Drea’s Story of Exploring Life Beyond High School

The To&Through Project
7 min readNov 21, 2022

“I needed to figure out whatever I wanted to do. I finally figured out I’m gonna take classes, I mean I know it’s never too late…”

Meet Drea

Drea lives on the South Side of Chicago, where she graduated from a Chicago Public Schools (CPS) Options, or non-traditional high school, in 2020. Although she has remained on the South Side for the past four years, she grew up moving to and from states across the U.S. — Arizona to Nebraska, Indiana to Illinois.

Since graduating from high school, Drea has been an active member of the workforce. She currently works in food service at a local hospital, preparing and delivering meals to patients, and recently celebrated her one-year work anniversary. In her free time, Drea reads “all day, everyday,” and, even though she can’t figure out why everyone in her life thinks she’s so funny, enjoys making people laugh.

Drea’s Educational Experience

Once Drea and her family settled down in Chicago, her expectation was to enroll in her neighborhood high school on the South Side with one of her younger brothers. Due to differences in public school curricula between the various states in which she lived, her credits from the schools she attended for the first two years of high school would not transfer to CPS.

Not too far from home, an Options school was available for Drea to enroll in and receive the credits she needed to graduate high school within two years. With fewer than than 100 total students enrolled, Drea described it as a place where “everybody knows everybody.”

Although her high school did not have the funding or resources required to provide electives like German and photography, Drea noted that she always felt supported at her high school.

Additionally, Drea’s high school was situated on a community college campus, and its students have access to college courses so long as they pass the college’s entrance exam. After taking these exams for Math and Reading as a part of her high school graduation requirements, Drea decided to take Computer Science and Drama. While Drea’s first reaction to Computer Science was, “Oh baby, that’s not for me,” she felt that exposure to college courses helped her work towards determining what she is passionate about and would like to study in the future. Despite her unfamiliarity with both topics, she passed both her college electives.

While Drea’s first reaction to Computer Science was, “Oh baby, that’s not for me,” she felt that exposure to college courses helped her work towards determining what she is passionate about and would like to study in the future.

Other perks of the high school’s affiliation with this community college included job fairs that Drea and her classmates were free to attend. At her first job fair, Drea secured her first part-time job, one that she held throughout high school and after graduating. “They was always encouraging of different things. I was very grateful I went up there and got that job.” For Drea, the job served as confirmation of her capabilities.

Beyond receiving an opportunity to enter the workforce, Drea participated in an after-school program that partnered with her high school. Through the free program, she and a team of students from other CPS high schools helped build a house and were paid a $120 stipend per week for their work. After many lessons on electrical wiring and plumbing, Drea said the program leaders became an integral part of her support system. “I still talk to my mentors… they’re like family now.”

“I still talk to my mentors… they’re like family now.”

Making Decisions About College

Prior to post-secondary conversations with her teachers, Drea assumed college was something she had to pursue. At her high school, the college application process was a graduation requirement, but college wasn’t pushed as the only choice for students. “They were more like, ‘It’s an option.’”

When considering her post-secondary plans, Drea described her own family as the most important factor in her decision-making. Her mom was already taking care of her two little brothers at home, and a third was on the way. With her love of learning, Drea had been looking forward to the chance to attend college. However, she felt that her choice not to enroll in college immediately after high school was influenced by several factors. In addition to taking into account her family’s financial situation, Drea knew that in order to make the most of her time in higher education she’d want to have a specific career in mind. “I’m smart, I could’ve taken the classes and gotten a scholarship… but I figured if I wasn’t in school, I could help more.”

“I’m smart, I could’ve taken the classes and gotten a scholarship… but I figured if I wasn’t in school, I could help more.”

Drea’s English teacher also served as her high school’s post-secondary counselor. “She was the college lady and everybody loved her,” said Drea. In addition to all of the resources her school provided, Drea expressed appreciation for the teachers who believed in her and didn’t question her decision to work immediately after graduation. Asked to recall her main takeaway from attending her high school , Drea shared, “I was glad I went there… If you needed help, you could ask anybody, and they would help you. It was like a little family.”

“I was glad I went there… If you needed help, you could ask anybody, and they would help you. It was like a little family.”

Now, with over two years of full-time work experience , returning to school has become more appealing to Drea. Although she noted her father has been adamant about college since she started high school, Drea prefers to wait until she understands exactly what she wants to do in life. “I mean I know it’s never too late, so I’m probably gonna take specific classes once I know what I want. I like kids, and for some reason, kids really like me. I’ll probably do something related to that.” What Drea knows for sure is that she no longer has a desire to attend a residential college and experience student life on campus. She recently moved into her first apartment and enjoys having a space where her three brothers can visit her.

What Drea Found Helpful

  • Having the opportunity to enroll in college courses and gain exposure to the workforce. Drea’s initial perception of college was that it was the only reasonable option for high school graduates looking to get the most out of their future careers. However, her exposure to college electives, experiencing the college application process, and exploring career possibilities all contributed to Drea to making an informed decision about her post-secondary plans. And while being made aware of alternative pathways allowed her to exercise agency, it was her teachers, mentors, and family who all ensured she felt confident in her decision not to enroll in college.
  • Learning in an environment that fostered a close-knit community. Compared to Drea’s experience in other states’ public high schools, her school was small and nontraditional. Close contact with teachers developed Drea’s confidence in exploring college courses and exercising agency in her post-secondary decisions.

Drea’s Aspiration for the Field

“Don’t try to force [students] to pick one option, ’cause there are so many options. Don’t try to force them to do something to the point that they end up hating it… Listen to what they saying and what they interests are and just, you know, help them with what they want to do, not what you think they want to do.”

Read other student stories of exploring life beyond high school:

Sean is a Black college student who went to high school in Bronzeville. He immediately enrolled in a public university in Illinois and is now transferring to a community college in Chicago to develop his trade skills.

Jarfaire is a Black CPS alumni who graduated from a CPS high school on the West Side of Chicago in 2017. After graduation, Jarfaire immediately joined the army. Although she is grateful for what she has learned from the experience, the idea of going back to school drew her back home.

Mitzi is a Mexican-American, first-generation college student who grew up in Gage Park. She immediately enrolled in a private university in Chicago, took time off, and transferred to a community college to complete an associate degree. Currently, she is seeking to transfer to a private college in Chicago.

Syed immigrated to the United States with his family from India. Syed settled in Rogers Park and graduated high school in 2020. Now a sophomore at a two-year college in Chicago, he reflects on his experience taking a gap year during the pandemic and thinks about his plans for the future.

Kenia is a Mexican-American graduate who grew up in Gage park. Having found support in the YearUp community, Kenia has been able to both progress in the corporate world and spend quality time with her son, whom she had in her senior year of high school. Looking back on the four years before graduating in 2019, Kenia describes some of the support she wished she had.

Elijah is a Black college student from the Far Southeast Side of Chicago. He took time off from college after graduating high school and then enrolled in a public university in Illinois. After completing several semesters, he again took time off from college before returning to the same university.

Kristian is a Black college student from Woodlawn who immediately enrolled in a private university in Ohio. She took a semester off and transferred to an HBCU in Washington D.C., before transferring to a private college in Washington.

Sergio is a Mexican, first-generation college student and DACA recipient from the West Lawn neighborhood. He immediately enrolled in a private university in Chicago, took time off from college, and then transferred to a public university in Chicago.

The To&Through Project team would like to express our most sincere gratitude to Drea for sharing her story with us.

Ashley Fung, a fourth-year student at the University of Chicago majoring in Public Policy. Inspired by the interviews she conducted and grateful for the opportunity to write about them, Ashley is currently working on her B.A. Thesis focused on education policy in the context of Chicago Public Schools.

--

--

The To&Through Project

The To&Through Project aims to increase high school & post-secondary completion for under-resourced students of color in Chicago & around the country.