Words to the WYSE

For students all over the city, Friday, January 28 marked the start of a rare and coveted thing: a three-day weekend. But at 11:30am, a stream of preteen girls gathered happily at the entrance to Madero Middle School in Little Village. As the middle-schoolers filed into a school bus parked in front of Madero, their conversations synchronized into a hum of excitement, with an occasional audible exclamation about last night’s school dance, or whether or not it’s still cool to have Bieber Fever.

The girls were on their way to the University of Chicago’s campus for College and Career Day. The event, organized by the mentoring organization Women and Youth Supporting Each Other (WYSE), was intended to encourage them to attend a four-year college.

After eating lunch at the UofC’s South Campus Dining Hall (the blue ice cream was a hit), the 23 girls and their mentors headed to a mock class with professor of anthropology Nené Lozada on her archeological dig in Chile. Several girls were slouching in their chairs towards the end of Professor Lozada’s 45-minute lecture, but after she concluded, none of them could stop talking about it. “College lectures are long, but I like it,” one girl remarked. “All you do is, like, sit and watch and take notes and stuff.”

After class, the group embarked on a scavenger hunt around campus, in search of coffee shops, brochures from the admissions office, and pieces of chalk, ending at the Bartlett Trophy Lounge for theater games with the student improv comedy group Off-Off Campus. In a career panel discussions held at the end of the day, the girls heard a doctor, a middle school drama director, and a third-grade teacher starting sentences with the clauses, “when you do your undergrad…” or “when you go to college.”

But despite all the careful messaging, at the end of the day, the girls had eaten lunch in a dining hall, fallen asleep during a lecture, and trudged around campus looking for a cheap cup of coffee.  They had seen college. And in the Chicago Public Schools system, where only 17.5 percent of graduating Latina girls enroll in a four-year college within a year of graduation, the girls didn’t take the college routine for granted. One of the students, Kiara Azarte, surfaced from Bieber fever to put it well and simply. “After today, it made me think of colleges I could go to, what I could major in, what jobs there are, and that there is a lot you could be good at.”