Sergio’s Story of Exploring Life Beyond High School

The To&Through Project
9 min readNov 22, 2022

“I think that if I’m able to achieve the path or the goals that I set for myself, I go back to the communities where I grew up, and I become that example for the next generation of Latino kids that look like me”

Meet Sergio

Sergio is a Mexican, first-generation college student who graduated from a high school in Archer Heights in 2016. He is a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipient. Currently, he is studying at a public university in Chicago to become a high school educator as he is passionate about teaching and supporting minority students on the South Side.

Sergio grew up in the West Lawn, a predominantly Latinx neighborhood on the Southwest Side. The Back of the Yards community has also been a big part of his life thanks to the local nonprofits and high schools that he has worked with there.

Sergio’s Education Experience

“I’ve always valued my education. I’ve always been a pretty good student,” said Sergio, “so my aim for college was always to get into a good school.” To achieve this goal, he sought help with his college applications from a discretionary grant program at his high school designed to help low-income students prepare for and succeed in college. However, he shared, “In some ways [the program] felt disconnected… It wasn’t during class hours, so it only made it more difficult to even stay because many of us had other stuff to do. In some ways, it felt like we had to find the time for it, rather than they try to find time for us.”

Despite this challenge, Sergio worked to leverage the program’s support — he knew he was going to encounter more difficult obstacles in the college application process than many of his peers. “The whole FAFSA thing was an issue. I think it’s a horrible experience, especially if you’re a DACA person, because you can’t apply, but there’s a whole bunch of processes for certain schools… where you have to check off that you tried to do FAFSA, which is very pointless for someone with DACA because they damn well know that we can’t.” Unable to qualify for federal financial aid, he was able to receive state-level financial aid by filling out the Alternative Application for Illinois Financial Aid. “But it’s nowhere near the amount of money I [would have been] eligible for [if I qualified for] FAFSA,” explained

“The whole FAFSA thing was an issue. I think it’s a horrible experience, especially if you’re a DACA person, because you can’t apply, but there’s a whole bunch of processes for certain schools… where you have to check off that you tried to do FAFSA, which is very pointless for someone with DACA because they damn well know that we can’t.”

Sergio persisted in his efforts, however, and was accepted to a private university in Chicago from which he received a merit scholarship. Beyond the financial aid this university provided him, he was drawn to enroll because of its academic offerings. “My focus was nursing at the time, [and that university has] one of the best nursing programs in the city.”

Sergio began taking classes there the fall after graduating high school. “It was pretty difficult, that whole freshman year. I don’t think in terms of academics, [but rather] everything else that is college outside of the classroom,” he said. “They gave me a good amount of money… which was, at first, a little viable,” explained Sergio. “Having to work — that was a big deal for me, or just buying books — I think that was one of the bigger shockers.”

Another “shock” that Sergio experienced was related to culture. “Most of my life, I was surrounded by students who were like me or looked like me in terms of ethnicity, in terms of socioeconomic background, [but] going to university definitely changed that… Being Latino I became the minority, and it was very obvious that I was a minority. In every classroom there [were] probably two, maybe one, other students that looked like me. That was definitely a little scary, and I had to get used to that.”

“In every classroom there [were] probably two, maybe one, other students that looked like me. That was definitely a little scary, and I had to get used to that.”

From these experiences, Sergio realized, “It’s very different being a first-generation student as an immigrant and a minority than it is to be just a first-generation student in general.”

Two years into his degree, Sergio had to stop out of college. “My family went through personal issues, financially, so I couldn’t afford to attend school for a bit,” he explained. “I started working and helping my family out with some financial things.”

Sergio then started teaching for an after-school program that brought Mexican folkloric dance lessons to a CPS high school in Back of the Yards. This program was part of a larger extracurricular program that was run at the high school by a public university in Chicago. “That’s when I actually came to the realization I actually really enjoyed teaching, and that’s when I decided to, going forward, change my major,” he recalled.

“That’s when I actually came to the realization I actually really enjoyed teaching, and that’s when I decided to, going forward, change my major.”

Sergio’s employer recommended that he consider transferring to a public university in Chicago that was more affordable and offered a secondary education preparation program, but he decided to wait to enroll. “I actually went to [a community college in Chicago]. I took a couple courses, but it was just to get some pre-reqs done… I didn’t want to pay for them [at the public university] — they were very simple classes. After that, I ended up transferring to [the public university], which would have been the beginning of 2020.” Sergio is currently studying Spanish and Latin American Studies, and he is on track to graduate with his bachelor’s degree in the spring of 2022.

What Sergio Found Helpful

  1. Working in a space that allowed him to find valuable mentors and discover his career aspirations. Although his employment at a high school-based extracurricular program stemmed from unexpected obstacles during his post-secondary journey, Sergio characterized it as “one of the best decisions I’ve made in terms of my academic and professional path. Not only did it introduce me to education, and I realized that was something I was really passionate about and eventually became what I’m pursuing as a career, but I also met a lot of mentors, and I met a lot of people who are in very similar situations as I was.”
  2. Joining a community-based organization that allowed him to explore his passions outside of academics. Sergio attributed his ability to effectively manage his mental health in college to a Mexican folkloric dance group in Back of the Yards. “Ballet folklorico [is something] I enjoy doing in my personal time. I think it immensely helps me de-stress, doing something I enjoy doing and just having fun outside of school.”
  3. Remote learning as a student who commutes. Although the COVID-19 pandemic brought on many challenges for college students, Sergio said, “I kind of enjoyed [online classes.] But I think it’s because it suits the way I work. I don’t really mind being online as much as being in person… As a commuter, one of the biggest benefits was the fact that I didn’t have to commute for an hour, an hour and a half, every single day just back and forth to get to campus, which meant that I was saving about three hours a day of my personal time. Those three hours I now had, I was able to use them to do homework. My time felt a little bit more manageable.”

Sergio’s Aspirations for the Field

  1. DACA students have access to support from more DACA-knowledgeable counselors and staff at their schools. He wished more staff on his college campuses were better informed about DACA so he could receive the same level of support as other students. “I don’t think my [high school] counselors were very aware of what DACA was… I think my counselors did what they could, but I definitely think that there’s an issue there… they would be like, ‘Here’s a list of scholarships for Latinos,’ and it was already something specific towards me, but out of that list of 10 scholarships, only two or three of them and most I could actually apply for because they didn’t require me to be a citizen. Sergio also explained that, “People don’t know that it’s expensive. Every two years, I have to reapply for it, and I have to pay for the application, and it encompasses all these other small things.” The DACA application process can cost an applicant about $500. “And that’s just to apply… There’s always that fear. At any point [the government] could just be like, ‘Okay, whatever, we’re done with DACA,’ and that’s it, whoever was DACA will lose their job.”
  2. Students are better prepared for the challenges they might face in college outside of the classroom. Sergio felt that his schools did not sufficiently prepare him to develop the soft skills they need to manage their coursework, find and access on-campus resources, or anticipate all the miscellaneous expenses they might encounter, such as parking. Sergio also thinks students should be better prepared to navigate issues regarding tuition and financial aid. “I’ve never had a good experience with any of the financial offices at any institution I’ve ever been in. When you have to do school payments, it’s always a super complicated system… For example, many of the times, you have to pay off whatever you owe the school in order to register for the next semester. There’s always a delay, it’s very rare where there isn’t, and that delays your process of registering for next semester, and it causes all these issues.”
  3. Students who commute can access the resources they need when they are on campus. “I think [commuters] don’t know about these resources or these events to help with mental health until it’s too late, or they’re offered at a time where it’s just not viable for someone who commutes. [Some events] will be at 8 PM, at night… at that point I should be heading home because I don’t want to get home at midnight.”

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.

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.

The To&Through Project team would like to express our most sincere gratitude to Sergio 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.