Washington Irving’s students learn from the pros


By Lawrence Lerner

Milagros Diaz always thought she wanted to be a fashion designer. After getting the inside scoop on the profession from Daang Goodman, she knows she wants to be one.

Goodman visited Washington Irving High School last Wednesday as part of the school’s 12th annual Success Day, which brought community and business leaders from around the city into classrooms to discuss their paths to personal and professional success. This year, more than 70 professionals representing the arts, telecommunications, law, finance, nonprofit and other industries took the morning to share their experiences with students.

“Hearing Daang was great. She told us stuff we can relate to and makes us think of a plan,” said Diaz, a senior from the Bronx. “It inspires you and makes you take stock in your future.”

For Principal Denise DiCarlo, that kind of student response makes the hours of planning worthwhile, since her vision of Success Day entails matching kids with professionals who share their interests.

“We want to connect students with people from their major,” she said. “We find that inspires them and helps facilitate our school-to-work and school-to-college mission. Our goal, ultimately, is for students to finish in four years and have a plan they can follow.”

To pull off Success Day each year, DiCarlo depends in large part on the Union Square Partnership business improvement district, which established a relationship with Washington Irving High School in 1994 after neighborhood discontent surfaced because of problems at the school.

The BID has become an integral presence at Washington Irving, maintaining an office and computer lab on site and offering students assistance with college research, scholarship applications and résumé writing. It also runs myriad programs, including tutoring, SAT prep classes, after-school activities, a mentoring initiative, internships and summer jobs.

Success Day is part of this larger menu of programs, many of which depend on volunteers from area businesses, such as the law firm Cleary, Gottleib, Steen & Hamilton, Con Edison, North Fork Bank and the Vineyard Theatre.

“I think a lot of us are here to try to help out and try to reach the kids, to find some common ground and help them find their way,” said Eric Petterson, who owns The Coffee Shop restaurant and bar in Union Square. “Just to see them come to a higher level is amazing.”

Petterson took part in his 12th Success Day, speaking to two classes on Wednesday. He shared his own personal story, dispensed advice and acted as a sounding board for students wanting to know more about what he does and how he achieved success.

In one class, students asked Petterson questions ranging from “What were some of the challenges you faced in your career?” to “Were you able to get a scholarship for college?” and “Should we let our career find us or go with our gut feeling?”

Petterson handled these queries with aplomb, ticking off answers efficiently and digressing when he thought it would add value. But when one girl asked, “Do you feel you’re successful, and what does success mean to you?” the restaurateur was forced to pause.

“That’s a great question,” he said casting his eyes to the floor before addressing the student. “I think I’d have to say that to be passionate about something is the meaning of success for me. I mean, if you’re working 80 hours a week at something you don’t care about, that’s got to be awfully hard.”

Petterson, who tried his hand at acting before sinking $30,000 of his savings into his first restaurant, told the students that, at a certain point, he realized how much he loved to throw parties at home.

“It makes perfect sense that I went into the restaurant business, right?” he said. “Now I get to make people happy, and the restaurant becomes my stage in the way I set it up, light it and entertain people.”

A few minutes later, he added: “If you want to achieve something, you can’t wait for it to fall into your lap. You have to be a little competitive,” he said, “to have a little attitude. But you also have to be nice. Along those lines, I believe that if you achieve a certain level of success, it’s also important to give something back.”

Hilary Reis, the global history teacher overseeing the exchange between Petterson and the students, was thrilled with the outcome.

“I love having Success Day because it’s nice for my students to hear from someone other than myself that they can achieve their dreams,” she said. “It’s also good for them to hear about professions other than law and medicine, because so many of the kids come here thinking they want to be one or the other. Some kids are pleasantly surprised when they discover they are drawn to something else.”

Sarah Leveque, a sophomore from the Bronx who loves to draw, was exposed for the first time to architectural design during this year’s Success Day.

“The woman who spoke to us rehabilitates buildings for a living,” she said. “She even did a cathedral in China. I thought that was cool.”

Leveque also learned a host of important facts about the profession, which she was eager to share.

“You need at least a bachelor’s degree, preferably a master’s, and your level of education is tied to pay,” she said. “And drawing on paper isn’t good enough. You need to be able to do 3-D computer work.”

Asked if she was now considering a career in architecture, she said, “No, I don’t think so. But it was great to learn more about it.”