Scholar Snapshot

"Start Strong, Finish Stronger" in Practice

By Ishani Kejriwal, UChicago Class of 2019

“Start strong. Finish stronger.”

This motto, the saying with which the Collegiate Scholars Program guides itself, is plastered on the walls all around the office. It inspires the Scholars to take advantage of the opportunities presented by CSP, as well as other opportunities that are presented to them. It’s in this very office that I spoke to Dejah Powell, an alum of the Class of 2014, and now on her way to join the elite Cornell University’s graduating Class of 2018.

Dejah was eager to launch into her praises of Collegiate Scholars. To start, she shared that her parents divorced in her middle school years, and she was originally terrified to move to the big city from the suburbs and away from the life she had known. However, she grew to love the opportunities that became available to her through the Chicago Public Schools system. She was able to get into a top selective enrollment high school, Whitney Young, and was able to apply to the Collegiate Scholars Program. Throughout her conversation, she emphasized the intellectual nature of Collegiate Scholars Program. She was also interested in the assistance the program could give her to chase her lofty dreams, especially the dream of going to an elite four-year university.

One thing that I found fascinating about Dejah was her desire to broaden her horizons. She said that, as a black girl on the South Side of Chicago, most of her friend group was black, and most her experiences revolved around the lifestyle of the Woodlawn community. She was eager to try out new things, such as ceramics, yoga, and other events that CSP offers their students. She also appreciated getting to meet people from all over the city who had similar ambitions, yet very different backgrounds. She said herself, “CSP is pivotal. You must take advantage of every opportunity that CSP has to offer.”

Dejah is the kind of student who chases her dreams without fear. Even though she has graduated from CSP, and has moved her talent and fortitude over to Cornell, she still uses the confidence CSP gave her to follow her passions. She seems to have two strong loves: Chicago’s South Side, and environmental sustainability. She, with the support of CSP, started a summer program at UChicago called “Get Them to the Green”, which introduced local elementary school students to environmental topics and increased environmental awareness. She also started a local garden at her former elementary school, Vanderpool, for which she is currently embarking on the goal of raising $50,000 in funds for a gardening club, garden educators, a beehive, and educational events for the community. Her various endeavors have made her a recipient of the Brower Youth Award, a prestigious award given to six young adults who are making strides in their communities for expanding environmental awareness.

Even now, after receiving an award and completing so many projects, she still is restlessly pursuing one that is close to her heart. Her senior project is addressing food apartheid in the South Side of Chicago through a viral campaign that she hopes will attract the attention of the people in power. She proudly told me that just that morning she had bought the t-shirts for the campaign.

After we logged off, I took a moment to reflect on her love of CSP, her confidence, and her drive to help those who she grew up around. CSP fosters a love for community and a willingness to give back to the place you call home, regardless of where you end up. I think Chicago is a lucky city to have Scholars who go out and finish stronger and then bring back change to the city where they started strong.


If you would like to learn more about Get Them to the Green, visit

If you would like to donate to the Vanderpool School Garden, visit

If you would like to learn more about the awesome things Dejah is doing, visit

Building the Bridge: How Cain Yepez Pays It Forward

By Ishani Kejriwal, UChicago Class of 2019

Sometimes, you meet people that inspire you to inspire others. That is exactly how I felt when talking to Cain Yepez, a model Scholar in the class of 2018. He was boyish, with a charming smile and floppy brown hair, and spoke eloquently, in a way I wouldn’t expect from a student his age. He was confident and had a pitch ready for me, showing me that he was prepared to tell me about this achievement that he was so proud of and that he really held close.

His latest endeavor, known as the Bridge Tutoring Program, aims to bridge (ha-ha!) the education gap in some South Side communities. As a resident of Garfield Ridge, a neighborhood on the southwest side of Chicago, and someone who was heading to be a first-generation college student, Cain saw a need for additional educational support at his neighborhood schools. Even though he goes to the selective enrollment school Jones College Prep now, he started out his freshman year in his neighborhood school, Kennedy High School, where he became familiar with the needs of his community. Bridge Tutoring is a peer-to-peer elementary school and high school program that links tutors and tutees from the same neighborhood. They select tutors who are in the top 10% of their class or in National Honor Society in order to secure high quality instruction and assistance, and they keep the ratio of tutor to tutee as 1:2, ensuring that the students gain the most personalized experience possible. When I asked how large the program was, Cain proudly stated that there were 150 tutors and 300 tutees across 5 different neighborhoods, but he explained that the program had plans to expand in the upcoming school year. He expressed a deep commitment to the program, explaining that the tutors in the program weren’t just tutors but also life coaches, ready to guide students through the ups and downs of the educational system. He told me this program was important to him because he wished he had something similar in his youth. He told me he lives by the saying “be the person you needed” and that influences his drive to make the program as beneficial as possible.

Cain is the CFO of his organization, and I, shamefully, had to ask him to find out that meant Chief Financial Officer. As the program expands, he, understandably, needs more funds to keep the program going. His website is currently being run by money that he is paying out of pocket, and as the demand for the program expands, so does the demand for supplies. He wants to fundraise for whiteboards, folders and other supplies, and to reward the tutors who put in a lot of emotional and physical labor without so much as a pizza party or certificate. Luckily, one resource that Cain didn’t have to pay for was the Collegiate Scholars Program, which he never intended to apply to. He told me that he originally threw the flyer away because he didn’t think he could get in, only to realize that if he never tried, he definitely wasn’t going to get in, which ended up working out for him. Although Collegiate Scholars has helped him in many ways, one of the most profound resources Cain and his team got access to was Abel himself. Cain gushed about how integral Abel was to the success of Bridge Tutoring, explaining that Abel taught him how to manage finances, set up and manage a website and donation page, and create goals for the future. He made it clear to me that Collegiate Scholars was what gave him the confidence to give back to the community. By having the opportunity to participate in an educational nonprofit throughout high school, he knew he could give back to his community, and other communities similar to his, by starting his own educational non-profit.

After he left, I called my parents and expressed to them how impressed I was at a senior in high school already doing so much for his community. Cain demonstrates, in the best way, the importance of paying it forward, and the importance of being the change you want to see in the world. If you would like to support Cain’s cause or want more information, please visit

Luis Granja: Collegiate Scholars opened my horizons








Profile by: Rosalind Cummings-Yeates

As a fourth grader, Luis Granja tested into the gifted program at Decatur Classical School in the West Rogers Park neighborhood in Chicago. The school was far from the Irving Park neighborhood where he lived in many ways.

“It was a complete change in environment,” recalls Granja, who went from going to a predominantly Hispanic school where everything was familiar to an environment where he didn’t feel connected to anything. “I was living in two worlds. I didn’t play outside with kids in my neighborhood, but I didn’t feel like I fit in at Decatur. I wasn’t one of the best students anymore but I was happy to be there, and I learned to adapt.”

His experience in elementary school and later at Northside College Preparatory High School, which he also tested into, helped Granja appreciate the Collegiate Scholars Program at the University of Chicago.

“The Collegiate Scholars Program made me feel like I could pursue my academic interests with kids from a similar background. We didn’t have everything but we were willing to work hard just to get access to opportunities,” says Granja, who is now a third-year student in the College at UChicago.

Working hard and seizing opportunities seem to be life themes for Granja, who was born in Ecuador.  His mother brought him back to Chicago, where she had once lived, when he was five years old. “She wanted me to have the same advantages as my sister who had been born here,” he says.

Granja grew up in a multi-generational house where he pitched in to keep the household running.  He took that same work ethic to Northside College Prep, where he often sought out new options on his own. “I would just look at the lists of opportunities at the counselor’s office every week. I saw the Collegiate Scholars Program notice, and it said to sign up for an information session at the University of Chicago,” he recalls. “I didn’t know what to expect, but I was open to anything.”

Granja didn’t really know much about UChicago, even though he had visited the campus once for a capoeira demonstration. After the information session, he knew that it was an important decision to join the CSP. “It opened my horizons to do things I never imagined, like taking classes with college professors and conducting laboratory research,” says Granja, who participated in the program from 2010-2013.

Granja says the program also gave him more confidence. “I wasn’t raised to demand certain things or to understand what I wanted from institutions. I didn’t know what questions to ask,” Granja says. “CSP told us what questions to ask to find out what was available, and that opened doors. It’s like you don’t know a lemon has juice unless you squeeze it.”

During his first summer as a Collegiate Scholar, Granja took classes in advanced mathematics and humanities. The next summer, he applied and was accepted into an organic chemistry research program. “I was treated like one of the researchers. I wasn’t just a high school student,” he recalls.

His experience doing research inspired Luis to major in pre-med and apply to college using the Questbridge early admission process. Questbridge matches students with full scholarships and Granja was admitted to UChicago, his first choice.

After working for an obstetrician in a family planning clinic last summer, Granja realized how important social sciences are to medicine and switched his major to Comparative Human Development, which is an interdisciplinary program of psychology, sociology and anthropology. He is interested in therapy and how trauma, stress, and economic factors affect and relate to mental health.

Outside the classroom, Granja is involved with the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship and Living Hope Church in Woodlawn, where he volunteers in an after-school enrichment program for elementary students. Soon to be a first-generation college graduate, Luis attributes most of his success to his experience in the Collegiate Scholars Program.

“If I hadn’t been involved in CSP, it would have probably taken another generation for anyone in my family to go to a college like this,” he says.