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Breaking Barriers: Erick Hernandez on Owning His Future

The following story was written by Natalie Hernandez, a student in Prof. Anne Marie Mitchell’s Spring 2023 PR Writing Seminar at Columbia College Chicago. Eric Hernandez, Chicago Scholars Class of 2027, is Natalie’s brother. 

This time a year ago, Westinghouse College Prep senior Erick Hernandez was just barely dipping his toes into the ever-intimidating college application period.

Today, Erick’s been accepted into multiple four-year universities. He even received a full-ride offer. Erick had a real college search experience he had never imagined one year prior. He visited campuses, interviewed with college officials, and had many interactions with other aspiring college students all through his participation in the Chicago Scholars program.

The Chicago Scholars program, a non-profit Chicago-based program that aims to open doors for the students of Chicago, has done radical work in creating academic opportunities for its scholars, of which the majority consist of Black and Latino students from low-income households. The significance of this is not lost on Erick. “There are opportunities that people of color, especially lower-income, especially immigrants, don’t get,” explains Erick. “Our parents are as oblivious as we are to this process, as to where to even start. That’s why having an advisor, a counselor, at Chicago Scholars who understands the whole college application process and can guide me through it, is a huge privilege.”

While Erick was not unfamiliar with Chicago Scholars prior to applying, there were still aspects of the program that surprised him and helped him to grow in ways he didn’t foresee. “I went into Chicago Scholars believing that they would help with financial aid opportunities,” Erick said. “And that happened. But I also ended up coming out of experiences, such as Onsite, with greater confidence and security in my interviewing skills and interacting with professionals. I grew a lot in my communication skills over the course of this year with CS.”

The Onsite College and Leadership Forum is the climactic event for a Chicago Scholar. Hosted at Navy Pier, Onsite is an event that gathers over 1,000 scholars with some of the top colleges and universities in the country to get the opportunity to connect, interview, and gain on the spot acceptances into some of the universities they applied to. At Onsite this past October, over 1,100 offers of admission and $42 million in merit scholarships were awarded to students. Erick was one of them.

“That day was a very long day, there were many interviews. I have some friends who had fifteen interviews,” Erick states. “While I only had five, I still walked out with a sense of accomplishment and a sense of security, because one of the colleges that accepted me was a partner college with CS that would pay for my entire financial aid. That was huge for me.” Erick smiles as he recalls that special moment.

The Chicago Scholars program hosts a variety of workshops and offers resources for students to feel better prepared moving towards attending college. “There’s all sorts of workshops and mentorship opportunities that can be utilized by scholars, such as interview workshops, financial aid workshops, college fairs, and much more.” said Erick. He says the significance of having a counselor cannot be exaggerated. “They’re your ultimate guide. They talk to you about what you want to do, and how to achieve it. They hold you accountable and keep you up to date. The commitment counselors have is very demonstrative of how they prioritize students,” adds Erick.

Now preparing to wrap up his senior year, Erick looks forward to graduating and attending his school of choice in the fall. In giving advice to those aspiring for higher education who were in his shoes this time a year ago, Erick believes in having the courage to make the jump. “You can do it. Just because there might seem to be barriers, or it might seem too difficult or harder, or something that you don’t want to do- in the long term it’ll be worth it,” he says. “And you’ll thank yourself for making that decision.”