Vanessa Jackson remembers how she was greeted when she visited Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, for the first time last year. “They paid for my train ticket,” she says. “It was last minute. They got me connected with a host here. The community here is so great. There were people to help me the whole day that I was here. They made sure I had everything I needed and more. They made sure I got back home just as safely as I got here. That is really what led me to Knox.”
Jackson is a first-generation college student from Chicago. Now a sophomore majoring political science, with minors in Africana Studies and English, Jackson recalls the encouragement to study political science and government she got from a teacher in high school, and the help she gets each day from the Knox community. “Since being here I have struggled a bit just trying to transition from high school to college,” Jackson says. “But I have had people to help me along the way the entire time. I have the dean, I have librarians. I have people who work as staff in the cafeteria that just come to me on a regular basis and just make sure that I’m doing good.” The constant encouragement, she says, motivates her.
Jackson, who hopes to attend law school, says education is important in her family. Her parents didn’t get the educational opportunities she has had. Moving in at Knox was a great and memorable day, she says. “My mom and my stepdad helped me move in, and afterward, my mom just sat there and she cried because she couldn’t even think about how it would be for her if she went to college, but she was so proud that I was able to go to college.” The oldest of four children, Jackson hopes to pave the way for her siblings to attend college, if they choose.
At Knox, Jackson is a member of the college’s Pre-Law Club, and has visited law schools, met law professors and elected officials, and attended college fairs, looking for law school opportunities. She participates in ABLE, Allied Blacks for Liberty and Equality, which promotes cultural awareness and raises issues that affect students of African descent. Jackson participates in the TRIO Achievement Program for first-generation students and Sisters of Excellence, which empowers women of color.
Jackson finances her college education. She worked often last school year, but the pandemic changed that, leaving her short of money for tuition. She appealed to her advisor, financial aid staff and professors for help. “It’s very important that I not only finish my education, but that I do it at Knox,” Jackson says. With their help, she qualified for the CIC/UPS Scholarship through ACI.
“I am so appreciative for the scholarship and for everybody’s help,” Jackson says. She also appreciates the donors who help, too. “We appreciate so much their willingness to give when they don’t even know us. It’s really hard trying to get through college especially with the weight of the costs over your head. It’s the reason why a lot my friends couldn’t go to college or finish college because of the financial burden they had on them. It’s very motivational to students like me, to know that somebody out there is willing to help.”
Concordia University Chicago
Peer Mentoring Program
Danzcel Gerona decided to attend Concordia University Chicago after touring the school with another student, Elizabeth Cyrwus. She liked the idea of small class sizes, meeting regularly with professors and being close to the Chicago’s downtown. Since she arrived on campus, Gerona said ACI’s Peer Mentoring Program (PMP) has enhanced her college experience. It also led to a job as a resident assistant (RA), something she might not have known about otherwise.
A first-generation student from Bartlett, Illinois, Gerona says her PMP mentor, Lily, told her she could live in a campus dormitory campus and earn a salary as a RA. “That’s how I found out about it and decided to apply for the job,” Gerona said. Since August, Gerona has been a RA at Concordia, working mostly with freshmen and sharing her college experience.
Gerona is a nursing major. She has an aunt and uncle who are nurses, and she was able to “shadow” her aunt, who is a wound nurse, on the job. “I knew from a young age that I want to be part of the health care field. It wasn’t until I was actually able to go to her job and see what she does for me to confirm that I actually want to be a part of the health care system.” Gerona is focused on becoming an emergency room nurse, and possibly a travel nurse, available to work almost anywhere she is needed. Later, she may return to school to become a nurse anesthetist.
She learned about joining ACI’s Peer Mentoring Program at Concordia after the school contacted her. During Gerona’s freshman year, her mentor, Lily, met with her two or three times a month. “She would also just be there as a friend to check up on me and make sure I was doing OK with my classes,” Gerona said. Her mentor told her about the RA job and applying for scholarships.
“I think for first-generation students, a lot of people don’t know that you could get a job on campus and work here during school,” Gerona said. At some future time, Gerona said she’d like to be a mentor in the Peer Mentoring Program. But for now, she is mentoring freshmen in her role as a RA. “I feel like being part of the mentor program has helped me tell them information they might need to know,” she said. “Even though they may not be first-generation students, they’re still freshmen. A lot of them don’t know the benefits of being on campus, so I feel I can give them that opportunity.”
Gerona is also grateful for donors who make the Peer Mentoring Program possible at her school and 11 other ACI-member colleges and universities. “I think that a lot of students struggle financially because college is really expensive. I know that I struggle financially. So I would tell them I really appreciate their contribution. It’s helping me get to where I want to be in the future. They’re helping move my career.”
At Concordia, Gerona is member of the university’s cross country team, a sport she continued from high school, and the university’s tennis team. She learned to play tennis at Concordia. She also works with CougarNet Technology Services, the university’s IT department, which offers audio and visual services, and printing services to the university community.