Mark DiPisaClass of 1999
Mark DiPisa’s (Class of 1999) incredible journey took him from a closet in the basement of a parochial school to becoming a successful lawyer, political candidate and the youngest member of the Community School’s Board of Trustees. He entered the Community Lower School in second grade and continued until graduating from Community High School. As a young child he was diagnosed as both dyslexic and ADHD, which made it difficult for him to succeed in school. As he explains:
When I started Catholic school the faculty had no idea how to deal with a learning disabled child. Nobody knew what learning disabled meant at that time. Instead of recognizing my issues, I was labeled lazy and the class clown. It was very painful and I felt isolated. I will never forget being put in a basement closet by my first grade teacher as punishment for not being able to read. The gym teacher, who was assigned as my tutor, would constantly scream at me in frustration. I had no idea what was going on. I wanted so badly to be able to read but the words just didn’t make sense to me.
I certainly didn’t have very good thoughts about myself. I had little self-confidence and I knew there was something different about me but I didn’t know why. I just wanted to be like everyone else. I wanted to be normal. When my parents first suggested that I attend the Community School, I fought it kicking and screaming. I did everything that I possibly could to make this decision difficult on my parents.
It took me a few years to understand that this was a school with students that were just like me, different in the way they had to learn. The teachers at Community understood what I was going through, and knew how to teach me how to succeed. They didn’t allow me to be lazy or make excuses for myself. They had a standard for their students, and they motivated me to achieve success.
I became very comfortable at the Community School and my self-image improved tremendously. As did my academic abilities. I found I was able to operate in various types of social environment, including with young people whose issues were similar to mine, or those people who learned in the expected way. When I was a sophomore at Community I started to appreciate the benefits of its environment. I wasn’t stuck in any closets.
As my confidence continued to build, I started to experience success beyond the classroom. It turns out I was a pretty good football player. My school district gave me the option of returning to the local high school so I could play football. In my senior year it became clear I had the ability to play college football. In order to make sure I was able to attend practice on time and meet with college coaches, I would attended classes at Community in the morning and take one course at my local school in the afternoon. The Community School was instrumental in this effort, and it was clear that they were invested in seeing their students succeed in and out of the classroom.
Right from the beginning my teachers at Community treated me as if they expected me to go to college and be successful. They believed it before I did. When I graduated I accepted a football scholarship to Monmouth University. My first few months at Monmouth were very difficult. I was trying to juggle football and academics and I wasn’t able to do it. I realized I had to get organized. I began putting together a color-coordinated organizing system which, I jokingly say, saved my life. I had all my notebooks, calendars and text books organized according to color. I made everything extremely simple so I could focus. As I developed this system, I realized that it was strikingly similar to the system I was taught at the Community School, which I never utilized. Once I became organized, I was able to tackle football and my academics with ease. While I did use some accommodations at Monmouth in my first two years, by the time I was a junior I didn’t need them. I graduated Monmouth University in 2003 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Communications and Political Science.
I decided early in my life that I wanted to be an attorney but I had reservations about whether or not I could do it. I thought “really…a learning-disabled law student? Is that even possible?" I continued to work hard and apply the tools giving to me by my teachers at Community. In August of 2004, I was accepted into Seton Hall University School of Law. Even when I started law school I had some doubts about my ability to handle the enormous workload. However, by this time I was confident and my life had come full circle. I quickly began to realize that my disabilities had become assets. In law school, no student understands what they are reading because the text is so complex. This came very natural to me. I was dyslexic so I never understood what I was reading and always had to re-read things. While other students became frustrated with not understanding legal concepts and having to re-read text, I was use to it and it didn’t phase me. I found myself studying much more than my classmates – because I was already used to putting in countless extra hours of work. It was like I had been preparing my whole life for what I needed to do to succeed in law school. My disability, which had been holding me back all my life, became a driving force in law school. Unlike some of my classmates, I was no longer intimidated by academic challenges. In May 2007, I graduated Seton Hall with my Juris Doctor degree. Amazingly, graduating was only my second greatest accomplishment at Seton Hall Law. My first was meeting my incredible wife Michelle who also attended Seton Hall Law.
Eventually my wife and I opened our own practice, DiPisa and Lago LLC, with offices in Hasbrouck Heights and Newark, New Jersey. My legal focus is in contract disputes, insurance defense, real estate and civil litigation. In 2014, I ran for New Jersey State Assembly in legislative district 38. I was the youngest candidate ever to run for that office in that district and I lost to the incumbent. I remember how emotional it was for me the very first time I stood up to speak in front of an audience, to make my pitch to voters. To have come from that childhood closet and have enough confidence to stand up and tell people, vote for me, I can do the job, was an especially satisfying moment.
I’m not sure I appreciated how much Community had done for me, both academically and socially, until I was in college. Now, I remain amazed and appreciative. The shaped the person that I have become. Being asked to join the Board of Trustees, as its youngest member, was a wonderful honor, which I readily accepted. To me, it provided an opportunity to give back for what I had received. I shudder to think about what my life would have been like, where I would have ended up or what I would have been doing today, if Community School hadn’t been in my life.