Spotlight on the Chicago Scholars No Limits cohort

As the academic year closes, so does our formal relationship with our Chicago Scholars cohort. I can’t express how proud I am of all six students and how much I have enjoyed working with my fellow mentors. The students were all accepted into 4-year university programs, and most received full (or a huge chunk of) scholarships. One student received the Gates scholarship which covers undergraduate tuition, expenses, and misc costs, as well as all costs related to advanced degrees.

It’s been a huge honor to know these students who have so much experience behind them and so many opportunities ahead of them. The below article was included in the most recent Chicago Scholars newsletter.

No Limits: Hear from a cohort of Mentors that help make the Chicago Scholars Experience possible.

The three mentors of the 2010 No Limits Cohort came to Chicago Scholars almost at random. Derek Varona (pictured above on the far right) found us through a pro bono project assigned by his company. Adam Siegel (pictured above third from the right) read about us in an article on the web. Julie Corbett (pictured above third from the left) looked on Yelp for volunteer opportunities in Chicago, and chose us by location. All of them had some time to spare and a desire to do something positive in their community.

Together they became mentors to the group of six students that would come to be known as the No Limits Cohort. Why? “We were having a conversation with our kids when we first met and we asked them if any of them ever thought about going out of state,” recalls Derek. “Most of them hadn’t, and they were a little scared. So we said, ‘why don’t we make our goal to have no limits–no state limits, nothing. We’ll look at the schools that we want to look at, and go for those.’ And that’s where it started.”

That was indeed just the start. Beginning the summer before the students’ senior year, Derek, Adam and Julie stood by to offer wisdom and assistance to steer them through a hectic college application season, fend off the perils of senioritis, and understand what kind of life awaits them at college. They read and reread essays, kept abreast of important deadlines, and joined the students at Chicago Scholars-sponsored events designed to impart knowledge and stimulate discussion. They kept in touch by email and held unofficial office hours; even the time they set aside time to relax together was aimed at opening the students to new experiences. (“We took them out for Thai food and made them try wasabi and sushi, which was very entertaining,” says Julie.)

This year was a new experience for the mentors as well, a chance to get to know six of Chicago’s most promising students and future leaders. “I can’t put words to how impressed I was from these guys from the moment I met them,” says Adam. “They’re who you think of when you think of our best and brightest, the people who you really want to see succeed. They’re the kind of people I’d want to hire once they’ve gotten out of college–and I feel like that before they’ve even entered college. They really have a sense of who they are and what they want to do, with a poise there that you don’t normally see. These kids can go really far.”

The mentors’ job, then, was to help them figure out just where they wanted to go. “They know that they’re supposed to go to college and get an undergraduate degree, but they don’t really understand what happens beyond that,” explains Julie: “what the process is if you want to be a doctor, or if you want an MBA versus another master’s degree.” More immediately, the students needed to consider the uncertainty factors of college–the course load, the work study opportunities, independent life away from the family. “They just have no idea what it’s going to be like once they get there,” says Adam. “I don’t think they realize just how much freedom they’re going to have to do well or absolutely fail.”

So they offered guidance based on their own experiences, encouraging students to ask questions and offering information nobody thought to ask for. “I think they sometimes expect adults to give a very superficial, clean version of stuff,” Julie says. “Just being frank and honest with them surprised them somewhat, and some of that is really just being clear about what you struggled with in college or when you were applying to schools.”

“A lot of people don’t like to volunteer with kids because they feel like all they’re going to do is try to convince them that what they’re doing is worthwhile, and the kids don’t want to be there, and it’s a struggle to get them to be interested in what you’re talking about,” says Adam. “And Chicago Scholars is just the opposite–these kids are sponges for what you have to say. They’re respectful, they’re interested, they want to hear about what your experiences were like. That’s very fulfilling. It’s nice to see if someone reads your blog post, or comments on your Facebook page, and it’s like, ‘ah, someone cared a little bit about what I have to say.’ That’s one thing. Sitting in front of six kids who live in your city and are about to go to college, and they want to hear what you have to say, and you’re helping change not only their future but the future of their family? That’s pretty powerful stuff.”

As Derek points out, the benefit doesn’t end with the admission or transition to college. “I feel that the impact I’m making is not necessarily what’s being said,” he explains. “I would say 95% of the conversations we have with each other are about things that aren’t important–basketball, or what we’re doing over the weekend, how’s your family, how’s work. I think the value is the ability to interact with people who have been there, with older people that you don’t know.”

For their part, the mentors benefited from the different perspective as well. “Normally my interactions are all with people older than me, but now I’m in a position where I’m the older one, trying to move people along and motivate them,” says Derek. “That’s something I’m trying to do at work every day, and this provides an opportunity to practice that, to recognize it in the people that mentor me and take their advice a little bit better.”

There were some challenges throughout the year, such as when one student moved out of state two weeks before college applications were due, rendering her ineligible to complete the process through Chicago Scholars. “We all felt a little helpless when that happened,” Adam admits. “Things like that can be emotionally draining,” agrees Julie. “It’s definitely a time commitment, and there are times when it’s frustrating working with teenagers, but seeing them figure out what they want to do in life and where they want go, and seeing them go through that process, is incredibly rewarding. They’re really good people that you want to see do well, and you know they will do well, in school and beyond.”

Support from the Chicago Scholars staff helped sustain the mentors through the difficult and stressful times as well. “The support in terms of the information you need, the constant communication and physical presence at events–that type of stuff is incredible,” says Derek. “I never feel like I’m in the dark in any way, so I’m in a position where I can actually help.”

“It sounds cliche, but you are getting just as much out of it as they are,” says Adam. “You’re helping them go to college, but you’re also realizing that these kids are pretty great. You’re getting a whole new perspective on the kids that are in your community. You very rarely hear anything positive about the Chicago public education system, and if you only read the papers and listen to the radio, your perception is that all these schools are just out of control–the kids graduating from them aren’t very smart, and you basically have to go to a private school to get a good education and have any hope of getting into a great school. Meeting not just the kids in our cohort but the hundreds of other kids that were part of the program, just getting to talk to a lot of them, I ended up realizing that, for some kids, this system actually does work.”

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