Debbi Fernandez Credit: Photo by Jason Reblando

Like most Chicago Public Schools students, Gage Park High graduate Debbi Fernandez, and Bogan High graduates Gregory Thomas and Andre Alexander all wanted to attend a 4-year college. But without concrete planning to pave the way, they ended up at Richard J. Daley College on the Southwest Side. All of them said they felt unprepared for college and placed in at least one remedial course. They talked to Catalyst Chicago writer Kalari Girtley and Associate Editor Maureen Kelleher about their experiences in high school and college, and their hopes for furthering their education.

Debbi Fernandez

What school did you want to attend?

Dominican University. But I didn’t apply. It was too late, and also because of lack of money. I decided on Daley. I saw most of my friends going there. I was trying to get through my primary courses first. Once I had enough money, I could go on to a 4-year school.

How did you do on the placement tests?

First semester I had Math 100 (the lowest-level remedial course) and English 100 (also a remedial class). I had to take English 100 over again because I didn’t pass it. Math I loved—they would explain everything in detail. But in English my first term, the teacher didn’t really help me a lot and I guess that’s why I failed.

Do you feel high school prepared you?

It didn’t. But when I started working with AVID (a well-regarded college-readiness program recently brought to Chicago) I thought, if they had had that when I was in high school, it would have prepared me a lot more. Whenever I would go tutor, I kept telling kids, ‘I wish I had this program. You guys are lucky. At least they are helping you. I had to do it by myself.’

How is college different from high school?

Being on my own. In high school, they tell you everything—you need to come to this, you need to do this. When I came to college, I had to find things on my own. It scared me, but then I got a lot stronger.

Have your study habits changed?

I spend more time studying. In high school, when they gave us an article, I used to read it and would get it right away. Now I grab a dictionary and look up words. I wasn’t used to doing that, but now I do because it’s necessary for me to understand [what I read].

What do you want to major in?

Education. I’m hoping to go to either Chicago State University or to Northeastern.

Gregory Thomas

Why did you go to Daley?

I had no other choice. My grades in high school were not up to par so I was told that I have to come to one of the City Colleges. So I chose Daley because it was close to my home. I didn’t want to come to a community college, because I’ve always wanted to go to a university and most of the people I went to high school with came to Daley. But now that I’m here, I’m glad because a community college basically prepares you to go to a university.

How did you feel about the placement exams?

I was never a good test taker. I placed below college level. I’ve never been good at math. The first time I took it, I found it quite difficult because the instructor didn’t really explain the material. When I took it over, I had another instructor and she explained it to me well and I was able to understand.

Do you feel Bogan prepared you?

No, not at all. And I was sick a lot so I really couldn’t concentrate.

Do you plan to get a bachelor’s degree?

Yes. I plan to go to Texas Southern University. My second choice will be Delmar University in Nashville. My GPA has improved, and my maturity level as well. Now I am here, I say to myself I have to buckle down because I don’t want to mess up my financial aid, I want to better myself and I’ve always wanted to go to a university and go away to school. I say to myself every day that I need to focus and study hard.

Andre Alexander

Why did you come to Daley?

I wanted to get my basics out of the way. I figured that I didn’t have enough money to go straight into a university and it would be smart for me to go to a community college and then transfer over, which I plan to do by summer of 2006.

What university do you plan to go to?

Illinois Institute of Technology.

How did you feel about the placement exam?

My only downfall always was math, and when I took the placement test here, it proved that.

How was remedial math?

It was very educational. I liked the teacher. He was very good. He knew how to give the material to the class. But my problem was that I lacked focus. In the beginning of the class, I didn’t pay attention. At midterms, my focus kicked in. But by then it was too late, so I had to take the class over again, and then I did all right.

Did a lot of students take it over?

A little less than half of the class took it over again.

How does the workload in college compare to that in high school?

In high school you will always have a teacher pushing you, because you’re still a minor and not on your own yet. In college, you have some teachers that do that because they know that it’s needed. But basically they’re thinking, ‘You’re an adult. If you don’t push yourself, we’re not going to push you.’ That’s how the world works. I think that’s how you develop your own personal drive to succeed and do better in life.

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