Mary Dixon: It's graduation season in Chicago. Over the weekend, families and friends gathered at Malcolm X College on the Near West Side to celebrate a set of unconventional high school grads. Many took winding paths and faced starts and stops along the way. WBEZ's Tessa Weinberg has more from the ceremony.
Tessa Weinberg: The faces under the graduation caps aren't those of teenagers but rather people of all ages, some with streaks of gray in their hair. Nervous excitement fills the air as a long line of soon to be high school graduates file into the gymnasium at Malcolm X College on Saturday. For 49 year old Viktor Morales, it's been a day for 30 years in the making.
Victor Morales: Because I was supposed to be class of 1993… it’s so surreal when now I’m class of 2023.
Tessa Weinberg: Morales dropped out of high school when he was a sophomore. He's one of more than 200 students who earned their high school diploma from six City Colleges of Chicago this year. The largest graduating class since the pandemic started. The public community college system offers free classes to any Illinois resident who wants to get their high school diploma, including those who are undocumented. Classes are offered in Spanish virtually too. It's also a way for immigrants new to the country to learn English and get a U.S. Education, like Svitlana Kvet who is from Ukraine.
Svitlana Kvet: I was only 17 and I was afraid, if I did not speak English, I would not be able to study at a high school.
Tessa Weinberg: She took two years of ESL classes at Wilbur Wright College. And at 23, she now has her high school diploma. For many, going back to the classroom was intimidating. Before the graduation, Morales told me he worried about being the oldest person in his class and technology had changed a lot too.
Victor Morales: That was my first time actually doing online classes. So for me, it was kind of new, brand new. But then I was like, I'm not going to let nobody interfere with me or intimidate me or not be ashamed, you know?
Tessa Weinberg: 28 year old Caitlin Espinosa knows that feeling. It had been 10 years since she had been in high school.
Caitlin Espinosa: I almost felt like I couldn't do it. Like, that scary, like you've been out of school for so long. Can you do it? Are you going to be able to keep up?
Tessa Weinberg: But as Espinosa started going to classes, she realized...
Caitlin Espinosa: I was like, oh, I love to learn…. It brought like, myself back. Something I guess I lost for a little bit, and I didn't know I lost. Like that's where I could be me. And I can use all my abilities in school. And I feel like knowledge is power. So why not get as much as you can?
Tessa Weinberg: Espinosa feels proud of herself, especially knowing her two kids can look up to her as an example. She walked across the stage with her seven year old daughter who shyly buried her face in Espinosa's graduation robe. City Colleges Chancellor Juan Salgado summed up the theme of the day.
Juan Salgado: You tell them, that it’s never too late to go back to school. It’s never too late to get an education. It’s never too late to get more knowledge.
Tessa Weinberg: Truman College’s Dean of Enrollment Kisalan Glover served as emcee and held up the long sleeve of his robe.
Kisalan Glover: I didn’t realize, this is really good for tears.
Tessa Weinberg: Families stood up to film their loved ones. Graduates leapt from their seats. Cheers bounced off the bleachers in the gymnasium.
Kisalan Glover: Please turn your tassels… you are officially completed. Congratulations.
Tessa Weinberg: The degree is a launching pad for many of the graduates futures. Morales was able to get a job at the United Center through his classes. Kvet is working towards her associates degree to become a nurse. And Espinosa is starting a summer semester to gain college credits. She hopes to one day teach kids with special needs. A decision driven by her three year old who has autism. Going to class is how she plans to celebrate.
Caitlin Espinosa: And I start college credit courses on the sixth.
Tessa Weinberg: So tomorrow, her bookbag will be ready. Tessa Weinberg WBEZ News.
WBEZ transcripts are generated by an automatic speech recognition service. We do our best to edit for misspellings and typos, but mistakes do come through.