Kenia’s Story of Exploring Life Beyond High School

The To&Through Project
8 min readNov 22, 2022


“It was like, if you don’t go to college, then you’re nothing after high school…”

Meet Kenia

Kenia grew up in Gage Park, a multi-ethnic working-class community on Chicago’s Southwest side. She graduated in 2019 from her neighborhood high school. In her senior year, Kenia found out she was pregnant with her first child and quickly realized she had to find a way to support her son on her own during her first years after graduation.

After cycling between three low-paying jobs, Kenia heard about Year Up, a tuition-free job training program that provides students with skills-based training and access to top companies in tech, consulting, investment banking, and more. After graduating from Year Up in February of 2022, Kenia is enjoying her role as a banking analyst.

Kenia describes herself as someone who is both positive and perseverant. Growing up in a Hispanic household with parents who did not have the same educational opportunities as her, she felt pressure to do well in high school and go to college. Although her change in plans took a toll on her self-confidence, she eventually found mentors who helped her recognize her strengths and capabilities.

Kenia’s Educational Experience

Prior to giving birth to her son, Kenia had every intention of going to college. Both her family and high school’s focus on earning good grades and getting high standardized test scores eventually led Kenia to adopt the same mentality at the expense of her other interests. “I was so focused on getting good grades that I lost myself. I didn’t do any extracurricular activities.”

“I was so focused on getting good grades that I lost myself. I didn’t do any extracurricular activities.”

She focused on her coursework in and outside of school but remembered wishing to join a glee club, volleyball, or anything that could provide her with a temporary escape. “It became impossible to ask if I could join the debate team. I loved history and saw that debate could help me learn more about law and politics.”

Throughout her high school experience, Kenia didn’t see many instances where teachers connected with her about her post-secondary plans. Even with good grades in AP classes, Kenia still doubted her ability to go to college and succeed. “For me, it was like, ‘I don’t think I’m smart enough.’”

Making Decisions About College

When Kenia discovered she was pregnant, she knew she had to reevaluate her post-secondary plans. “At that moment, I felt like school was not going to be a possibility for me anymore… I had to focus on getting money so that I could provide the basic needs for my child.” She informed her high school’s college admissions team of her situation, hoping for guidance. “They didn’t offer me options. They didn’t offer me help… I felt like my teachers discouraged me and realized, ‘Oh, you’re going to be a mom — college is not right for you.’

“They didn’t offer me options. They didn’t offer me help… I felt like my teachers discouraged me and realized, ‘Oh, you’re going to be a mom — college is not right for you.’”

Without any support, exposure to alternative post-secondary pathways, or anything that could “give you the basic skills that you need in order to apply and be eligible,” Kenia took on jobs at fast-food restaurants. “I couldn’t apply anywhere else because it always said you need experience, and I don’t have that.” At one point, Kenia found herself simultaneously working three jobs.

To Kenia’s surprise, she found a new opportunity through a social media ad for Year Up. “I thought it was a scam at first because I thought, ‘Who’s going to give you something like this for free?’” Even so, Kenia believed she had nothing to lose from applying. After being invited for an interview and taking an entrance exam, Kenia received her acceptance letter. Hesitant to share any information about herself and her background, given her social media-based introduction to the program, Kenia found Year Up’s follow-up events extremely helpful.

Soon after accepting her placement in the program, Kenia was assigned to a coach and had 1:1 meetings. Once they established a rapport, Kenia grew more comfortable. “She created a very safe space for me… I was able to tell her, ‘Sometimes I’m not confident in myself because I grew up in a home where you… always needed to find approval.’” When her mentors and managers noticed she was underestimating her abilities, Kenia’s managers would remind her, “‘If you’re here, it’s because you did the work to be here,’” she recalled. “My whole Year Up experience really helped me not downgrade myself.”

“‘If you’re here, it’s because you did the work to be here,’” she recalled. “My whole Year Up experience really helped me not downgrade myself.”

As a working mom, Kenia was provided with enough flexibility to succeed in her professional development and spend time with her son throughout the day. By the end of the program, she mastered Excel and PowerPoint, sent professional emails, and felt comfortable leading presentations. “For me, it was like, ‘This is exactly what I needed. I think I know what I want to do now.’”

During the middle of her time with Year Up, she considered leaving the program when her son fell ill. As she had no additional resources to help pay for his treatment and medicine, Year Up’s Student Services team supported her through their Student Hardship Fund. The fund helped her afford the healthcare necessary for her son’s recovery while continuing the program.

By the end of Kenia’s time at Year Up, Kenia was offered a full-time position at a bank. Although she was excited to begin the role, she had concerns about working in this new environment. “Over the past year, racism [in America] has skyrocketed. Here at the bank, it’s predominantly White, so I thought I wouldn’t feel comfortable going there… what if they look at me a certain way, or what if I do good work, but it gets minimized because it’s me who is doing the work.” While Kenia’s initial fears did not align with her experience when she started the role, due to the state of the national climate around race, she found it hard to shake her concerns about discrimination as she progressed in her work.

Eventually, she shared her worries with her Year Up mentor, who encouraged her and provided her with some coaching on how to have a direct conversation with her manager about her concerns as one of the few people of color in the office. In the discussion with her manager, Kenia shared her concerns and was encouraged by her manager’s response and support. After that conversation, Kenia shared, “Seeing them value me as a person really helped me to change my perspective …and I’ve felt more comfortable ever since.”

“Seeing them value me as a person really helped me to change my perspective …and I’ve felt more comfortable ever since”

Kenia aspires to advance further in her career. She now has a connection to a company that can give her the financial support she needs to eventually achieve her college aspirations. Her job makes going back to school for a degree in economics or finance a possibility, and she may finally be able to explore her interests in politics and law through taking an elective in political science.

What Worked for Kenia

  • Receiving support from a group of mentors that valued her strengths and taught her to recognize them. Beyond the financial security that Kenia’s experience at Year Up granted her, she built close, lasting relationships with her coach and the Student Services team. They helped Kenia see how “there’s still so many opportunities to grow” beyond pursuing a college degree.
  • Having access to resources that prepared her to feel confident in a professional space and make the most of her experience. Although Kenia started Year Up “with a lot of doubts” and her “guard up,” she’s grown into a young professional eager to take advantage of growth opportunities. “I want to get a degree in economics. I do think it’s important, but not like, ‘This defines me,” she said. Thanks to the mentorship she received through Year Up, she’s also confident enough to proactively bring up concerns with her manager and now enjoys a working environment where she can be her authentic self.

Kenia’s Aspiration for the Future

“Something that I think would work is if [schools] saw the needs of their students individually and not as a group… If they don’t want to go to college because they don’t have sufficient funds, see if there’s other routes, see if there’s other scholarships they can apply to, or see if there’s a program that matches their interests.”

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.

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 Kenia 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.