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One Million Degrees Helps Low-Income Community College Students in Chicago Succeed

April 10, 2017

In celebration of Community College Awareness Month, we are highlighting a program that helps community college students in Chicago complete their degrees and/or transition to a four-year institution.

Four years ago, Olivia Cruz left her home in Mexico to join her father in Chicago. Having grown up in a small town with no traffic lights, the fast pace of the Windy City was a dramatic change.

Eager to pursue her dreams of working in the healthcare field, she enrolled in Olive-Harvey, a community college on Chicago's far South Side. Cruz discovered that her limited English proficiency was a real barrier to understanding course materials. "During class, I was trying to translate everything the professor was saying," she recalls.

Students like Cruz from underserved backgrounds often face challenges that make it harder to complete their community college program. Without proper support, many don't finish their degrees.


Paige Ponder, OMD CEO (left) with Olivia Cruz, OMD alum (right)

Enter: One Million Degrees (OMD), the only organization in the state of Illinois—and one of the few in the nation—solely dedicated to supporting low-income community college students to complete their postsecondary degrees or certificates and position themselves for long-term success in the workplace.

Community colleges are valuable institutions that equip students with skills that lead to good paying jobs, help them transition to four-year colleges and offer a pathway to economic mobility. While close to half of today's undergraduate college students are enrolled in community colleges, only a limited number of organizations in the country solely support this unique population's needs.

In 2006, recognizing the critical role of community colleges, OMD's founders established the Chicago-based organization to address this gap in the city. Initially, OMD was a scholarship program that provided financial support to students in need but it soon became clear that the students faced a multitude of challenges.

"The founders realized that financial barriers were just the tip of the iceberg," says OMD CEO Paige Ponder. Thus, OMD evolved into a holistic program that offers their participants, whom they call "scholars," academic, professional, personal, and financial support.

OMD provides tutors, whom scholars meet with at least once a week. Cruz was matched with a tutor to help her improve her English language skills. "My tutor really tried to help me grow my [English] skills. He went above and beyond – even staying up with me one day until 2 a.m. to work on a paper."

Scholars also have direct support on their campuses. OMD program coordinators work at their schools and serve as case managers, cheerleaders, role models, thought partners, accountability companions and resource connectors. "Once when I had anxiety about an upcoming test, I texted my coordinator. Even though she was busy, she placed aside five minutes of her time to talk to me," says Cruz.

In addition, scholars are matched with coaches, who are volunteer working professionals that provide career advice and host site visits for direct exposure to their work environment. The moral support that scholars receive from coordinators and coaches was rated by participants as the most beneficial component of the program, according to a spring 2016 survey.

"Students sometimes believe they don't belong [on a college campus] or aren't college material. So many of these barriers are in their own mind. Through working with coaches and coordinators, our scholars begin to feel more capable," says Ponder. Cruz, now an OMD alumna, agrees: "One Million Degrees made me think that everything is possible. If you put your mind to it, you can get to any goal." OMD also offers monthly professional workshops and tuition assistance.

This year, with the support of ECMC Foundation, OMD is hiring a Workforce Transitions Consultant to help scholars and alumni by working to improve job placements, identifying careers in high-growth industries, and exploring labor trends across the state, among many other responsibilities. Funding from the Foundation also supports the research and development of OMD's expansion strategy outside of Chicago. One Million Degrees plans to launch two expansion sites in Fall 2019.

Did you enjoy this grantee spotlight? Read more grantee spotlights here.

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