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Cary Mele Headshot

One Very Special Student

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Every fall, as back-to-school time approaches, I can't help but get a bit nostalgic. I was one of those kids who loved the new school supplies, picking out my first day outfit, and gearing up to see friends I hadn't seen all summer. It's been a long time since I've been in school, so the fall excitement has slowly dissolved over time. But this year, I am excited again. This time the excitement is not for me, but for one very special student heading off to her first year of college.

Two years ago, I was a volunteer mentor for the VWrite program, run by Open Books, a nonprofit literacy organization in Chicago. VWrite, (the V stands for virtual) is a program that pairs adult volunteers with high school juniors at Gage Park High School (southwest side of Chicago) for a virtual mentoring program. Throughout the course of the program, the mentors worked with their students on email and phone etiquette; helped them develop cover letters, resumes, and personal essays; and guided them in exploring post-college options by discussing colleges and careers -- many even doing some college visits or career-related outings.

These were not clear-cut college-bound students. These were kids from the south side of Chicago, predominately minority students, with 90 percent free or reduced lunch. The average GPA of the 26 students in the program was 2.8.

I remember the day of the program Meet and Greet, which is a face-to-face meeting to get to know each other before continuing our "virtual" relationship via phone and email. I arrived, eager to find out who my buddy would be. What will she be like? Will she be excited to meet me? Will I help her figure out what she wants to do after college?

Soon the Open Books Program Director called off my name, and introduced me to a tall girl with a great smile, named Malina. We shook hands, and I asked her how her day was. Malina responded, "It's okay. I'm kind of sad, though, because there was a shooting outside Gage Park last night, and the guy was my friend." It was then that it occurred to me: this was going to be a very different kind of mentoring program. These kids aren't wondering what college they'll go to after high school. These kids are wondering what happens after high school.

The rest of our meeting went well, and we got to know each other a little. We found out we had some things in common -- we were both Bears fans, loved Italian food and enjoyed dancing. We started establishing a small foundation to the relationship we would build over the course of the next several weeks.

Over the course of the program, Malina and I grew to know each other better. We chatted on the phone weekly, and I provided feedback on her assignments via email. We also talked a lot about Malina's options for after high school -- though she really wasn't sure what she wanted to do. She was interested in art and photography, so maybe art school? She also really loved to cook, so maybe culinary school? And her brother went to Illinois State after his time in the military, so maybe she could do that?

Just like most 16-year-olds, her plans seemed to change on a daily basis. I tried to listen and support Malina, and to emphasize the importance of a college education without trying to push her too much. After all, where I grew up, college was virtually a given, but I knew I needed to remember that that's not always the case for everyone.

After the program was over, Malina and I stayed in touch, on-and-off. I would send the occasional email to check in on her, to see how she was progressing on her graduation requirements, and also get a sense of the direction she was heading.

During her senior year, there were many ups and downs with her planning progress. Often when we spoke, she had plenty to say about school dances and classes and her new boyfriend, but very little about post-graduation plans. Soon Malina would have to decide if and where she would go to college. I was beginning to worry that if she didn't decide soon, she would miss important deadlines and even risk her acceptance or important grant and loan opportunities. She seemed to have narrowed it down to a community college, a trade school, or Northern Illinois University, but it was time to make a decision.

And then finally the email came that I had been hoping for -- Malina had been accepted to NIU! Her initial payment was in, and a date was set for her freshman orientation. I was so proud, and so excited for her.

Just by getting into a four-year college sets her ahead of many of her Gage Park peers. But, I know her struggle is not over. Nonetheless, during this first month of school, I am celebrating the successes she has had and enjoying the stories of her back-to-school excitement. I am also hoping that our mentorship keeps her on the right path to becoming the person I know she has it in her to be.

This blog post is part of HuffPost Chicago's "State of CPS" series, which features perspectives from Chicago Public School teachers, students, administrators, staff, parents and others experiencing recent changes to the district firsthand. Interested in sharing your take? Email us at chicago@huffingtonpost.com.