Sunday, January 27, 2008

Each One Teach One: College workshop in Back of the Yards

On Saturday, January 5, 68 high school students, college students and their parents gathered in the basement of the Immaculate Heart of Mary church hall at 46th and Ashland to learn about college admissions and financial aid. The workshop was the latest in a series of efforts by college students and recent graduates who are part of Holy Cross/Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish to encourage younger students in the neighborhood to plan for college.

Like many lower-income Chicago neighborhoods, Back of the Yards has very few college students and college graduates living in the area. Many students in our community are the first in their families to even consider college. Many also lack US citizenship or the proper residency status to be eligible for federal grants and loans for college, one huge barrier on top of all the other challenges they face in preparing for higher education. It's easy for high school students here to get discouraged and think college is not for them. But thanks to the efforts of the Holy Cross/IHM college group and others, this picture is beginning to change.

Three years ago, the parish hosted a gathering of current college students in the neighborhood. That meeting grew into a group of students and recent graduates who met monthly to plan service activities and develop ways to educate more local youth about college and how to get there. Since then, the group has regularly held a workshop for neighborhood students in grades 6-8 at the Peace and Education Coalition student summits, held in the fall and spring. This year, the group wanted to move into work with high school juniors and seniors and their parents.

The January workshop featured a video about three recent college graduates from the parish and their stories of how they made it to and through school. One of them paid for college without access to federal financial aid by doing two years at City Colleges before transferring to more-expensive UIC, plus starting his own business. Afterwards, table groups were encouraged to write down their questions about college admissions, financial aid and academic and student life. These questions formed the basis for a panel discussion with admissions and financial aid officers from local colleges and universities. The college group web site has a page with scholarship information, including both a link to the federal student aid form and a directory of scholarship money for undocumented students.

The workshop organizers assembled an outstanding panel, many of whom stuck around long afterwards to talk one-on-one with students. Panel members were:

Mirna Garcia, financial aid counselor at DePaul University
Erasto Martinez, admissions counselor at Loyola University of Chicago
Ramona Meza, youth coach for Instituto del Progreso Latino's Escalera Program
Christian Yanez, director of Hispanic/Latino student affairs, Northeastern University
Greg Michie, professor at Illinois State University
Nancy Serrano, school and community relations liaison for the Chicago teacher education pipeline and partnerships, Illinois State University.

Students and parents who attended really appreciated the opportunity to ask questions and get answers. "It did give us a basic understanding of the steps to get into college and about financial aid," said Jazmin Panfilo, a senior at Holy Trinity High School who has applied to UIC and wants to become a teacher. "I think it was great."

"There were more people than we expected, so that was really good," said Jesse Iniguez, a recent graduate of UIC and a member of the college student group at Holy Cross/IHM. "It gives us hope."

What gave me hope was seeing so many young people in college or recent graduates creating a path for others to follow. I think the best part of the day was the icebreaker, when high school students had to find someone in the room who had: traveled abroad, gone to graduate school, been in a college fraternity, etc., etc. With all the talent in that room, it wasn't hard to find at least one person for each category.

It inspires me to see a core group of young adults who grew up in the neighborhood proving it is possible to finish high school, go on to college and make a good life for yourself. Not only that, but these young adults are committed to sharing their experiences and knowledge with the next generation of high school students and their families. The two primary organizers of this event were Jose Alonso, a Northwestern grad who recently finished his law degree at Loyola, and Fabian Garcia, who earned a bachelor's in computer engineering from UIC. Great job!

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