A Crusader Exclusive
By Danielle Parker
During last summer’s release of the “Blueprint for an Equitable Chicago: A 10-Year Plan,” Chicago Urban League President & CEO Shari Runner so eloquently stated, “The great thing about being 100 years old is that you have the long reach of history behind you. You have earned your memory and your wisdom. And even though some might write you off because of your age, you know that you have a vantage point that must compel others to listen and act.”
As we enter our second century of service, the Chicago Urban League is using its “long reach of history” and cultivated “vantage point” to positively impact the lives of young people. Per the 10-year plan, the League has committed to increasing the African American high school graduation rate by 15 percent in the city of Chicago over the next decade. In order to achieve such an ambitious goal, active and consistent engagement of our youth is paramount.
For the final installment of this three-part series, I invited Diana B*, a first generation college student at Illinois State University and Urban League client, to weigh in on the future of African-American education. Despite obstacles and challenges, Diana’s dream has not been deferred due to her unwavering commitment to achieve success with the support of organizations like the Chicago Urban League.
“In the age of instant information, obtaining a college degree has become a basic necessity to make any type of head way in the workforce. Coupled with the need to earn a degree is the increase in the cost of tuition. Grants and scholarships help offset some expenses, but they are not always enough.
“There is a white elephant in most of my classrooms as I sit at the same tables with the same intent as everyone else wanting to absorb knowledge. During group work, somehow the conversation of how others’ tuition is covered often comes up. I hear the usual ‘I have a trust fund,’ ‘My parents make monthly payments’ or my favorite one, ‘My family makes six figures.’ These comments roll off my classmates’ tongues like a ‘silver-spooned’ dessert. I mentally grasp the handle of my ‘plastic silverware’ and try to finish my work quickly to avoid the conversation.
“As a first generation college student, I strive for excellence to show my family members that anything is possible with time, hard work, sweat and even some tears. At times, I just lie in bed and cry because of the pressure, and the mountain of emotions boil over. Then I remind myself that being in college is what I want. Although I’m faced with challenges daily because of the color of my skin and where I am from, I can’t stop. Failure is not in my vocabulary, so day-by-day, I work to achieve my goals. While juggling school work, two part-time jobs, extracurricular activities and community service, I still manage to find a little time to sleep.
“Once I started college, I immediately realized that it’s not a level playing field. I come from a racially-concentrated area of poverty. There is an assumption that a first-generation African American college student will graduate, end up with a great job and have an overall better quality of life. However, the equation is not that simple. Even with a college degree, first-generation students often come from low-income families. In this circumstance, the same types of life skills of middle-to-high income bracket students are not instilled. So, it’s essential that we find resources and organizations that assist us with obtaining a better arsenal of life tools.
“One of the best things that happened to me was joining the Chicago Urban League’s Project Ready program four years ago. The resources and mentorship that I gained from this program are invaluable. As a result, I have been given endless opportunities that I probably would not have had otherwise. The program prepared me for my transition to college, networking and overall skills that I will keep with me for life. The great news is that the mentoring does not end once participants go to college. The Urban League staff is still right there supporting me, and for that, I am truly grateful.
“It indeed takes a village. Finding mentorships, scholarships and guidance through organizations like the Chicago Urban League was instrumental to helping me begin my college journey. I feel blessed to know that the League will be there when I complete it. Recognizing that there are a lot of people counting on me to succeed, I am up for every challenge and will not allow my dream to be deferred.”