I've never agreed with the "college for all" movement. College is not for everyone and everyone is not for college.
But for those students who do feel fulfilled being in a classroom or for those who see a degree as a path toward something better, college is for them--especially if they're a first-generation college student like I was.
DePaul University, my alma mater, recently broke new ground with two recent announcements. First, DePaul now awards a $20,000 Chicago Promise Scholarship to Chicago Public Schools graduates, renewable for three more years, who are first-year students with at least a 3.7 weighted GPA.
Furthermore, the City Colleges of Chicago announced that their downtown campus, Harold Washington College, will partner with DePaul to help students transition after they earn their associate's degree.
Three of my students so far told me they earned the 20k scholarship. I gave them a huge congratulations and advised, "Now, don't mess it up!"
In 1986, during my freshman year of high school, my dad, brothers, and I would drive past DePaul's Lincoln Park campus on our way to visit my sister, a Leukema patient, at Children's Memorial Hospital. I saw the glow of the white sign on the hill the campus used to have. I'd tell my dad, "This is where I wanna go." My dad, an immigrant who valued education, silently nodded. He didn't know how to help me get there.
When we arrived at the hospital, my mom, who stayed with my sister, tightly hugged my brothers and me as if we where bags of groceries.
By my senior year at a neighborhood Southwest side Chicago public high school, I'd made it into the top ten of my class (I was the highest ranking male). I had a high GPA and ACT scores in the low to mid twenties for English, Science, and Reading (not in math but that's a different blog post).
No teacher or staff member--even though we had a "college counselor"--ever pulled me aside and asked about my college plans.
I thought about applying to Princeton and, one day, becoming a lawyer. I obtained an application to the University of Chicago. But without mentorship, I applied to DePaul. And only applied to DePaul. I filled out FAFSA on my own. I figured things out. I didn't know any college graduates I could reach out to. I decided to become a teacher.
My father bought me a '79 Pontiac Bonneville for $250 and fixed the engine. He didn't want me struggling with public transportation. It turned out, my father did know how to get me to college.
Each morning, my mom, still sleepy from working at a warehouse the night before, sent me on my way with unending blessings for success.
On campus, I was on my own. The conversations about supporting first-generation college students were barely beginning in 1990--thanks to activist first-generation students. Little was done. Or if something was done, I didn't know about it.
Somehow, with my Burger King assistant manager job, making $5.50 an hour, and understanding bosses who gave me a flexible schedule and lots of hours in the summer, some financial aid, and a student loan, I paid the $8,000 tuition on my own freshman year.
Then tuition started going up. By my junior year, tuition was around $12,000. Things at home had gotten so bad financially because my family didn't have health insurance when my sister got sick (my dad's employer took it away shortly before she was diagnosed). My dad was sick by this time, too.
My parents never asked for my help; they wanted me to go to college. But I saw a need. I'm the oldest, after all.
So I almost dropped out of college at the end of junior year.
But a professor gave me the idea to become a part-time student instead.
Thanks to my mom, I got an interview at a bank processing center. Her warehouse co-worker was married to a manager there. For $8.00 an hour, I ran a machine that mailed out people's bank statements as my full-time job--sometimes working third shift and going to class after.
By my fifth year in college, I could barely pay the $15,000 tuition. One time, I had to leave all my books with the bookstore's cashier because my credit card, with a $500 limit, got rejected. I bought my books as I needed them according to the syllabus.
Thankfully, I never struggled academically. And I never felt like I didn't belong on campus. I didn't have the confidence I have now. But, dammit, I knew I belonged in college and deserved to be at DePaul. Maybe that's why I didn't look for a cheaper option. I willed myself to be a DePaul graduate. I would finish what I started.
I loved being on campus--especially when I walked down Belden Avenue from the Schmidt Academic Center to McGaw Hall at the beginning of spring quarter.
Five years after I started, I graduated with a 3.1 GPA and $15,000 in student loans, which considering my situation wasn't bad.
I didn't enjoy the social part of my undergraduate education, however. It was always work and school and work and school. But I still savored being a college student.
DePaul changed my life.
One of the greatest moments?
Walking down the tunnel at the Rosemont Horizon (today's Allstate Arena) to get in line at the commencement ceremony in 1995. It felt like slow motion.
In the 2000s, I stopped encouraging my CPS students to attend DePaul. Tuition increased so much--it's over $30,000 a year now for commuters--that I didn't want low-income, first-generation students to fall into a financial trap by attending DePaul all four years.
Today, however, I'm thrilled that more first-generation students will have the opportunity to attend my alma mater.
Last year, I wrote an article for Latino USA about how DePaul--thanks to student activists--started a scholarship program for undocumented students.
Because of the new partnership between the city and DePaul, and because of this new scholarship opportunity, I can, once again, promote my alma mater to high-achieving, driven, first-generation students.
"You'll still have to get a job," I told students who got the scholarship. "Not working while you're in college isn't part of our reality," I reminded them. "It's OK to commute. Save money that way. And it's OK to get a small student loan each year."
I joke that all of my late-tuition fees paid for the new facilities they'll enjoy on campus. I end with, "You're gonna love it there!"
More Chicago-area universities need to offer opportunities like DePaul. In the nation's third largest city, low-income, first-generation students shouldn't be forced to look far for meaningful, affordable college options.
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