Written by Jim Lewis/Reading, Pa
Alpha Tall's life changed when his father won the lottery. Not money, like the Powerball drawing, but something just as life-changing: Immigration visas.
His father won the green card lottery run by the United States government, or to use its official name, the Diversity Immigrant Visa program. Created in 1990, it grants visas each year to selected residents of foreign countries that have sent only a small number of immigrants to America. Only 50,000 visas are available to the 20 million people who enter annually, and Alpha's father, an accountant in Mali, a country in West Africa, was one of the winners chosen at random.
His father received an email confirming it, and at first Alpha thought it was a joke. When Alpha's family was instructed to travel to the U.S. Embassy in neighboring Senegal for paperwork, he knew it was true, and among his teenage friends, "I was the coolest kid on the soccer field - everybody's dream is to come to America," he said.
The day Alpha and his family left Mali, the neighbors gathered on the street outside his family's house, as is the custom in the country, to say goodbye.
They arrived in 2014, settled in Mohnton, and Alpha and three of his eight siblings found jobs to support the family. Unable to speak English, Alpha found a job at a plastic bottle plant, and relied on a few hastily-learned words in English, hand signals and Google Translate on his cellphone to communicate. Eventually, he enrolled at Reading Area Community College to earn some kind of degree to land a higher-paying job, and that's when his life changed again.
He took English language courses to learn how to read and speak, then enrolled in RACC's science curriculum. Now Alpha, 22, is among 378 students who will receive degrees or certificates today at the college's commencement at Santander Arena, and he will attend Alvernia University next fall to study medicine. He's joined the Air Force Reserves to help pay for college and will serve as a military medic after graduation, fulfilling a childhood dream born while playing war-inspired "Call of Duty" video games with his brother back in Mali. After his military duty, he hopes to become a surgeon.
He will graduate magna cum laude, and along with his brother, Hashimy, 25, and sister, Fatoumata, 23, will become the first to earn college degrees in his family. Hashimy studied computer information systems at RACC, and Fatoumata studied social work, and both will receive their degrees at the commencement as well.
To Alpha, life has been like a staircase: "You know when you're taking the stairs, and you're taking one step after another? Now I just took my first step, and I'm waiting for the next one."
The journey was difficult. Alpha spoke no English, just French and a few other languages native to Mali and other parts of West Africa. Even when he learned a little English, some Americans seemed to simply dismiss him as someone with whom they could not communicate, he said. Socially, he withdrew.
"I used to have a mean face. That's what some people told me," he said. "Sometimes you don't fit in, and you look at a person and say, 'OK, what if they don't like me?' I learned here not to over-think stuff. Talk to them and they may like you."
That's what Alpha did: He talked to fellow students, and as his English improved, he became more comfortable. His grades were so good that he taught fellow students at RACC's Tutoring Center.
"He came here and really struggled at first, and thought he'd never get into college," said Suzanne Christie, the center's coordinator and an academic support specialist. "The courses he's taken are really difficult courses, and he's mastered the language. It's that stick-to-it-iveness that he has."
He attended RACC for four years while working full-time for Threshold Rehabilitation Services, a nonprofit that offers a list of employment and support services to clients with physical, intellectual and emotional development challenges. Alpha cooked, chauffeured and cared for clients. The combination of work and college, of earning money for gas for his car and arranging student financing for college, matured him.
"College throws a lot at you, and the fact that you manage it makes you better in life," said Alpha.
If his father hadn't won that lottery, Alpha figured he wouldn't be on the verge of becoming a doctor.
"That's the worst mistake, to not do it if you're scared," he said.