Growing up in one of New York City’s worst neighborhoods, Leonardo Sime, Class of 2010 student commencement speaker and U.S. Marine Corps veteran, found escape in two things: education and service.
Sime, 38, plans to combine these two virtues by becoming a teacher in hopes that his life experience will be useful to his students.
Sime was raised in New York’s lower East Side during the 1980s, witnessing gang violence and the city’s devastating crack epidemic just outside his door. He lived modestly with his mother and four sisters. “Our mother worked hard and raised us on a meager salary,” Sime said.
To stay out of trouble, and to insulate himself from the chaos and violence on the streets, Sime raised pigeons on the roof of his building and worked diligently in school. “School was my sanctuary; it was my home away from home,” he said.
Education ultimately would prove to be his path, but first Sime wanted to get out of New York City, which he did by enlisting in the Marines in 1990.
“When I was a kid I used to watch movies with my mom that portrayed soldiers heroically and I said, ‘I want to do that when I grow up,’” he said.
Sime served in the Persian Gulf and left the military in 1994, returning to New York and attending The Borough of Manhattan Community College. His first attempt at higher education did not last. “There are a lot of distractions in the city and I couldn’t concentrate,” he said.
It is much easier for someone without a college degree to find work in a metropolitan area, Sime said, and he spent time working as a personal trainer and doing other jobs, putting his education on hold.
Sime again felt compelled to serve his country after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He learned to speak Arabic and re-enlisted in the Marines, serving in Iraq until 2004.
It wasn’t long after he returned that Sime’s sisters, who had moved to Providence, persuaded him to join them in Rhode Island.
After New York, Providence seems small to Sime, and he joked that the relative quiet of the city makes it hard for him to sleep given the noise he is used to. However, this also provided a great environment for studying, and Sime began taking classes at CCRI in Fall 2007.
“Ever since I started school here I haven’t had as many distractions,” he said. “It has been a very eventful, challenging experience and I loved every minute of it.”
Sime married his wife, Nelida, in March 2007 and he juggled his academic responsibilities with raising three stepchildren and two of his own. On top of this, Sime is a personal trainer, volunteers with his church and works with behaviorally troubled children in the Providence public school system. “Doing all of those plus school has been very challenging, but I made it,” he said.
Sime more than just “made it”; he graduated with a degree in General Studies as a member of the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society with a 3.7 GPA. He hopes to go on to earn a bachelor’s degree in English so that he can teach writing, one of his passions.
“I like the art form of creating pictures through words,” he said, adding, “I enjoy the reciprocal relationship between a reader and a writer.”
He hopes to teach secondary education and then become a college professor and believes that in both cases his life experience and military service will help him bring a unique perspective to his students.
“I’ve always felt that life experience and education would help me help my community,” he said.
Sime recently turned down admission to Columbia University, not wanting to return to New York and also hoping to be admitted to Brown University, but he was unfortunately denied. “A lot of people would look at that [rejection] letter as negative, but I take it as inspiration to aspire to even greater heights,” Sime said.
He is now considering finishing his bachelor’s degree at the University of Rhode Island, which he can do right in his new home of Providence.
“Think of it as swimmers in a pool,” he said. “If you focus on the negative, you’re treading water while everyone else is doing laps. If you focus on the negative, that’s where you’ll be stuck.”
The Community College of Rhode Island, New England’s largest community college, has full-service campuses in Warwick, Lincoln, Providence and Newport and operates satellites in Downcity Providence and Westerly. CCRI enrolls an average of nearly 18,000 students annually in credit courses and thousands more in noncredit and workforce training classes and programs.