"I didn't do well at all. I was hanging out with the wrong people, getting into a lot of trouble," the 20-year-old Ridgewood resident said. "College wasn't something that was even a thought."He also never imagined winning a prestigious national scholarship someday and having a shot at attending the nation's top Ivy League graduate schools. Thanks to hard work, good friends and faith, those once-improbable prospects have become a reality for the City College of New York student - one of 75 college juniors named a Truman scholar last week. Simpkins beat out more than 500 candidates from 299 schools for the honor, which bestows $30,000 scholarships on students with outstanding leadership skills who plan to attend graduate school for careers in government or public service. "It couldn't have happened to a better person," said the Rev. Adam Durso, 28, pastor at Christ Tabernacle Church in Ridgewood where Simpkins has volunteered as a youth group leader and audio technician for years. "It's great to see young people striving to be excellent. We're extremely proud of him."Simpkins thanked his church for his turnaround from slacker to super student. The political science and philosophy major was born in New York City but moved to the South with his father after his parents divorced. He languished in the Charlotte public schools, acting out in class and getting suspended. "I felt that a lot of the reason I was getting into trouble was because I was idle," Simpkins said. "For me it was more about being seen than ever actually hitting the books."But he decided to straighten out his senior year and moved back to his mother's home in Ridgewood to attend Grover Cleveland High School. He fell in with a good crowd at the church and became captain of the school debate team, winning several tournaments. "I aced my senior year here," Simpkins said. He was accepted at City College, where he continued to thrive. The school nominated him for the Truman award. During the selection process, he had to defend a proposed U.S. policy change before a six-person panel comprised of an undersecretary of state and a lawyer with the U.S. Department of Justice.Simpkins argued that the United States should improve relations in the Middle East by sending more exchange students there and demanding better foreign language skills from its foreign service officers. The panel grills candidates to gauge them under pressure and Simpkins walked away from the interview shaken, thinking he had fumbled his defense. He was surprised when City College President Gregory Williams told him March 28 that he had won the scholarship. "He simply told me that they were impressed," Simpkins said. Now he is plotting his post-graduation plans and spent last weekend visiting Yale's law school for the second time. "It's still a battle between Harvard grad (school) and Yale law," Simpkins said. "It's yet to be decided."Reach reporter Matthew Monks by e-mail at news@times
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