Kiara’s Story of Navigating the Post-Secondary Maze

Meet Kiara

Kiara is a Belizean American nursing student who was raised in the South Shore community. South Shore is located in southeast Chicago and is a largely Black neighborhood.

She grew up with a strong support system thanks to her relationship with her mom and siblings. Kiara graduated from a Chicago Public Schools (CPS) selective enrollment high school in 2016. She considers herself to be a self-starter. Kiara recently completed her general education requirements and the prerequisite courses for her nursing program of choice, which she will begin in the fall.

Kiara’s Story of Navigating the Post-Secondary Maze

“That [private four-year HBCU] was my dream school since fifth grade. I have two uncles and an aunt who all graduated from there. Since fifth grade, when I went out for my uncle’s graduation, I decided that I was going [there]. I knew nothing about it, had never been on a campus tour, but I just knew I wanted to go.”

Kiara’s familiarity with college started from a young age, as her family introduced her to different colleges early on. Kiara’s high school also invited admissions counselors from four-year colleges to visit and present to students. Kiara thought the absence of two-year college admissions staff made two-year colleges seem like less of an option. “I feel maybe that contributes a little bit to the stigma that there was going to a two-year college, and why I was so against it,” Kiara explained.

Her high school counselors explained how to go about the college admissions process, but Kiara remembered feeling confident about navigating the process on her own: “As far as going through the process, I did that on my own. Even when it came to applying to schools, my mom didn’t know that I had already applied to colleges. That’s how as soon as the application opened, I submitted my application.” Later on, Kiara was accepted into her dream school — an out-of-state, private four-year HBCU — with a full ride, and she enrolled immediately after high school graduation.

During her first year of college, Kiara struggled to adjust to the academic rigor of college. “I’ve always gotten good grades, and then I came to college and it’s like, everybody here has always gotten good grades. What more do you have? I guess I really didn’t feel prepared for that.”

She found herself struggling with not only the rigor of her courses, but also the absence of her mother’s support and daily encouragement. “I was really far from home, and this is the first time I had ever been that far for so long… I couldn’t just go home and see my mom, and my mom just couldn’t pop up.”

In addition, Kiara found it difficult to develop a relationship with support staff like academic advisors at her college. “All throughout junior high and high school, I had that 504 plan and had a relationship with my counselors that I feel helped me throughout school. Then when I got to college, I didn’t really have that… I did reach out to that [college counselor about setting up a 504 plan], and I never did get a response back.” Ultimately, Kiara did not feel supported by her college counselor, and she did not connect with other on-campus resources.

Kiara also struggled to find an academic support network through her peers. “A lot of my friends would not go to class,” she explained. “I was never really a partier, but I had a lot of trouble waking up for class.” By the end of her first year of college, Kiara lost her full-ride scholarship. That summer, she began taking classes at a two-year college back in her hometown of Chicago while she appealed for the reinstatement of her financial aid.

Kiara had been undecided about what she was interested in studying during her first year of college, but that summer, she began considering nursing. “I reached out to an academic advisor at [my four-year college] just to figure out what classes I should take over the summer to prepare to come back to [there] because, at that point, I was still counting on my appeal being approved and being able to come back.” However, she ultimately decided to officially transfer to her local two-year college where she was taking classes.

Transferring to her two-year college felt like a smooth process for Kiara because she received support from transfer counselors there as well as her mom. Kiara noted that her mom, who was a staff member at the two-year college to which Kiara transferred, helped her understand how to receive a full-ride scholarship from the college.

Kiara also felt like it was easier to thrive academically when living at home. “I feel like I really found myself when I came back home,” she said. “My grades improved. I was able to focus on school a little bit more.”

After transferring to this two-year college, Kiara felt like it was easier to learn about and access resources, such as the on-campus wellness center. Kiara found that when her college frequently promoted the resources available to students, she felt more empowered to use them.

“There were people who would come around to the classrooms, the teachers would advertise it. Everybody was in the know so that they could pass that information along. I just felt like there was better communication there amongst everybody.”

Kiara also noted that these resources even went beyond academic and professional support: “Little stuff that doesn’t have to do with school, but just makes it a little bit easier for you to focus on school because you don’t have to worry about this stuff that they have.” These resources included hygiene kits, weekly food pantries, and grants to help students financially.

Kiara also received support from a program that partners with two-year colleges to provide students with academic counseling, professional mentorship, and financial resources. She met with a program coordinator or professional coach once a month to update them on how she was doing and learn a new professional skill, like refining her resume.

“Having someone look over my resume … and look over my cover letter and give me pointers, that was helpful,” noted Kiara. She also attributed her coach’s support and network to her success in securing an internship she had applied to twice before without ever receiving an interview.

“Actually, the job that I have now, I was able to get in part by [the program] because my coach actually knew someone who worked at [a local medical center], and I was able to have a mock interview with her.” Kiara explained that this practice interview and the connection she made through it led to her receiving a job offer from the medical center.

This fall, Kiara will continue working at this hospital and begin an associate program in nursing at her two-year college, where she will continue to receive financial, professional, and academic support.

What Worked for Kiara

  1. Being close to her home. Kiara has a strong relationship with her mom and felt homesick at her first college. From the absence of her mom’s day-to-day encouragement to difficulty waking up early on her own, Kiara noted that distance from her mom made her time in college more difficult. However, after transferring to her local two-year college, Kiara lived at home and thrived academically because her mom provided her with a strong, physically present support system.
  2. Reliable and informative communication between students and staff. Kiara felt that at her four-year college, she was not aware of student groups she could join, she could not get into contact with the staff member responsible for initiating 504 plans, and she did not know how to access various resources on campus. However, at her two-year college, she felt like she had an easier time learning about the supports available to her, noting that even her professors were informed about the resources students could take advantage of.
  3. Receiving consistent mentorship. Kiara’s support program provided her with an academic counselor and a professional coach, and she met with program staff monthly. She found her academic counselor’s support to be empowering and comforting, and she attributed her professional coach’s support and network to her success in securing a position she had been interested in for over a year.

Kiara’s Hopes for the Field

  1. High Schools: Kiara appreciated her high school’s college admissions support and counseling. However, she wished that two-year colleges were included in college events and fairs. She felt like the absence of two-year colleges created a stigma around attending one.
  2. Colleges: Kiara appreciated that faculty at her two-year college were informed about resources available to students. She also felt that material supports from her two-year college — from food to micro-grants — were very helpful for students.
  3. Student Support Organizations: With the support of programming and coaching offered by the nonprofit organization with which her two-year college partners, Kiara refined her resume, honed her interview skills, and created a professional connection that helped her land a job she wanted.

Read other students’ stories of navigating the post-secondary maze:

  • Nancy is a Latinx, first-generation college student from Brighton Park. She immediately enrolled in a four-year college after high school graduation, transferred to a two-year college, and is currently enrolled in another four-year college. Read her story.
  • Arthur is a Black college student who attended a high school on the Southwest Side of Chicago. He immediately enrolled in a four-year college after high school graduation and has since transferred to two-year colleges as well as an online bachelor’s degree program. Read his story.
  • Amayrani is a Latinx, first-generation college student who graduated from a selective enrollment public high school and immediately enrolled in a two-year college. She took two semesters off during the pandemic. Read her story.
  • Moises is a Mexican American, first-generation college student from West Lawn. He immediately enrolled in a four-year college after high school graduation, transferred to a two-year college, and is currently enrolled in another four-year college. Read his story.

The To&Through Project team would like to express our most sincere gratitude to Kiara for taking the time to share her story with us.

Adayan Munsuarrietta, a third-year student at the University of Chicago majoring in Critical Race and Ethnic Studies as well as Media Arts and Design, interned with the To&Through Project during the summer of 2021, during which he interviewed these five CPS graduates and drafted their stories.

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The To&Through Project

The To&Through Project

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