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Chicago Nonprofit Provides Support to Illinois College Students

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by Catherine Morris

Selena Torres graduated valedictorian of her high school class at Carl Schurz High School, a public school located in northwest Chicago.

Today, she is a junior at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign majoring in electrical engineering.

Like many Chicago public school (CPS) graduates, Torres’ path after high school did not take her directly to college. Although she had the requisite academic credentials and encouragement from teachers and school counselors to apply, she hesitated.

“My teachers had this vision of [me] going to college and doing very well, but every single day I’d hear the other side of what they would tell my community,” Torres said.

At the same time her teachers and counselors were telling Torres to apply, they were sending the opposite message to her peers.
“They would tell the rest of the students in my class, ‘You’re not going to go to college, you might have babies, you’re not going to be successful – and that’s a statistic,’” Torres said.

Feeling caught between these two divergent messages, Torres let the moment pass her by. After a year of living at home, she decided to take a chance and enroll in Truman College, one of the seven City Colleges of Chicago.

“I decided to come back just to see how it goes,” Torres said.

Some of the first people Torres met on her first day at Truman just so happened to be One Million Degrees (OMD) scholars. OMD is a Chicago-based foundation that provides tutors, mentors and professional development to nearly 700 students enrolled in the seven City Colleges of Chicago, College of Lake County, Harper College, Prairie State College and South Suburban College.
“They didn’t tell you who they were, they just kind of shined and were gregarious and very well-spoken,” Torres recalled.

Inspired by their example, Torres applied to OMD as well. Enrolling in the program was a “turning point” in her life, Torres said, connecting her with mentors and a support network of like-minded peers. OMD also introduced her to a volunteer coach who was a consultant with a background in engineering. At the time, Torres said, meeting her coach felt like encountering a “unicorn.”

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“I had never met a woman engineer and I didn’t know what one looked like or what she did,” Torres said. “I met her and it was crazy, I felt like my dream was not a dream, it was a possibility.”

Effort to improve outcomes

The city of Chicago has a longstanding challenge to improve graduation numbers at the high school level, and to help more students, transition into and succeed in college.

In 2016, 73.5 percent of CPS students graduated from high school, up 16 percentage points from just five years ago. While the city has made progress, there is still much work to be done, particularly in terms of college enrollment. Nearly 40 percent of CPS students do not go on to college in the fall after graduating. When they do return to school, they are more likely to attend community college instead of a four-year institution.

Over the past decade, a number of nonprofits stepped into the space to provide greater support to students as they make the transition from high school to college.

“I think there was a recognition in the sector, by philanthropists, by nonprofits and by other leaders that there was a need for outside organizations to provide coaching and support to students directly as they transitioned between two very different systems,” said Alex Seeskin, chief strategy officer of the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute.

Seeskin, a former CPS high school English teacher, is also the director of the To & Through Project, a Chicago-based organization that is working to close the college graduation gap for CPS graduates.

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From the start, OMD differentiated itself from similar organizations by its single-minded focus on two-year schools. Founded in 2006 as the Illinois Education Foundation, the organization still serves that original core mission.

“Our organization was founded out of a recognition that actually the majority of public undergraduates are enrolled in community college,” said OMD president and CEO, Paige Ponder. “So even though they are in the margins of our thinking – and certainly they were even more so when we were founded 10 to 12 years ago – they’re not serving a marginally sized population.”

Chicago’s City Colleges, for instance, is the largest community college system in the state of Illinois, serving approximately 120,000 students. The system’s challenges, however, underscore the hurdles that community colleges are grappling with nationwide.

Former City Colleges chancellor Cheryl Hyman stepped on board in 2010 in part to help turn around City College’s graduation numbers, which hovered in the single digits for years. Under Hyman’s leadership, the college system underwent a controversial process of reorganization dubbed the “Reinvention.”

Among other changes, the system’s seven colleges were redesigned as “College to Career Centers,” each with an individual industry focus. Today, City Colleges’ cumulative graduation rate is 10 percent, according to U.S. Department of Education College Scorecard data. OMD, by comparison, can tout its 66 percent graduation and transfer rate.

The organization has plans to grow next year, expanding to serve up to 850 students, and also added an apprenticeship component to its programming. Starting in January, OMD began supporting the first cohort of 26 community college students participating in a two-year apprenticeship program with Aon, a global professional services firm.

“It’s a really amazing program because at the end of those two years, not only will they have their associate’s degree, but as long as everything went well, they will have offers to continue working at Aon,” said Liz Jones, senior career advancement coordinator at OMD.

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Jones is the liaison between Aon and OMD, meeting with apprentice OMD scholars on a biweekly or weekly basis to help them manage their work and academic lives. The program benefits students because it helps balance their work and school schedules, Jones said. Before the apprenticeship, they might have been working multiple jobs that might not have offered them much flexibility or time to pursue a degree.

“Being able to have a workplace that’s very understanding and supportive and have it all connected has been very helpful as well,” Jones said.

Even though organizations like OMD exist, too many CPS graduates and community college students are attempting to navigate a complicated system with limited support, Seeskin said. The question going forward, he said, will be to build on the work that OMD and others are doing and bring it to more students.

“One of the challenges for the field and in particular for two year colleges continues to be one of scale,” Seeskin said.

For Torres, the transformational power of OMD cannot be overstated. “I can look back at myself in college and see I am a very different person,” Torres said. “I want to take more risks, I want to speak to more people, I feel like I am creating value and giving myself value.” Moving from her home in Chicago to Urbana-Champaign for her bachelor’s was one such risk.

“I decided that I needed to see what was out there,” Torres said. ‘I think I was very closed-minded and very scared of what was going to happen, but OMD was very reassuring that it was going to be just fine. And it really was, it was more than just fine.”

Staff writer Catherine Morris can be reached at cmorris@diverseeducation.com.

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