Below is the article reproduced from the Chicago Tribune, published August 9, 2017 by Heidi Stevens.
This school year is a momentous one for Jacqueline Sanchez. Her daughter, Jesenia Medina, will be a senior at Jones College Prep. Her son Joseph Medina will start eighth grade at Horace Greeley Elementary, and her younger son, Juelz Stephens, will enter kindergarten there.
“All my children will graduate this year,” Sanchez says.
And she’ll keep plugging away toward her dream: a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education from DePaul University, where she’s about to begin her second year.
Sanchez is one of seven kids and the first in her family to go to college. She moved a lot as a kid, bouncing from one relative’s house to another. Her dad, she said, was in prison when she was born. Her mom struggled with addiction.
At 14, Sanchez gave birth to Jesenia and dropped out of high school. Four years later she had Joseph. When Juelz was born, she experienced complications during birth and needed a blood transfusion.
“That was like a wake-up call,” she said. “I just thought, ‘Alright, Jackie. No one’s going to take care of your kids if you’re not around.’”
She wanted to put herself — and her kids — on a different path. “I’m breaking the cycle,” she told me.
She earned her GED in 2012 and enrolled at Truman College, one of the City Colleges of Chicago, in August 2013.
A fellow student mentioned One Million Degrees, a group dedicated to helping community college students — a traditionally overlooked group — graduate and succeed.
One Million Degrees assigns program coordinators and one-on-one coaches to each student enrolled in the program. They meet monthly to provide tutoring and guide students toward financial aid, academic resources, professional training opportunities, even child care if needed.
The group partners with the seven City Colleges of Chicago, College of Lake County, Harper College, Prairie State College and South Suburban College.
“I had no experience with college,” Sanchez said. “I know nothing is given to you. You just need help finding the resources.”
She applied to One Million Degrees and was accepted. (Students have to be enrolled in college full time, maintain a 2.0 grade point average, be pursuing their first college degree and be eligible for financial aid.)
John Bistolfo, a 48-year-old graphic designer, became Sanchez’s coach.
“We hit it off right away,” Bistolfo said. “She’s extremely motivated. I call her my superstar.”
One Million Degrees trains its volunteer coaches to cultivate a relationship of equals.
“Their job is not to be the authority,” said Paige Ponder, One Million Degrees CEO. “Their job is to be another person in the scholar’s corner who wants them to succeed, who’s available — I know you had a test today, how did it go? Somebody to call if they need extra support.”
Bistolfo was just as likely to text Sanchez to ask about her child’s doctor’s appointment as he was to check in about her academic load, Sanchez said.
“We’re working with adults, and they are the experts in their own lives,” Ponder said. “They’ve got a tremendous amount going on. Our job is to provide support and guidance and elicit from them what their goals are. We don’t tell them what their goals should be; we ask what they want to accomplish.”
Sanchez, who works part time at the DePaul physical education building and part time at Walgreens (speaking of tremendous amounts going on), wants to teach.
“I’m hoping in 10 years I have my Ph.D.,” she said. “I want to help young children. You’re shaping them. You’re setting them up. When I do my field experience, I always gravitate to that child who has the temperament teachers don’t want to deal with. I’m very patient.”
And she wants her children to go to college. She’ll take her daughter on campus tours this fall.
“She has a great head on her shoulders,” Sanchez said. “We’re not worried about boys.”
Sanchez’s story, in many ways, is why One Million Degrees exists.
“The reason we call ourselves One Million Degrees is the ripple effect,” Ponder said. “Think about the impact on Jackie’s children, her grandchildren, the community she lives in. We have a chance to help every scholar make a huge impact.
“From a social justice perspective, from an economic perspective, that’s incredibly important for the city,” Ponder continued. “Employers want this kind of talent. We want equity in our neighborhoods. Education is a big part of the answer.”
After she was accepted at DePaul, Sanchez volunteered to become a One Million Degrees coach. She returned to Truman and guided another young mom through her first year.
“You can’t do it on your own,” Sanchez said. “I know I’m the one staying up nights and doing the homework, but you need someone in your corner. After I had that experience I just wanted to do more and give back.”
There’s that ripple effect.
“Community college is where a lot of folks get their start,” Ponder said.
And as Sanchez can attest, when you add a few people who believe in you, it’s the start of something beautiful.