A Wright College degree decades in the making: ‘I don’t give up’

City College students average three years to complete a 2-year associate degree program. Maria Delgado took 28.

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Maria Delgado started taking classes at Wright College in 1994 when she was 19. Now she is 47, and will finally walk across the graduation stage at Wintrust Arena on Sunday.

Maria Delgado started taking classes at Wright College in 1994 when she was 19. Now she is 47, and will finally walk across the graduation stage at Wintrust Arena on Sunday.

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Most graduates from the City Colleges of Chicago don’t participate in the traditional cap-and-gown ceremony. Only 1,424 students from the seven colleges — Harold Washington, Harry S. Truman, Kennedy-King, Olive-Harvey, Malcolm X, Richard J. Daley and Wilbur Wright — will walk across the stage at Wintrust Arena this Sunday for a handshake and a diploma cover. More than 2,000 graduates will pass on the opportunity.

Why?

Jobs. Family obligations. Too busy.

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But Maria G. Delgado will be there.

“It’s important for me to go to the ceremony because it brings closure,” she said. “Closing a chapter but beginning a new one. Closing a cycle.”

A long cycle: 28 years. Delgado started taking classes at Wright College in 1994 when she was 19.

Now she is 47.

“I grew up in Wicker Park, then moved to Humboldt Park,” she said. “It was a very bad area back then, lots of shooting, lots of people dying. I’m surprised that we made it out.”

She was born in Mexico’s most violent city, Zamora, Michoacán. Her mother was 14. Her parents, Trinidad and Virginia Montejano, fled to the United States when Delgado was a child. They stressed the importance of education, and are another reason she is going to commencement on Sunday.

“It honors my parents,” she said. “A way to thank them for everything they did, a way of paying them back.”

Which some might say she’s already done. After Delgado began college, her parents grew ill. She tried taking classes while being their caregiver, but it became too much. Her mom needed a pacemaker; her dad, a liver transplant. Delgado started having panic attacks.

“I just couldn’t do it anymore,” she said. “Once they told me she had three- to six-month life expectancy, I couldn’t retain anything. I withdrew from my classes.”

Her mother died in 2008; her father died in 2015. But by then Delgado had her own difficulties. She struggled with mental illness.

“I learned what anxiety was,” she said. “Everybody has problems. Nobody is free from getting a mental illness. Anybody can get it at any point.”

She shifted her interest from psychology to legal matters.

“I started taking classes in criminal justice,” she said. “I grew up surrounded by gangs. I would want to know why certain kids end up living a different life, while we were living in the same situation and we did not end up like that.”

Meanwhile she worked “small jobs” — at an attorney’s office, or buying goods at thrift stores and reselling them.

“Nothing that had to do with school or formal employment,” she said. “Not really.”

Delgado is not alone at Wright in having to overcome obstacles to get her degree. The average City College student is 27 years old. Most are Black or Hispanic. Most have jobs, and require three years to complete the two-year associate degree. She credits Wright with giving her the support she needed.

“They helped me,” she said. “The counselors. The tutoring. They had an actual therapist, who also helped me.”

As I talked to Delgado, I realized that hers is a voice not heard in the media enough — not some bright young thing dreaming big at Northwestern or U. of C., but a mid-40s mom — she has a son, Uriel, 19, and a daughter, Virginia, 11. Someone who has had difficulties but kept going. Someone determined to now earn her bachelor’s degree.

“I have plans. I have ambitions,” she said. “I want to complete what I started, for me to be able to show my kids that it doesn’t matter what age you are. It doesn’t matter how long it takes. You have to get there somehow.

“I don’t give up. I’ve gone through rough times. I’m still able to get up. I want to show my kids that’s how life is. There is no magic. You have to learn: Every time you fall, you have to get up again. They have to be resilient. I’ve been resilient. I want my kids to learn from me. Money goes fast, but this will be with you until the day you die. Instead of money or material possessions, one of the things I’ll give them is resiliency.”

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