Chicago Program Impacting Lives

Lawndale News Chicago's Bilingual Newspaper - Education

By: Ashmar Mandou

Chicago Scholars is a mentoring programs that equips motivated students, most from under-resources communities with the skills to accomplish their college careers. Pilsen resident Olivia Villarreal is a prime example of how Chicago Scholars helped her accomplish her dreams. Villarreal shared how Chicago Scholars has impacted her life.

Lawndale Bilingual Newspaper: Talk to me about how Chicago Scholars impacted your life.

Olivia Villarreal: Ever since I became a scholar in 2006, my life has been blessed with opportunities that have sculpted who I am today. Since the very first workshop, Chicago Scholars has trained me to be the best student, employee and human being I can be. Chicago Scholars offered me countless resources such as internships, mentors, volunteer opportunities, career development, and even the opportunity to become a mentor. As the first to go away to college in my family, instead of feeling alone, I knew Chicago Scholars was always there with me, and still is today. Chicago Scholars is my teammate I can count on. As an alumna of the program, I am now able to share my experience with incoming scholars as a mentor. Chicago Scholars helped me plan each step of my education, which provided me with the confidence and courage to face the challenges of the real world after college.

How did you come across Chicago Scholars?

When I was in high school back in 2006, my mother attended a community college fair in La Villita and came across the Chicago Scholars booth, previously known as Scholarship Chicago. When I came home from school, my Mom gave me the brochure and application; we both knew I had to apply.

You are the first to attend college in your family after graduating from Benito Juarez Community Academy High School. Talk to me about your experiences at Benito Juarez and how being a student there helped to shape you as a student at UI-UC? Also, being the first to attend college, what was that experience like for you?

Before I was a scholar, I was a Benito Juarez Community Academy student also known as an “Agila.” I was very active at school and was involved in several different clubs such as the Art Club, Math and Science Club, Newspaper, Health Careers Club, National Honors Society, Bowling Team, and Adventures Club. I also found the time to work a part-time job with After School Matters in a mural painting program during all 4 years of my high school experience. I was a full-time student, part-time worker, and full-time type 1 diabetic since age 11. Although Benito Juarez High School is not a magnet school or a college prep school, it was my school that helped push me towards success and opened up opportunities for me such as Chicago Scholars.

Being the first one in my family to attend and go away to college was tough. Even though I did not have anyone at home who could share a personal college experience, I felt confident because I was a Chicago Scholar. At the University, I did not allow anyone to ever make me feel that my culture didn’t belong. Instead, my Latinidad empowered me to achieve my degree.

You mentioned that you had a sense of belonging when you joined Chicago Scholars, how so?

When I first got the news that I was accepted into the program, it felt as though I was being accepted into a higher world of successful people and exclusivity based on all of my hard work in school. It was an incredible feeling; even being accepted to college didn’t compare. It was a feeling of belonging to a community where hopes and dreams come true through education, resources, and encouragement. Chicago Scholars taught me that it was not a matter of “if” I would get into college, it was a matter of “which” school would I choose. I was not chosen by a college first, I was chosen by Chicago Scholars first, and this organization helped form an important part of my identity: Latina, Chicago, and Scholar.

Lawndale News Chicago's Bilingual Newspaper - Education

After graduating college, you went back to the organization. What compelled you to do so?

In actuality, I never left Chicago Scholars and Chicago Scholars never left me. The organization stayed with me by remaining active in my education and making sure I was passing my classes in college, informing me of internship opportunities and even helping me pay for school. Even when I graduated, I was invited to participate in a paid internship program with Chicago Scholars. I always remained active in the organization by volunteering at events and keeping in contact with my mentors and staff. In 2015, I decided to become a mentor to share my educational and professional experience as a scholar with students who were just like me. Being a mentor is my way of saying thank you to my community and Chicago Scholars for all of their hard work and support, as well as being an outlet for me to invest in the future of my community.

What would you like students to know about Chicago Scholars?

As a 16 or 17 year old, it may be difficult for these students to envision their future careers in the world. Instead, I think youth should pay attention to overcoming challenges and recognizing their skillsets, and working towards a life that can be supported by their skills and passions. Chicago Scholars can help students develop any dream they may have if they demonstrate dedication and teamwork to the organization and in their community. Every workshop Chicago Scholars offers is important and every event hosted by the organization is an opportunity to develop professionalism and better yourself. Finally, students should know that the most powerful thing they can do at this point in their life is to give their time and energy to community service efforts.

Anything else you would like to add about what you are doing now?

I recently finished a healthcare program in Medical Billing and Coding at the National Latino Education Institute. I am currently seeking a healthcare opportunity in the Chicagoland area so I can deepen my commitment to our community. I am currently mentoring seven students for Chicago Scholars – together, these seven students were accepted to over 50 colleges and universities. I was also awarded the Lilly Diabetes 10 Year Journey Award in October 2015, which I was nominated for by the Slam Dunk for Diabetes Basketball Camp.

Chicago Scholars is a one-of-a-kind 7-year mentoring and support program equipping many of Chicago’s brightest and most driven students from under-resourced communities with the tools and mindsets they need to realize their college-to-career dreams and become the city’s top leaders of tomorrow. If you would like to learn more about Chicago Scholars, visit

Photo Caption: Chicago Scholar Olivia Villarreal

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