Chicago Tribune: Scholarships give college-bound homeless students a boost

Aja Lowrey knows what it means to struggle.

The 18-year-old Chicagoan has endured homelessness twice during critical junctures of her young life.

After receiving most of her schooling at Leslie Lewis Elementary School in the North Austin neighborhood, an institution on probation most of her educational career, she became homeless after a dispute between her mother and their landlord. Lowrey, who was applying to prestigious Walter Payton College Prep at the time, stayed with relatives and friends for roughly a year while her mother worked multiple jobs and sought shelter wherever she could.

Lowrey tested among the top applicants and celebrated with relatives when admitted to a class of about 250 people. But shortly after obtaining stable housing, Lowrey and her mother slipped back into homelessness in her junior year while she was juggling ACT prep, college applications and routine schoolwork.

“This last time, I was breaking down crying because I had nowhere to go,” Lowrey said. “I ended up staying with an uncle … and the next day we worked out an agreement with (my mom’s) friends, but my mom still had nowhere to go. She was working in the hospital and staying in Walgreens all night and things like that. I was literally crying every night, trying to get through.”

There were no tears last week after Lowrey — who commuted three hours to Indianapolis to work two overnight shifts every other weekend at a Steak ‘n Shake during her senior year — was one of five high school graduates to accept a $2,500 a year scholarship for current and former homeless students from the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

“It honestly meant a lot with them giving me the CCH scholarship because I was planning on taking out loans, but this will mean I will be without debt,” Lowrey said. She is pairing the coalition scholarship with a $30,000 scholarship from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she will enroll this fall.

Lowrey’s mother, Sherita Scott, is a medical assistant, and her late grandmother was a Cook County nurse for 30 years. The scholarships will help launch Lowrey on a path to becoming a physical therapist — a fitting end for the girl who used to play with her grandmother’s stethoscope, Scott said.

“I’m very proud of her,” said Scott, who still wore her work scrubs at a recent ceremony for scholarship recipients at Loyola Law School in River North. “It really touched me because we had a lot of obstacles with the homeless stuff, me not having a job, getting a job, going through an agency only to get laid off. But when it was time for graduation, it was like we made it, through all the trials and tribulations.”

The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless’ Law Project, a legal aid program focused on the homeless, started the scholarships in 2004 after an analysis of their services revealed more than 94 percent of their clients were homeless students or youths. Since then, $240,000 from private donors has helped finance up to five years of college for 50 students, 10 of whom have obtained their bachelor degrees and 13 others who are rising sophomores, juniors and seniors.

Though the graduation rate remains around one-third, coalition officials are encouraged by the numbers. The coalition cited a 2015 report from University of Pennsylvania and Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education that found only 9 percent of students in the lowest income bracket obtained degrees by age 24.

Daihana Estrada, a 2010 scholarship recipient, beat those odds. Estrada became homeless at 17 after her parents were deported to Mexico after working 20 years in the U.S. and applying for legal residency in Utah. A judge gave her parents two months to sell their home and sent Estrada and her younger brother, who were born in the U.S., to live with their older brother in Chicago.

Estrada finished her senior year at John Hancock College Prep High School with a 3.9 GPA and went on to study political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago with help from a homeless coalition scholarship. But she encountered more hardships when her older brother kicked her and her brother out during her sophomore year of college.

Estrada addressed the scholarship recipients at the ceremony, telling them the road ahead may be tough, but the outcome is worth the wait. “I worked full time at Best Buy, full time at school, went to class at like 8 in the morning till 4, then go straight to work until 10 at night, and still, you know, do homework and stay up till 4 in the morning. Red Bulls were like my best friends at that time.

“But I want to let you know that it is possible. Each person goes through a different obstacle, but it’s up to that person to look at it in a positive or in a negative way.”

Estrada’s parents watched their daughter walk across the stage via Skype in May. Estrada, who works as a paralegal and plans to attend law school within a year, hopes to become an immigration attorney.

“I want other families to stay together and not go through what I went through,” she said. “Because it is hard, but at the end of the day, you have to move forward.”

As Estrada leaves UIC, T’Prinn Ingram of Aurora, the first suburban homeless coalition scholarship winner, is preparing to begin her studies at the university. She hopes to become an emergency room physician.

A graduate of West Aurora High School, Ingram lived in a shelter with her mother, father and two older brothers for six years, from first through sixth grade.

“I was confused,” Ingram said. “In my mind, it was something very temporary. I didn’t know I would be homeless that long. I thought it was an adventure, but it became a new way of life.”

“Me, my two brothers and mother stayed in the women’s and children section, and my father lived separately with the men,” Ingram said. “At 6 a.m. we would pack up our mattresses. We had lockers for stuff, but we had to figure out everything you wanted to carry around for the day. We had a half hour to eat … and then you had to find something to do all day.”

For Ingram and her family, they frequented Aurora Public Library, where she learned to love reading after she was surrounded by books almost daily. Ingram later served six years on the library’s Teen Advisory Board and four years on its Citizen Advisory Panel.

“The library holds a very dear place in my heart,” she said. “I would spend so much time there, everyone there knows me. It was another part of me being given so much and wanting to give back in return.”

Upward Bound, a college-oriented program aimed at low-income youths, was another significant influence on Ingram. As an eighth-grader, Ingram knew little about college other than it was a place she had been told that she needed to go. In the first year of Upward Bound, she visited a number of East Coast universities, including St. John’s University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Georgetown University.

“It was a little overwhelming,” Ingram said. “I was like ‘Holy cow! I can live here and study?'”

Now, with both older brothers attending college, one at Northern Illinois University and the other at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, it appears Ingram has found a home, too, at least for the next four years.