Chicago Sun-Times readers performed a miracle.
Five years ago, you helped send a very deserving Urban Prep Academy graduate to the University of Pennsylvania.
Jason Roberts, then 16, was accepted at the Ivy League university, but after receiving about $30,000 in scholarships, he still needed $31,000 to cover tuition, room and board.
You raised $22,000 in small, individual donations to help Roberts get over the hump.
“There were three large envelopes of donation letters from people who want us to keep them updated on this story,” Roberts told me at the time he picked up the funds from the bank.
You will be pleased to know your money was well spent.
Roberts finished his courses in December and recently walked across the stage to pick up his bachelor’s degree from UPenn, where he majored in cognitive neuroscience, with a minor in linguistics.
Cognitive neuroscience is the field that studies the biological factors that underlie and are the basis for thought and understanding.
Roberts was in the graduating class with Tiffany Trump, the president’s daughter.
“There were Secret Service everywhere,” Roberts told me last week when I caught up with him between job interviews.
He called his time at the UPenn “life-changing.”
“I am now privy to a lot of opportunities because I went to an Ivy League institution that has weight behind its name,” he said.
“I have unilateral access to many fields, and I can call upon my knowledge of human interaction, emotion and motivation, as well as a host of languages to communicate any idea and connect with anyone,” he told me, sounding a lot like a young man on a mission.
Roberts is fluent in English, Spanish, German and American Sign Language.
Before enrolling in UPenn, Roberts had considered going into the medical field because he watched his mother battle breast cancer.
But his experience at the university put him on a different path.
“When I got there, I took a lot of different classes that opened my eyes. The linguistics classes I took in the first year made me minor in how language evolved and people communicate and how that has changed over the years,” he said.
The money you so generously gave enabled Roberts to get through freshman year.
“I was in that financial aid office every day after class. It was at the end of freshman year that they finally had a reworked financial aid package. So that was an added layer of stress just trying to figure out where the next year’s money was going to come from,” Roberts recalled.
Today, the total cost of tuition, room and board at the University of Pennsylvania for the 2017-2018 academic year is $71,200.
“I am hesitant to think about how much it is going to cost when I have kids and they are going to school,” he said.
Roberts found a passion for a capella music while away at college.
“Since my sophomore year, I have been in an a capella group called, ‘The Inspiration.’ Now I am singing and writing music professionally and hope to use all the languages that I know and incorporate that in music,” he said.
“I want to do something that no one has done before, that is, really target the Deaf audience by incorporating American Sign Language into my music videos. I think that would be really cool,” he said.
I was initially fascinated by Roberts’ story because of his generous spirit.
That’s a rare quality these days.
For example, when a high school classmate became homeless in senior year, Roberts pleaded with his mother to let him move in with their family.
And when that classmate ended up edging him out for a Gates Millennium Scholarship that paid tuition, room and board for four years, Roberts was his biggest supporter.
“David’s at Georgetown working on his master’s right now,” Roberts said, referring to his old classmate.
Unfortunately, because of the city’s gun violence, Roberts’ homecoming is bittersweet.
“My first concern coming back is the mortality rate. I didn’t want to think about my safety every day. Hopefully, my little brother will be at the University of Minnesota so I don’t have to worry about him,” Roberts told me.
Roberts and other young men like him could use our prayers.
But it is our acts of kindness that will help put these young men on a path to success.
Mary Mitchell and educator Leslie Baldacci are co-hosts of a popular new podcast called “Zebra Sisters” — a refreshing look at race relations from the viewpoints of two women – one black and one white. Mary and Leslie unwind awkward subjects and discuss current events with candor and humor. Subscribe (for free) on iTunes and Google Play Music — or listen to individual episodes on the Sun-Times’ website. Email Mary and Leslie at email@example.com or give them a shout-out on the Zebra Hotline (312) 321-3000, ext. ZBRA (9272).