Ilyas’ Story: Class of ‘?’ Graduating in four (or more) years

The To&Through Project
8 min readDec 4, 2023

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Meet Ilyas

Ilyas is Ethiopian and grew up in Rogers Parks. He graduated from his neighborhood high school in 2018 and enrolled in an associate degree program at a private university. After receiving his Associate Degree, he is now enrolled at an Illinois public institution pursuing his Bachelor’s Degree. Ilyas is currently on a 6+ year academic track to a Bachelor’s Degree, and will graduate in winter of 2024 with a major in sports management. He is excited to later pursue a master’s Degree. Ilyas is also proud to serve as the president of a Black Service fraternity on campus.

Ilyas’ Path to College

Ilyas grew up as a middle child with two older sisters and two younger sisters. He started his freshman year of high school at a private Catholic school but struggled to build a sense of community and to adjust to the grading scale. After two years, he transferred to his neighborhood high school. Throughout high school, Ilyas was committed to pursuing higher education. He was involved in two college preparatory programs and was part of a Federal Trio Program, all aimed towards helping first-generation college and low-income students through their post-secondary journeys.

In thinking about his future, Ilyas proactively met with his high school counselor to figure out his academic plan and ensure he would be able to graduate on time. Ilyas’s GPA needed attention, so he wanted to know his options on what to do. “I went up to her and said, ‘Hey, I’m not taking Saturday school. I’m not going to lie to you. What else can we do?’” Instead of Saturday school, Ilyas took night classes and was able to graduate with his class in 2018.

Inspired by his family, Ilyas had his sights locked on a Bachelor’s Degree. Ilya’s older sisters started a strong legacy of educational achievement in his family. Growing up as the middle child, Ilyas felt pressured by his older sister’s pursuit of their Bachelor’s Degrees. This caused him to see a bachelor’s degree as his only option. “I had no other choice within my lifestyle, background, and my family structure; I had no other choice.”

Ilyas was determined to pursue his next degree, and his college prep program and Trio connected him to an opportunity to continue his education through a 100% fully-funded two-year degree program at a private university. “They didn’t weigh too heavily on grades. They were more so on your test scores, your first-generation college student status, and just grabbing diverse people. There were a lot of black and brown people when I was there. And honestly, they gave me a second lifeline.”

“They didn’t weigh too heavily on grades. They were more so on your test scores, your first-generation college student status, and just grabbing diverse people. There were a lot of black and brown people when I was there. And honestly, they gave me a second lifeline.”

Ilyas’ College Journey

Inspired by this opportunity, Ilyas considered his goal for the next two years. “So that summer, I made it a point of emphasis to do my very, very best not to screw around.” Ilyas was dedicated to building up his GPA in college. “I finished with 3.5 that [first] semester, which increased my GPA to a 2.6. And I was like, ‘Okay, I can stick my chest out a little bit.’”

Ilyas was proud of his accomplishment and so was his college coach. At his college, he was paired with a faculty mentor to coach him with his academics, care for him AND help with cultural navigation and his plans after graduation. His college coach celebrated and encouraged him to keep the momentum going. “My college coach told me, ‘Hey, you did well this semester. I want to see more of this.” She then showed Ilyas the potential bachelor degree pathways at different schools that he could pursue with his current GPA. Ilyas wondered if he saw himself at these schools. Then, his advisor offered an idea. If Ilyas could get a 3.5 again, he could be looking at his dream school. Ilyas was excited. He had dreamed about going to this [public 4-year institution] since he was 14. “Now I have a goal. I’m very goal-orientated. If I don’t have a goal, I’m aimless.” Having a goal gave Ilyas the inspiration and drive to launch himself to raise his GPA every single semester.

“Now I have a goal. I’m very goal-orientated. If I don’t have a goal, I’m aimless.”

Ilyas was excelling in his classes and was ready to submit his application to his dream school. He remembers he got a letter back saying, “Hey, we really like your progression or really where you’re coming from. We really like everything about you. We just need to see one more semester of grades.” Ilyas worked hard that semester, but then March of 2020 hit.

The pandemic forced universities to transition to virtual. Institutions, in turn, adapted their policies to be more caring to students,including their academic and admission policies. Ilyas classes were more lenient with grades and his dream university guaranteed his acceptance as long as he didn’t fail any of his classes. The news assuaged his doubts and energized him to finish his last semester on a high note. “During the pandemic, I was going to work until the 59th minute. So I finished with a 3.5 that semester.” Ilyas graduated with his Associate Degree with zero debt, and pursued his bachelor’s at his dream school. “I never thought …in my entire life, that I’d get into [dream school].”

“I never thought …in my entire life, that I’d get into [dream school].”

Once admitted, Ilyas was screaming from the excitement. He found himself surrounded by a great community of alumni, current students, and faculty who were eager to welcome him. Ilyas was ready to start his classes and chose to major in sports management. But being a first-year college student during 2020 was tough. At his new school, Ilyas continued to navigate the challenges of online classes while trying to continue to excel academically. The pandemic also put Ilyas in tough circumstances. He struggled with food insecurity on campus and relied on an emergency fund provided by one of his college preparatory programs for support.

Passionate about protecting his GPA, he dropped classes when he couldn’t keep up with the demanding coursework. He reflected on how this mindset contributed to needing an extra semester to graduate. If he could go back in time, he would tell his younger self this message. “Dropping classes is not good. You will not graduate in four years. That’s the number one thing I would’ve told myself when transferring. Do not drop those classes. Just struggle through them.” Ilyas is now set to graduate in the winter of 2024. He plans to request an appeal for his financial aid to help him complete it. He feels secure that his school will cover his extra semester, given that the semester is entirely focused on fulfilling the internship requirement of his major.

“Dropping classes is not good. You will not graduate in four years. That’s the number one thing I would’ve told myself when transferring. Do not drop those classes. Just struggle through them.”

Reflecting on his academic journey, Ilyas celebrates his accomplishments. Ilyas initially struggled navigating school, but thanks to his determination, focus and supportive community, he is now excelling. “I have my dream major in my dream school.” He especially appreciates his persistence. “I’ve been in college the entire time. I didn’t take any breaks. I never wavered away from academics. I knew I was going to get these 128 credits no matter how I got it.”

“I’ve been in college the entire time. I didn’t take any breaks. I never wavered away from academics. I knew I was going to get these 128 credits no matter how I got it.”

What Ilyas Found Helpful

  • The village of support that he had and having a strong sense of community: Ilyas was a part of two non-profit college preparatory programs, a Federal TRIO program, and a mentorship-based career development program. On top of the programs, he also had a great relationship with his college coach, who inspired him to work toward his dream school. Once at his dream school, he found even more support from his peers, faculty, and alums nationwide. His experience highlights how first-generation students need to feel grounded in a robust community to get the guidance, encouragement, and care they need to successfully navigate the challenges they face pursuing their degrees.
  • A second chance: Early on in his schooling, Ilyas felt disconnected from his grades. Nevertheless, he knew he could succeed academically; he just needed the support and a goal to motivate him. Being able to enroll in an Associate Degree program helped him not only build up his GPA but also allowed him to redefine his relationship with his grades. Now, he feels in control and feels invested to continue his academic success through his master’s.
  1. Balance between prioritizing grades and credits: Ilyas was intentional about having a strong GPA in college. He put in a huge amount of work and prided himself on his outstanding academic performance. This determination, however, drew him to drop classes, which helped his GPA but also meant he needed to make up for that credit in the future. Ilyas wished his younger self could have had the support to make peace with lower grades. This would have helped him fulfill his goal of graduating sooner.
  2. High schools should “teach us how to do our research on colleges” Ilyas was insecure about his GPA in high school and looked into GPA requirements for colleges. What he didn’t know, however, was that different majors had different GPA requirements. “I wish they told us to look into the GPA requirement for different majors. The major for the engineering program is 3.7-.9. That’s what I was into when I was in high school. After seeing that, I thought, ‘I’m never going to college.’ So I wish they would’ve told us how to research schools properly.”
  3. Push for more Federal funding for books. As a first-generation college student, Ilyas financially struggled on campus, especially during the pandemic. Time and time again, he saw other students also stressed about navigating the financial hurdles. Ilyas believes there should be a national approach to help relieve this stress through the FASFA program. “It should be mandated that students from low-income families or scholarship kids have book vouchers…So if you get the full amount for FAFSA, you get a thousand-dollar book voucher.”

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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.