Mayra knows a little help can go a long way

Mayra Fajardo, a Latinx woman in her 20s, poses in front of the Chicago River, a big smile on her face. She is wearing a white blouse. Banner text reads: Mayra knows a little help can go a long way.

Mayra Fajardo recently graduated from the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). She earned a double major in psychology and criminology/law, with a double minor in history and Spanish. Having navigated high school and college as an unaccompanied student, Mayra is passionate about using her skills and experiences to help others.  

Born and raised in Chicago, Mayra moved with her family to Ecuador at 15. A year later, she made the difficult decision to return to Chicago alone to pursue better educational opportunities. Her goal? To provide hope and support for her mother and younger sister. 

Four young people of color, wearing suits and dresses, smile for the camera.
Mayra (second from right) at the CCH scholarship ceremony in 2017.

Mayra managed by doubling-up with friends and distant relatives, but frequent moves and transportation challenges made it difficult to maintain employment while also completing high school. 

“When you have instability in one thing, it creates a domino effect in all other things,” Mayra recalls.  

Encouraged to apply for CCH’s scholarship program by school counselor Julie Atkocaitis, Mayra was thrilled when she learned that she had won.  

“I remember thinking, there is something good in my life. When you’re going through a hard time, a little goes a long way. Any help on any level can literally be the thing someone needs to keep going.” 

At UIC, Mayra mentored high school students through a summer leadership program with Students Demand Action. She provided Spanish interpretation for families seeking immigration services as an intern with the Children’s Legal Center. She also studied abroad in South Korea. 

Despite her many successes, Mayra acknowledges that her undergrad experience was not easy. 

“As is, being a college student is a stressful thing. You’re trying to get your degree, trying to get good grades, trying to balance work and school. Adding on housing instability and these other stressors that you can’t control – it’s hard not to consider dropping out.” 

Mayra is grateful to Cynthia Rodriguez, UIC’s associate director of student assistance, who connected her to resources such as food pantries, transportation support, and housing resources. 

“CCH also offered a sense of relief where I was like: dropping out is not an option,” Mayra said. “I did not want to give up.”

Today, Mayra is a proud college graduate and works full-time as a teachers’ assistant at a Chicago hospital. She aims to find a position that supports providing immigration services to children. She continues to stay connected with CCH, working to help those facing challenges similar to her own. 

This included participating in a focus group with other CCH scholarship students, sharing their difficulties with housing instability on campus. Their stories led to the passage of SB190, a new law which created a dedicated liaison at Illinois colleges and universities to support students experiencing homelessness. 

Mayra recently participated in CCH’s inaugural Action Research Project, which helps young people determine what issues are important to them and develop proposed solutions. 

“It was really nice to see our ideas come to life,” said Mayra. “It was motivating to be one step closer to making change, not just for us, but our communities and the people we want to help.”  

She also attended a lobby day with CCH this spring, advocating with legislators to support bills and funding that will help students and families experiencing homelessness.  

“I’ve seen how sharing my story can help and impact others in different ways,” said Mayra. She wants students facing homelessness to know that they are not alone: “Things are hard, but it’s temporary. Hope is a journey.”  

“My mom has been my biggest support in every sense I can imagine, even if she can’t physically be here because of our circumstances. She’s the reason I say giving up is not an option.”  

“It’s nice to see CCH, outside of offering the scholarship, is also doing other things that are contributing to change.”