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

The To&Through Project
8 min readDec 4, 2023


Meet Nicole

Nicole is a Mexican-American first-generation college graduate from the Back of the Yards neighborhood. Since she was little, her heart was set on entering the world of science and becoming a doctor. She attended a public bachelor’s degree granting institution in Chicago and graduated in six years in 2021. She is currently a counselor at a non-profit organization in Chicago, focusing on supporting people through their mental health journey.

Nicole’s Path to College

Nicole’s educational journey started at home. Being the youngest, she grew up with all three older siblings enrolling in college. “Since we were little kids, it was always like, ‘you’re going to school; school is your job while you’re little. Once you’re done with school, you go to college, and then college is your job. After college is when you get your real, real job.” Thanks to her family’s encouragement, she saw college as a stepping stone towards her absolute dream: becoming a doctor.

However, she wasn’t sure which pathway to college was best for her. In order to save money, her older sister graduated with her associate’s degree first and then transferred to a bachelor’s degree institution. Inspired by her sister, Nicole planned on doing that as well

Later in high school, one of Nicole’s teachers encouraged her to apply to a summer medical program where she would learn from doctors and medical academic prep. The program offered Nicole a powerful experience where she could learn and engage in medical work with other CPS students like her. After the program ended, Nicole thought about her college path. “A lot of the nurses and doctors in the program said they went to this 4-year university right after high school. So, I thought, ‘Okay, if they’re in this position, maybe that’s the best thing I can do.’”

The internship also gave Nicole the confidence to believe she had a competitive application to pursue her bachelors and succeed on campus. “Once I did that whole little internship, I felt like, ‘okay, I know that I’m set for college, I can do a good job in college. Because I have this bright shining thing that I did this internship at this fancy hospital.’” Nicole enrolled in a bachelor’s degree granting institution in Chicago with her sister and a close friend from high school. Despite the social support, Nicole was worried. “I knew going into it that I would have to have a job. I thought, ‘how am I gonna balance my schoolwork and going to work?’”

Nicole’s College Journey

To alleviate her stress, Nicole planned out her time in college immediately when she got to campus. In her first year of college, she declared her major in biology with a pre-med track. “I went in very focused like, ‘this is what I wanna do.’ I already have my plan in place…I wanna make sure I take all the classes I need.” After a couple of semesters, however, she was feeling overwhelmed. “I was really struggling in a lot of my courses. I was struggling with my mental health [between] going to work, paying for school and then actually going to school. Being a full-time student and having a full-time job was a lot. I was ignoring that for a long time until it started to affect my coursework.”

Dedicated to her dream of pursuing medicine, she persisted with the pre-med track, which led her to join a research assistant program. Nicole loved the professor she was working with. She related to this professor on a personal level since they were both Latinx, one of the first in their family to go to college, and identified as queer. The internship fueled and informed Nicole’s passion for health. “It opened my eyes up to the community outreach aspects of public health.”

She continued to work as a research assistant during the school year until balancing her heavy course load forced her to resign. “I couldn’t keep up my coursework and be a research assistant at the same time. I really loved this job. But I had to send them a letter of resignation, and I remember sitting in the library at the university and typing this thing out, bawling my eyes out.”

The professor responded by offering grace for Nicole. “They were very kind. They were the first to say, ‘it’s okay to not have everything together. It’s okay not to know what you wanna do. You don’t have to have all the answers.’ And that for me was like a super validating cause in my household; we never talked about mental health. We didn’t talk about changing what you wanna do… They were the first person to actually number one validate my identity first of all, and then to also validate the fact that, ‘it’s okay to fuck up. It’s okay to mess up.’”

The professor then created a space with Nicole and initiated a brainstorming session around potential career options for her. The professor asked Nicole about her ideas and passions and suggested multiple career tracks. With each career option, the professor would break down the qualifications Nicole would need for that specific career, including certifications, the difference between titles, and what that means in their day-to-day work.

This support was significant because it helped Nicole shift her mindset about her degree. Her degree was not just a step toward a job but a step toward her passion. “‘They really pushed me to not just go with what I think that I want, but actually go for something that I’m passionate about. That I’m gonna love to do.’” After that conversation, Nicole changed her major to psychology and met up with an academic counselor to remap the rest of 3rd year in undergrad.

Academic Pivots: 4 years turning into 6 years

Nicole faced various challenges in switching her major. “Everybody’s goal is four years. It’s also like financially four years because it’s like, ‘damn, you don’t wanna spend more money being here longer.’” Nicole’s original academic advisor left shortly after meeting, so she sought support from other advisors on campus. To graduate in 4 years with her new major, however, she would have to be an over-full-time student and take summer courses. “As I talked with the academic counselors, they said, ‘It’s not really all about years, it’s more so about credits’. And so that’s when it got tricky.” Since financial aid did not cover summer courses, Nicole tried her best to fit in her classes in the shortest time possible. Then March of 2020 started.

With the transition to online classes, Nicole knew she would need extra time. She was taking all of her upper-level coursework, and working during the pandemic only strained her mental health even more. “I would just feel so overwhelmed. A lot of that time was spent thinking, ‘Do I pick this paycheck, or do I pick my schoolwork?’ I had to face the facts and remember this job does not care about the rest of my life. I have to figure out how to prioritize school at this point.”

Nicole threw herself into her school work and sacrificed her mental health to keep up with her courses. Looking back, she describes it as a “time of not caring about my mental health, not taking care of myself physically or mentally. I wasn’t eating well…It was just a very time of, ‘I gotta get this done. Because the longer I spend here, the more money I will put into this, and I can’t afford that.’ So, at that point, I had to bite the bullet… Like five years in, and when 2020 hit, it’s do or die at this point.”

Nicole graduated with her bachelors in 2021 on a 6 year track. Looking back, undergrad was a tumultuous time for Nicole, and she holds grace for her younger self. She learned one of the most powerful lessons she still carries with her. “It taught me a lot about failure. And failure is the best teacher. I needed to fail those chemistry classes… It’s okay to fail at something. And it’s okay to talk about those failures. When you talk about it, that’s when you can figure out where you go from there.”

What Was Helpful for Nicole

  • Early opportunities to explore her career aspirations: The programs Nicole was a part of strengthened her passion for medicine and inspired her to prepare her academic pathway to medicine, by directly enrolling in a bachelor’s degree granting institution after college. It also boosted her confidence to feel she could excel at a bachelor’s degree granting university.
  • Mentorship: Nicole’s meeting with her mentor was one of the most critical points in college. The mentor collaborated with her and reassessed which career route was best for her. In that moment, Nicole was offered compassion, which helped her to embrace setbacks. “Failure happens. failure doesn’t define you… It’s not gonna change the way that other people view you, but it’s going to change the way that you view yourself… it’s usually always for the better.”

Nicole’s Aspirations for the field

  1. Universities need to take responsibility to ensuring ALL students accessing resources “I think universities forget, that you have that responsibility to make sure this hard earned money that this student is giving you or whatever financial aid, doesn’t matter where you get this money from, you have that responsibility to make sure that you’re providing services for that student.”
  2. Universities need to Listen to your staff, especially those with direct contact with students.” Nicole remembers her academic advisor abruptly left, which left Nicole worried about the high advisor turnover rate she was seeing. She hopes universities can take better care of their students by taking care of their staff by asking them “Hey, what do you need? How can we help you?” And hold a space for students/staff to “come and talk about things openly without fear of repercussions from a university.”
  3. High school and University Academic Counselors should have academic check-ins that include a mental health check-in. Inspired by her struggle with mental health in college, Nicole wants academic appointments to also hold a space to help students plan how they will take care of themselves. “‘Let’s plan out how many credit hours you’re gonna take this semester.’ Another part of that conversation could be, ‘how many times are you gonna see your therapist this semester?’’”



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.