The Chicago Scholars Foundation provides Chicago's young leaders with the support they need to achieve their dreams: mentorship, college admissions support, and access to summer internships and career programming. We reach out to students from recently emigrated families and under-resourced communities and nurture their talent through an innovative five-year program lasting from the senior year of high school through the senior year of college. Our academically ambitious Scholars are not only investing in their own career growth and success but also ensuring that Chicago remains competitive in the global economy for years to come. Scholars begin the program the summer before their senior year of high school and continue until they graduate from college. Since its inception over a decade ago, Chicago Scholars has helped more than 2,500 students earn college degrees, reflecting a 95% graduation rate among participants. Each Chicago Scholar's support system consists of:
Winning for the Good Guys
"From the age of five, I have been saying I wanted to become a judge," recalls Jerome Coenic. "The initial reason was that my father was killed when I was two years old, and I wanted to put the 'bad guys' in jail."
Reaching the judicial bench was a tall order for the second child of eight raised on public aid by a widowed mother in Altgeld Gardens, a low-income housing complex on Chicago's far south side. "It was a neighborhood filled with drugs, violent crimes, and people without many dreams, goals, or aspirations," Jerome says. "Most of my childhood friends did not even plan to attend college, and many of them did not complete high school. In neighborhoods like that, only one thing is constant: the vicious cycle of poverty."
Jerome's involvement with Chicago Scholars began in 2002, when, as a junior at Morgan Park High School, he was admitted to the Chicago Scholars program. "Chicago Scholars really meant a lot to me because it was intimate and the directors were highly invested in seeing us successfully complete college, and in my case law school," he says. "They made personal calls, knew my family, and were just an ear when I wanted to talk. They also got me my first internship at Winston & Strawn LLP, which I maintained throughout college." Being able to interact with the attorneys there allowed him to learn the ins and outs of "the culture of a big law firm," gave him a competitive edge over his law school peers, and helped him land a Summer Associate position at Ice Miller LLP-the first of many professional achievements in the legal world.
However, by the time he graduated magna cum laude from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and was preparing to attend the University of Iowa College of Law, Jerome had a new set of questions. "I had questions about how rigorous the first year would be, and, since I was going to be out of state, how difficult it would be for me to transition back to Chicago after I graduated from law school. I also had questions about how I should dress for class, which, looking back, should have been the least of my worries."
Now, with several scholarships and awards under his belt, Jerome recently moved from an estate planning law firm to a new position as an Employment Law Associate at Gonzalez, Saggio & Harlan LLC-not a direct track toward the Illinois Supreme Court, but certainly another step toward ensuring fairness and equity for all. "My desire to become a judge has evolved," he explains. "There are several other things I want to do as well, such as being an adjunct professor at a law school and working in the family court system. But I have a passion for justice and equality, and I know that the bench could use an integrity-filled person like myself."
In the meantime, he is working hard to give back to his community-from grammar school students, to whom he speaks about the importance of having a vision of success at a young age, to the minority law school graduates he helps train for the Illinois bar exam through Minority Legal Education Resources. In 2009, in honor of his father, he founded the Dennis Jerome Taylor "Choices" Scholarship, which helps graduating Morgan Park seniors who have "clearly made good choices," in 2009. "The award is named after my deceased father, who was extremely intelligent and received excellent grades throughout school," he explains, "but who made some poor choices, which ultimately caused him to lose his life."
At this rate, Jerome seems unlikely to rest until everyone in Chicago enjoys the same opportunities, and makes the same kinds of choices, that helped him from the vicious cycle of poverty to an ongoing cycle of accomplishments. "I have very strong ties to Chicago and Chicago Scholars, I love my city," he says.
"The true meaning of life is to plant trees under whose shade you do not expect to sit."
When Iveta Bakalova arrived in Chicago at eight years old from Bulgaria with her mother and sister - her vocabulary was limited to yes, no, cat, and dog. This wasn't going to do. "I quickly realized that hand signals and drawing pictures to demonstrate my points weren't effective methods of communicating with my teachers and peers," she recalls. "I saw confused looks in the lunch line when many of my new classmates were asking me questions. Then I knew that the world wasn't going to mold for my needs. I had to step up and train myself not only to speak fluent English, but to become skilled at reading and writing as well." The transition to American life came with a host of communication, social and cultural adjustments. But Iveta worked hard, made her education a top priority, and excelled in her studies, leading to four great years at Walter Payton College Prep. "I still believe that it is the best and most beautiful school in the nation," she says. "My high school [experience] was rigorous with all Honors and AP courses, but it kept me challenged and focused on my dream to attend to Georgetown University."
Iveta joined Chicago Scholars in her junior year of high school, thanks largely to the encouragement of Derrick Clifton, Chicago Scholar Class of 2011. "The first year with Chicago Scholars, I went through the college application and financial aid workshops that tremendously helped me figure out the different processes and made the procedure of applying to colleges and deciding my major less difficult," she says. Ultimately, however, it was Chicago Scholar's support, during and beyond the college admissions process, that helped her safeguard her college success at the university of her dreams - Georgetown.
Having learned early on the importance of being diligent, Iveta found upon arriving at Georgetown that a freshman course load, heavy on requirements and light on her own interests, was more overwhelming than rewarding. "I took many courses that were required and took fewer courses that fit with my interest, which was a huge mistake," she reflects. "And when I found myself struggling, I made another crucial mistake of not asking for help until I turned to Chicago Scholars who helped me sort out a path to move forward." Along with pursuing academics that more directly appealed to her own sensibilities, she found that delving into the greater college world helped her turn things around. "I believe in order to find one's niche in college, it is valuable to join a club or extracurricular activity that embodies the qualities of a community," she says. "My extracurricular activities are like a second classroom and I learn a lot from them."
As she would later tell Linda Jamrozy of Chicago Scholars, there was more to college life than studying hard. "When living at home, my main responsibility was my studies along with a few chores, but in an out-of-state college, the atmosphere is very different. I had to become very independent at a very quick rate." Iveta describes her experience in the competitive environment of Georgetown as being a small fish in a big pond: "great intellectuals are constantly challenging me," she explains. "This is a blessing for personal growth, but a challenge when it comes to competing for good grades and trying to meet high expectations from professors. I'm grateful for Derrick's (Clifton) encouragement to apply to Chicago Scholars. It came at a time in my life when I knew I could achieve college access but did not have the support and resources necessary to make my dreams happen. Chicago Scholars was and continues to be there for me. I'm looking forward to receiving my degree in Environmental Studies from Georgetown University in 2012. Thank you, Chicago Scholars."