The Five-Year Plan: Chicago Scholars guides students from college applications to graduation

(Rachel Wiseman and Ellis Calvin)

(Rachel Wiseman and Ellis Calvin)


Do you remember applying to college during senior year? I don’t blame you if you’ve conveniently forgotten the hours fraught with AP scores, SATs, recommendations, transcripts, and fees that have become an almost archetypal experience for college-bound high school seniors. Now, if you need to, imagine how much harder it would have been had your parents not gone to college, had your family’s income hovered around $20,000, had you recently immigrated to the United States, or had you needed to work to support your family. If you were under these circumstances, you know how much harder it was.

That’s the impetus behind the Chicago Scholars Foundation’s scholarship program for needy Chicago high school students. Formerly known as Scholarship Chicago, the Chicago Scholars Foundation does work that makes college a reality instead of a dream for many of the most challenged and needy kids in the city, and they do it through long-term commitment, rather than by merely throwing money at good students.

The Chicago Scholars program is designed to encompass the five-year stretch from college applications to graduation and finding a job. The program, which has matriculated students from 87 high schools (many from Chicago Public Schools, but also from parochial and private schools), interviews high school juniors vying for one of its 55 spots. Through partnerships with other organizations, Chicago Scholars extends aid to an additional 20 students. Award recipients are chosen for their academic drive and promise, as opposed to achievement. Successful applicants have earned GPAs ranging from 2.5 to 5.0, and transcripts have ranged from all As in AP classes to those with no AP credit at all.

The program aims to provide the opportunity of a college education to those most needy, though Chicago Scholars does not target specific ethnic or economic categories. Unlike scholarships aimed at students of a particular ethnicity, religious background, or economic situation, Chicago Scholars takes a more broad approach. “We’re targeting the city of Chicago,” says Meseret Negash, Director of Programs and Partnerships at Chicago Scholars. As a result, not only does the program represent students from 87 high schools, but also from nearly every neighborhood and economic and ethnic background in the city–first-generation Polish, Mexican, Lithuanian, and Ghanaian Americans, for example, and family incomes ranging from less than $20,000 a year (54 percent) to over $100,000 a year. Negash is quick to note that family incomes and ethnic backgrounds are not an adequate way to convey the true diversity of scholarship recipients–“A family income of $100,000 doesn’t take into account how many there are in the household,” she points out–but the statistics do help to show an underlying truth: the need for a college scholarship encompasses myriad ethnic, social, and economic situations, and can rarely be tied down to one criterion.

Perhaps the thing that most sets the Chicago Scholars program apart from other scholarship programs, though, is the fact that students derive the most utility not from funds but from the mentorship aspect of the program. “What we found over the years is that what really mattered and what really helped students was the programming element as well as the scholarship,” said Negash. As a result, there is a tradeoff. For a relatively small monetary award ($5,000 over four years), scholarship recipients are able to draw on an extensive five-year long mentorship program. “It’s not that scholarships aren’t necessary; they’re very important. But we realize that scholarships and support have equal values,” says Negash.

Hearing Negash describe the mentorship aspect of the program almost makes the scholarship sound like a side note, so extensive is the list of workshops and events geared toward everything from preparing a successful college application to finding internships and a job after graduation.

During a scholar’s senior year of high school, as preparation for the college application process, an “Onsite” event is held to which many colleges are invited. The degree of student participation is impressive, in part because the colleges that are invited are those that Chicago Scholars’ particular cohort of scholarship recipients are most interested in. Many students are given early interviews at this point, and some receive perks such as early admissions decisions or scholarships from a particular college. Negash insists that her scholars are not given preferential treatment. Instead, she says, “We’re a conduit that brings schools the kids are interested in and meshes them together.”

This assertion would seem to pose a problem: How to account for the interests of such a wide group of students? The program has everyone from academic superstars to those who have to work to support their families and have lower GPAs to show for it. Some, then, are aiming for the Ivies, while others are aiming simply for a college education, no matter the prestige of the diploma or of the name of the university on it. How to adequately address the needs of both?

The Chicago Scholars Foundation’s solution is, again, determined according to student preference. “We really function from the premise that there’s a college for every student,” contends Negash, “and we work very deliberately to see that our students have all the options in front of them.” As a result, selective schools are invited to on-site meets, as well as less selective but still highly reputable institutions, like local schools and members of the Big Ten.

During the first year of college, a student is assigned a mentor, normally an older student from the Chicago Scholars program who attends the same college. The scope of these mentorships is focused more on the transition to daily college life than on grand ambitions: mentors are there to provide support for roommate problems (who didn’t have a roommate that walked around naked?) and homesickness, a more acute problem for first-time college attendees. Negash asserts that this aspect of mentorship is what gives the program a feeling of community. “We really do have strong bonds with our students. The wonderful evidence is they come back and become mentors and support the new classes of scholars. They also reach out and do peer mentoring on their respective college campuses. So there’s a student there to acclimate them to student life.”

The summer after their first year, students take career-oriented summer workshops, and generally land some sort of internships. Companies like H&R Block and Deloitte have partnered with the Chicago Scholars Foundation to provide exposure to the fields of accounting and consulting, respectively. Kirkland Ellis has started a law program. There have been programs and internships on green technology and construction, as well. And in all of the programs, some sort of emphasis is placed on aspects of the job that address issues relating back to the community. For example, the program at Lurie Cancer Center at Northwestern Memorial Hospital was entitled “Beyond the White Coat,” and dealt in part with disparities in healthcare between the insured and the uninsured.

Given the community-oriented nature of the program, it’s reasonable to ask whether or not the Chicago Scholars Foundation orients its students toward jobs for public service. Is it all right if a student becomes an investment banker rather than a community organizer?

“You know what? That’s absolutely fine,” says Negash. “We’re all about making sure that students pursue the career interests that they have. We’ve got opera singers, ballet dancers, lawyers, doctors, and we’re absolutely here to celebrate each and every one of them.” She did, however, indicate the organization’s hope that their scholarship recipients return to leadership positions here in Chicago in the future. “We’d like students to come back and recycle their talents and serve the city in their various leadership roles.”

The ambition is a lofty one, but one that seems attainable because of the strong familial bond that Negash says is instilled throughout a student’s experience as a scholar. “What makes us unique is that we’re a five-year model. So not only do we assist them to get into college, but we’re there when they graduate, too,” she says.

And they graduate fairly nicely, too. Though the funds awarded by the Chicago Scholars Foundation are humble compared to rising college costs, many Chicago Scholars are able to receive additional scholarship funds through various partners, and it goes hand-in-hand with the programming that is the hallmark of the Chicago Scholars program. Remember that Onsite college visit? Last year, over $1 million dollars in scholarships were awarded. Who said applying to college was so bad?

(Mehves Konuk)

(Mehves Konuk)

1 comment for “The Five-Year Plan: Chicago Scholars guides students from college applications to graduation

  1. October 29, 2009 at 10:25 am

    What a great article! I loved all the examples and “soundbites” from the interview with Meseret. Oh, and why would I forget the comment about the bad roommate who “walked naked”. Witty and informative. Thanks so much Mr. Montiel!

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