Syed’s Story of Exploring Life Beyond High School
“Be gentle and patient with yourself… I learned that things take time from this whole college experience.”
Syed is a rising sophomore at a two-year college in downtown Chicago. He graduated from high school in Rogers Park during the height of the pandemic in 2020. Rogers Park is known as one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Chicago, and the community welcomed Syed, his mother, and younger sister when they immigrated to the U.S. from India at the end of 2017.
Navigating new environments has never stopped Syed from getting involved in his community. When he’s not getting exercise on the soccer field after class or planning Winter Formal for the Muslim Student Association, Syed loves documenting the people he meets and the places he sees through photography. After showcasing his art on Instagram for four years, he’s starting to envision how he can turn his passion into a future minor in digital media.
Syed’s High School Experience
Although Syed completed his first two years of high school before he immigrated, it took a while for him to retrieve the paperwork he needed to receive credit in the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) system. Syed repeated freshman year, starting at his Northside neighborhood high school, English Language Learners (ELL) program. However, after just one year, Syed was able to start junior year with his friends in non-ELL classrooms. About 45% of the student body at Syed’s high school were a part of the ELL Program, compared to 20% district-wide. “I’ve seen so many students’ succeed in transitioning out of ELL classes,” noted Syed.
Syed looks back on his time at his high school fondly. “Some of my teachers really brought the best out of me,” he said. His teachers even helped connect him to a digital media internship opportunity at a private research university, located just north of Rogers Park, the summer after his first year in Chicago. During his internship, Syed was tasked with covering stories about the different neighborhoods in and around Chicago. “I got more confident in my English because I was still new to the states, and I was like, ‘Ah man, how will I get along with new people?’ or ‘Will they be able to understand me?’” Syed expressed that this internship fostered his sense of belonging in the community, which he thought influenced his educational trajectory down the road.
Making Decisions About College
As an immigrant, Syed knew he wasn’t eligible for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). “I saw my friends going to college, and I was like, ‘Cool. I’m happy for them, but I can’t really do that right now.’” While Syed was disappointed that he couldn’t immediately enroll in college, he was excited to learn about a tuition-free program that, upon acceptance, grants students the unique opportunity to intern with companies and join the workforce directly out of high school. He saw the program as a way that he could still pursue computer science, a field he expressed interest in from early on.
Unfortunately, the pandemic forced Syed to reevaluate his decision. After only a few months of starting, he quit the program to support his family and took on a full-time position at the Mediterranean restaurant he worked at during and after high school. “After I graduated from high school, COVID was still there and I had more responsibilities with my family. My mom is a single mom. I eventually had to choose money or experience.”
“After I graduated from high school, COVID was still there and I had more responsibilities with my family. My mom is a single mom. I eventually had to choose money or experience.”
During this time, Syed found it more difficult to receive support from his high school. In the process of reaching out to teachers for new letters of recommendation, Syed learned that the college counselor from his senior year had transferred to somewhere else. With no way of getting in touch with her, he realized most of the application process would be an independent undertaking. “After I graduated, it was on me. I was like ‘What is going on?’ … I did all of my college process by myself. I was actually stuck at some points and I tried to ask for help, but it’s really hard for me to ask for help.”
Syed’s mental health suffered as a result of the pressure he put on himself, but he found motivation through conversations with teachers like “Mr. Stark,” Syed’s senior seminar teacher who retired the same year Syed graduated. “He’s like a role model to me… I’m a big Marvel fan and he’s a big fan too. We’re always talking about Spiderman, so he just gave me the nickname Spidey and I call him Mr. Stark.”
While Mr. Stark can’t necessarily travel through the multiverse alongside his fellow Avengers, he demonstrated the most valuable superpower: a commitment to Syed that went beyond his academic success. “He always checks on me, once every two months he sends me an email saying ‘Hey Spidey, is everything okay? How’s everything going at home?’” These occasional check-ins, initiated by Mr. Stark, helped reassure Syed that he had someone to call on if he needed advice.
“He always checks on me, once every two months he sends me an email saying ‘Hey Spidey, is everything okay? How’s everything going at home?’”
Unexpectedly, his friendships with customers at the Mediterranean restaurant led Syed to make his first connections with college students. After one of his regulars invited him to a Muslim Student Association (MSA) event at a nearby university’s campus, he quickly grew comfortable with the group. “I got to know one person, and then got to know more people. After that, I took care of myself and started to go to events by myself. I just had fun there.”
Reassured by the fact that he would be able to find other students with similar backgrounds on campus, Syed applied to a two-year degree program at a private 4 year university and received his acceptance letter and scholarship from the college in 2021. Through MSA, Syed knew many students in the community before starting classes, but he also took the time to use his connections to set expectations for life in college. “I got to know my professors and some of the students in my class before the first day,” he recalled. Prior to his arrival to college, Syed already had a support network. “I’ve talked to the counselors [at my college], and I’ve met some people who have graduated from [here], and I heard about their transfer experience to the [4 year institution].”
“I’ve talked to the counselors [at my college], and I’ve met some people who have graduated from [here], and I heard about their transfer experience to the [4 year institution].”
Once he earns his associate degree, Syed is considering going to the 4 year university that houses his current community college, where he’ll pursue computer science. He’s excited that one of his friends from high school, who he continues to see nearly every day, will be a sophomore with him in the fall. “When I moved from India I was so scared to make friends, but when I came here it was a whole different story. I made friends easily and I have these two good friends… they’re some of the best things I got from high school.”
“When I moved from India I was so scared to make friends, but when I came here it was a whole different story. I made friends easily and I have these two good friends… they’re some of the best things I got from high school.”
What Syed Found Helpful
- Being introduced to English and U.S. culture in an environment where he felt welcomed. “CPS schools should look at how [my high school] operates and welcome students from other countries and communities.” He considers it vital for schools to embrace their students’ cultures and to accommodate their transition into their school.
- Having access to programs and resources that enabled him to discover his passions and develop a sense of belonging in the larger community. Syed’s internship with a private research university helped him find his love for photography. Although he expressed that he has always enjoyed making lasting connections with people in his community, exposure to a new method of storytelling has allowed him to make a hobby of it.
Syed’s Aspirations for the Field
“Sometimes I feel like taking a gap year has helped me a lot, but it wasn’t the best for my mental health. It was COVID, I was working full time, I had to quit [the job training program], and at one point I was really mad at myself. I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life. I just try to be patient with myself. I learned that things take time from this whole college experience.”
Syed has since grown an appreciation for the ways in which taking a gap year led him to determine what he truly wanted out of a post-secondary education experience, but the majority of his time was spent struggling to manage the pressure of both making a decision about college and navigating logistics of the application process once his decision was made.
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.
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 Jarfaire 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.