By Ted Waddell
LOCH SHELDRAKE May 20, 2005 It's a long, hard road from the streets of Harlem to the ivy-covered walls of Harvard.
For Dilia T. Gonzalez, the student trustee at Sullivan County Community College, the journey to the Ivy League university started in the projects of East Harlem at 99th and Second Avenue and continued to her high school graduation in 1982 when she was handed a diploma by Cardinal Cooke in St. Patrick's Cathedral.
She married at the age of 19 and after high school went to steno academy to be a court reporter.
"After a year, that didn't do it for me," recalled Gonzalez.
So she stayed home for a while to raise her kids and then went back to work, first as a legislative aide in Yonkers and then when she and her partner-in-life Ray Ortiz figured it was time to flee the mean streets of the city.
"There were a lot of drugs and gangs, and my two oldest were getting recruited by kids on the corner," she said. "It was either fight a losing battle or pack up and leave, so we got in our car and just drove till we found a place."
On December 31, 2003, Gonzalez made a New Year's resolution: go back to school and start studying to be a lawyer.
When she applied to Josephine Finn's paralegal studies class, she was told it was wait-listed, as the class was full.
"I looked at her and said, 'I promise that if you let me in, I will be the hardest-working student you've ever had,' and she told me she'd let me in, but 'I'll hold you to that'," said Gonzalez.
At the age of 38, the mother of four found herself sitting in a classroom studying law as Judge Finn, her paralegal instructor and mentor, held "my feet to the fire."
At times when hitting the stacks of law books at the county courthouse law library, Gonzalez said she was on the verge of "pulling my hair out. . . . I was crying, thinking I'm never going to get this."
Then along came Judge Finn.
"'Take two aspirin, and you'll be fine,' she told me," said Gonzalez.
According to the lawyer-to-be, the most important thing her instructor/mentor imparted to her was, "Question everything a good legal mind never takes anything at face value."
In her first three semesters at Sullivan, Gonzalez pulled down a 4.0 GPA and will graduate tomorrow with a cumulative 3.8 GPA.
Gonzalez is also the recipient of a trio of prestigious awards: Chancellor's Award for Student Excellence, Outstanding Second Year Student (Paralegal Programs, AAS) and All USA Academic Team (an award sponsored by the American Association of Community Colleges, Phi Theta Kappa).
Her recipe for success?
Study at 10:30 p.m. until 2:30 in the morning after everybody else is in bed and the house is quiet.
Apparently a bit of Gonzalez's study ethics rubbed off on her oldest daughter, Daniella, a student at Tri-Valley Central School.
"After I got a 4.0 in my first semester, she went from a C average to the honor roll," said Gonzalez.
Asked why she wants become a lawyer, Gonzalez replied, "I have a thing for advocacy I like to fight injustice."
But she wont be in business law ("it's too confining") or criminal law ("I don't think I have the stomach for it"). Thanks to an epiphany of sorts as she sat at her dining room table a few months ago listening to a friend bemoan the tribulations of a messy divorce and custody battle, she found her calling.
"I thought, Who speaks for the kids? and right then realized I wanted to be a law guardian for children," said Gonzalez.
Her take on the American legal system today?
"I think it's slowly deteriorating," said Gonzalez. "We're losing so many of our civil liberties on the premise of safety [from] terrorism.
We keep falling for it, and our rights are on the edge of going down the tubes.
"It's like '1984' and Big Brother is watching," she added. "I don't like to see people railroaded and the system twisted."
And now this freedom-fighter is off to Harvard.
"It's exciting and frightening at the same time," she said. "I'm 40 years old, I've got four kids and we're talking Harvard!"