Maria Sanchez’s parents first brought her to the U.S. from Durango, Mexico when she was six years old. She graduated from Carl Schurz High School in Chicago, but her lack of citizenship complicated her finances and she was forced to put her hopes of going to college on hold.
Several years later, Maria enrolled in Harry S. Truman Community College in the City of Colleges of Chicago. Citizenship wasn’t the challenge anymore, but because Maria had been out of school for so long, she had to start in remedial classes.
Working nights at Best Buy, she was just able to cover the cost of her first semester. She literally had to put the next semester’s tuition on a credit card. And all the while, she was doing her best to take care of her two kids, one of whom, Fernando, had been born with Down Syndrome.
Maria’s parents raised her not to be a quitter, but she was just about at the end of her rope. Then fate intervened. She applied for a scholarship with an organization called One Million Degrees (OMD) — and she won it.
More than providing just the tuition money she was short, OMD assisted all of its Scholars with other critical supports. They found Maria a daycare that would accept Fernando, provided her a tutor to help her catch up on her studies, and also matched her with a coach in the field that she was pursuing: Criminal justice.
Two years later in 2010, Maria Sanchez rose at the Truman College commencement ceremony and spoke as her class valedictorian. She was also the featured speaker that year at the OMD Annual Gala — and she killed it.
Maria’s next stop was at the University of Illinois Chicago, where OMD followed along. Two years later, she graduated summa cum laude with a 4.0 BA in Criminology, Law and Justice, and a minor in Spanish.
Only weeks after earning her bachelor’s, Maria took the next step toward achieving her dream: The POWER test at the Chicago Police Department. Flying colors. Maria became a Patrol Officer for the CPD in 2012.
Back when she was digging in every day to get a foothold at the City Colleges of Chicago, a reporter at the Chicago Tribune asked her what the scholarship program had meant to her. Maria answered: “They’re my saviors. It’s an honor to be in school.”
None of us at OMD think of ourselves as anything even approaching saviors. We think of it as being good neighbors; helping people whom we know are going to go on to help others. And they all do.
Last night I reached out to Maria. We hadn’t spoken in a while. Her son is doing better, and she no longer works at Best Buy. She’s been a Patrol Officer on the beat for a decade now. She explained how the job has become harder, and she has to work the First Watch shift most nights from 11pm-8am so that she can still help Fernando during the day.
But she still loves helping people. She loves paying it forward. Maria explained that even though the job and the conditions have changed — what hasn’t changed is her attitude toward public service:
“I still walk out of the station every night and patrol the streets and answer calls hoping to make a difference. I don’t let the negativity out there get to me, because I know I’m out there helping those in need. I respond to calls and in the majority of cases, people are glad we are there. They trust us and thank us for responding.”
Fifteen years ago, Maria Sanchez was one of fewer than 50 Scholars that OMD was trying to help as they pursued their community college associates degrees. Fifteen years later, we have helped thousands of Illinois students to earn their degrees and become prepared for the job market.
In fact, a study conducted by the University of Chicago’s Inclusive Economy Lab indicates that OMD Scholars are 73 percent more likely to graduate in three years than their peers who are not in the program.
Hardworking students combined with a 360-degree approach to providing supports is a formula that works. So much so that now the state of Colorado is investing in the OMD model to establish its “Finish What You Started” program.
The last couple of years have been more than a bit off kilter for everyone, and the OMD community, too, has slogged its way through best we could. Now things are looking up again, and tonight we will see hundreds of our Scholars, volunteer coaches, staff, board members and generous donors gather in person once again to celebrate this amazing extended family.
We will wine and dine at the OMD Degrees Of Impact Gala at Chicago’s Rockwell on the River to salute our Scholars and the leaders that they inspire. It will be our honor to welcome back Mayor Lori Lightfoot to visit with our Scholars, and it will be just as exciting for us to present the OMD Civic Award to the Chancellor of the City Colleges of Chicago, Juan Salgado. Long has he been a great friend to us in our common mission to scale success in the community college space.
But the highlight of the night might be the conversation that our new CEO, Aneesh Sohoni, will moderate with two OMD Scholar Alums who are now playing the role of coaches to the Scholars who are coming up behind them. Ashley Kranz and Stephanie Kuvornu are returning the good will they once received by sharing the lessons that they’ve learned. It is the very essence of the One Million Degrees philosophy:
- Accept assistance with grace.
- Keep working to make your dreams become realities.
- Extend assistance back to the hardworking young people that you know have the same brand of potential as you did.
It’s a virtuous circle, and it could not have been accomplished without so many generous friends who have supported this program with their hearts and souls since its very inception.
It’s nearly impossible to express what so many of you have meant to so many of us over the last 15 years. What you should absolutely know for sure is that thousands of Scholars — and every single one of us inside this OMD family — are grateful to you from the deepest part of our hearts.
Community college is one of the most underappreciated and under-leveraged resources in America. It has the potential to save our country in more ways than one. So does community. And you’re welcome in ours anytime.