When Mohamed Sissoko tells students from Chicago’s Mercy Home for Boys and Girls, a residence for at-risk young people, about making the transition to college, they have good reason to listen.
It wasn’t long ago that Sissoko, now a junior economics major at Elmhurst, was himself a resident of Mercy Home. Now he serves as one of Elmhurst’s student ambassadors in a program that introduces visiting Mercy Home residents to the Elmhurst campus and to the realities of college life.
“I try to tell them about the College and about my own story,” Sissoko said. “I tell them that I’m here because Elmhurst is such a welcoming place.”
Once each during the fall and spring terms, Elmhurst welcomes high-school-age Mercy Home residents to campus for “Do College For a Day,” a behind-the-scenes look at the ways Elmhurst students live, work, play and study. The visitors attend a class, have lunch in the Frick Center cafeteria, tour residence halls, and meet with College counselors. The program is organized by Julie Gonzales, coordinator of educational enrichment programs.
During the summer, the College offers a more extensive introductory program called “Dream, Believe, Achieve,” coordinated by Jeanne White, associate professor in the Department of Education. Designed for middle-school students, the three-day event includes sessions on how to apply to college, how to pick a major, and how to adjust to college life. There are also workshop sessions in music, art, theatre and creative writing, led in part by Elmhurst students.
“Too often, students have no role models for attending college and no sense of what’s possible,” said Mary Kay Mulvaney, the director of Elmhurst’s Honors Program, who launched the College’s programs for Mercy Home residents. “So many of these students have lived complicated lives and this is a chance for them to see what can be part of their future.” Mulvaney said that one of the goals of Elmhurst’s efforts is to get Mercy residents thinking about and preparing for college at an early age. “All the research suggests that you want students to commit to having college in their future by the time they’re in junior high. Otherwise, it’s less likely to happen,” she said. “We want to reach them early.”
Sissoko is one of several Mercy Home residents who have gone on to thrive at Elmhurst. He came to the United States from strife-torn Mali in West Africa when he was just 17. With his family encountering financial trouble and his prospects for a college education fading, he found support at Mercy Home. With Mercy Home’s help he earned an associate’s degree from Harold Washington College in Chicago in 2012, then applied to and enrolled at Elmhurst.
Sissoko is active in Elmhurst’s Muslim Student Association and its Spiritual Life Council. Earlier this year, he completed an internship in the office of Illinois Governor Pat Quinn. Sissoko said he has already come to feel at home at Elmhurst College.
“I’m comfortable here,” he said. “It’s challenging, but so far, so good.”
Mulvaney said that Sissoko’s story illustrates why Elmhurst wants to help Mercy Home for Boys and Girls serve young people.
“They have great success serving at-risk youths,” she said. “And as a college, we have a social responsibility to help serve young people in such difficult circumstances. We can expose them to aspects of college life. We can encourage them to pursue their dreams and maximize their potential.”