WEST SIDE — Growing up on Chicago's West Side, the day-to-day lives of Nia Hill and Christopher Wilson were sometimes grave.
In South Austin, it was gangs, guns, drug dealers, Wilson said. Violence was the norm.
In North Lawndale, Hill spent most of her senior year homeless, bouncing among six homes.
But Hill and Wilson have more than that in common: Despite overwhelming odds, they committed to doing their best, and both landed in elite Chicago Public Schools.
And thanks to their hard work and help from a mentoring group, Chicago Scholars, both are headed for college this fall.
"I'm trying to rise above the stereotypes," Hill said.
The West Side teens, both 18, received a special honor last week when they participated in the Beating the Odds summit at the White House, part of first lady Michelle Obama's Reach Higher initiative. During their trip to Washington, D.C., Hill and Wilson heard the first lady share her story of overcoming her own obstacles growing up on the South Side.
West Side teens Nia Hill and Christopher Wilson were invited to the Beating the Odds Summit at the White House in Washington D.C., as part of first lady Michelle Obama's Reach Higher initiative. [Chicago Scholars; Getty Images]
For Hill, who graduated from Mrs. Obama's alma mater, Whitney Young Magnet High School on the Near West Side, the talk was particularly inspiring.
"She's like us. She's proven people wrong," Hill said.
Like all 130 students attending the D.C. summit, Hill and Wilson have overcome substantial obstacles to make it to college.
Here are their stories.
Nia Hill spent most of her senior year at Whitney Young homeless, but she persevered, and is headed to Howard University this fall. [DNAinfo/Stephanie Lulay]
On Aug. 13, three weeks before starting her senior year at Whitney Young, Nia Hill's family was evicted from their North Lawndale home.
Hill's brother, who had a criminal record, was living with the family, which was against the rules in their public housing development, according to Hill.
Between August and April, the honor student and softball player bounced among six homes. Despite the uncertainty, Hill didn't let the stress rattle her.
"Instead, I focused on college applications. I relied of my faith in God," she said. "It humbled me, it strengthened me."
Through Chicago Scholars, she attended job fairs, resume and essay workshops, prepping her to apply for college.
After graduating from two CPS selective-enrollment schools, Andrew Jackson Language Academy and Whitney Young, Hill will continue her educational path to success at Howard University this fall, majoring in accounting. She hopes to be the first in her family to graduate from a four-year institution.
Disappointment becomes drive
Despite trials growing up in the Austin neighborhood on the West Side, Christopher Wilson worked hard to succeed and is headed to the University of Wisconsin at Madison this fall. [DNAinfo/Stephanie Lulay]
On his way to school at John Hay Community Academy in South Austin, Christopher Wilson saw things kids shouldn't see.
He saw a kid on a skateboard crushed by a passing a truck in front of his school.
There was gang violence.
"Grown men getting beat. Crowbars," Wilson said.
"It was just a bad environment that I was growing up in, and I started to get consumed by it," Wilson said.
By eighth grade, he wasn't planning to do much with his life, he said.
"I didn't have that good of grades. I used to skip school a lot," he said.
Those decisions turned to disappointment when he couldn't get into any selective-enrollment CPS schools, his ticket out of South Austin.
"A lot didn't accept me because of my grades," he said. "I told myself if I got into [Von Steuben] that I would turn things around, I would strive to get straight A's."
At Von Steuben Metropolitan Science Academy, and through Chicago Scholars, he was exposed to kids from different backgrounds with different mindsets, he said.
"They were thinking about college, so far ahead. I thought, 'I need to get on their page.' My grandma would tell me, 'You are who you hang around.' And so I just started hanging out with them, started hanging out with the smart kids," he said. "I had the ambition to turn things around."
For four years, he traveled an hour each way to the magnet high school in Albany Park, taking two buses during his commute, he said.
This spring, Wilson graduated from Von Steuben with honors, and is headed to the University of Wisconsin at Madison this fall on a full ride, majoring in computer science. He hopes to launch a tech startup in Chicago.
"I didn't want to be another statistic out here on the West Side. I wanted to do better for myself, and my family," he said. "It wasn't an easy road, but it was worthwhile."
Chicago Scholars' seven-year promise
Chicago Scholars, a mentoring and leadership development program headquartered in the Loop, aims to equip Chicago's brightest and most driven students from underresourced communities with the tools they need to realize their dreams of becoming the city's top leaders of tomorrow.
Hill, Wilson and other teens selected to participate in the Chicago Scholars program receive one-on-one mentoring for seven years, beginning with their junior year and ending after they finish college as they prepare to launch their careers.
Only 14 percent of ninth-graders enrolled in Chicago Public Schools will graduate with a four-year degree from a postsecondary institution in less than six years, according to Chicago Scholars data. But creating a new workforce could change those numbers, leaders said.
After college, scholars often return to their communities as working professionals, creating an workforce that more accurately reflects the city's diverse demographics.
In the class of 2021 (students going into their senior year in high school), Chicago Scholars will help 528 students reach their goals.
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