Catching the American Dream

Dr. Darrell Daniel left Trinidad as a teenager in 1989 with a suitcase and $300 to his name. Today, he holds a PhD in Educational Leadership and serves as assistant principal at the Newton College and Career Academy.

by Kari Apted

Darrell Daniel left his home on the sunny island of Trinidad in pursuit of a better life in 1989. Fresh out of high school, he had a suitcase, $300 and a desire to chase the American dream. He had no way of knowing 10 full years would pass before he saw his family again. However, the intimidating journey was worth it, as by every standard, through hard work and determination, his dream has come true. Just 19 years of age at the time, he traveled to the United States alone on a student visa and struggled to adjust to life in New York.

“It was very different,” Daniel said. “In Trinidad, the weather is the same every day of the year. We even drove on the other side of the road.”

He missed the warm, tropical climate and the closeness of sharing one big house with grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. The City University of New York’s sprawling urban campus was different from anything he had ever known. 

“I left my whole life behind. Everything I knew, I left in pursuit of my dream. My mother was worried that it would take its toll on me, but she supported me,” Daniel said. “Being away from my mother reinforced how important she is to me. The values she instilled carried me through, and the unconditional love for her oldest son was felt far away.”

“If you work hard, you will be rewarded. America has rewarded me. Millions of people apply for visas but do not get them. Having the opportunity to come here was like winning the lotto. I am so blessed and grateful that America gave me a chance.”

Newton College and Career Academy Assistant Principal Dr. Darrell Daniel

Daniel considers himself fortunate to have met many kind people who helped him adjust to life in the United States. Despite the difficulties he faced, he was determined to earn a degree in accounting so he could return to Trinidad and work with his uncle, who owned several successful businesses. While studying accounting, Daniel discovered that he not only liked working with numbers but had a real gift for understanding and explaining complex mathematical concepts. His professors noticed his aptitude and asked if he would be interested in tutoring other students in math. No one knew at the time that this would turn his career plan down an entirely different path. 

“I didn’t find education. Education found me,” Daniel said with a laugh. “I had no idea I had the ability to teach other people. Through tutoring, I really started to love teaching and came to love math even more. It was very fulfilling.”

Daniel switched his major to mathematics, with a minor in education. He continued tutoring as he pursued his master’s degree, and upon graduation in January 1996, he took a half-year job teaching at a New York middle school. “Middle school was not for me because I had to teach every subject,” Daniel said. “There was so much material, and I had to study science and social studies to be able to teach it.” The following school year, a principal friend invited him to teach math at Thomas Jefferson High School in the East New York section of Brooklyn. Daniel jumped at the chance to teach math all day long. After several years, city life began to wear on him and he decided it was time for a change. His adventurous spirit took him inside the Arctic Circle, as he spent one cold year teaching in the tiny village of Nuiqsut, Alaska. 

The next leg of his journey brought him to a job fair in Georgia, where he accepted a math teaching position at Cedar Grove High School in Ellenwood. A few years later, he began teaching at Newton High School and then moved to the Newton County School System’s central office. There, he worked as an instructional coach, helping other teachers learn methods and techniques to improve success in the classroom.

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“I always remind teachers, ‘Everyone has a story. Your students have a story. Get to know the kids and their stories, and you can teach them better,’” said Daniel, who earned his PhD in Educational Leadership in 2010. “Kids will follow you if they know you care.”

Daniel missed having daily interaction with students and teachers and sought a position that took him back into the school setting. He has served as the assistant principal of the Newton College and Career Academy since 2018. His wife, Anna Hebert Daniel, is also an educator and works as an instructional coach at Newton High School. The couple has three children. Daniel exudes a deep love of country and believes in the American dream. 

“In my heart of hearts, I know it is only in America where my story could be told,” he said. “There are so many who are contributing members of society, who got their green card, their work permit, their citizenship. One of the greatest days of my life was when I got my United States citizenship.”

Daniel has a unique way of honoring his life’s story. 

“When I was at CUNY, everything I earned had to go toward tuition,” he said. “Instead of eating out, I had to carry my lunch, and I always carried it in a plastic grocery bag.” After graduating and teaching for several years, Daniel realized he could afford a lunch box instead of his customary plastic bag. “I bought a nice lunch tote, but it just never felt right to use it. After about two weeks, I went back to carrying my plastic bag.” To this day, Daniel arrives at work each morning, his suit and tie contrasting the simply bagged lunch in his hand. “It sounds silly, but this plastic grocery bag keeps me grounded. It says, ‘This is where you came from. This is who you are.’” 

Daniel encourages other immigrants to follow their dreams. 

“If you work hard, you will be rewarded,” he said. “America has rewarded me. Millions of people apply for visas but do not get them. Having the opportunity to come here was like winning the lotto. I am so blessed and grateful that America gave me a chance.” 

Click here to read more stories by Kari Apted.

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