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Astoria grad rose up from poverty to college

When Astoria resident Jeremiah Lundgren received his master’s degree from Queens College last week, he marveled at how far he had come from the days when he thought he would never make it past ninth grade.

The 34-year-old was expelled from school after his abusive stepfather abandoned his mother when he was 14, leaving Lundgren and his family with so little money that they often ate ketchup or mustard sandwiches.

Lundgren and his mother and siblings were homeless for about six months not long after that because they could not afford to pay rent, and the family ultimately split up for a while to live temporarily with friends and relatives. Eventually, they moved into an apartment in Long Island City — just above a crack house.

Lundgren found himself despairing and he began to take drugs. He was expelled from two high schools, became a father in 1991 at the age of 15 and began to work a series of uninspiring jobs while his mother looked after his daughter and three younger siblings.

“Finally, I got sick of all the crappy jobs and my mom encouraged me to get into college,” Lundgren said. “That’s when things started to change.”

He earned his GED at age 19, went on to earn his bachelor’s degree in social sciences education from New York University in 2003 after attending LaGuardia Community College for two years and accepted a position as a teacher at Middle College High School on LaGuardia Community College’s campus.

Lundgren had received a partial scholarship to NYU, where he worked in its Upward Bound program, which provides educational opportunities to economically disadvantaged high school students with disabilities.

Then, last week, Lundgren found himself crossing the stage at Queens College to receive his master’s in urban studies.

“It’s really amazing,” Lundgren said. “Growing up, going to college wasn’t a goal. Nobody in my family went to college, so I didn’t have that model. But my mom had these expectations of me and she always felt I was capable and supported me no matter what.”

Support from his mother, Diane Lundgren, lifted him from some of his darkest moments and he said the help from her and his wife, Edith Torres-Lundgren, has made all the difference. Diane Lundgren and two of his three daughters, among other family and friends, came to cheer him on at last Thursday’s commencement ceremony at Queens College.

“It’s fantastic,” Diane Lundgren said. “I knew he could do it. He had the brains.”

For those facing daunting life challenges, as he has, Lundgren said it is important to focus on the positive figures in one’s life.

“Don’t give up,” he said. “Listen to your mother. She supported me. She supported all of us.”

Reach reporter Anna Gustafson by e-mail at agustafson@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4574.

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