Since Deynna Rey was a child growing up in Venezuela, she dreamed of going to college, but the expense made it feel out of reach. Through a combination of her own hard work and the encouragement she received from faculty and staff at City Colleges of Chicago, Deynna is on her way to a bachelor’s degree from Yale University this fall.
Deynna discovered that her Venezuelan high school diploma wasn’t recognized her when her family moved to the United States in 2018. She took the GED© exam to earn her high school equivalency while her family settled into life in Indianapolis. Not long after, the Rey family moved to Chicago, and Deynna’s father heard about free English as a Second Language (ESL) classes at Truman College.
“At that time, college felt completely out of reach. I decided to enroll in ESL classes because I knew I needed to strengthen my English, and I thought free ESL courses were the only chance I had to attend Truman College at all,” Deynna remembered.
Deynna got goosebumps when she heard about what she could do next. The Adult Education Department staff at Truman recognized that she had a high school diploma, and they told her about the Gateway Scholarship, which let her take credit courses at City Colleges for four semesters at a significant discount.
“It took me a long time to believe that it was real. I couldn’t believe that I was really going to be able to attend college,” she said.
In the fall of 2019, Deynna attended ESL classes four days a week and a college success credit course on the fifth day. She was too shy to raise her hand in class, so she would write down all her questions and talk to her instructors after other students left.
“It’s funny now, but it let me build relationships with my instructors and professors. Because classes were small, I could have personal connections with them,” Deynna said.
Deynna began Spring semester in 2020 full of excitement, enrolled in all credit classes. And then the COVID pandemic began. Classes moved to Zoom, and Deynna worried how this would affect her college experience. Little did she know that some of her best experiences were ahead.
Deynna’s transition specialist encouraged her to join the Truman College Nu Lambda chapter of Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society (PTK). With his help, and the support of her Phi Theta Kappa advisor, Dr. Kelly O’Malley, she joined the honors society, taking on a leadership role right away and building a community of friends. Deynna credits Dr. O’Malley with giving her the push she needed to reach her goals time and time again.
“I believe it only takes one person to believe in you more than you believe in yourself,” Deynna said. “That was Dr. O’Malley in my life. From the moment I joined PTK, she was there to support me and always encouraged me to take leaps and try things I never had before,” she said.
Those leaps continued when Deynna ran for president of Truman’s Student Government Association and Vice President of Leadership in PTK in the spring of 2021. She recalls talking to Dr. O’Malley about her doubts – how could she be a leader without leadership experience? But Dr. O’Malley told Deynna something she will always remember.
“She told me, ‘You’re not supposed to know everything when you start. This is a learning experience. We’ve got you,’” Deynna said.
Dr. O’Malley remembers that conversation well, along with all the others they would have throughout Deynna’s time at Truman.
“Sometimes, a little push is the key,” Dr. O’Malley said. “I think it’s so important that students have someone they can trust who sees in them what they don’t yet see in themselves.”
Deynna won both elections and took the helm of two student organizations at once in the fall of 2021. She focused her efforts in the Student Government Association on engaging other students during the pandemic and using respect, diversity, and inclusion as guiding principles in her work. In PTK, Deynna was instrumental in expanding a peer mentoring program that supported all first-year students.
“We partnered with anyone we could at Truman to get it off the ground – the TRiO program, athletics, the ACCESS Center, and even President Jackson, the president of Truman College,” she said.
The project evolved into a semester-long credit leadership class in leadership at Truman with Dr. Jackson’s support.
When Deynna set her sights on transferring to a four-year institution, she was once again faced with the challenge of affording two more years of college—but Dr. O’Malley encouraged her to set ambitious goals.
“I will always remember the day of May 12, 2022,” Deynna said. “That day, I logged into the Yale University admissions portal and saw that I had been accepted. I called Dr. O’Malley, and we cried together.”
Deynna was hopeful that Yale’s need-based financial aid program would come through to make attending possible, and a month later, she and Dr. O’Malley were crying again when Deynna found out she earned a full ride scholarship there.
Deynna will bring plenty of general education transfer credits from Truman with her when she transfers to Yale this fall, but she certainly won’t forget her time at City Colleges. She plans to major in global affairs at Yale University and then pursue graduate school in international law after she earns her bachelor’s degree. She hopes to use her passion for human rights in a global role one day.
“From the moment I took a cultural anthropology class at Truman, I knew that immigration and worldwide issues were what I wanted to spend my life doing,” Deynna said. “Truman wasn’t just a meaningful place for me academically—it was a life-changing experience. It opened up my perspective to the world and the issues going on in our society. I’ll never be the same.”