By Matt Connolly, North by Northwestern
CHICAGO - Programs such as US Empowered hope to fill lecture hall seats with students from Chicago.
The high school students arranged on the second floor of Norris exchanged glances, fidgeting in their folding chairs. They were silent except for a few nervous whispers, trying to formulate answers.
“Why do you want to go to college?” is, after all, a difficult question.
After a few moments, a student in the front row tentatively raised his hand. After clearing his throat and testing the microphone, he began to speak.
“I want to go to a university because I want to prove people that doubted me wrong,” he said. “I want to make it happen.”
On Friday, US Empowered visited Northwestern with over 350 students from Chicago Public Schools who are all trying to make it happen. The conference was geared toward preparing these students for the academic rigor and social environment of college life.
“What we do is find and select outstanding teachers in high schools in low-income communities and have them recruit students in whom they see great potential,” said Joanna Rudnick, US Empowered’s director of conferences and partnerships. “Those students must fill out an application and write an essay on one of our leadership principles before they can be chosen.”
“They have passion, and they know why they want to go to college. It’s a great thing at that age.” — Christopher Garcia
Rudnick, who graduated from Northwestern in 2002, said that the organization has been very successful so far. About 99 percent of US Empowered students have gone on to be accepted to college, and 83 percent are still enrolled. “That other 17 percent — we know who they are and where they are,” she said. “Even if the college they end up at isn’t right for them, we’re still working with the kids.”
The latest crop of students selected for the program spent a full day in Evanston. They were grouped with Northwestern student mentors, who shepherded them through meals, speeches, student panels, a scavenger hunt and a talent show featuring performances by Northwestern student groups.
The panel discussions gave the CPS students the opportunity to get firsthand information about college life — topics ranged from scholarships and study abroad to making friends and stomaching dining hall food. Sometimes, the tables were turned, and it was the high schoolers’ turn to answer questions. It was at one of these moments that the groups were asked for the reasons behind their interest in higher education. Panelist Christopher Garcia, a Medill junior, was impressed with their answers.
“I think there were a lot of people that were really engaged,” he said. “They have passion, and they know why they want to go to college. It’s a great thing at that age.”
ASG helped organize the conference and played a large role in reaching out to other student groups for volunteer mentors. For groups like Northwestern Community Development Corp, the event was given high priority.
“This is one of the things that we emotionally support,” said NCDC Co-Chair Alyssa Detwiler, a SESP senior. “We have a lot of different sites around Chicago, so we have a lot of volunteers that have relationships with middle school and some high school kids.”
When asked how many US Empowered students have enrolled at her alma mater, Rudnick smiled sheepishly and shook her head.
The relationship between Northwestern and US Empowered, however, is anything but a one-sided affair. Minority enrollment has been a priority for the university administration recently, especially with the implementation of the Good Neighbor, Great University program, which will offer enhanced financial aid to about 100 incoming freshman from Chicago and Evanston high schools. According to Associate Provost Michael Mills, this year’s freshman class has the highest Hispanic enrollment percentage in university history, while the African-American enrollment percentage is the highest it has been in a decade.
“I think it’s en vogue for the administration to focus on right now,” Detwiler said. “There’s a long way to go, though. They have made some changes, but I don’t know if they’re attracting more minority students so much as admitting more.”
Rudnick believes that events like the US Empowered conference can help Northwestern solve that problem by reaching out to more minority and low-income students. Still, she said, financial aid is the biggest roadblock in getting more applications.
“If they see a $50,000 price tag, there’s no way they’re applying,” she said. “Hopefully the Good Neighbor program can make it a more viable option for our kids.”
When asked how many US Empowered students have enrolled at her alma mater, Rudnick smiled sheepishly and shook her head. “Some of them have been accepted, but so far none of them have decided to attend,” she said.
In addition to financial concerns, Rudnick chalks the lack of interest up to students’ comfort levels. Despite recent gains, she said, the university’s historically low minority enrollment makes it hard to recruit minority and low-income students.
For Garcia, this made connecting with the CPS students during the panel all the more important.
“You have to be confident in talking about yourself, and my minority status is a part of who I am,” he said. “Chicago’s a great city, and Northwestern’s a great school — together they can do great things.”
For the record, Rudnick said that there will be “a ton” of US Empowered students applying to Northwestern this year. Whether any will enroll, of course, remains to be seen. It can be assured, though, that the university — like the college-bound students it hosted — is looking to prove the doubters wrong and make it happen.