Cassandra Jones has a goal: to be the first person in her family to graduate from college.
Currently, Jones is studying communications at Harold Washington College, a two-year community college located downtown and part of the City Colleges of Chicago. She plans to transfer to a four-year university to study media production.
“One of the things I struggled with was feeling secure in my choice of school, not really the college I choose but mainly the career path I want to go down because growing up I heard a lot about how creative careers aren’t the best career to get into,” said Jones, 20, a fashion blogger with a YouTube channel called The Fashion Sovereign.
Jones gets guidance from Project S.O.A.R., a program for Chicago Housing Authority residents — ages 14 to 20 — at 18 CHA properties. It’s a tutorial and mentorship program providing youth with one-on-one coaching to support their post-high-school plans. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) piloted the two-year program at $453,000. Thus far, the program has helped 286 CHA youth, like Jones. Now that the HUD funding has ceased, CHA is continuing Project S.O.A.R. and expanding it to anyone within the that age group living in a traditional CHA property.
“Overall, it’s been a really beneficial addition to my life,” Jones said. “It’s helped me to make the college process easier. When I started out, I didn’t know about community colleges, and it helped with the financial aid process.”
And it also connected Jones, who grew up in the ABLA Homes, with a mentor who she said holds her accountable by meeting monthly.
“The way she keeps me accountable is making sure my grades are on track. She knows about the goals I have for the future and making sure the decisions that I’m making will impact me in a good way,” Jones said. “She’s very honest. If I’m doing something off, she’ll call me out.”
Cassandra Brooks is assistant director of education for CHA and said Project S.O.A.R. helps low-income families navigate the college process. The program also coordinates local college tours.
“As we’ve learned more about our residents and the college process, we’ve come to understand that 75% of our grads use two schools to get to that [degree],” Brooks said, “Over half of our college students need to take a break at some point in their college career, so having that one-on-one support to navigate, to stop out and return, has been really key for us.”