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Teen's Dream: Escape Gangs, Then Open Giant Medical Center On South Side

 Brooks College Prep senior Kayla Eubanks can't afford the prestigious colleges that accepted her applications, but she's undaunted in her quest to become a neurosurgeon.
Brooks College Prep senior Kayla Eubanks can't afford the prestigious colleges that accepted her applications, but she's undaunted in her quest to become a neurosurgeon.
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CHICAGO — Years from now Kayla Eubanks wants to be a brain surgeon.

She hopes to open a giant medical complex on the South Side, filled with all types of doctors, her name prominently on signs out front.

But the 18-year-old Englewood resident and Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep senior knows she has to "escape" Chicago first. Eubanks understands that won't be easy.

"I know where I am now is not where I'm supposed to be at forever," she said. "But I know I have to be the one to make myself better. There has to be something else out there for me, and if anybody is going to get it for me, it's going to be me."

Eubanks has a 4.27 grade point average, scored a 28 on her ACT and was accepted into several prestigious universities, including New York University, Howard University and Spelman College. Her guidance counselor since freshman year, Aurora Diaz-Meraz, described Eubanks as "highly intelligent, definitely a trouper and someone who's motivated to do well."

Justin Breen talks about the obstacles facing Eubanks.

Eubanks said she still feels trapped by her city. Suffocated by the gangbangers who bother her at street corners, asking if she wants to buy drugs or cigarettes. Confused by how she'll pay for college considering her mom makes little as an overnight UPS package sorter and her dad has been in prison since 2012. Devastated that she's putting off better schools for at least two more years so she can attend Malcolm X College instead, earn an associate's degree in nursing, then work part time as she eventually re-applies to those bigger schools where she feels she can truly start to pursue the American Dream.

"Even with partial scholarships, I can't afford to go to those colleges yet," Eubanks said. "Taking all those loans, I would never be able to enjoy my money because all my checks would be going to pay off the loans, the interest really. I can't see putting myself in that predicament. It's not fair to myself or my family."

Her aunt, Tashika, said Eubanks' story is "beautiful" and "heartbreaking."

"The beautiful part of her story is, she broke all the barriers, beat the odds, worked hard and got accepted into great schools," said Tashika Eubanks, founder of the nonprofit TATL Foundation. "The heartbreaking part of her story is, she will not be attending these schools because she cannot afford to pay the tuition."

Her mom, Kinyarda Stith, doesn't want her daughter to stay in Chicago, but she said she doesn't feel that the family has a choice.

"I don't want her to get really comfortable here," said Stith, who grew up in Bronzeville and Morgan Park. "It would be really hard for me to see her over the summer. ... It's just hard all across the board."

Eubanks said even as a little girl she quested to punch her ticket out of the South Side through education. The 10th oldest of 13 siblings, she said her brothers and sisters for years have referred to her as "the smart one."

"First place is all she ever wants," Stith said.

After eighth-grade graduation, Eubanks filled out the required paperwork to get into Brooks College Prep instead of going to a neighborhood school near her home in the 6900 block of South Green Street. That block has seen two shootings since 2010, and there have been dozens more in the surrounding area, according to data compiled by DNAinfo.

Eubanks said she once saw a man shot a few steps in front of her. When she walks near home, she always stays near the middle of the street, to keep distance from someone who could jump out of a bush, alley or other hard-to-see area.

"I've always lived in a bad neighborhood, but it's getting worse," she said. "I love Chicago, I really do, but it's not a place where I can thrive because there's too much stuff to worry about. Somebody's getting killed or robbed or beaten on. It's a continuous war zone. It doesn't make any sense. If I could avoid being around this I would because it seems like nothing prospers."

Eubanks believes she can be an exception, escaping the South Side. Only one in 20 neurosurgeons is a woman; only one in 20 practicing physicians is black. Eubanks is aware of the percentages, and the odds stacked against her.

"You don't hear about people where I'm from going to school to be neurosurgeons, especially black people," she said. "But I'm still going to get there, and it's just going to be a longer route, a reroute. I will be in school forever, but that's OK."

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