Sean’s Story of Exploring Life Beyond High School

The To&Through Project
8 min readNov 22, 2022

“I’m a handyman. My money is within my own means. Like, if I got my tools, I’m never broke.”

Meet Sean

Sean grew up on the South Side of Chicago and graduated from a neighborhood high school in the Bronzeville community in 2019. During high school, Sean was the unit commander of his JROTC unit, was a part of the swim team, and won the citywide innovative social change competition with his school’s team. Currently, Sean is transitioning from a four-year university to a two-year college to pursue his passion in mechanical trades.

Sean’s Story of Exploring Life Beyond High School

Sean didn’t always want to go to college. “When I was younger, I always had the intention of going into the military… for the sake of the financial aid and the experience that you get from it,” recalled Sean. “I really thought that would be beneficial in the long run.” Although Sean noted that he valued his experiences in JROTC, he did not participate during his last year of high school. “I decided to grow dreads,” said Sean. Because the military does not allow men to have dreadlocks, he knew that joining the military after graduating would be off the table.

That same year, Sean participated in an internship and a college access program, both of which encouraged him to consider college as his new post-secondary plan. Sean described the internship program as “training for high school students to get into the corporate world.” He remembered, “During my senior year, I would leave school early to go work downtown… they also helped with the plan for colleges and making sure everything was situated financially… [The program] had these classes you have to attend almost every week in which you would do college-oriented tasks such as applying for scholarships and detailing your FAFSA information.” Additionally, another college access program connected him with mentors who helped him navigate the application process. “You had to go through and apply to at least, I think, five or 10 colleges.”

Among the colleges to which Sean was accepted was a large public research university in Illinois. “[My parents and counselors] pushed me and suggested that I went [to that university] because when the financial aid came in, I wouldn’t have to pay anything.” Despite the advice, he still had some reservations about attending a research university. “At a younger age, I knew I always had a thing for repairing stuff. I wanted to establish my trade skills for HVAC, plumbing, carpentry welding, those sorts of things. Unfortunately… [the university didn’t] have any trades,” Sean said. “We definitely listed out a couple options, me and [my counselors], in terms of other schools with trades… they were really trying to push for me to go to that four-year institution — that was just the best bet in their mindset. After a while I just kind of said, ‘Forget it, I’ll just go to the university and just try my luck there.’”

‘Forget it, I’ll just go to the university and just try my luck there.’”

In the fall of 2019, Sean began taking classes with the intention of majoring in computer science. “But coming here, I realized [computer science] wasn’t… something I was really interested in,” he said. “It was already kind of unmotivating to put my best foot forward.” Sean hoped he could switch majors to mechanical engineering. “I tried to apply for a different college [within the university], but … the process was a lot more involved than what I was prepared for.”

The COVID-19 pandemic compounded the situation’s effect on Sean’s academic performance. “I’m a hands-on person, and I’m an in-person person as well. So anything I learn, I need to learn by… a teacher in front of me actively teaching me. I’m not so good when it comes to trying to learn something off of a computer.”

“I’m a hands-on person, and I’m an in-person person as well. So anything I learn, I need to learn by… a teacher in front of me actively teaching me. I’m not so good when it comes to trying to learn something off of a computer.”

Yet returning to campus for classes also came with its own set of challenges. “If you didn’t have a negative test… you weren’t allowed in the classroom. Teachers would tell you to leave,” Sean recalled. While Sean expressed that he appreciated the protocol for promoting safety, he also described how it could cause students to fall farther behind. “It takes about a whole day or so for you to get a result back… You come back [to class] the next day probably missing a decent amount of work.” By the end of his third year, Sean was unable to continue at the university.

Currently, Sean is in the process of applying to a community college in Chicago where he can study automotive technology. Reflecting on his post-secondary journey so far, Sean expressed that he is now in a better position to pursue his interests and play to his strengths, even if that does not include obtaining a bachelor’s. “I’m a handyman. My money is within my own means. Like, if I got my tools, I’m never broke… I don’t necessarily need a degree for what I want to do, so I never really put a lot of stock behind having a degree.” Having always felt drawn to trades, Sean noted that he was more interested in obtaining a different credential. “I’m capable of charging a lot more or getting paid a lot more for my services if I have a degree behind it because I have a certification, so you know I’m a professional.”

On the other hand, Sean also expressed that he is still deeply appreciative of what he has learned from his experience at his four-year university. “I found out I was pretty good at sociology, the basics of engineering. I found out I had a good understanding of physics and how things are designed. I found out I was a pretty good drawer. I found out I was a pretty good cook. Things like that, just coming here, being by myself… you really just discover things that you probably wouldn’t have discovered… so it was worth the experience.”

“I found out I was pretty good at sociology, the basics of engineering. I found out I had a good understanding of physics and how things are designed. I found out I was a pretty good drawer. I found out I was a pretty good cook. Things like that, just coming here, being by myself… you really just discover things that you probably wouldn’t have discovered… so it was worth the experience.”

What Sean Found Helpful

Attending a four-year university without financial barriers. Although Sean was unable to complete a degree at his university, he realized that he learned a lot about himself and his skills that he wouldn’t have learned otherwise. Had he not received adequate financial aid, he wouldn’t have had this opportunity to explore new fields and new skills.

Sean’s Aspirations for the field:

  1. Students are better supported in identifying their passions and interests and making decisions based on those. Sean encourages high schools and student-serving organizations to embrace creating processes to help students explore different fields. “When I was in [one of my programs] and I was going through the college application process, I feel like they were more focused on me applying to [four-year] colleges than they were on me applying to colleges that really were oriented around what I wanted,” noted Sean. “For students like me, who weren’t really interested in a four-year institution, [helping them] instead identify, ‘Oh, yeah I want to go work on cars, I want to work on building management or something… just having a process, so they can [help students] sniff out those types of desirable skills that people really want. I think that would have been really beneficial.”
  2. Students have more opportunities to build relationships with mentors that reflect their passions, identities, and personal contexts. Sean recognizes that he was connected with many great mentors who helped him navigate the college application process. However, he wishes that student-serving organizations could take a step further to hire mentors “not only from the corporate setting, [but also] trade settings.” Sean believes this could better help students find “that guardian angel, even if it’s a teacher… the janitor, anybody really who has a love or care for you.”

Read other student stories of exploring life beyond high school:

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.

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 Sean 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.