Liz Monge, the daughter of immigrants from Mexico and Costa Rica, became a college counselor to prevent young people from having experiences like hers. As a freshman at Whitney Young High in 1984, a counselor placed her in the business track, even though she was valedictorian of her elementary school and had off-the-chart test scores.
“I expressed to my counselor that I was interested in pursuing the honors track in biology,” she recalls. “My counselor said that I wasn’t good enough for the honors program.”
Were it not for an outside organization, the League of United Latin American Citizens, Monge may not have gone to college at all. A representative from the group visited Whitney Young weekly. “He would come in and set up a table,” Monge recalls. “I finally took notice and walked up to the table.”
The visitor asked Monge what she planned to do after high school. “Oh, nothing, really,” she recalls telling him.
“He said, ‘Oh, no, you’re going to community college, at least,'” Monge recalls. At his prompting, she applied and was accepted to Triton College. As a student there, Monge signed up for a class that required an internship at Triton’s in-house television studio. “I was challenging myself to get out of my shell.” It paid off. Monge grew confident enough to run for and win a student government seat, and she set her sights on studying communications. Monge says she enjoyed the experience, but “felt cheated because it should have happened in high school.”
She went on to enroll at Northern Illinois University and graduated with a degree in communications in 1995.
Though few Latino students were enrolled at Whitney Young in her day, Monge says most other Latinos were placed in business classes at Whitney Young and she suspects staff simply had lower expectations for them. Studies have shown that school officials often have low expectations for students of color.
Since earning her bachelor’s degree, Monge has worked to help other first-generation college aspirants reach their goals.
Now a college counselor at Young Women’s Leadership Charter, Monge is working to ensure her charges have every opportunity to excel. “When I was a student at Whitney Young, my counselor did absolutely nothing for me,” she says. “That was a great motivator for me to serve the community, especially young students of color, to pursue higher education. They can be achievers even if they aren’t No. 1 and didn’t get straight A’s.”