This fall, two South Side twins and graduates of the University of Chicago college readiness and access programs led by the Office of Civic Engagement are bound for Princeton and Yale. Between them, Naomi and Nannette Beckley were awarded more than $5.5 million in scholarships and financial aid offers from nearly two dozen top schools, including the University of Chicago. Both were also selected to be Gates Scholars, a selective cohort of incoming college students who will receive financial assistance and leadership support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
As Gwendolyn Brooks College Preparatory Academy students and residents of the Pullman neighborhood, the young women spent the last several years participating in Office of Civic Engagement programs created to help first-generation, under-resourced, high-potential Chicago high school students gain admission to and thrive in college.
“I don’t feel like I will be lost when a problem or situation comes up in college now. I will already know how to handle it,” says Naomi who participated in the Collegiate Scholars Program (CSP) and will be attending Yale.
In addition to academic support—directly in the form of SAT prep and help navigating the college application process, as well as indirectly through relationships they built with the Office of Special Programs-College Prep (OSP) and CSP staff—the Beckley twins saw connections they made with their classmates as a significant strength of their programs.
“The Collegiate Scholars Program provided me with opportunities to meet people from all over the city,” says Naomi. “I was exposed to people of different races, cultures, ways of life, and it was one of the things I really enjoyed about the program.”
During the academic year, CSP participants benefit from enrichment activities tailored for college readiness, leadership development, cultural awareness, and civic engagement. Over the summer, they get a taste of what college life is like by taking classes taught by University of Chicago faculty and Ph.D. candidates. While a CSP participant, Naomi took college classes at the University of Chicago on subjects ranging from critical thinking to physics, participated in the Training Early Achievers for Careers in Health (TEACH) Research Program at the UChicago Medicine where she shadowed doctors and learned how to interview patients, analyze and collect data, and present research findings. She also benefited from the college tour her program offers its scholars at the end of the summer, visiting schools such as Vanderbilt and Emory.
Nannette, who participated in the OSP STEM Initiative and will be attending Princeton, says the STEM initiative is a good fit even for students who do not necessarily identify as “STEM people.” Part of the program’s strength, she says, is how it incites passion for STEM through its hands-on, in-depth studies of specific fields like computer science, exposing students to coding and other related topics within a university setting. She didn’t simply get to stay overnight at Yerkes Observatory and send worms into space (although, she did do that); she also enjoyed the non-science bonding events like attending plays and movies.
The twins, who will spend their summer working as lifeguards, relaxing, and attending a Gates conference, both feel more prepared for college and would encourage future applicants to apply. “The programs could be life-changing and offer you experiences you would have never had before,” says Nannette. “Don’t knock it until you try it.”
Established in 1968, the OSP recruits more than 100 students each year for its programs, and since its founding has helped more than 3,000 South Side students in the college admissions process. The University launched CSP 16 years ago after the UChicago Consortium on School Research found that high-performing Chicago Public Schools students were under-reaching in their college application choices. Since its inception, all of CSP’s more than 500 alumni have gone on to four-year colleges, and 93 percent have earned their bachelor’s degree within six years.
These programs are part of UChicago Promise, the University’s multipronged initiative offering college resources and scholarships for Chicago high school students. CSP is endowed through Odyssey, UChicago’s comprehensive model for dismantling obstacles to education and careers for talented, hardworking students with financial need.