"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 www.getthemtothegreen.com

If you would like to donate to the Vanderpool School Garden, visit https://donate.seedmoney.org/1377/vanderpoel-school-garden

If you would like to learn more about the awesome things Dejah is doing, visit https://www.20somethingandgrowing.com/

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