The Gateway Program helps adults earning their GEDs or learning English transition successfully to college-level courses and embark on career pathways that lead to good jobs. Gateway Program students take college credit-level classes while also enrolled in their adult education courses, and Gateway offers a buy-one-course-get-one free deal on their class tuition. Women Employed advocated to expand Gateway to all City Colleges in Chicago and helped ensure that the model provided students the support they need to succeed.
We spoke to Akira, who was in the first group of Gateway students, to find out how the Gateway Program helped her along the way to earning her diploma (she graduated in May 2015!).
Why did you go back to school?
I’ve always known that I wanted to go to school and make something out of myself. A few years ago I tried to get my GED, but it didn’t work out for me because my work schedule was really hectic. I had to cater to my job needs instead of school. I was working at Walgreens full time and two other part-time jobs at the same time.
Finally I left Walgreens. I came to a different company, Skyway. I had a set schedule and they were paying me enough so I could just work this one job and go back to school and get my GED. I went to the GED program at Kennedy King. After just two months, the teacher felt like I was prepared, so they gave me a big push [to take the GED]. I was like, “I haven’t been in school for years, I’m not ready!” But they fired me up and gave me a push, and I went and took the test and I passed it on the first try!
How did you discover the Gateway Program?
While I was in the GED program, I was approached by a man in charge of Gateway. He broke it down for me, he said, “They transition you over, they help you with the funds.” I knew I didn’t want to sign up for a four-year university just quite yet, I wanted a two-year program at a community college, so that was a perfect fit for me.
Can you tell us about the first Gateway Program class, which focuses on how to succeed in college?
It was a great environment. I loved it. Every once in a while me and some of the students that was in my class get together and just hang out. And we’ve been doing that for about two years now — I made some maybe lifelong friends in the process.
Now I’m at the end of the Gateway Program and I still get the help that I need. An advisor still checks up on me. The new director…just made sure to check up on me. It’s pretty cool.
How are you feeling about taking college classes? Is it difficult to balance with your full-time job?
I love school. I went in full throttle. Some of the students took part time classes — I did full time ever since I started. So I take four or five classes each semester along with my work schedule. I’m in school five days a week and I work five days a week. I don’t have an off day at all. I do my homework in-between or at work, when I get downtime. It’s a lot, but I can handle it.
How does the “buy one get one free” tuition system help you?
It means a lot. I’m paying out of pocket every semester, so this really puts the money back in my pocket so I can do other things with it, with the extra income. Without it, I would have had to get a second job, which that’s something I didn’t want to do. I’ve always worked two or three jobs — this is the only time in my life I haven’t. And right now throughout the whole two years I’ve had As and Bs, I only got one C, but I probably would’ve finished with more on the C side because you just don’t have that time to sit down and focus and study.
What do you plan to do after you graduate?
I’m getting my associate’s in arts. Once I get done…I think I’ll have the education and knowledge I need to move on to a bigger university. I want to go there and get connections there and then get a job in the [media] industry. I’ll pretty much go anywhere they’ll hire me.
What would you say to a student who was thinking about enrolling in the Gateway Program?
I’d say do it. Even if you feel like you’re not ready for that level, I’d still say get with somebody who has that experience or go to an advisor or the director of Gateway and [ask for help]. Everybody can benefit from Gateway, it’s a great thing. It exceeded my expectations.