Jessica Ballenger was going through a very difficult time in her life when she found out she had been awarded the PepsiCo Foundation’s Uplift Scholarship.

“It was an indicator that things were turning around for me—that I have a chance at being successful,” the Olive-Harvey College student recalled.

As a working mom and student, the scholarship helped to alleviate the stress of paying for her classes. But beyond the tuition relief, it also offered a support system when she needed it the most.

“It’s not even just the money,” Jessica said. “It’s the resources and support they provide. They’re always encouraging and uplifting [me].”

For the self-described non-traditional student, that support is making a big difference in her educational journey. Growing up, Jessica was part of the foster care system and moved around from home to home until she was on her own at age 16. She said she struggled and made decisions she’s not proud of before she was ultimately sent to prison.

There, Jessica was forced to reexamine the life choices she had been making—she knew she couldn’t continue down the same path. She earned her GED while in prison, and, once her sentence was up, she started thinking about continuing her education.

At the time, Jessica was repairing phones as a side job to earn additional money for her family. Beyond the good money she was making, she was really enjoying working with her hands and learning more about technology.

She realized she wanted to learn even more about the IT sector and explore not only the hardware side, but the software and programming side, too. That realization led her to Olive-Harvey College, the closest City College to her home on the Southeast Side of Chicago.

While she certainly has a busy schedule, balancing her classes, job, and taking care of her family, it’s important for Jessica to set an example for her kids that “education can help them get places.”

It’s a message she wants to share with her entire community, too. As a black woman in STEM, she said that most people wouldn’t think she’s an IT specialist.

“We don’t see them,” Jessica said, talking about the lack of representation of Black people in the technology sector.

The opportunity to break down that barrier makes her grateful for the Uplift Scholarship, which is targeted to students who identify as Black, African American, Hispanic, or Latinx.

“The Uplift Scholarship supports people in my community like me,” she said. “It helps people blossom.”

In addition to the scholarship, Jessica has utilized Olive-Harvey’s Wellness and Tutoring Centers to get support with her mental health and her academics. The wraparound services are helping her succeed both inside and outside of the classroom as she finishes her final classes and looks forward to a promising future in IT.

“The best thing about CCC is they care about their students,” she said. “They genuinely want to see you get far in your life.”

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