Von Steuben Scholars Program Essay

By Maureen Kelleher

When Michael Quan learned he had been accepted to the Collegiate Scholars Program at the University of Chicago, he was shocked. For good reason: only 14 percent of about 300 applicants were accepted. “I didn’t believe it,” said the rising high school sophomore. “It was one of the best things that ever happened to me.” 

Collegiate Scholars, a three-year program with a strong track record for helping talented Chicago Public Schools students enter and succeed in some of the nation’s top colleges, currently supports 108 high school students in grades 10-12. The Scholars arrived on campus June 23 for a six-week experience. As it turns out, Quan is part of the largest incoming class since 2011. 

Thanks to a generous challenge grant from writer Harriet Heyman, AM’72, and her husband, investor Sir Michael Moritz, Collegiate Scholars is growing. This summer’s entering cohort is up to 42 students from 36 a year ago. Starting next summer, cohorts will comprise 50 students, ultimately increasing the size of the program by 40 percent. 

“Collegiate Scholars broadens access to the University’s transformative education program and helps put high school students who might not otherwise have such exposure on a path to success,”
Abel Ochoa, Director of the Collegiate Scholars Program

About 70 percent of current Scholars are poised to be first-generation college students, and about 80 percent are African American or Latino. This diversity is a key source of Quan’s enthusiasm for the program.

A student at Von Steuben Metro Science Center, one of Chicago’s more diverse public high schools, Quan still feels his exposure to diversity is limited. His classmates in Von Steuben’s Scholars program—a selective track featuring all honors and Advanced Placement classes—are mostly White and Asian students, he noted. “It is way more diverse here in terms of socioeconomics, religions and ethnicities.”

Abel Ochoa, director of Collegiate Scholars, notes that the program is an integral part of UChicago Promise, an institutional commitment to help students from the city of Chicago gain admission to and succeed in college. “Collegiate Scholars broadens access to the University’s transformative education program and helps put high school students who might not otherwise have such exposure on a path to success,” Ochoa said. 

More than half of Collegiate Scholars alumni attend colleges and universities outside of Illinois, and 70 percent attend schools ranked by Barron’s as most or highly selective. Ninety-three percent of alumni earn bachelor’s degrees within six years. By comparison, research shows only 18 percent of Chicago Public Schools graduates will earn a bachelor’s degree within a decade of entering high school.

“There are several factors that impact student persistence in college. Most of them have nothing to do with academic ability but rather, social emotional well being, financial assistance, and confidence in being independent and successful at any college,” Ochoa explained. “These are the soft skills that CSP cultivates in each Scholar during their tenure in the program.”

This year’s class is the first to be admitted since Heyman and Moritz made their five-year, $5 million challenge gift to the program. In addition to growing the number of Scholars in each cohort, the gift is supporting the expansion of the program’s summer course offerings and will provide for more innovative college access and student enrichment programs during the academic year.

Make a gift to the Collegiate Scholars Program. 

The current scholars hail from 39 Chicago public high schools of all kinds: neighborhood, selective enrollment and charter. The application process mirrors college admissions: testing, essays, extracurricular activities, and an interview are all factors.  Some current students even refer to themselves as “legacy students” since they heard about the program from older siblings who participated in it.

This summer, the newest cohort will take courses on campus with UChicago faculty and graduate students. In addition to math, science and critical thinking, they have the opportunity to choose from an array of electives, including, for the first time this year, philosophy.

“I’m taking podcasting because I want to be on NPR,” said Ryan Christian of Jones College Prep. “I want to be able to describe a story and ask a lot of questions.” She also wants to travel.

“Every school has these students. Every neighborhood in Chicago has these students.”
Collegiate Scholars Alumna Anais Gonzalez

“I’m nervous for only one class: math,” said Jacob Lewis of Chicago Vocational Career Academy. He’s a hands-on kind of guy. Back at his high school, he said, “I’m looking forward to my diesel class,” where he will learn to repair and maintain truck and bus engines. But Collegiate Scholars excites him, too. He welcomes the “ability to be able to learn new things, experience new things, and be around different people. I’m enjoying it here right now.”

In addition to college-level classes, Collegiate Scholars enjoy the perks of life on campus for a summer session. During orientation, they go on a scavenger hunt and end the day at Seven Ten Lanes in Hyde Park, with bowling, pool, a photo booth, sliders and chicken tenders. “It’s really easy to make friends here,” said Dylan Shen of Whitney Young High School. “I didn’t think it would be this easy, but everyone’s really nice.”

Their slightly older peers know they are also making memories. “My first friend here was my roommate Denise,” said Rachel Martin, a class of 2019 Collegiate Scholar and student at Chicago Virtual Charter School. “We took a picture in the photo booth,” she added, pointing at it. “I still have that picture.” 

In addition to the summer sessions, enrichment activities during the school year include lectures, arts, cultural and service activities, leadership development, career readiness workshops and support for the college application process. Martin’s interest in Collegiate Scholars was piqued by attending lectures with her older brother. 

Alumni keep in touch by coming back to meet new scholars in the summer. Alumna Anais Gonzalez graduated from Jones College Prep and is now a sophomore at Pomona College. She’s eager to express her gratitude. “It got me to where I am. My best friends from high school went through the program.”

“There’s a saying in my family: dime con quien andas y te dire quien eres, which means: tell me who you’re with and I’ll tell you who you are. You seek out people who support you, and you give back. That’s why I’m here tonight.”

She’s delighted with the newest group. “They sound like the students I’m at school with now. They sound like undergrads and they don’t even know it yet.” Plus, she’s thrilled that more of Chicago’s most talented young people will have access to the program. “Every school has these students. Every neighborhood in Chicago has these students.”

Originally posted August 3, 2017.

Collegiate Scholars Program welcomes largest cohort, prepares for future growth

As an alumus of Von Steuben, I recall my 4 years there as being the greatest time of my life. Upon entering, I was worried, considering all the terrifying stories I had heard about the brutal environment that high school was. At first, I was extremely shy, and far too scared to engage in any activities at school. Still attached to my grammar school, I built this shell around myself that prevented me from socializing with others. But over the next few months, I started to realize that I shared much more with these "strangers" than I had thought, and I soon found myself beginning to crack the shell that shielded me from developing a social life. I soon began to realize what a great environment Von Steuben was, whether it be due to the passionate and understanding administration, or the multitude of clubs and other activities they had available. Ultimately, thanks to the wonderful environment that Von Steuben was, I was able to have 4 of the most unforgettable years of my life.

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