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Chicago STAR Scholars Program Provides College Access

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by Jamaal Abdul-Alim

Tony Tran was all set to report to his dorm at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign when his mother told him she had been diagnosed with cancer.

“So I couldn’t in good faith go,” Tran says, explaining that he didn’t want to leave his family at a time of crisis.

“I also wanted to help my parents save money in general,” Tran says. “If I went to UIUC and the day came when my family needed money for something like paying for my mother’s treatment or sending my younger siblings to private school or college, and they didn’t have it because of me, it would be a burden that I would have to take upon myself to relieve.”

The average annual cost of attendance at UIUC is just over $18,000, federal data show.

Fortunately, Tran didn’t have to bypass college altogether.

Thanks to the Chicago STAR Scholars program, Tran was able to enroll in Harry S. Truman College — one of several schools within the City Colleges of Chicago system — for free.

The Chicago STAR Scholars program enables students who graduate from Chicago Public Schools with a 3.0 GPA or better to pursue an associate degree at no cost at the City Colleges of Chicago. There are currently more than 3,000 STAR Scholars, a city college official says.

Usually a decision to go to community college is the death knell for any four-year college plans. For instance, while roughly four out of five entering community college students indicate they want to earn a bachelor’s degree or higher, only about one out of three actually transfer to a four-year institution within six years, according to the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Tran is one of the fortunate few. After Tran completed Truman College earlier this year, he got a full ride to Northwestern University, thanks to a transfer program for Chicago STAR Scholars who maintain their B average during community college. Northwestern is one of several Illinois schools that support STAR Scholar transfers.

Tran has chosen to pursue a career in physical therapy and is currently fulfilling major requirements for psychology at Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences. Afterward, he plans to apply to physical therapy school at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

Tran says his experience at Northwestern has been “amazing thus far.”

“It’s still pretty surreal to be here,” Tran says. “I love the quarter system, having the classes moving so fast, being able to take many different classes, and making new friends.

“Obviously there are times when I would like some more time to just hang out and enjoy myself,” Tran says. “But I realize that this is no longer community col-lege and sacrificing free time to study in order to do well in classes is the condition that I signed up for when I chose to attend a top-ranked university.”

Tran says he is familiar with what the statistics say about the low likelihood of community college students transferring to a four-year university, let alone top school like Northwestern, as he did. He says hard work is the solution to overcoming the odds.

“Personally, I think that as long as you have a good work ethic, desire to persevere, and a good head on your shoulders, it doesn’t matter where you come from,” Tran says. “There are students at Truman that could attend Northwestern without breaking a sweat whereas there are students that are at Yale that would have difficulty here.

“It is a subjective question but I believe that Truman College absolutely has the ability to prepare students to be able to attend and succeed at Northwestern. How-ever, whether or not students are able to do so is completely dependent on them-selves and their decisions.”

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel likes to talk up Tran’s story when he touts what Chicago is doing to make college more affordable.

“He always wanted to go Big Ten, couldn’t afford the University of Illinois, even though it was a state school,” Emanuel says. “But because of the Chicago STAR Scholars, which is free, and now because of the partnership with STAR-plus, he’s going on to Northwestern, basically graduating debt-free.”

Emanuel says Tran’s story also illustrates what his administration is doing to in-crease the quality of the students who attend City Colleges of Chicago.

“Tony went to one of the best high schools in the state,” Emanuel says in reference to the fact that Tran graduated from Northside College Prep, which US News and World Report ranks as one of the top high schools in the nation.

“Trust me, Truman community college never had a Northside graduate,” Emanuel says. “They [now] have a Northside graduate who is now going on to become an alumnus the next two years at Northwestern University.”

Emanuel says the Chicago STAR Scholars program is financed with money that City Colleges of Chicago has historically spent on remediation.

“We spend around $30 plus million on remedial education, so we took a portion of it into: If you get a B-average or better, you get free community college,” Emanuel said. “Why? I’m rewarding success rather than purchasing an insurance policy on failure. So we just channeled the dollars differently.”

Emanuel notes how the city’s community college system partners with industry in various fields to ensure that even students who don’t go on to four year colleges, such as Tran, can still get the education they need to fare well in today’s economy.

“It increases the quality of the student and for those who don’t go on to Northwestern, they not only get associate’s degrees but degrees designed by the industry,” Emanuel says. So, in the case of students who study for the health care industry, Emanuel says, they are “not just getting a job in health care,” but rather a “career that leads to the middle class.”

Tran says a big part of his decision to apply for Northwestern — or even finding out about the transfer program for STAR Scholars — is due to his academic advisor at Truman College, Rhonda Hampton.

“I can wholeheartedly say that she is the best advisor that I have ever had,” Tran said. “I am thankful for her having been my advisor or else I may not be where I am today.”

Hampton says Tran’s success is due more to his own personal drive than any-thing else.

“Through many conversations with Tony, I could tell he wouldn’t be satisfied unless he landed at a top school (by way of transfer),” Hampton wrote in an e-mail to Diverse.

“At first he was reluctant to apply to Northwestern; he thought his very impressive GPA was still too low for NU,” Hampton wrote. “However, I convinced him that the path we’d mapped out for him at City Colleges of Chicago included the courses NU Admissions wanted to see.”

She noted that Tran had already taken many of the prerequisites needed to pur-sue his dream of med school.

“I provided Tony guidance — the same given to all CCC students — but the credit goes to Tony,” Hampton wrote. “He simply would not be deterred.”

Tran says the biggest challenge he faces at Northwestern is the one he has given himself.

“The biggest challenge to me is not the challenges that the university presents so much as the challenge that I put out for myself to be the best student among all my peers in all of my classes. To be the top student among some of the top students in the country is my goal,” Tran says. “The greatest reward for me is knowing that my parents are proud of me and as long as I keep working hard and making smart decisions, no one can take that away from me.”

And Tran’s story gets even better still.

“My mother is doing a lot better now,” Tran reports. “She’s in remission and gets stronger every single day. I can only pray for her recovery and for the cancer not to reappear, but right now, things seem to be going very well in terms of her health.”