If you ask Stefany Cardenas, a native Chicagoan of Ecuadorian descent, about her educational journey, she might tell you “the opportunity of my dreams landed on my lap.” But that shorthand version of her story doesn’t mention the incredible work that Stefany put in for nearly a decade to overcome homelessness and become a computer engineering student at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

After dropping out of Taft High School in 2010 due to housing insecurity, Stefany determined she would still need to earn her diploma to get ahead. So, in 2012, she started taking free GED classes at Wright College, which afforded her with the credentials she needed to land positions in the retail industry and as a bank teller.

While college was always a dream, it didn’t seem within reach until Stefany applied for and received financial aid in 2018, bringing her right back to Wright. She enrolled in engineering prerequisite courses and was encouraged by a professor to attend the annual robotics competition. Even though she wasn’t a contestant, that competition would prove to open doors for Stefany.

There, she was introduced to Dr. Doris Espiritu, the Executive Director of Wright’s Engineering Program, who later told Stefany about the college’s transfer pathway to IIT and encouraged her to apply for the Bridges into Engineering & Computer Science program. The paid Summer Bridge program would help her prepare for the rigors of pursuing a degree in computer engineering, especially the high-level math courses. Dr. Espiritu told Stefany the journey would be challenging but also that she was more than capable of success.

Stefany was accepted into both programs and jumped right in, joining several professional societies and out-of-class activities. In fact, she is currently the Vice President of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) at Wright, as well as a general member of the college’s chapters of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE) and the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE). She also served as one of Wright’s engineering ambassadors, a paid opportunity to promote engineering externally and grow her professional network.

And Stefany’s resume doesn’t end there. When she heard about the civic tech challenge proposed by Mayor Lightfoot, ThinkChicago, and ChicagoNEXT of World Business Chicago in fall 2020, she jumped at the chance to bring a prototype she had been dreaming up to life. Stefany and her team submitted a proposal to bring self-sustaining tech community gardens to Chicago neighborhoods as a response to the economic hardships created by COVID-19.

With a group of fellow Wright students at her side, Stefany was selected to present the idea before a panel of judges at the virtual conference… and they won. Her team beat out over 500 other students from 24 schools across 12 states.

Now, as a dually-enrolled student at Wright and IIT, the Irving Park resident looks forward to continuing her studies and graduating with her bachelor’s degree in computer engineering in 2023. But before that happens, as VP of SWE, later this year, Stefany will have the chance to organize the same robotics competition that she says changed her life.

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