Story URL:
Story Retrieval Date: 4/17/2015 12:13:23 PM CST

Top Stories

Shadan Kapri/MEDILL

Parent advocate Carmen Gonzalez helps Hispanic families through the maze of applying to college in Chicago.  

Local program makes college a reality for thousands of immigrant children

by Shadan Kapri
Nov 15, 2012

Shadan Kapri/MEDILL

Motivational youth speaker Gabe Salazar talks about overcoming adversity for a better life. 

When Carmen Gonzalez moved to Chicago from Mexico in 1991 she didn’t imagine she would become an advocate for the Hispanic community.

“I was just following my husband to America to start a family,” said Gonzalez with a smile.

Twenty-one years later, she has helped more than 1,000 Hispanic families create a better future for their children by sending them to college. As a parent advocate for GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs), Gonzalez works one-on-one with Hispanic families who are seeking information about college, many for the first time.

Gonzalez, 45, said she is fortunate to have the opportunity to change so many lives.

“Some of the families I work with have parents who don’t speak or read English very well,” Gonzalez said. “Some have not finished high school. By providing information in Spanish about the admissions process, scholarships and general financial aid, I help them understand a world that is foreign and sometimes out of reach.”

“The process of sending a child to college can be intimidating for parents who don’t know the process and are struggling to make ends meet,” Gonzalez said.

To help children of immigrants and other minorities attend college, GEAR UP has involved more than 14,000 advocates, students, their parents, and school and district staff members in the program, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Education.

GEAR UP provides families with a variety of free services from computer classes to workshops on how to apply for financial aid, one-on-one counseling on the admissions process, and ACT/SAT information, along with parent advocates who help the family with the process of succeeding in high school and applying to college.

The program works with 147 schools throughout Chicago and has partnered with seven local universities to make the path to college more accessible. These include the University of Chicago, Loyola, DePaul, Roosevelt University and Northeastern Illinois University.

But despite organizations like GEAR UP, some motivated students are shut out of college because of financial hurdles. “Millions of dollars of scholarship money goes unclaimed every year,” according to Jose Munoz, director of public affairs for Chicago-based New Futuro, an organization that helps Hispanics around the nation go to college.

To help prospective students, New Futuro created a bilingual website to reach out to Latinos who don’t have access to scholarship information or college recruitment efforts in their community. The site offers an array of information from how colleges make their admissions decisions, to scholarship information, tips and strategies for receiving federal grant money, and how to score better on the ACT/SAT.

The goal of organizations like New Futuro and GEAR UP is to help immigrants reach their ultimate goal: to build a better future for their children.

Latino motivational youth speaker Gabe Salazar, who talks to minorities around the nation, said that overcoming obstacles to build a better future is everyone’s story. Salazar was a featured speaker at a Latino-focused college fair at Navy Pier last weekend.  He said that what makes this country so great is a chance at a better life.