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Program lets teens experience college

Program lets teens experience college

Dozens of local high schoolers who are in the state’s foster care system took part in Loyola’s new STAR program this summer to get a taste of college life.

First Star Scholars

Ana Plefka | Student reporter

For years, local high schoolers have been attending the Summer Enrichment at Loyola program to get a taste of college life. But this summer’s group included a unique set of students: About 30 of them were in the state’s foster care system and were taking part in Loyola’s new STAR program.

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Visit the Summer Scholars website to learn more about the program.

Designed for students who have open cases with the Department of Child and Family Services, the STAR program lets area teens take classes and live on the University’s Lake Shore Campus. To be accepted into the free four-week program, students can be nominated by a guardian, caseworker, or anyone who knows them personally. Students then submit an essay and take part in an on-campus interview.

The ideal students for the program “have an interest in attending college, whether it’s Loyola or another university,” said Omega Styles, the program’s coordinator. “We look for students who are resilient and who understand the value of our program.”

Immersive and intensive

While there is an emphasis on fun and community building, the STAR program also stresses academics. Participants live in a Loyola residence hall for four weeks and take classes from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. They also meet with current Loyola undergraduate students who serve as college coaches to guide the teens through the ins and outs of university life.

“We are very much like part-time RA’s, part-time mentors, and part-time advisors,” said junior Luis Vargas, a political science major who worked with the students.

For the college coaches, the program is about more than just helping high school students; it’s also a way for them to expand their minds and find new insights.

“The program has opened my eyes to the diverse background of students at and around Loyola, in terms of where these students are coming from and all the struggles they are going through,” said junior Jesse Meza, a computer science major who also worked with the Summer Enrichment at Loyola program last year.

The high school students take courses for college credit, which allows them to advance academically. The college coaches also provide them with a look into life outside the classroom by leading workshops such as how to speak and act professionally with employers and superiors.

A time is also set aside each day for the students to reflect on what they have learned. This reflection period allows the students to think about their future, and it also connects them with Loyola’s mission as they spend time on campus.

“We provide them with the Jesuit experience,” Styles said. “Pretty much everything we stand for as a university, we try to instill those values within the students.”

A lasting impression

The journey for the high school students who attend the STAR program does not end when they leave campus after four weeks. They are invited to come back to further their pre-college experience each summer until they graduate high school.

The students also will return to Loyola monthly throughout the academic year to meet with staff members to track their progress. The students’ advancement is important not only to the professional staff, but also to the college coaches who watched them grow during their time at Loyola.

“I really enjoy seeing how the students have matured throughout this process,” Vargas said. “Statistics show that many students in the foster care system will be homeless by the age of 20. I want them to leave knowing that does not have to be their route. They should know they have mentors and people who believe in them.”

Whether the foster youth who leave campus are future Ramblers or not, they walk away with a support system that is available until they walk across the stage at their high school graduations.