Growing up, it was hard for me to find the right path. But thanks to Rauner College Prep, a Noble Network high school in Chicago, I’m now about to finish my freshman year at St. Olaf College. If you knew me when I was a seventh-grader, you might not have believed that was possible.
Seventh grade was a tough year for me. My parents were separating and I was trying to fit in. In Back of the Yards, one of the most violent neighborhoods in Chicago, it was easy for me to be exposed to the gangs. By seventh grade, I was a little bad boy. I didn’t know if I wanted to continue my education. I was under pressure not to go to school.
That’s when my oldest cousin, who was active in the gang where I grew up, got deported. That was a wake-up call to me that where I was heading wasn’t the right path. I realized at that moment: I have to get my life together. Since I’m undocumented, school is my only way out.
But at that time, school wasn’t much help. Because things in Back of the Yards had gotten so rough, my mother had moved us out of the neighborhood. My new school was overcrowded, so they sent me to another school, way up on 23rd and Western.
Every day I took a bus up to a school where I had no friends. I would get picked on because I was from Back of the Yards and everyone assumed I was affiliated with a gang there. The school was not bad in terms of the education it offered, but it was bad in terms of the social circle open to me, an outsider.
Then it was eighth grade and time to apply for high school. I was sure my neighborhood high school would just be a continuation of the bad experiences I was having in my new elementary school. I didn’t want to go there.
I had a cousin who was at Rauner. He was going through a tough time there, but he still told me, “If you’re serious about your education, then you should go there. People care for you.”
When I got accepted, my mom asked me, “Are you sure you want to go there? I’m afraid you’re going to have problems with the discipline.”
I said, “No. I’m going there to be a good student.”
My mom was skeptical, but she let me go. “Don’t make me pay a lot of money” by failing and having to pay fees for makeup classes, she warned. “Don’t waste our money and don’t waste your time.”
Unlocking the door to my future
Freshman year was mostly all right. Amazingly, I met someone from a different gang in Back of the Yards and we became best friends. But at one point, I got suspended and had a talk with the dean. “Are you affiliated with any gang?” he asked. I said no. I knew I still had to prove myself and show I was a good student.
When I came back as a sophomore, I realized my GPA and ACT scores were the keys to my future. I became a different person, an overachiever. I started taking AP courses. But since I’m undocumented, I still wasn’t sure whether I would be going to college. I thought maybe I could afford community college. I told one of my teachers about my situation and she gave me a hint that something good might happen.
“Our school’s working on something for you guys,” she said. That brought my hopes up.
By my senior year I had a 3.5 GPA. That’s when they announced the Pritzker Access Scholarship. Even then, I didn’t realize at first just how much money it was going to be. It was the equivalent of federal and state financial aid: up to $12,000. It meant that parents like my mother—a single parent with two children—would pay just $2,000 a year for college.
The PAS Scholarships meant more than money, too. Noble formed partnerships with 20 colleges, mostly liberal arts colleges in the Midwest that agreed to welcome students like me. At first I didn’t want to study so far from home. I wanted to be near family and help my mom with money. But my mom said, “Choose whatever college you think can help you financially and academically.”
I didn’t even visit St. Olaf before I was accepted. I went right before I had to decide. Once I got there I fell in love with the campus. It was like Rauner all over again—it was like family. People were caring for you, making sure you had a good visit, making sure you felt happy there.
First semester was a hard punch to take. Exams were tough. I felt like I could have prepared myself more. My GPA at the end of first semester was only a 2.6, just above the 2.5 required to keep my scholarship. But I was excited about my major—anthropology—and amazed at how my courses related to each other. We have a January term, so I took a writing class and got an A, which raised my GPA to a 2.8. Now I’m doing way better than in first semester.
In March, I lost a friend to the violence back in Chicago. He didn’t finish high school. He didn’t have opportunities like I had. He would text me on Snapchat, “Oh, how’s college? Hope you’re doing good.” He was trying to figure out what college is like. I know a lot of guys like him, and I’m here for all of them. That’s what motivating me to keep going to college. That, and showing the way for my younger brother.
I wrote a paper recently comparing charter schools with regular public schools. For part of the research, I read a paper about charter schools in Texas that were homes to many of the students. That’s how I often felt about Rauner. My mom knew the principal; she knew the teachers. Having that family and that sense of the importance of education helped me, an average teenager finding himself, find the way to get on the right path: college.