of hair above his lip and a boyish face unfazed by the hardships he has endured.

Indeed, he rattles off his biography as if it were a movie he watched rather than a struggle he survived.

"When you're young, you think whatever happens to you happens to everyone," he said. "Because of that, you don't let it bring you down."

When he moved to New York all six family members started out sleeping in a single bed in a room they temporarily rented. Within months they settled into a two-bedroom apartment in Bushwick, where his mother and two sisters slept in one room, and he and two brothers stayed in the other. They recently moved to East New York.

He credits his family with fueling his success, namely his eldest brother - who at 10 years his senior served as a father figure - and his mother, who still plugs away at the factory, now with three children in college.

"They're pretty impressed. I got them a Yale T-shirt - they were wearing it," he said of his family. "I got a bumper sticker - they put it on right away."

His chosen career is the medical side of neurochemistry, a field that merges his fascination with chemical bonding and his obsession with the brain, which his A.P. biology teacher described as "the last frontier."

"It's the last thing scientists still don't understand," he said.

But his interests stretch well beyond the reaches of science. Ramirez is currently drafting what he describes as a "pseudo-novel," a stream-of-consciousness tome inspired by Jack Kerouac's "On The Road."

"I don't know if it'll be a success - I doubt it - but it's still kind of fun."

His ultimate dream is one he is much more likely to realize, however.

"The first thing I plan to do after I finish medical school is to take my mother out of the ghetto in which we now live," he wrote in an essay for The Times scholarship. "This would be a small token of appreciation for all that she has done for me."

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.

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