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Bernard Lilly is surrounded by the many pennants he has collected over the years while taking students in his mentoring program on college visits.

Lisa Philip

‘I want them to go higher’: A West Side pastor’s faith in the power of college

In a windowless office next to a hair salon, deep within an old building in the Austin neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side, Bernard Lilly Sr. hands a Morehouse College pennant to 16-year-old Makhi Allen. The two picked it out on a recent trip to Atlanta to visit the historically Black men’s college.

Now Makhi has the honor of pinning it on the wall behind Lilly’s desk among an expanding collection of banners from colleges across the country.

Makhi joined Lilly’s program, the College Mentoring Experience, because his dad knew Lilly could help Makhi with his college goals in ways his school counselor could not. Years ago, Lilly used to walk Makhi’s father to school.

“In my eyes, to even be successful in my life, I gotta go to college,” Makhi said. “It’s the least thing I can do for my parents’ sacrifices for me … waking up early and driving me to school every day, putting food on my plate.”

The Morehouse pennant in Makhi’s hand, and the others already pinned up, each represent a campus visit organized by the College Mentoring Experience, which Lilly founded in 2014 to help students from the West Side get to and through college. This month, fifteen are headed to campuses across the country with support from the nonprofit. Since its start, the organization has seen 50 students through college and beyond.

Together the golds and maroons, blacks and reds, and royal purples and yellows of the banners embody Lilly’s persistent belief that a college education not only uplifts students – it can uplift their families and communities too. Lilly holds on to this belief despite rising tuition costs, student debt, and broader skepticism of higher education as an institution.

“When we give students the opportunity to attend a college, college gives them an opportunity to figure out what they want to do in life,” he said.



WBEZ

‘Our students are just as smart as any other students,’ Bernard Lilly said. ‘They just need the door open ... We want to kick the door open.’

Lisa Philip

It’s an opportunity Lilly didn’t have. After graduating from high school in Alabama, he attended trade school and moved to Chicago to work as a bricklayer. He later got an associate’s degree.

“That’s me,” said 55-year-old Lilly, who has long served as a pastor at Greater St. John’s Bible Church in Austin. “But I want the students to go higher …. If they want their master’s, go get it. If they want their doctoral degree, go get it.”

Lilly’s nonprofit pairs students with mentors that guide them from sixth grade through college and onto, hopefully, a successful career.

“I was helping students in our local church right here on the West Side of Chicago,” said Lilly, who half-smiles beneath his salt and pepper goatee and shifts uneasily in his chair as he talks about himself. “And I just felt that if I could find 50, 100, 200, 500 adults that felt the way I felt and were passionate about making a difference in these youths’ lives … I felt like we can make a difference, not just in our community, not just in our city … we can make an impact on the world.”

In the Austin neighborhood where Lilly lives and works, just 1 in 3 young people complete a college degree, according to the To&Through Project. That’s in stark contrast to whiter, more affluent neighborhoods like Lincoln Park, where 3 out of 4 students finish college.

“The city is divided,” Lilly said. “Students on the West Side … don’t have the same resources as students in other areas of the same city.”

Schools that serve higher numbers of students from low-income families, like the high schools many of Lilly’s students attend, are less likely to have a staff member dedicated to college counseling, according to the National Association for College Admissions Counseling. And Lilly said his students are in dire need of both academic and emotional guidance because of trauma endured by their communities from gun violence, incarceration and the pandemic.

“Our students are just as smart as any other students. They can do just as much,” Lilly said. “They just need the door open …. We want to kick the door open.”

College Mentoring Experience matches each student with a professional working in a field of interest who checks in weekly and, as one student said, provides “a shoulder to lean on in hard times.”

“My mentor has helped a lot in my life,” said Billy Lane Jr., who joined the organization five years ago. “He knows how to talk to me whenever I’m in a mood.”

Billy is a rising junior at Westinghouse College Prep in East Garfield Park. He said his mentor gently opened his mind to the possibility of attending college. He used to think it wasn’t the right fit for him.

“I really want to go to college now, to find out who I am as a human being,” Lane said, “to find a deeper part of myself and become the man I’m trying to become.”

A series of firsts

The organization goes beyond instilling a college-going mindset. Lilly and his staff take students on college trips to help them figure out what kind of institution they want to attend, be it a small liberal arts college, flagship state school or historically Black college. Without these trips, Lilly said, many of the students wouldn’t be able to go on campus visits.

“Sometimes it’s our students’ first time on a plane,” he said.

Parents occasionally go on the trips too and for some, Lilly said, it’s their first time on a college campus.

“Sometimes I hear parents say, ‘Listen, I couldn’t go to college. I had to raise my child. Life happened,’ ” Lilly said. “They be so excited and thrilled that they get the opportunity to see their child attend college, and it changes the family.”

It can level up a family’s income bracket, he said, and kickstart their college-going tradition.

“The younger siblings get to … attend the college or university graduation, get to see this from their older siblings,” Lilly said. “And now they just got exposed. Now, guess what? Now they desire to do what their older brother, their older sister just done.”



WBEZ

Shariyah Cox joined the College Mentoring Experience about a year ago. She’s headed to Florida A&M this month.

Courtesy of Bernard Lilly Sr

“This is the next step”

The college trips made the difference for 17-year-old Shariyah Cox. She aspires to be a realtor and used to think she didn’t need or want a college degree. She joined College Mentoring Experience about a year ago.

“When I got in the program, they shifted my attitude towards college,” said Cox, who graduated earlier this summer from Providence St. Mel School in East Garfield Park. “I started going on college tours. And I started to see life on campus and how it could benefit me … it changed my mind.”

In a couple of weeks Cox is headed to Florida A&M University, a historically Black college in Tallahassee.

“I stepped foot on campus, and I was like, ‘Okay, I can see myself here,’ ” Shariyah said. “They’re gonna set me up for the future. So I was like, ‘Yeah, this is the next step.’ ”

Lisa Philip covers higher education for WBEZ, in partnership with Open Campus. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @LAPhilip.

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