UChicago celebrates the promise of Chicago youth

Though Daweed Abdiel always has been intellectually curious and a good student, college wasn’t always on his radar. Most of his older family members had started college but never finished. In his first two years of high school, “I wasn’t thinking about college too much,” he said. “I was a good student, but I had no direction.”

That changed after Abdiel joined the Upward Bound program offered through the Office of Special Programs-College Prep. Staff members who lead the program encouraged him to apply to colleges. “This program helped me determine I wanted a small liberal arts college.” With Upward Bound showing the way, he got what he wanted. In August, Abdiel will attend Denison University with the support of two prestigious awards: a Gates-Millennium Scholarship and a Posse Scholarship.

“We have young people who develop a real sense of confidence and self-awareness about who they are and their ability to meet challenges and be successful,” said Dovetta McKee, director of the Office of Special Programs-College Prep. “It changes their mindset about the leadership role they can play in their communities, and makes them models for young people who follow behind them,” she said.

Abdiel was one of about 60 Chicago high school seniors honored at the 2015 Student Recognition Night, sponsored by the Office of Civic Engagement. The seniors took part in one of two programs: Upward Bound or the Collegiate Scholars Program, which prepares talented Chicago Public Schools students to succeed in the nation’s top colleges and universities.

In addition, University students who have served with the Neighborhood Schools Program received recognition for their work in local public schools and community programs. All three efforts are part of UChicago Promise, the University’s multi-pronged effort to increase college access and success for Chicago youth.

Increasing college access and success starts young. The Neighborhood Schools Program connects 375 UChicago students with 3,000 students in the surrounding neighborhoods. Many are still grade-schoolers, and tutoring can make a real impact on their future prospects.

“We leaned on NSP quite a lot and they came through,” said Ed Kajor in a video shown at the event. Kajor, a learning behavior specialist at Burke Elementary in Washington Park, credits tutoring from volunteers like Amanda Weisler, a third-year sociology major, for boosting the school’s scores on standardized tests.

“Our program is one of a few that is truly receptive to local school needs, said Shaz Rasul, director of community programs in the Office of Civic Engagement. “If a principal tells us she needs help with third grade, we will find tutors for the third grade who can be available during the school day. This is important because schools are often judged by what happens in the classroom, not enrichment time after school.”

University students benefit, too. Real-world experience has led more than one NSP volunteer into a career in education, including Sara Stoelinga, clinical professor of the Committee on Education, who was honored at the event with the Don York Faculty Initiative Award, and keynote speaker Geoffrey Aladro AB’06, who is currently Miami-Dade’s Teacher of the Year. Stoelinga also received a 2015 Llewellyn John and Harriet Manchester Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching.

When Aladro discovered his long-held dream of corporate work wasn’t all he thought it would be, he changed gears and chose teaching because of his NSP experiences. “I haven’t really worked since I became a teacher,” he told the crowd, “because I love my work.”

Fourth-year Jonathan Fifer, who volunteered with NSP throughout his College career, intends to follow in their footsteps. His next goal will be to earn a master’s degree from Teachers College, Columbia University, where he’ll study early childhood education. “I’ve always been interested in the little kids,” he said. “Even when they’re crying or being bad, you can see their thought process. I can’t be mad at them.”

While teaching high school students about the college application process gets them started on their higher education journey, the Upward Bound and Collegiate Scholars programs also support young people’s intellectual growth. Ivelise Colon, a Collegiate Scholar, has chosen Whittier College’s alternative liberal arts program, where she will design her own major, incorporating elements of psychology, sociology and early childhood education. “I want to do my own thing,” she said.

“The hallmark of Collegiate Scholars is the interaction with faculty. We are one of very few institutions in the country where there is intentional engagement between University faculty and public school students from across the city,” said Abel Ochoa, interim director of the Collegiate Scholars Program. “It really elevates a student’s frame of thinking to be taught by a professor who has written a textbook, done concrete research, or is considered a world-renowned expert in his field.”

Like Colon, Abdiel has seen his intellectual interests shift over time, from physics to chemistry with a generous side helping of economics and African-American Studies. He credits his Upward Bound mentors for exposing him to the Kavli Institute of Cosmological Physics and for staying the course with him as his interests evolved. “They won’t tell you what to do, but they’ll ask you questions,” he said. “They’ll help you find your passions.”