Lifelong learning: Alumni reflect on impact of UChicago’s Collegiate Scholars Program

For the past 20 years, program has inspired students in their education and careers

André Washington was always a strong student, but he credits his years in the inaugural cohort of the University of Chicago’s Collegiate Scholars Program with igniting his ongoing love of learning.

In the two decades since Washington participated in the free college and career readiness program for Chicago public high school students, the South Side native has attended a prestigious music conservatory, spent three years in Paris as a Fulbright Scholar, worked on political campaigns, graduated from law school and taken on his current role as a U.S. District Court law clerk in western New York.

And still, Washington said, his experience in the UChicago program stands out.

“What really stuck with me was just that love of learning for its own sake,” said Washington, who grew up in Chicago’s Washington Heights neighborhood. “I’ve always been curious, but it really turbocharged my ability to channel that curiosity. Nothing else I’ve ever done in my entire life has replicated that.”

2023 marks 20 years of the Collegiate Scholars Program supporting students like Washington. The program, led by UChicago’s Office of Civic Engagement, was established in 2003 after the UChicago Consortium on School Research found that highly qualified Chicago public high school students were underreaching in their college applications. The three-year enrichment program prepares talented students from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds for admission and success at highly selective colleges.

Since CSP’s founding, more than 900 CPS students from across the city have participated. The program offers classes taught by UChicago faculty, financial aid workshops, college and career exploration and planning, nationwide college tours, and other activities on UChicago’s campus to introduce students to the college experience. 

In the most recent graduating class of 36 Collegiate Scholars, 69% will be first-generation college students, 72% came from low-income backgrounds, and 57% were admitted to highly selective colleges and universities. In total, participants were awarded more than $7 million in financial aid.  

“For the past 20 years, the Collegiate Scholars Program has helped equip Chicago high school students with the tools, and exposure, they need to apply, be accepted, and thrive in college and beyond,” said Abel Ochoa, executive director of college readiness and access. “We’re honored to have worked with so many incredible young people in that time and have had the chance to follow along as they take what they’ve learned and go out and make an impact, whether it’s here in Chicago or around the world.”

Looking back, Washington and other participants from the program’s first years who recently reflected back on their experience noted the ways the program supplemented their day-to-day CPS education and offered an outlet for development that wasn’t otherwise available to many participants.

“It was not possible for my mother to send me to a private school or pay for all the extracurriculars to set me apart—and not even just to set me apart but actually to feed my curiosity and to sharpen my brain and expose me to things so I could have a better sense of what I wanted to do,” Washington said. “CSP creates an opportunity for folks from a different socioeconomic status to be in an environment where they’re given what they need to grow. It was a really unique experience.”

Readiness for college and life

For Gabrielle Kelenyi, being a Collegiate Scholar was instrumental in helping her seek out new experiences and perspectives and build an array of skills that continue to drive her professional and personal trajectory. Kelenyi, who grew up in Chicago’s Jefferson Park neighborhood and graduated from CSP in 2009, is now an assistant English professor at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania.

“I entered college really confident. I knew I had taken University of Chicago classes. I knew how to seek out support. I knew that I was in this together with my classmates. I knew that it would take planning and organization and all of those different things,” Kelenyi said.

As a teacher, Kelenyi now knows firsthand how hard it is to teach skills like time management, effective study habits, and the importance of reflecting on what you’ve learned with others. Those are some of the lessons she took away from CSP.

“All of those skills were super transferrable. I had hands-on experience figuring it out with other people who were like-minded,” she said. “Learning doesn’t happen in a silo. It happens in community.”

More than that, Kelenyi remains grateful to the CSP staff she worked with, who, she says motivated her to aim her goals high and pay those valuable lessons forward.

“[The staff] changed my life,” Kelenyi said. “They were all people of color who were doing incredible work and very passionate about what they did. It just showed me what it could be like. I aspired to be like them and I’m proud to say that I think I’ve achieved a lot of that. It just gave me something to shoot for.”

A unique support network

Trevor Wilkins found confidence and connection during his years as a Collegiate Scholar as well. Wilkins, who grew up in Hyde Park and graduated from CSP in 2008, remembers the program helping him develop the time management skills he’d need as a college football player and the ability to respond to challenging perspectives—a skill he continues to tap in his work daily.

Wilkins worked with CSP after struggling as a first-year college student and coming home to recalibrate. He’d remained close with program staffers and served as a temporary staffer himself during the gap year he took at that time. It was that experience—helping organize student curriculums and sitting in on program classes again, among other duties—that really shifted his mindset, Wilkins says.

“It absolutely gave me the confidence at the time to come back [to college] and excel,” he said. By the time Wilkins graduated from Princeton University, he’d started a business that had raised a little under $2 million and put him on Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list. Today, he serves as the vice president of partnership engagement for a health care innovation company based in Los Angeles.

“I really do attribute a lot of that to the confidence that was rebuilt when I was home working with CSP and working with the kids and the whole staff.”

Campus connection

Embassie Susberry, who grew up in the Beverly neighborhood and also graduated from CSP’s first cohort in 2006, returned to UChicago for law school. Though she’d thought about law school, a government and politics class she took during her first summer with CSP helped her confirm the academic and professional direction she was considering.

“I kind of thought that I might go to law school, but I left that class thinking that this is something that I could do,” Susberry said. “Our professor really encouraged discussion and debate and it was just a really good class, so it was a good way to figure out what you like and what you don’t like before you pick a major and take out loans at a university.”

Today, Susberry serves as assistant director in the UChicago Law School’s Career Services office and recently signed a publishing deal after writing more than a dozen historical romance novels.

Looking to recreate the environment he’d loved as a Collegiate Scholar, Washington found himself back at UChicago for law school, where he says he was thrilled to again immerse himself in deep thought surrounded by others who felt the same way.

“CSP helped me really appreciate what I was there for,” Washington said. “I always got good grades but whenever that was more of a challenge, I knew it was the process—what I learned and what I took away—that mattered, and that helped me to persevere.”

A version of this story first appeared on the Office of Civic Engagement website.