Special to South Florida Times – People who know Jean-Philippe Nau typically use the same words to describe him. Committed. Considerate. Determined. At a time when youngsters adopt professional habits and attitudes increasingly early, Jean-Philippe, 17, has set himself apart by crafting his early life with an extra dose of perseverance.
“You couldn’t find a more respectful young person,” said Naidy Reboredo, who taught Jean-Philippe Advanced Placement U.S. History at the Mast Academy in Miami. “He is also smart but never sits back. He is always working towards his goals.”
Born in Miami to Haitian parents, Jean-Philippe was brought up in Port-au-Prince until age 7, when his mother, Yolette Francois Nau, decided to settle in the U.S.
From his first few years in Miami speaking only French and Creole,
he went from struggling in school to becoming a North Dade Middle School’s Class Valedictorian in 2007. He then applied – and was accepted – into the Mast Academy which, this year, ranked #46 on Newsweek magazine’s list of the 500 best high schools in America.
The magnet school’s concept – taking children out of their environment and population they live in and exposing them to diversity along with a rigorous curriculum – stuck well with Jean-Philippe, who had his mind set on going to college.
“Coming from an immigrant background, J.P. has what many youth lack: a desire for education,” said Arboredo, who has taught at MAST for the past 18 years. “Some don’t see the importance; because it has always been there, they take it for granted. Jean-Philippe will be a professional to give back to the community 100 per cent.”
To attend MAST, Jean-Philippe rose daily at 5:30 a.m. to face a four-hour round-trip commute from Miami Gardens to the school in Key Biscayne.
“I always believed that, in the end, it would all be worth it,” he said.
“I got through 12 grades of schooling with sweat, hard work and countless sleepless nights. It [my education] means to have endured nine years of adversity and disadvantage as being a child of a single parent and I did not want to become just a statistic.”
This Spring, Jean-Philippe graduated with a 5.6 grade-point average and 37 college credits. But more than getting good grades in school, he strived to gather work experience and become part of his community.
In 2007, he won the Miami-Dade Police Good Guy award and, in 2009, the Certificate of Excellence as Best Witness at Stanford University Law and Trial Advocacy Summer Program. He was also an intern at the State Attorney’s Office, where he was named Intern of the Year for the County Court Traffic and DUI Crimes Sector.
He has also stood out at his church, where he served as an usher and a mentor for younger kids.
“His Catholic upbringing is his foundation,” said Marcia Waite, director of Religious Education at the Church of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Miami Gardens. “Jean Philippe is grounded, respectful, and always willing to help with everything.”
Jean-Philippe attributes his accomplishments to many factors: time management, a focused long-term outlook and a strong bond with his mother.
A former financial accountant in an international bank in Haiti, Yolette Francois Nau says she left her native country to give her son a chance to grow up in a more stable environment.
“My mother always said she came to the U.S. to save a child,” said Jean Philippe.
Once he started attending school, his mother realized that her own career wasn’t in the picture anymore.
It really had to be all about her son.
A librarian at the North Miami Beach Public Library, she says she decided to work part-time to be able to involve herself in her son’s education – attending school meetings and basketball practice – and having time to run a proper household until her son, at age 11, took charge of doing his own laundry and preparing meals.
“In Haiti, there’s a village to raise a child; the community is completely involved. But here parents need to get involved to make things happen,” she said.
“I knew my kid was bright but I also wanted him to be disciplined,” Nau said. “I think that teaching him to take responsibility for his own life has made all the difference.”
Settling into his dorm at the University of Virginia, where he will major in sports medicine, Jean Philippe now, more than ever, realizes it was time well spent as his grades and many extracurricular activities are paying dividends. As a recipient of the Gates Millennium scholarship, funded by Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, his tuition expenses will be paid for up to five years of undergraduate studies.
“I strongly feel driven to succeed,” he said. “Even though I might not have the best clothes or the best car, if I have a dream I know I have everything. I believe that, if you have the grades, the motivation and the drive, there will be people to help you get there, no matter what. I know what I want, I know what I can do and I have the faith to carry it through.
“A black man of low socio-economic background, I never thought I have a choice to make it or not. I have to make it.”
Juliana Accioly may be reached at Accioly.firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo: Jean Philippe Nau