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A head start for first-generation students

During her junior year of high school, Rossy Tejeda felt like a “lost puppy” as the approaching college application process loomed over her head.

“I was so, so lost,” said the senior from Eric Solorio Academy High School. “I knew I wanted to go to college, but I didn’t know where. I didn’t know what I wanted to major in. As a low-income and Hispanic kid, I didn’t know what college I could apply for.”

But Tejeda soon found the extra push and college guidance from her sibling-like mentors at Chicago Scholars, a college and career preparation program for first-generation students.

“They are the biggest support system that I’ve had,” Tejeda said. “Thanks to them, I know where I want to go in my life. They take you step by step and set the boundaries. They really prepared me.”

Students in the Chicago Scholars program attend monthly workshops in cohorts, receive one-on-one college counseling and enjoy outings such as exploring Millennium Park or chatting over milkshakes and ice cream.

Emily Ellermann, one of Tejeda’s mentors, said connecting with her students for the past six months has been “inspiring.”

“It’s a blessing how comfortable they’ve been to open up to us and . . . share their own stories,” the first-year mentor said. “I never would get this connection with someone I see once a month, so it’s pretty amazing.”

Founded in 1996, Chicago Scholars serves more than 1,400 students in Chicago high schools and on college campuses across the U.S. through its Launch, Lift and Lead programs. After joining Chicago Scholars, students are split into groups of six students and three mentors. They are supported through the college application process in their senior year of high school, paired with peer mentors on their college campuses, and then guided into their careers for two years.

“It’s not just about the college degree if you don’t have the tools, the access, or the networks to actually land you a job in your field of choice as a leader,” said Dominique Jordan Turner, president and CEO of Chicago Scholars. “We’re doing a lot in our program to build relationships with companies in every industry across our city to employ our students when they graduate and return to Chicago.”

This article is part of a series, produced through an initiative of the Chicago Sun-Times and the Illinois Mentoring Partnership, to celebrate National Mentoring Month. 

To volunteer or refer a student to Chicago Scholars, visit http://www.chicagoscholars.org or www.ilmentoring.org. Chicago Scholars is accepting applications now through Feb. 12 for mentors and participants.

Author Sony Kassam is a graduate student attending Northwestern University.