Growing up in the Chicago suburbs, I struggled academically. I barely graduated from high school because I didn’t see the end goal, and I wanted out. Sometimes I can’t believe where I am today when I consider how things have changed since then.

I moved to Chicago at 19 years old and started working in the service industry. When I was 21, I started playing music and formed a band with a good friend from work.

For around a decade, music was my primary artistic and meaning-giving activity, along with acting and writing.

Big things started happening when I was 30 – the band I played drums in was signed to an agent, and we were going to play Pitchfork Music Festival in the summer of 2020. Then, COVID-19 hit, and everything came to a screeching halt. Pitchfork was canceled, and I was laid off from my day job, too.

I always knew I would go back to school. I told myself, when the time was right, I was going to college. The pandemic was a very clear signal to me that this was the right time to do it. Friends who had attended Harold Washington College said it was fantastic. Being in the center of the city, I knew it would offer a diverse experience, and I enrolled there.

I’ll be honest – I was nervous about starting college. I didn’t have the best high school grades, my financial situation wasn’t great, and it had been 12 years since I stepped foot inside a classroom. I’m also a first-generation college student; my parents did not attend college, and my dad didn’t finish high school. I was worried I would always feel like I was playing catch-up with my peers, but I enrolled anyway.

College was a pleasant surprise because I had more control over the classes I took and the topics I could explore. At Harold Washington, I decided to pursue an Associate of Arts path, which gave me a lot of freedom to dip my toes into as many disciplines as I could while I focused on developing as a writer.

I discovered that City Colleges of Chicago had a lot of non-traditional students like me who were forging their own paths to success. By the end of my first semester of college, I knew I would transfer after getting my associate degree. I wanted to continue this ride to somewhere out of state.

There are so many people at Harold Washington who helped me set my sights high. My anthropology professor Maria Fregoso was so invested in my journey. I didn’t know competitive transfer scholarships existed before I met her. Professors Amelia Amantea and Dave Richardson were incredibly influential to me and wrote impactful letters of recommendation on my behalf. I got so much out of the transfer leadership class offered by Transfer Center Director Ellen Goldberg, and Jim Poole, a volunteer in the Transfer Center, was also a fantastic support.

I started to realize that with strong grades and lots of determination, I could go anywhere. I could even apply to Ivy League schools! I decided to challenge myself and apply to the very best four-year colleges. With help from the Writing Center staff on my personal statements, I sent applications to ten competitive schools when it came time to transfer.

When I started getting acceptance letters to different colleges, their financial aid packages became really important to me. I chose Amherst College because it offers so many great academic options, and I am attending Amherst now on almost a full ride scholarship.

I get to focus on my writing every day at Amherst. Since their curriculum is open, I’m provided with a lot of opportunities to hone my craft. The flexibility here allows me to explore so many interests, like English literature, writing, anthropology, and philosophy.

My short-term goal is to start getting my writing published, and I’d love to release a collection of short stories by the end of my time at Amherst. Further into the future, I hope to write a novel and possibly return to the stage as an actor.

I had no idea that City Colleges of Chicago would catapult me to a place like Amherst College. My 17-year-old self wouldn’t believe it.

A friend of mine told me once: “Embrace your pace.” I remember that whenever I’m feeling uneasy about my non-traditional life path. The winding path can be a really enjoyable one. I think going to college as an older student has helped me to really enjoy the journey more than I might have straight out of high school. It hasn’t always been an easy path, but right now, it’s paying off.

~Written by Zach Hebert, Harold Washington College Alum, Class of 2021

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