Announcing our 2017 college scholarship winners, awards presented June 22

Chicago Coalition for the Homeless and its Law Project will present renewable $2,500 college scholarships to four students who succeeded in high school while coping with homelessness. Funded by private donors and grants, CCH has awarded more than $270,000 to 55 students since 2004.

Scholarship winners Mayra Fajardo, Niani Scott, Prince Washington, and Avery Williams will be presented at a public awards event on Thursday, June 22.

“We are inspired by these remarkable students,” said Law Project Director Patricia Nix-Hodes. “Despite unstable housing and other barriers, they have demonstrated a commitment to their education. We look forward to seeing what these leaders accomplish in their college years and beyond.”

Our program’s newest college graduate, Gesenia Viviescas, will be featured speaker at an awards event hosted by Loyola University Chicago School of Law, 25 E. Pearson Street. A 6 p.m. reception precedes the one-hour program, which begins at 6:30 p.m. in the 10th floor ceremonial courtroom.

Gesenia Viviescas at our 2016 Scholarship Awards Ceremony

Gesenia earned a bachelor’s degree in religious studies from DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind. Having studied in China for a term during college, Gesenia won a prestigious Fulbright award to teach English in Taiwan next school year. She plans to later earn a master’s international studies, with plans to enter the diplomatic service. A Schurz High School grad, Gesenia served as a DePauw Presidential Ambassador, president of her sorority, and participated in DePauw student government.

To date, 14 scholarship recipients have graduated with bachelor’s degrees, 39% of the 36 students eligible to do so to date. This compares well per a February 2015 study that showed just 9% of students from the lowest income bracket ($34,160 or lower) had earned a bachelor’s by age 24 (University of Pennsylvania and Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education). Three additional CCH scholarship students have earned associate or nursing degrees.Supporters of the scholarship program, the family, friends and teachers of our students, and program graduates are invited to attend the public, free-of-charge event.

Also honored will be 15 rising sophomores, juniors and seniors, earlier scholarship winners who will receive renewal awards of $2,500. They attend the Art Institute of Chicago, Blackburn and Columbia colleges, DePaul, North Park and Western Illinois universities, University of Illinois campuses in Chicago and Champaign, and the historically black colleges and universities of Benedict, Howard, and Tougaloo.

The Law Project launched the program to encourage and showcase homeless youth with whom it works – in 2016, 87% of its 404 legal aid clients were homeless students or youth. CCH scholarships help graduating seniors who have experienced homelessness, some of them for most of their lives. Long focused on helping Chicago Public Schools students, suburban students also have been eligible since 2015.

Eighteen high school seniors applied by the April 14 deadline. The 2017 winners are:

Mayra Fajardo, Chicago – University of Illinois-Chicago: Following her parents’ return to Ecuador, Mayra has been an unaccompanied youth for two years, living with different friends’ families. With a 3.5 GPA at Lane Tech College Prep High School, Mayra plans to study psychology.

Niani Scott, Bolingbrook – University of Illinois-Champaign: With experience blogging and in poetry competitions, Niani has decided to study at U. of I.’s journalism school. When she was a high school freshman, Niani was represented by the CCH Law Project and a Chicago law firm after school officials questioned her family’s then-homeless status. She later finished high school in South Africa, after securing a scholarship to study abroad. Taking a gap year before college, Niani has worked at the law firm that once helped her, Burke, Warren, MacKay and Serritella.

Prince Washington, Chicago – University of Illinois-Springfield: Prince plans to study political science with a minor in educational leadership. He wants a career as a teacher, and one day to enter politics. Prince said he loved his years at Argo Community High School in suburban Summit – in part, because after homelessness forced him to move out of the district, school officials encouraged him to stay at Argo. That’s the option that state and federal law allows for homeless students, but Prince said school officials, including Supt. Kevin O’Mara, were always there for him and helped him succeed. Prince participated in Argo’s theater program, speech team, and the Principle’s Advisory Committee, and works in restaurants to support himself.

Avery Williams, Chicago – Savannah College of Art and Design: A talented artist, Avery plans to study animation and visual effects for movies and TV. Avery said she always loved how movies offer “a break from the problems and stresses in your life” – something her family experienced when living in shelters. She earned a 4.06 GPA and participated in three exhibitions during two years studying art at Gallery 37. Avery also works part-time for her mother’s catering service, Moxie Chicago.

The college scholarship program is funded by designated donations and by grants from the Osa Foundation, Susan W. Pearson Memorial, and the North Shore-based Student Alliance for Homeless Youth. All donations to the program are fully tax-deductible.

Thanks to a generous incentive created by the Osa Foundation, when students earn a cumulative grade point average of “B” or better, they receive a laptop. Fourteen students have earned this honor to date, with new winners to be announced in June.

The 8-member Scholarship Selection Committee includes Jennifer Salgado-Benz, a 2012 scholarship winner and Lake Forest College grad; Daihana Estrada, a 2010 scholarship winner and UIC grad; retired CCH Executive Director Ed Shurna; and Patricia Rivera, founding donor of the scholarship and retired director of the CPS homeless education program, now directing shelter-based tutoring for Chicago HOPES. Also, on the committee are CCH’s intake coordinator, Roberto Martinez; social worker Monica Mahan; and Claire Sloss and Anne Bowhay of the development/media staff.

– Anne Bowhay, Media