During a “normal” academic year, Natalia (Nat) and her College Possible coach, Kate, would be celebrating Nat’s decision to enroll at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign in person. However, even during a pandemic, their enthusiasm for Nat’s college decision is apparent.
“I am excited to go to Urbana because they have a great engineering program,” said Nat, a College Possible student at Mather High School. “I’m also excited to go to a big school and meet new people and join clubs.”
“Nat’s going to be great in college,” Kate said. “She already applied for work-study jobs and it’s only May. Nat has the passion, self-advocacy skills and drive that promises success in college and beyond.”
This has been a very unordinary academic year for Chicago Public Schools seniors, like Nat. Between college applications, FAFSA and verification, the college application process is already difficult, but add an 11-day teacher strike and a pandemic to the mix and it creates additional hurdles for students.
Now, high school seniors are considering a gap year and postponing college plans. They cannot make college decisions because of delayed financial aid packages, and they are worried that college campuses might not reopen in the fall and e-learning will continue. However, Nat and other College Possible students have trusted coaches to help them navigate old and new challenges this year to stay on track toward their goals.
“I wasn’t even going to apply to College Possible at first because I didn’t think I needed the help,” Nat said. “But I’m really grateful that I did. My coach is a mentor but also a friend.”
One moment Nat clearly remembers from this year was a quick flash of panic she had before writing her personal statement.
“I didn’t know what to write about,” Nat said. “I was sitting outside Mather with Kate and she kept asking me questions and writing notes. At the end, she handed me the paper and said ‘here’s your personal statement.’”
As they talked and read through Kate’s notes, it became clear to both of them that Nat needed to write about her passion for engineering.
Nat’s interest in the subject first sparked at Amundsen High School—another College Possible partner school. Before transferring to Mather, Nat attended Amundsen and took physics her first year of high school. Her passion continued to grow in Amundsen’s Dyson Design and Innovation Lab.
“We had 3D printers, electronic cutters and other tools,” she said. “My best friend and I founded a girl’s engineering club where we were able to compete against schools in the UK. Besides all that, my dad does a lot of remodeling and building. We’re always working on a project together and making something around the house.”
Nat was stunned by how Kate helped her find her topic and said she still talks about that moment with her mom.
College Possible also helped Nat stay on track with her scholarship applications. Nat’s financial gap for UIUC was originally $21,000, which would have prevented her from attending. After applying for many scholarships, she earned the Renaissance, Dell, Wentcher and Mather Alumni scholarships, bringing her gap down to $2,000.
“I would tell Nat about some scholarships and encourage her to apply, but she’s a self-starter and very independent,” Kate said. “It was a joy to watch her go through the process.”
Nat is a gifted writer, but she occasionally went over the word limit for applications. Kate helped Nat edit her essays at first, but she also wanted Nat to learn how to edit them by herself.
“When I made edits, I asked her what I took out and if she couldn’t tell me which parts I took out, it meant we didn’t impact the structure of her essay or her voice,” Kate said.
After a few more applications, Nat began editing her essays before giving them to Kate. By Nat’s last scholarship application, Kate looked over it and did not need to make any edits. Nat’s confidence in her skills and abilities as a student grew, and she feels ready to continue her academic journey at UIUC with continued support from College Possible.
Without the scholarships and College Possible, Nat said she is not sure where she would be in the college application process. She said some of her friends are behind in the process, so she has been helping them based on what she learned from her coaches.
“College Possible kept me motivated during these tough times,” Nat said. “Being the second person to go to college is a big deal for my family and I’m happy that my hard work paid off.”