An Education: From the Bronx to Banks to Beyond

My dad is my hero. That’s not a secret, or a big revelation, especially given the regard in which I talk about him. He’s achieved a lot in his life, though his story is one built by a series of events, and, as he admits, a lot of luck. But, in this brief telling of his story, I want to highlight the educational opportunities that he was presented with–though some were denied. I offer this story as one that could apply to many people–but one that defines later generations, though it began in the early 1950’s.

My dad was born into one of the poorest sections of the country, the South Bronx, in the post-WWII era. His first house was a ‘quonset hut,’ little more than a piece of lightweight galvanized steel bent into an arch, and he “moved up” to the projects when he was a few years older. For a kid from the Bronx, there wasn’t much to look forward to other than the next New York Yankees baseball game, as the neighborhood then was leading up to what would be a period of decline through the 1960’s and then burning through the 1970’s.

For my dad, there were few escapes–work, which he began while attending school full time–and school. He showed talent in the classroom (except in languages, which came into play later), and when it came time for high school, he tested into Stuyvesant High School, one of the premier public schools in the city and even the country. Most parents would have been overwhelmed with joy if their son had tested into Stuyvesant–his ticket to a better future–but my dad was denied this by his mother for reasons escaping comprehension. Instead, he was to attend  Taft High School, which would, within a few years after my dad graduated, be recognized as a “failing school.” Through this, my dad was able to maintain optimism, and graduated at the age of 16, having skipped a grade in middle school.

He got out of the house as soon as he could, and began taking classes at Bronx Community College, now a subsidiary of the City College system. It was there that, on a field trip, he got an opportunity to go to Washington D.C., the first time he’d ever been out of the New York City metro. This stoked, in him, an already-engrained sense of public service–one that had inspired his own father to volunteer for World War II, where he served in Northern Africa. Because of that trip, and with the war in Vietnam escalating, he decided to enlist in the military, specifically, the Air Force. Turned out, he soon found out, they would be willing to pay for his education at a 4-year institution.

The first step in enlisting was taking an aptitude test, where my father, who had admittedly not been a great student of either foreign language (French & Spanish) he had tried in high school, was told that he had a “remarkable ability for languages.” He was given three choices for career path–air policeman, cook, or, finally, intelligence. The choice for the latter was obvious, and intended by the Air Force recruiter–they wanted him in intelligence.

In those days, though Vietnam was the focus, the Cold War with the-then Soviet Union was burning hot. Just a few years removed from the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, the split for intelligence services was between those needing skills in Russian and those needing skills in Vietnamese. The luck was on my dad’s side–those with last names beginning with letters A through L were  sent to Syracuse University to learn Russian, while those M to Z were sent elsewhere to study Vietnamese. With a last name like “Luboff”, he was the very last name on the first list–so he went to Syracuse. Many times, he’s told of how if he had been on the other list–of those being sent to study Vietnamese–he would not have been able to find a job later in life given the language specialty. The luck continued. While serving in the Air Force intelligence service for 6 years, he was also given the opportunity to study towards his Master’s Degree in Russian Studies.

Upon completing his tour of duty, he returned to the United States, where his Russian language skills turned him into an “East-West trade ‘expert’“. It was this label–the result of the education he had been given the opportunity to pursue–that sent him on a thirty-year career in private sector banking & international trade finance. But this kid from the Bronx–who had faced economic hardship–didn’t forget his commitment to public service even after all of that, returning to public sector service with the State of Illinois in the early 2000’s, helping minority business-owners gain access to lending markets.

Continuing the legacy of educational opportunities, my dad has been able to help, in addition to scholarships and self-funding, the education of two kids, myself and my sister, through the Master’s level in two different fields–for both of us to graduate debt-free. Educational opportunity isn’t just about helping the generation immediately receiving aid–it’s about the generations to come, as well. It’s about the society that benefits from a kid from the Bronx growing up to help business-owners that may often be denied traditional lending to create their own American dream. It’s about an economy that benefits from lifetimes of with civic-minded career paths that are able to access the best of our educational system. I can say, without a doubt that I’ve personally benefited from the public education that my dad got through Bronx Community, through the funding he received in Air Force ROTC at Syracuse, and through the continuing education he got through the Italian-branch of the University of Arkansas when he was stationed abroad.

We shouldn’t look to create just opportunities for educational enhancement–we should look to create “legacies” of education–for generations to come.

Alex Luboff

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