From Street Gang to Ph. D. – It is Easier to Work Harder than Get Smarter.

How does a poor student become a good one?

by Mark Halfon (Nassau Community)

I graduated from high school with a 69 average, which at least was better than all my friends in my Brooklyn street gang. My high school counselor told my mother that I was just not “college material.”

He might have been right; no college wanted me as a student, and who could blame them.

As it turns out Pace College in New York let me pay for classes as long as they didn’t have to give me credit for attending thereby dragging down their rankings. They call this being a “non-matriculated” student. Despite my poor high school record, I excelled in mathematics and thought I would become an accountant.

But when I got an “F” in my first accounting class, it occurred to me that I should reconsider my major. (I did not think I deserved an “F” and, as a former gang member, I had my own none-too-subtle ideas about how to express my disdain, but I took my lumps and refrained from further action.)

I left Pace with a 1.1 GPA; at least I did better than in high school.

My mother was unwilling to believe my guidance counselor and put me on a train to Florida to attend Miami-Dade Junior College, which accepted anyone with a pulse. There I earned an Associate of Arts degree with a 2.2 GPA.

At least I did better at community college than at Pace because, unlike before, this time I bought the books and studied harder.

I continued my education at Hunter College in New York, which I also attended non-matriculated initially and later they “matriculated” me, which meant they began giving me credit for doing the work.

At least I did better at four-year college than in community college and earned a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and also discovered a passion for philosophy. (I had no way of knowing then that later, for nine years, I would teach Ethics, Logic, and the History of Philosophy at Hunter.)

I got into the Masters in Philosophy program at San Francisco State; they needed warm bodies to fill seats, so they lowered their standards.

At least I did better in Grad school than as an undergraduate. When I earned my Masters, my mother wanted to find that high school counselor to tell him the news.

I took off a few years, but eventually I went for a Ph.D. at the City University of New York.

At least I did better as a Doctoral student than when I was getting my Masters.

I eventually received my Ph.D with the help of a supportive wife who worked to pay the bills for our family that by then included a beautiful son.

Was it because I was becoming smarter that my performance improved?


I did better and better and better because I worked harder and harder and harder.

If you don’t like how things are going for you, I suggest you try working a little bit harder and see if things go a little bit better.

I’d suggest you get smarter too, but I don’t know how to do that.

So, just try working harder and see what happens.

It worked for me.

Mark Halfon is professor and chairman of the Philosophy Departmentat Nassau Community College in New York.

He is the author of Integrity: A Philosophical Inquiry, Can a Dead Man Strike Out?: Offbeat Baseball Questions and Their Improbable Answers, and co-edited Norms and Values: Essays on the Work of Virginia Held.

Author: Brooke Allen

Founder – Viral Virtue, Inc.

3 thoughts on “From Street Gang to Ph. D. – It is Easier to Work Harder than Get Smarter.”

  1. I thought your advice was extremely appropriate in trying to reach students that might be struggling through school. With this article, I can begin to understand what your life/learning philosophies may be. However, I am wondering you could elaborate on how you take this idea and apply it to your teaching or how you might help the students that might be struggling in your classroom.



    1. Hello April,

      I am sorry that I did not respond sooner but I just checked the site for the first time in a while.

      Here’s how I attempt to reach struggling and non-struggling students. Whenever I return my first examination to the class, I tell about my experiences. It motivates many of them since they have a comparable background. A handful of students are deeply affected, others put in extra time and then there are those who are in their own world. I give extra time to students who are willing to come to see me during office hours.
      But the key is confidence. Many of my best students are unaware of their capabilities and need to be encouraged. I have to push them to apply to top colleges where many ultimately go and succeed. The bottom line is that they have to do the work. Part of my job is to let them know that hard work and dedication can go a long way. We can never reach all the students but it is a pleasure when they get the message.

      Take care, Mark


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