Before Aziza Mohammadi arrived in Chicago as a 17-year-old refugee from Sri Lanka, she didn’t have the chance to complete her high school education, but she was determined to go to college. Knowing she would first need to get her high school diploma, the refugee agency that helped Aziza’s family of six resettle in Chicago recommended ESL classes at the City Colleges of Chicago. From there, she’d be able to earn her GED and then enroll in credit courses towards her associate’s degree.

Aziza was understandably anxious – she was shy, had just arrived in a foreign country, and presumed the ESL classes would be full of younger students. But she quickly learned that the demographic at City Colleges was diverse, and the free program welcomed students of all ages and from all walks of life. In fact, the older students in her class motivated Aziza to continue her education, and while they came from a wide variety of backgrounds, they shared experiences similar to hers.

At the time, Aziza was working two jobs – one at a salon and one in retail – but she still made time for her studies, completing her ESL courses, then receiving her GED, and finally, enrolling in credit classes at Truman College, where she was also in the Federal Work Study Program. And the decision about what to study wasn’t difficult for Aziza. She was enthralled by the accounting aspects of her job in retail and knew right away that’s what she wanted to do.

After receiving multiple scholarships and joining a network of support programs offered at City Colleges, including TRiO and One Million Degrees, Aziza earned her Associate in Arts with a business emphasis in December 2020. She even became the Vice President of Service in the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society, through which she has worked to support the success of other ESL, GED, and Gateway students at City Colleges. Aziza says she “loves to help others and see them succeed in their lives, regardless of their position, because every individual’s story is different.”

Now, Aziza is eager to start classes in accounting at UIC in the fall of 2021, and she eventually wants to use her bachelor’s degree in the field to manage her own clothing business. With no time to waste, Aziza is already working on building her business from the ground up and is looking forward to employing other women with stories like her own.

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