With curiosity, confidence, he's poised to enter Penn

Homeless as a child, he passed one test after another.

20080701_inq_psteven01z-a
At a Masterman assembly, Steven Vaughn-Lewis, 18, hugs his grandmother Loretta Ford, who has raised him since he was 8.

Steven Vaughn-Lewis is tall and lanky and sometimes stammers. But any first impressions of awkwardness vanish as he exudes a quiet confidence, often punctuated by a warm grin.

It is a confidence that has grown over his 18 years, as he overcame homelessness, months of missing grade school, and stints in foster care.

After his grandmother rescued him at age 8, he grew up in a Strawberry Mansion neighborhood where poverty runs deep, few have better than a high school diploma, and gunshots turn young black men like him into casualties of petty violence.

Now, with high school over, Steven nervously awaits his next hurdle.

With a full four-year academic scholarship, he's heading to the University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League school where African American students are twice as likely as white students to drop out.

It is his first stop in becoming a surgeon.

As he prepares for the arduous journey, Steven is humbled by thoughts of what if?

"There are a lot of people like me who just weren't that fortunate," he says. "What if my grandma hadn't taken me out of foster care? What if I wasn't fortunate enough to have gone to Masterman? I don't know where I'd be now."

Steven doesn't like to linger on his childhood. What he will say is that he and his brother were often hostage to his mother's mental illness, which sometimes turned emotionally abusive. The family moved abruptly and often - from Los Angeles; to Miami, Ohio; to Texas, to Philadelphia.

"I looked at them like adventures," he says of the long bus rides to nowhere. Before landing with his grandmother, he went to eight schools. In every one he'd make a best friend, only to leave each behind.

The last time Steven remembers seeing his father, he was about 10. They were in court over what he believes was a custody dispute.

His mother appeared in fits and starts.

Reading, he says, became his refuge.

When Steven was about 3, his grandmother remembers her daughter calling to say he was reading the newspaper comics.

"He always could read," says his grandmother, Loretta Ford. "I don't remember a time when he couldn't read."

And he had a thirsty mind, asking so many questions.

In raising Steven, the 64-year-old former nurse relied on her old-school values - values she learned growing up in a family that didn't have much, but at a time when "children were cared for."

"It's called 'everyday living,' " she explains. "You do what you can."

For her grandsons, that meant no "bed hugging." They were up and dressed by 8 a.m., even in summer.

Rooms had to be clean. Homework had to be done.

For Steven's brother, who is a year younger, things were strained, and at age 12, he left to live with his uncle; he has struggled with school.

Steven, though, didn't want to do anything to burden his grandmother or somehow end up back in foster care.

Until graduation, he got up at 6 a.m. for his 45-minute commute to Masterman, then worked three hours after school before coming home at 7:30 to do homework.

He still works the same office job, now full-time. In his free time, he listens to music - from Biggie Smalls to Phantom of the Opera, and talks on the phone with school friends. Or plays Scrabble with his grandmother, who he admits is overprotective.

Growing up, he wasn't allowed off their tidy block, not even to the nearby playground. "And the two times I could go there to run ball, I had ridiculous restrictions. I had to call every 15 minutes."

Even now, when he goes out, he has to write down the address and phone number of where he's going. And he had best be home by 11 p.m.

"I don't see it as unreasonable," he says. "She knows what's out there in the world, and she doesn't want anything to happen to me."

Just last year, he remembers, their block was sealed off by yellow police tape - another person shot and killed.

When Steven passes the guys idling on the corner, he offers a simple nod.

For some, "there are no other opportunities other than fast money," he explains.

But for Steven, one door after another opened as others, beyond his grandmother, saw his potential.

At Leslie P. Hill Elementary School, where few fifth graders performed at grade level, Steven shined.

One day, a school counselor phoned his grandmother and urged her to get Steven on the list for Masterman. She remembers him saying Steven "deserved" to be there.

He started the academically rigorous Masterman in sixth grade, and in ninth caught the attention of his honors biology teacher.

Nabeehah Parker remembers that whenever she asked a question, one particular student would throw his hand in the air and leave it there until finally, exhausting all possibilities, she called him.

Steven Vaughn-Lewis.

He would answer thoroughly, and offer connections and examples beyond anything Parker had taught in class.

She finally asked him: "How do you know all of this?"

"I like to read."

"Reading was sort of an escape for him," she says, "and that made him a powerful participant in the classroom."

Steven calls Parker his mentor. She calls him brilliant.

"I think Steven has an inner voice that tells him, 'Education can take me places I want to go,' " Parker explains. "A lot of students don't understand that. He seems to have gotten that message at an early age. And he has an inner drive that's phenomenal."

In 10th grade, when Steven needed a job, she called Rosalind Chivis, head of the school district's office of secondary education, who hired him as her administrative assistant.

Parker also urged his science teacher to challenge him, knowing his interest in medicine.

When Steven was little, his brother's asthma often put him in the hospital. The doctors' kind words and hard candy convinced Steven he wanted to become one of them. More recently, his great-grandmother was saved by emergency surgery.

That sophomore year, Steven and two other students conducted a four-month experiment at Penn on a part of the brain related to memory. It involved LED receptors, optical mapping and oxygenation levels.

Parker will never forget how Steven burst into her classroom and yelled: "I think I know why people forget things!"

His team won gold medals in citywide science fairs, and Steven returned from Penn determined to go there. He had no idea it was so prestigious, nor how he would pay for it.

At Masterman, he'd maintained a 4.0 average, while finding time to be president of the school's African American Cultural Committee, a saxophone player in the jazz band, and a tutoring coordinator for fifth and sixth graders.

"I never thought I was Ivy League material," he says. "Then I thought: Why shouldn't I?"

Parker wrote him a letter of recommendation:

"Although he may not offer all the 'extras' that other students present in their admissions package," such as an abundance of AP classes, "his genius manifests in his ability to overcome adversity and focus on achievement."

When Steven told his grandmother he'd gotten in, with a scholarship, she told him, "Let me take your temperature."

"He's the epitome of 'against all odds,' " says his boss, Chivis. "He's an example of what a young person can aspire to when they're surrounded by caring adults."

Steven puts it more modestly. "I just did what I was good at. I just focused on that, and it led me to where I am."

For his senior project, Steven wanted to shadow a trauma team. Parker again picked up the phone.

She called Temple University Hospital's trauma outreach coordinator, Scott Charles, who, moved by her urging and Steven's poise, allowed the teen in.

For two weeks, Steven wore scrubs and a pager, which went off whenever a trauma patient barreled through the emergency-room doors.

Charles often teased, "Don't faint, Steven. Don't let me down."

There were car crashes, motorcycle accidents, falls - and 23 gunshot patients, more than one a day.

"The list of gunshot patients were exclusively young black males like myself," Steven remembers. "That impacted me the most."

Steven describes a gunshot as "a wrecking ball slamming into a building." He saw the results firsthand: open abdomens, brain damage, paralysis.

Often, he and Charles would visit the rooms of gunshot patients. Charles hoped to enroll them in an intervention program - maybe to get a GED or a job.

"When people leave the hospital," Steven later told his classmates during his senior-project presentation, "they go right back to the streets that sent them there. We have to do what we can to keep them from coming back."

Steven, said Charles, carried himself "like he belonged there. He's able to go into that room and look that kid in the eye and say, 'Hey, man, what's going on? Talk to me,' as someone they can relate to.

"But until he walks with the college diploma," Charles added, "it's all about hope. It's all about potential, but we have to get him there."

Charles quickly recruited his wife, who happens to run a Penn program to help prepare African and African American freshmen for university life.

"Black students have a hard time at Penn," says Camille Charles, a sociology professor and associate director of the Center for Africana Studies. "No matter how academically or socially prepared they are."

She offers myriad reasons for the disparity, including their heavy dependence on financial aid and the social pressure of being black on an overwhelmingly white campus. On one hand, there's fear of being perceived as not black enough, she said. On the other is the burden of stereotypes.

"They know that their whole race is being judged on the basis of their own individual performance," she says, "and it has a negative impact on their grades."

As for Steven, she checks off added concerns: his worry for his grandmother, his need to work, Penn's tough academics and sheer size.

To help, she contacted his adviser, and connected Steven to a few science professors. And she plans to help him find a job on campus, closer to his studies.

"He's a resourceful kid," she says, "but at the end of the day you don't want the initial shock to be so great it gets him off balance and he has a hard time coming back."

For Steven, hard times have been his strength.

"I'm nervous, I'm excited - I'm everything," he says about college. "Becoming a surgeon is an extremely long road. But it just strengthens my resolve to succeed."

Whatever happens, his grandmother says she'll be there for him.

"I tell him you have to know where you stand with yourself, and I think he's come to that point."

 


Contact staff writer Kia Gregory at 215-854-2601 or kgregory@phillynews.com.