Jaegen Ellison has been focused on the same dream since fifth grade.

“I was in a production of To Kill a Mockingbird and I remember looking out at the audience and seeing a woman crying – she connected so much with the characters and the story. I loved being able to be a part of that, and to connect with the audience on that level.”

When it was time for the Humboldt Park native to go to high school, he found Lincoln Park High School and their theater program. He spent the next four years there, but admits he temporarily lost sight of his goals.

“It wasn’t cool to be in acting, so I got distracted and didn’t focus on learning those skills like I should have,” said Jaegen.

Still knowing he wanted to go to college, his aunt suggested that he try community college first – he could focus on improving his GPA while he earned an associate degree and prepared for whatever his next step would be. That’s when he enrolled in Harold Washington College and stumbled upon the theater program there.

While taking his first acting class, he learned that his professor, Kathryn Nash, was directing a play. He wasn’t cast in that production, but when he saw his classmates on stage, he knew he wouldn’t give up.

“From that day forward I found my spark again, just like in fifth grade. I tried out for the next play and was cast in a lead role. I was so happy to be working on something I loved and to be able to build my skills – I was so eager to learn.”

Jaegen credits the support of Nash as well as Professor Rachel Iannantuoni in helping him to rekindle and follow his passion, saying “they believed in me and supported me the whole way through.”

His family has also been nothing but supportive – there is always someone in the audience, whether it be his mom, his six-year-old daughter, or one of his siblings. Jaegen also inspired his mom to return to school after 45 years – in fact, they would sometimes pass each other in the halls at Harold Washington College where she also earned her associate degree.

Jaegen earned his associate degree in 2015 before he auditioned for and was accepted into UIC’s theater program, and will graduate in May with a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts in Acting. He’s now thinking of going on to graduate school, so he can eventually teach theater at a university. In the near future, he is looking forward to the theater showcase he will participate in at UIC before graduation, where casting agents from around Chicago come to find fresh faces for film and TV.

“I love theater,” he says simply. “It’s where my heart is.”

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