Elijah’s Story of Exploring Life Beyond High School

The To&Through Project
8 min readNov 22, 2022

“Whether it be a small community of different artists or a community of peers, I am a firm believer in communities. I feel like they draw the best out of us, they allow us to experience diversity, and they allow us to grow from it.”

Meet Elijah

Elijah is a rising senior at a public research university in Illinois, where he is majoring in video and graphic design. He grew up on the Far Southeast Side of Chicago and graduated from a military high school in 2016. Elijah is driven to complete his college degree because he knows it will put him in a better position to help his community, particularly with his unique visual skills. In his free time, Elijah loves to enjoy food, music, anime, sports, and video games.

Elijah’s Story of Exploring Life Beyond High School

During high school, Elijah took a post-secondary preparation class that he felt was instrumental in his college application process. “That was the first introduction I had to what it looks like when applying to college. We started to learn more about financial aid, we learned about a lot of different aspects of the college process that a lot of other students in my grade didn’t really have the knowledge of.”

However, Elijah ended up being unable to immediately enroll in college, despite having concrete plans to attend an in-state public research university. Eventually, Elijah was able to attend a different public research university in Illinois, but he wasn’t able to remain continuously enrolled like he had planned. “I had a financial issue with the school, and I wasn’t able to afford it at the time, so I had to leave and pay [my debt] off. That was the fall of 2017 to the fall of 2018 — a whole year.”

“I had a financial issue with the school, and I wasn’t able to afford it at the time, so I had to leave and pay [my debt] off. That was the fall of 2017 to the fall of 2018 — a whole year.”

Elijah began working at a movie theater during that year to make ends meet. “If I’m not gonna pay off this debt and go back, there’s no other option for me,” he felt. “I just had to work to save money, and I mean, it was difficult because I was at my house, and there were a lot of different needs that I had to meet there, so I couldn’t always put my all into going back to school.”

As he continued to work and save money, Elijah found out that his university could offer him an additional institutional grant intended to support the university’s high-need students. “But I had to fight for that because I didn’t even know that was a thing… I have asked people if they’ve known about this, and no one’s like, ‘I’ve known about this’ before, so I’m like, ‘Why is this so hidden?’” Once he paid off the debt, he was able to return to school, and, with the help of this grant and work-study, Elijah has been able to persist in college without accruing more debt.

“ I had to fight for that because I didn’t even know that was a thing… I have asked people if they’ve known about this, and no one’s like, ‘I’ve known about this’ before, so I’m like, ‘Why is this so hidden?’ ”

Elijah recalled, “I was tired of working, but… it’s kind of hard to get back to an environment like that when you haven’t done it in a long time.” He emphasized one challenge in particular: “I never really had community at school. It was really hard for me to be around other people… So a lot of things I had to deal with really on my own, and that made things a lot more difficult because I had no other perspectives to really go off of… My mom, she would help me out with stuff here and there, but then she also got stuff going on, so I’m like, ‘I can’t… make things harder for her.’”

Elijah also shared that the COVID-19 pandemic gave him time to reflect on his post-secondary journey. “[The pandemic] completely exposed all the different ways that we could struggle as students. Financially, academically, socially, emotionally, and spiritually — literally every aspect of what it means to be a person,” he said. “We start to realize that we’re surviving a lot of the times… but school should be more than just survival mode all the time [because] then this doesn’t even feel like something that I’m enjoying, it’s just a thing to do… That’s not something that I would imagine colleges want us to feel, but that’s what they created.”

“We start to realize that we’re surviving a lot of the times… but school should be more than just survival mode all the time [because] then this doesn’t even feel like something that I’m enjoying, it’s just a thing to do… That’s not something that I would imagine colleges want us to feel, but that’s what they created.”

Looking back at his college experience more generally, Elijah pushes himself and others to think about the immense burden of higher education on individuals relative to the need for higher education in the economy and in broader society. “The more that I’m in school… it starts to feel more like this is a privilege. But the thing is that I feel like America tells us different,” he said. “I feel like America tells us that college is a requirement… that the whole goal is for us to be a working part of society… But I feel like the way college is right now doesn’t feel like that. It feels like, if you are privileged to go, you go, and if you are privileged enough to stay, you stay, and if you’re privileged enough to graduate, then you will, and if you’re privileged enough to get a job, then you will… But I think that there needs to be a lot more focus on what college actually is meant to be because, if college is supposed to be a privilege, then I would rather know that straight up. But if college is supposed to be a requirement… there needs to be a lot more effort in [helping] people [with] staying and actually getting that job like they’re supposed to.”

“But if college is supposed to be a requirement… there needs to be a lot more effort in [helping] people [with] staying and actually getting that job like they’re supposed to.”

What Elijah Found Helpful

Having a space where he could discover new interests and meet people who shared those interests. “I was a part of a [project-based extracurricular program] here in Chicago. I would leave for school around one, go downtown, and I would be in a graphic design program. That was one of my first times being exposed to graphic design, we had no art classes like that [at my high school].” Participating in this program gave Elijah the opportunity to discover that video and graphic design spoke to him as an area of study that he could pursue in college. These experiences also inspired him to give back to his community.

Elijah’s Aspirations for the Field

  • Students have access to spaces and people who affirm and intentionally encourage their interests. Elijah wished high schools and student-serving organizations would continually work to “better create an environment where students feel like they’re empowered to do things they want to do… so that it doesn’t just feel like this hobby or this far-fetched dream.” He felt he would have benefited from having this type of environment in high school. “When I started to really understand more about myself, I think it would have been way more useful for me to go to art school instead of a public institution… No one ever encouraged me to go to art school.”
  • Financial aid is more easily available and accessible for students. While Elijah did find the additional institutional grant he received to be extremely helpful in paying his tuition, he didn’t find out about the grant until after he had accrued debt with his university and had to stop out for a full academic year to pay it off. “The whole process of applying for scholarships and grants is just super outdated,” Elijah said. “It’d be super useful just to know if I have a scholarship available to me that I can get [so I don’t] have to fight for it… It’d be a lot easier if we just had the ability to receive this stuff so we know what we’re working with, instead of getting [to college] and hoping that we can stay because we get a scholarship.”

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.

Drea is currently an active member of the workforce, Drea graduated from a CPS Options school in 2020. Proud of her accomplishments, she shares the reasons behind her positive high school experience and explains each factor of her decision-making process.

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.

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 Elijah for sharing his story with us.

Arturo Ballesteros is a class of 2024 student at the University of Chicago, majoring in Public Policy with a specialization in education. Having been born and raised in Chicago, Arturo is passionate about making a positive impact on the South Side and is working to become an educator in his local community in the near future.

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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.