By Michael Romain
SATURDAY, WESTCHESTER — A steady stream of high school juniors and seniors from throughout Chicago and the Western suburbs flowed into an expansive, multi-room suite down the hall from State Senator Kimberly Lightford’s constituent services office in Westchester on Saturday, September 21st. They were drawn here by the Senator’s second annual “Connect With Your Future” job fair, which was back after a one-year hiatus.
“What’s different about this [fair] than most others is that kids have the opportunity to sit down with their parents, talk to representatives and find out about college,” said Phillip Jackson, the founder and executive director of The Black Star Project, a mentoring program focused on eliminating the academic achievement gap prevalent in Chicago’s school system.
The Senator’s College Fair is only one branch of a much larger network of programs and legislation that comprise her larger educational vision. One such program, Saturday University, which caters to the academic needs of 5th-8th graders in a much more intimate setting than the typical classroom, is modeled on Mr. Jackson’s program.
“We have twenty different Saturday Universities,” said Jackson. “But the biggest and the best is Senator Lightford’s.”
Keisha Lang, a vice president at Proviso East High School and one of the administrators at Saturday University, also emphasized the intimate and personal aspects of this year’s Fair.
“Students get access to several state universities and colleges, they get the personal connection, they get to ask questions now [the FAFSA doesn’t come out until January],” she said.
Antonio Williams, 17, and Jordan Isaacs, 16, are both students at Walther Lutheran High School. Their most pressing questions to the counselors included the recommended GPA and major offerings of prospective colleges. Williams said he was interested in Illinois State University and the University of Illinois. Isaacs was thinking about Northern Illinois University, as well as the University of Illinois.
“You are important to the State of Illinois,” said Dr. Arthur Sutton, the deputy director of outreach for the Illinois Board of Higher Education (IBHE), the coordinating board for all colleges in Illinois.
Sutton, who stands over 6’4, is also a former basketball player and coach. He likened academic preparation to game planning.
“Studying is like practicing […] Make a plan to be successful. Don’t go out on the basketball court and not be prepared to compete. The same goes for the classroom.”
In a separate room, Kristy Goodwin, a counselor from Governor’s Sate University, was waiting quietly for her next advice session. Her institution is transitioning from servicing upper-division undergraduates and postgraduates to servicing freshmen and sophomores, as well.
“We have the lowest tuition rate for undergraduates in the State of Illinois,” she boasted.
Brian Hodges, an admissions counselor for the University of Illinois at Springfield, also wanted to publicize realities about his institution that aren’t widely enough known.
“We still have an issue with getting people to know Springfield’s niche,” he said, referring to the school’s reputable public affairs specialty. After all, U of I-Springfield is where Senator Lightford pursued her master’s degree.
While representatives from every state institution in Illinois made themselves available for one-on-one sessions and personnel from agencies such as Dr. Sutton’s IBHE and the Illinois Student Assistance Council (ISAC) facilitated informational presentations in 15-minute intervals, Senator Lightford interacted jovially with participants.
At one point, she could be seen proudly sporting a white fleece jacket adorned with the bold red and white insignia of her sorority, Delta Sigma Theta—a fashion statement reminiscent of the spirit of the College Fair.
There were those gathered—parents, educators, advisors, college graduates—who were focused on highlighting their collegiate past (and its rich lessons), so that another generation could look forward to a collegiate future. But the focus wasn’t exclusively on preparation for college. There was also an emphasis on preparation for life.
Monteriol Austin, a 6’8 student-athlete at the Austin Business and Entrepreneurship Academy, is an aspiring artist.
“Can you paint me?” said Senator Lightford, when she found out about Austin’s talent. “Maybe we’ll give you the opportunity to make some business.”
“Are you for real?” Austin asked, slightly incredulously, a look of charged excitement on his face. “I’m going to make some business! I’m going to make some money!” He said, before pausing. “I’m for real!”
“Me too!” said Lightford. VFP