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Organization readies parents, first-generation college students

Laura Rios, of Gurnee, program manager, (center) talks with Cynthia Grace Antonio and Maria E. Gonzalez, both of Waukegan about their involvement with the Parents Educating Parents program and their workshop curriculums at Waukegan to College on the second floor of the Christ Episcopal Church in Waukegan. Antonio teaches High School Options and Transition and Gonzalez teaches the Four-Year-Plan workshop in Spanish.
Laura Rios, of Gurnee, program manager, (center) talks with Cynthia Grace Antonio and Maria E. Gonzalez, both of Waukegan about their involvement with the Parents Educating Parents program and their workshop curriculums at Waukegan to College on the second floor of the Christ Episcopal Church in Waukegan. Antonio teaches High School Options and Transition and Gonzalez teaches the Four-Year-Plan workshop in Spanish.

WAUKEGAN – When Maria Gonzalez first got involved with Waukegan to College, she knew – hoped – it would change her daughter’s life, but she had no idea it would change hers, too.

The Waukegan resident got involved in the college-focused organization six years ago, primarily for her daughter, Marlenny, who needed some tutoring in math. Maria wanted to make sure she was armed with the proper tools and information to guide Marlenny along the path to college after high school.

Now a junior in high school, Marlenny is taking four Advanced Placement courses, is heavily involved in community service and has a list of the top 10 universities she hopes to attend after she graduates.

These are some of the changes Maria had hoped for from Waukegan to College. What she hadn’t expected was her own enrollment (and completion) of English and computer courses and the obtainment of her Child Development Associate credential.

“December’s going to be my graduation,” Maria said proudly. “I really know this is because of the program. I’m a different person than I was before the program.”

Waukegan to College was created after another organization – Lake County United – hosted several listening sessions for the Waukegan community to see what the main concerns were. The community responded: Education. Parents were concerned their children weren’t being properly educated or prepared for college and, by extension, higher-paying jobs.

“It was really devastating for this community to think their kids were going to be doing manual labor just like [the parents] were and that’s not what they wanted for their families,” Waukegan to College Executive Director Elyse Danckers said.

Building on models of existing college readiness or college prep organizations, Lake County United created a blueprint for Waukegan to College and the program was launched in 2009. A cornerstone of the program, Danckers said, is parent involvement.

“That became a real cornerstone for what we wanted to do, which was involve the whole family in our programming,” she said.

Now a Waukegan to College board member, Maria Gonzalez is also one of 16 Parent Leaders who conduct workshops under the organization’s newly launched initiative: Parents Educating Parents.

These workshops take the information Parent Leaders have learned within the organization and disperse it to the community at large.

“My workshop,” Gonzalez said, “is a four-year plan. In this four-year plan, we educate parents to get knowledge about the AP classes, the honors classes, GPA – the weighted and unweighted … the importance of homework, not to be absent.”

Through these parent-led workshops and other programs in the organization, parents such as Gonzalez are able to more confidently guide their children – all of whom will be first-generation college students for their families – through the college selection and application processes.

As the fall of students’ freshmen year approaches, Waukegan to College hosts its annual College Extravaganza, a series of workshops and activities to help prepare them for the transition to independent living on a college campus. A paneled discussion of current college students is held to answer questions and provide firsthand knowledge and personal experiences. Finally, to further ease the transition and to alleviate some of the stress that often comes with it, students are assigned a peer mentor, another resource the student can reach out to for advice or answers to any questions that may come up.

Since the organization’s inception, it has grown from assisting 50 students to nearly 200, but Danckers said there’s still plenty of work to be done. Waukegan to College just celebrated its 10th anniversary and has grown tremendously since it first began.

Past Waukegan to College students have now graduated college and returned to the organization to form its Alumni board, working with current students and providing them with invaluable insight as they pursue their own path to college.

“Our 10-year anniversary is a good time to reflect and to enjoy our successes but to think about the future as well,” Danckers said. “We realize that in a district of 17,000 students, we’re serving just a tiny fraction and we do hope to grow to help build more broadly a college culture here in Waukegan.”

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