Camden student made a promise to her dying dad and keeps it in a big way

Karina Velez (center) gets a kiss from her mom, Yolanda Acosta, as her aunt, Yanira Acosta, smiles while on a tour of the LEAP Academy in Camden.

Shrieks of jubilation were the instant reaction of Karina Velez and two of her friends in college composition class as they checked on a computer and found out that Velez was granted entry to the Parsons School of Design. In that moment, Velez said, she felt relief after the many months she spent  laboring over her portfolio and admissions essay for her top-choice school.

She was also keeping a promise she made to her father: She would be attending college.

Velez, 18, of East Camden, is a senior at LEAP University Academy Charter High School. She has a 4.0 GPA and will be the school’s salutatorian at graduation June 27.

Khary Golden, the school’s chief innovation officer, said Velez’s admission to the school was an incredible feat. Although LEAP boasts a 100 percent college acceptance rate, Velez is the first LEAP student to gain admittance to the highly competitive and demanding program in New York City. Velez will also become the first in her family to attend college.

Her joy is tinged by a big loss.

On Feb. 25, Velez's father, Roger, died from complications of liver failure. Her father, 52, had had health issues for years. Before he died, she promised him she would graduate from high school and go to college.

She returned to school the following Monday, because that’s where she says she feels most at home.

“I can’t graduate without going to school, and I told my father I was going to graduate,” she said. “Going back to school was a way to keep myself occupied and keep going.”

Now that Velez has been admitted to her dream school, her mother said, their family will do whatever it takes to get her there.

Despite a Parsons academic scholarship, financial aid qualifications, and a $20,000 scholarship from LEAP Academy’s Peter Burke Endowment Fund, the family must still find a way to bridge a roughly $15,000 gap. Golden said he was confident it would find a way to do so.

Both Velez’s mother, Yolanda Acosta, 45, and her aunt Yanira Acosta, 49, of Collingswood, beamed with pride Tuesday, saying they were not surprised that she had decided to attend a school for illustration.

“From the time she was a little girl, she always enjoyed drawing,” Yolanda Acosta said. She spoke in Spanish, with her sister translating.

In high school, Velez homed in on art through conversations with friends, later deciding she should go to school to study it. Velez debated majoring in character design animation before deciding she was better suited for illustration.

Velez calls Carlos Mattei, the director of LEAP’s fabrication laboratory, one of her greatest mentors at the school. Mattei helped Velez create her portfolio for her Parsons application.

Mattei also said Velez’s leadership was paramount in the success of the urban food forest, a grant the school won in 2015. LEAP won the grant in partnership with Rutgers-Camden, which allowed the schools $5,000 to grow an “urban food forest” to help improve access to food in Camden, a city federally classified as a food desert.

“Karina is a very committed student with excellent leadership skills. She’s always volunteering herself to help and is a leader among her peers,” Mattei said. “Going to Parsons is a great opportunity, and like all things, I know she’ll ace it.”

Senior Rickea Bell, 18, of the Fairview section of Camden, called Velez one of her truest friends and a truly selfless person, which is why she shrieked when she found out Parsons had accepted her the day she hunched over the computer with her friend.

“When I was accepted to Hofstra, she cried for me and I shrieked because it’s so nice to see her achieve her academic dreams,” Bell said. “Honestly, I believe she’ll end up changing the world someday no matter what she’s doing.”

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