Growing up on the southwest side of Chicago, Naomi Monroe was always a strong student. In junior high, she moved from the LeClaire Courts neighborhood to Wentworth Gardens and was named valedictorian of her eighth grade class. She was honored to be the student speaker at her graduation ceremony.
“I had a great start to high school,” she recalled. But things got difficult during her junior year at Dunbar Vocational Career Academy when she found out she was pregnant with her first child. “I was missing so many days of school and eventually I just stopped going.” A year later, Naomi discovered she was pregnant again, this time with twins.
“I was basically being a mom during that time, and I put my education on the back burner,” she said. She worked several jobs at restaurants and hotels and occasionally enrolled in various General Equivalency Diploma (GED) programs, but childcare issues and feelings of disconnection got in the way of her earning her high school equivalency.
“I knew the material, but I wasn’t motivated, and I didn’t get a strong feeling of community,” she said.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic began in spring of 2020. Naomi’s daughters were in kindergarten and first grade when their classes suddenly went fully remote. Naomi had to stop working to supervise her girls’ learning at home each day.
After a few months at home, she decided it was the right time to earn her high school equivalency. Naomi enrolled in the GED program at Kennedy-King the following school year and told herself, “If I want to go places I’ve never been, then I have to do something I’ve never done.”
There were highs and lows throughout her journey. Naomi said that she felt the sense of community at Kennedy-King that she had been longing for in previous GED programs. While taking classes in the adult education department at Kennedy-King to prepare for her GED, Naomi also enrolled in early childhood education classes through the Career Bridge program at City Colleges. The program allowed Naomi to earn college credits while working toward her high school equivalency.
Her GED instructor, Alanna Stephen-Mays, helped Naomi to develop the writing skills she needed for college courses. Ken Harris, her tutor through the Career Bridge program, was instrumental in guiding Naomi through difficult assignments and showing her how to give effective presentations. Associate Professor Alishia Atkins, her child development professor, was incredibly supportive as she navigated college courses for the first time.
In the fall of 2021, Naomi experienced personal challenges and almost dropped all her classes at midterm. “I had a lot of things going on in my life that deterred me and made my vision cloudy. I almost allowed myself to give up.”
But Naomi persevered with help. “It was different this time. My instructors at Kennedy-King reached out to me. They were wondering what was going on and where I was. I felt the support, and that gave me the extra push,” she said.
“We saw her potential and would not allow her to stop,” said her instructor Alanna Stephen-Mays. “She had come too far.”
Naomi got back on track and excelled! “In other GED programs I was in, I felt like I just came to class and went through the motions. But at Kennedy-King, they encouraged me to take practice GED tests, and they helped me develop a plan.”
Naomi earned her GED on January 5, 2022. She attacked the test in sections, taking one subject area at a time. Her three daughters, now eight and nine years old, have been there every step of the way to celebrate achievements with her. “Each time I took a section of the GED test, I had my children click on the results without me looking at the screen. They were the ones to tell me I passed.”
Her studies are having a positive impact on her girls, she said. “When I’m studying now, they are mindful; they know I’m studying and they’re proud. I’ve even noticed an improvement in their achievement in school,” she recounted.
Naomi has no plans to stop setting and reaching her goals. She was invited to join the Lambda Rho chapter of the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society at Kennedy-King College this April, and she is enrolled in Summer classes with just one class left before she earns her Basic Certificate in Child Development. Naomi began a new job in sales marketing in early May and has her sights on an associate degree in child development next.
“It feels like a dream come true,” she said. “I don’t want to stop.”
Naomi plans to open a daycare center in the future in a neighborhood like the ones in which she grew up. “I want to provide high-quality daycare to low-income families,” she said. She hopes her story might give someone else the push they need to finish their degree and dream big. She used to read stories of other student’s successes and would think, “One day, it will be my turn.”
It is definitely Naomi’s turn. She was chosen to be the student speaker at the 2022 City Colleges of Chicago Adult Education High School Equivalency Recognition Ceremony on June 4 at Malcolm X College.
“I am inspired by Naomi’s resilience and her success,” said Dr. Henry Horace, Dean of Adult Education at Kennedy-King. “She is a beam of hope to others in a similar circumstance. Her success confirms that the City Colleges of Chicago is a place of hope for many of us whose lives have to be put on hold as we overcome inequities and life-changing events,” he said.
Naomi is still drafting her speech for the June 4 ceremony. “I can say that it will definitely be from the heart,” she said. No doubt it will inspire others, just like her eighth grade graduation speech.