North Lawndale teen beats life challenges to succeed - FOX13 News, WHBQ FOX 13

North Lawndale teen beats life challenges to succeed

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CHICAGO (FOX 32 News) -

Arabic is not the usual language you hear around North Lawndale, but then again, Cortez Alexander is not the usual kid you see around North Lawndale, either.

"I like Arabic a lot," Alexander says after rattling off a sentence in Arabic. "My goal is to become an ambassador so I can help people in the Middle East.

On this day, Cortez is packing for his junior year with DePaul University on the other side of the world. He's going to study in Turkey for a year.

"This is my favorite suit," he says, pointing out the garment. "I really like this one. There's a strong sense of obligation that I have, myself, it's making sure that kids see me in a suit and tie, versus you know, the regular jeans and a t-shirt. It's telling them that it's possible."

"Cortez is exceptional because he beat the odds," Leonard Alexander says of his son. "Nothing was given to Cortez on a silver platter."

In fact, Cortez was facing long odds from the very beginning.

"When he was born, I was incarcerated I was locked up," he adds.

And I weighed one pound, seven ounces," Cortez chimes in. "Primarily because my parents, they had drug abuse problems. I had to live with my grandmother because she took custody of me when I was younger."

"When I came home, he still was suffering from, um, the horrors of addiction," Leonard explains.

But his grandmother pushed the young Cortez to excel in school and now both his parents have turned their lives around. They are his biggest boosters.

"If I have a bad day, it's me feeling sad or I won't do some work, and my family will just like ‘Cortez, what's going on? You have to do this, you know, we kinda have our hopes on you because we know you can do this,'" he tells FOX 32.

In a neighborhood better known for its gangs than its scholars, Cortez always stood out, in his suit and his attitude. Good grades led to awards and scholarships, but Cortez is proudest of a winning essay he wrote about the civil rights legend who once lived in Lawndale.

"Martin Luther King Jr. lived at 1550 South Hamlin, and we're 1525 and, you know, there's still problems and his dream is still a dream, I would say," Cortez explains.

For Cortez, the dream is a diplomatic career overseas; then to bring his success back home as a role model for other young people.

"We don't really have those here, and we need a lot more of them," he says. "And just to help them get an idea that there's something outside of the sense of isolation that we have here. Although Lincoln Park may seem a world away, it's only a couple miles away. It's just a train ride; it's just a train ride."

Cortez has now been in Turkey for a month and says he is still astonished that he's there. The locals are also astonished by him, but very welcoming and curious about the African-American experience. He says he's frequently invited to tea by complete strangers while he's out in the markets. And yes, he's now studying the Turkish language.

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