“I think as an African American male who grew up on the South Side of Chicago, I always knew I needed to go to college,” says 23-year-old Chicago resident Kyle Larry.

And Larry did just that. He earned a full ride to a school that’s 1,100 miles east: Bates College in comparatively tiny — population 37,121 — Lewiston, Maine. 

“I graduated class of 2021 with a double major in politics and psychology,” Larry says — and the accomplishment is due in no small part to Chicago Scholars

Founded in 1996, the nonprofit works with students from under-resourced backgrounds for a seven-year cycle that covers the transition to college, through college, and beyond college toward their careers.

Every year about 5,000 students participate in Chicago Scholars programming, from current high school students to college graduates. The nonprofit has proven to be an ally for Black students, particulary Black identifying young men who sit at a 74% six-year college graduation rate.

“I think Chicago Scholars really helped me in understanding the nuances of the college application as well as what it means to be in college,” Larry says. 

So much so that Larry is now paying it forward, working as the senior associate of scholar’s experience for the organization.

Bringing College Dreams to Life

Jeffery Beckham, the CEO of College Scholars, he joined the team at 38, with the intention of making a difference by supporting the educational ambitions of Black youth.

“I was in tech for a long time, and working in technology — particularly healthcare —  I would go to conferences all over the country, as a software engineer, or sales engineer, and walk into rooms and either be the only African American, if not the only African American male, probably one of the youngest in the room,” Beckham tells Word in Black. 

“It was really telling to me because everybody in the room made six figures for jobs that sometimes didn’t even require a college degree,” he says.

It wasn’t long before Beckham turned that observation into action, transitioned into working in education, and eventually found his footing at Chicago Scholars.

There’s no GPA requirement for the application to the program. A student just must demonstrate a desire to soar academically.

“When a student applies to be a Chicago Scholar, they are saying they want to go to a four-year college, which they already have that self mentality like hey, I want to do this,” says Derrick Martell Fleming Jr., the organization’s managing director of strategic engagement.

“However, that does not mean because they are first generation or from a low-income community they understand how to navigate the college-going process.”

This is why the program is broken into three phases, College Access-Launch, College Success-Lift, and College to Career-Lead, where students are provided intense mentorship, counseling, and support systems beginning in their junior year of high school and culminating as late as two years post-college graduation. 

College Access

The “Launch” phase of the program is geared towards incoming high school seniors — about 500-700 students every year. 

Unlike the typical high school student, who may receive one to two hours of college counseling during their senior year, Launch Scholars receive anywhere between 13 and 16 hours of counseling through eight 1-on-1 sessions. After helping students find the right college fit-wise, students are asked to submit six applications to the organization’s list of nearly 200 college partners. 

College Success

The second phase of the program, “Lift,” is dedicated to supporting students once they’ve enrolled at a partnering institution, providing them with the continued support that most Black students need. 

“We have a dedicated staff here, that makes sure that if they need something along the way, whether it’s money for books, opportunities, dollars to do leadership programs, or just someone to talk to, they have a community of support here to get them through the years, the most difficult years while they’re away at school,” Beckham says. “We even have a career team that helps students with their resume, their LinkedIn profile, and we offer workshops along the way to help do leadership and pull the development of a young person so that they graduate.” 

The Class of 2022 — representing 75 neighborhoods and 105 high schools — collectively received 2,000 college acceptances and was awarded more than $64 million in merit aid. 

“We want to make sure our students have everything they need, so by the time they graduate to go into their careers, it’s at the least amount of debt, to zero debt,” Fleming says. “It’s important because our Black young people end up matriculating to the wrong school and have large amounts of debt.”

College to Career

The last phase of the program, “Lead,” supports recent graduates entering the workforce — providing them with an alumni network and helping them land their first job, internship, or entry into a graduate program. 

Scholars are offered job shadowing, internships, and full-time employment opportunities, equipping them with the resources, training, and network they need to become leaders in their field.

“Economic mobility, leadership development, belonging. We want to make sure our students have everything they need,” Fleming says. “There’s a team here in Chicago that supports them wherever they may go.”

As for Larry, he’s thinking of pursuing law. But for now, he’s happy working for Chicago Scholars. As he puts it, it’s a way for him to “just give back to my community.” 

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