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A helping hand toward a diploma

Joseph Mustapha got an assist from Philadelphia Futures.

Joseph Mustapha (right) is greeted by Philadelphia Futures sponsor and scholarship coordinator Gabriel Bryant. Philadelphia Futures executive director Joan Mazzotti joins them. ( Elizabeth Robertson / Staff Photographer )
Joseph Mustapha (right) is greeted by Philadelphia Futures sponsor and scholarship coordinator Gabriel Bryant. Philadelphia Futures executive director Joan Mazzotti joins them. ( Elizabeth Robertson / Staff Photographer )Read more

He had spent the night hiding under the bed, but now he was running.

Running for his life, with his mother pulling him away from their home in Freetown, Sierra Leone - away from rebel gunshots, away from life as he knew it.

Joseph Mustapha was 7 years old.

"She just pushed me with her friends. . . . She pushed me with her. I just jumped in the boat," said Mustapha, now 18. "She didn't follow me. She stayed back, and that was it." He hasn't seen his mother since.

Six years later, Mustapha made his way to Philadelphia for a reunion with his father and a new life.

He has come a long way from that day to his graduation from University City High School today - a journey he said would have been even harder without Philadelphia Futures, a nonprofit that mentors promising students through high school and college.

The group provides academic enrichment and financial assistance to students from neighborhood high schools.

Mustapha fit the bill, but finding Philadelphia Futures would be another journey in itself.

Instead of going to school, Mustapha spent six years in Africa, shuffling from friends in Nigeria to a refugee camp in Liberia and finally to Guinea, where he lived with relatives.

With the help of a U.S. refugee program, his father, James, who was living in Philadelphia, arranged for Joseph, three siblings, and a cousin to join him.

"I went to middle school just lost," said Mustapha, who arrived in Philadelphia speaking only his native Krio. "I didn't know anything that was going on."

The English-language classes helped, but not enough for him to understand his lessons. Shy and overwhelmed, he struggled until his eighth-grade science teacher at George Pepper Middle School, Stacey Siegel, started working with him after school on reading and writing. She helped him cultivate a love of science.

"By the end of my eighth-grade year . . . my grades actually moved from Ds and Fs to As and Bs, and they gave me an award for most outstanding student," Mustapha said, smiling.

As a freshman at University City, Mustapha focused on earning good grades. He saw sports, clubs, and hanging out as distractions.

Early in his sophomore year, a friend encouraged Mustapha to apply to Philadelphia Futures. The weekly after-school classes, summer sessions, and optional enrichment activities helped Mustapha break through his shyness and make time for fun.

Now, the student who once belonged to himself and his books has a job at Dunkin' Donuts and interns in a lab at the University of Pennsylvania with geneticist Sarah Tishkoff. He ran cross-country and track and field, took poetry classes, and competed in moot court, placing third in a national competition.

"Maybe I would have been able to achieve all my goals, but I wouldn't have been able to achieve what I have today [as] quick and easy than the way Philadelphia Futures made it for me," said Mustapha, who will attend Pennsylvania State University in the fall.

At Philadelphia Futures, he also wrote for a student newsletter and joined in a film series and a book club.

His youthful wisdom is striking, according to his adviser, Gabriel Bryant. "He has a nice, wise humor that very much entertains."

Mustapha's commitment earned him a $20,000 Townsend Scholarship set up this year by John Langan of Voorhees, president of Townsend Press, a West Berlin publishing company.

Langan contributed a total of $100,000, which also funded scholarships for nine of this year's 47 Philadelphia Futures high school graduates.

"Providing scholarships is also a matter of social justice," said Langan, who depended on a scholarship and part-time jobs to pay for his college education.

"Just because students come from the inner city doesn't mean they should be denied opportunities available for students from the suburbs," he added. Langan said he had given to the program because he trusted its mission.

In its 20 years, Philadelphia Futures has helped 803 students graduate from high school, and 315 earned a college degree or certificate.

"We keep them on the college path," said Joan Mazzotti, the program's director. "We keep them focused and motivated." Ninety-seven percent of Philadelphia Futures' high school graduates have enrolled in college.

All 47 of this year's high school graduates will attend college in the fall, a milestone noted during the group's graduation on June 10 in the Convention Center.

Mustapha was one of them.

"We were sort of blown away by him from the first time we met him," said Jenny Williams, who mentors Mustapha with her husband, David Foster. "He's independent. He's driven and knows where he wants to go. He knows how to create opportunities for himself and takes advantage of every opportunity that comes his way."

Mustapha plans to major in biological chemistry and wants to become a gynecologist-obstetrician. "I like the idea of bringing a baby into the world," he said.

His father, a licensed practical nurse, said he believed his son's interest in medicine had been nurtured at home.

"As soon as he got to this country, he started reading my medical books and asking questions," his father said.

James Mustapha said he had to remind his son not to stress out and to use his past to make him stronger.

Mustapha's dream remains to reunite with his mother in Sierra Leone after he gets started in college. For now, they speak regularly by phone, and she pushes him to prosper despite his past.

"No matter how hard life is for you, God will help you," Mustapha said. "Don't lose your hope, and don't lose your faith. Just keep working."