Getting into college wasn’t Julissa’s biggest concern. She had to figure out how she was going to pay for it.
When Julissa was nine years old, her family moved to Lemont, a southwest suburb near Chicago. Adjusting to her new school was tough; she wasn’t used to the lack of diversity in her classes and often felt like she didn’t quite fit in. “I was one of five students who were not white,” Julissa says.
Not much economic diversity existed, either—most students seemed to have plenty of money. So when it came time to start thinking about college, Julissa realized her concerns were not the same as her classmates’. “My parents didn’t go to college,” Julissa explains, “so I was confused about the process and didn’t know how I was going to pay for it.”
In the end, Julissa set her mind on college, regardless of the obstacles. She sent out applications, thinking she’d just have to figure out the process as she went along. When her financial aid letter arrived from Illinois, though, Julissa’s world changed. She had been awarded the Illinois Promise scholarship.
Illinois Promise, better known as I-Promise, covers the cost of attendance for Illinois students with the greatest financial need. This is a game-changer for people who are qualified to get into college but lack the funds to attend. To improve the transition to campus, I-Promise also pairs its recipients with older students, academic professionals, and community members who act as mentors.
This mentorship program introduced Julissa to Catherine, a woman who was instrumental throughout Julissa’s first year on campus. Catherine gave her scheduling advice when it was time to register for spring classes and encouraged her to take advantage of Illinois resources.
She told Julissa about tutoring services offered by the Office of Minority Student Affairs, where you can study with students who have already succeeded in the courses you’re taking. Julissa was worried about the idea of someone tutoring her and told Catherine so. “It was one of those things that you shouldn’t really be nervous about,” Julissa says. “She was like, ‘No, go do it!’”
Catherine also sent Julissa a list of clubs she thought Julissa might have an interest in. Like most freshmen, Julissa was nervous to start new things, but Catherine kept encouraging her. “Go! Go check them out!” she told Julissa.
Fast forward three years: Julissa is working as an Illinois Student Admissions Representative (better known as an I-STAR around campus), has biked across the U.S. with the Illini 4000 to help raise money for cancer research, and is part of a group attempting to design a better water system for a town in Honduras. “Catherine was really empowering, because I was too scared to do a lot of those things,” Julissa recalls. “Things that people would’ve gotten through sororities, fraternities, Greek life, and social RSOs, I got through I-Promise.”
Julissa and her Illini 4000 teammates biked from New York City to San Francisco last summer to help spread cancer awareness.
Julissa is still following Catherine’s advice. I-Promise recently hosted an instructional etiquette dinner, and Julissa, hearing Catherine’s voice in her head, decided it would be a good opportunity to learn more about professional conduct. “Fun fact: You pass salt and pepper two at a time to your right,” Julissa says. “They were like, ‘They’re married, so you can’t separate them!’ But how are you supposed to know?”
When asked how she thought her life would be different had she not received the scholarship, Julissa can hardly imagine. “I have no idea what would’ve happened. … I don’t think I would’ve been able to do Illini 4000 because I would have had to get a job for that summer. I also wouldn’t have been able to study abroad,” she says, explaining that she used a previous semester’s refund check to participate in the Honduras Water Project over spring break.
Illinois Promise made possible so many of Julissa’s best college experiences. It’s not an exaggeration to say the program changed her life. “I-Promise gave me the opportunity to be here,” Julissa says. “I was just so lucky, and I have no idea why it turned out so well, but I’m happy it did.”
Julissa is currently pursuing a contextual engineering degree in the department of agricultural and biological engineering, a new program that’s being developed as she and her classmates make their way toward graduation. “It’s really confusing because it doesn’t exist anywhere, so this is the first place where it would be,” Julissa says, humbly admitting that she would be one of the first students from the university to graduate with such a degree.
As Julissa looks ahead, she sees graduate school in her future, where she considers acting as a mentor for new I-Promise students. “Why not?” she asks, adding: “This is exactly the attitude they gave me.”