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Grad grateful for life in U.S.

Joel Capellan has a special reason to celebrate Independence Day this Wednesday.

He came to this country at age 15, speaking just three words of English -- "OK," "no," and "yes."

It was all he needed to say "yes" to freedom.

The teen, from a Dominican Republic politically-oppressed, poverty-stricken town, carried a dictionary to school.

Recently, Capellan, now 22, carried off the Chancellor's Award for Student Excellence when he graduated with a nearly perfect average at Buffalo State College.

"My secret for success -- first have a goal. Then work and work and work -- and then work some more," he said.

"I'm not the brightest guy in the world," he said, "but I can sure outwork him or her."

When Joel Capellan was just 7, his parents fled the small town of Gran Parada, leaving young Joel to raise his brother and sister.

He's not resentful of this fact, simply realistic.

"I've never resented my parents for leaving. They saw an opportunity. They came to have a better future, a better life. I actually admire their courage," he said.

However a child needs his parents, and his life in Gran Parada also lacked love.

"I didn't know in what mood my grandfather would be in when I got home. When he was in a good mood, everything was OK, but when he was in a bad one, he'd, along with my uncles and aunts, make my life and that of my siblings hell," Capellan said. "Not having your parents with you demoralizes you, weakens you. People see that and try to take advantage of it."

But everything changed after he came to the United States.

"As soon as the biggest challenge of my life ended -- surviving in a place where you are not wanted -- the biggest academic challenge of my life began -- learning English."

Capellan learned so well that he was able to attend a New York State Political Science Association conference in New York City with Ivy Leaguers, where he presented his research on the Latin-American experience, which will soon be published in a leading bilingual political science journal.

He's continuing his studies on a graduate level in political science.

"I want to study the process of democratization, also war and conflict among nations," he said. "The need for political scientists to distinguish between reality and illusion is greater than ever, and I want to be a part of that. I sure would like to leave my mark on this world before my time is done."

Have an idea about a local person whose life would make a good profile or a neighborhood issue worth exploring? Write to: Louise Continelli, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240, or e-mail

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