Her School Didn't Just Get Her Through College, It Got Her Through Tragedy

Three people, two tragedies and one college visit shaped April Austin’s post-secondary dream of becoming an occupational therapist. Growing up, April’s grandfather loomed large in her life. “He helped raise me and always encouraged me to work hard in school,” she says. When April brought home A’s on her report card from the University of Chicago Charter School Woodlawn Campus (UCW), her grandfather gave her $20, beaming with pride. Her stepfather, who also preached the value of a strong education, gifted her with new sneakers. April describes her grandfather as someone with a drive to persist in the face of adversity, the kind of person she strives to be. He lost his leg while working with trains and spent considerable time in occupational therapy learning how to use a prosthetic. That planted a seed for April. She saw the impact of a talented occupational therapist. “A good therapist can give people hope,” she says. “I want to be that person.”

Stepping Up

When April lost her grandfather in high school, she had her mom and stepdad at home and a huge support system at school to help her through. UCW staff and students supported her emotionally and ensured she stayed on track academically. However, it was the campus’ relentless focus on college—coupled with her grandfather and stepfather’s attention to education—that convinced April from an early age that college attendance and graduation were in her future. A strong college-going culture is evident at UCW, which serves predominantly low-income Black students in grades 6-12 on the South Side of Chicago. College banners hang from the ceilings and walls, students recite morning affirmations that reinforce that they will attend and succeed in college, and college tours start in sixth grade. The school has a chief college officer dedicated to supporting students in their quest to make it to college, and a chief alumni officer dedicated to helping UCW graduates make it through college. These tactics and supports are working. One hundred percent of UCW’s students have been accepted to college for the past six years, and UCW has one of the highest college persistence rates of all non-selective high schools in Chicago. “The entire staff helped and motivated my class, when it came to college,” April says. UCW works hard to ensure that its students attend colleges and universities that are the right match for them based on selectivity and ability to meet educational, emotional and social needs. It stresses the critical importance of being on track in the ninth grade and the importance of GPA over test scores for college success based on University of Chicago on School Research studies. April says she was laser-focused on never allowing her GPA to slip below a 3.0 throughout high school. She went on multiple college tours with her school. When she visited Tennessee State University (TSU), a historically Black college in Nashville, it was love at first sight. “I just had a feeling,” April says. “This was my place. I was going.” When April received her acceptance letter to TSU, she was full of joy. Her father lives in Tennessee, making her eligible for in-state tuition and UCW held multiple workshops on filling out the FAFSA, so April felt prepared to meet her remaining financial obligations. “My financial aid package was enough to cover the rest. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been able to attend,” she explains. One of the first in her family to attend college, particularly far away from home, April initially found the students and atmosphere at TSU strange. Everything and everyone felt different from Chicago, but UCW had armed her with the tools to navigate choppy waters. UCW provides students with a 14-week College Transition Seminar that is meant to help students persist through college by ensuring mental, emotional and financial health. The course includes the development of a senior thesis project that teaches students how to complete academic research and college-level writing. The course also covers issues like class registration, the difference between credit and non-credit courses, the add-drop period, finding a job or federal work study program and, of course, financial aid. Additionally, students role-play difficult challenges that could create roadblocks to college completion. For example, what do you do if your roommate hangs up a Confederate flag or you experience micro-aggressions on campus? The seminar helps students prepare and problem-solve for such issues. Furthermore, UCW alumni return for panels to discuss college life, challenges and successes with graduating seniors. UCW provides seniors with dossiers on their college or university, including phone numbers for academic and mental health support. UCW staff visit graduates on their campuses, take them out to dinner and offer advice. They also hold multiple events for alumni in Chicago, timed with college breaks. April used the tools she developed at UCW to persist through uncertainty and discomfort. She worked to find a sense of belonging by joining multiple sports teams, activities and clubs, as well as doing community service. “Being involved is everything,” she says. “It also keeps you focused on the right stuff.” April quickly declared health science as her major with her eye on graduate school for occupational therapy. But, in her sophomore year, tragedy struck. Twice.

Staying Involved When Life Gets Hard

During spring semester, April received a call that her older brother had been in a car accident. Nine days later, he passed away. It was this accident that fully solidified for April that she wanted to be an occupational therapist. “If my brother had lived, he would have needed a lot of occupational therapy,” she explains. Another loss was just around the corner. Mere months later, April’s stepfather was shot at his mother’s home. April was left reeling and angry. “My stepfather was murdered by a young father,” she says. “I ask myself how could he do this? He took my stepdad away and now his own son will grow up without a father.” The summer between sophomore and junior year were tough. Lesser challenges would have derailed someone with less vision for her future. April says she leaned on family and friends, had hard conversations with God, and eventually relied on her steel resolve to succeed. “I’ve always felt like I knew what I was about and what I have to do. There are hard things that happen in life, but I'll be okay,” she says. Despite all the tragedy, April spent her entire college career on the dean’s list and graduated from TSU with a bachelor's in health science in 2018. She is now working at Vanderbilt Medical Center as a patient access specialist and preparing to apply to graduate school to realize her goal of becoming an occupational therapist. Inspired by her grandfather, supported by her family, and resilient through tragedy, April made her own future possible. Even so, she says, “UCW made college possible for all of us.”
Photo courtesy of author.
Katelyn Silva
Katelyn Silva is mom to a third grader and an education writer in Providence, Rhode Island. She operates her own education writing consulting business. She was previously the chief communications officer at Rhode Island Mayoral Academies, a nonprofit dedicated to opening intentionally diverse public charter schools. Prior to that, she was the communications director at the University of Chicago ...

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