SOUTH CHICAGO — A little advice from a teacher who cared went a long way for Epic Academy College Prep senior Esme Rivera, who now has a hefty stack of college acceptance letters and more than $1 million in scholarships.
Rivera, 17, said her love of learning began in elementary school at Arnold Mireles Academy, 9000 S. Exchange Ave, when a teacher said she should focus more when studying. By the time she was in high school, this seemingly simple advice propelled her to a 4.3 GPA, $1.4 million in scholarships and 26 college acceptance letters.
“I came [to] Epic knowing I was going to go college, I was going to succeed, but I didn’t know how, especially with the financial part and I didn’t do know what extra things I could do besides my grades and SAT because that’s what everyone knows,” said Rivera, who will be a first-generation college student. “Epic taught me with hard work and dedication you can accomplish so much.”
Rivera, a National Honor Society member and school ambassador, said in-state schools such as University of Illinois at Chicago and University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign top the list of schools she is considering. Right now, she is torn between two career paths.
“I am having a hard time choosing between nursing and marketing because with nursing I love helping people and I love biology but then with marketing, I’ve always been a great writer,” said Rivera.
Born and raised on 79th Street in the South Shore neighborhood, Rivera said she witnessed violence both in school and on the streets. She said the culture at Epic is “peaceful” compared to her elementary school, where fights amongst students were commonplace.
“There’s a lot of poverty [on the South Side], a lot of violence there all the time, a lot of horrible things but that did not dictate my goals or take away from my family’s goals,” said Rivera.
Rivera and her little brother both work side jobs to help their mother pay the bills. She works for After School Matters in a culinary related program. Her brother has earned money by raking leaves and shoveling snow for neighbors.
During her freshman and sophomore years, she admitted to feeling overwhelmed at times by the pressures she faced both in the classroom and at home to succeed. However, by leaning on her family, friends and staff members at Epic she was able to persevere.
“A lot was dependent on me. I was just coming into high school,” said Rivera. “After a second of breaking down all these things I remembered, ‘You have a bigger goal and all of these are just little small obstacles.’”
She said there was friendly competition among Epic students to help one another succeed.
“My entire cohort is really full of talented people,” Rivera said. “Everyone in that cohort––whether they say it or not––they have the goals to succeed to go to college or go to a program. We really push each other. It was competition for all of us to get into [U of I] but even though it was a competition we still read over each other’s essays, kept our grades on track.”
Yani Mason, director of development and marketing at Epic, said Rivera’s determination is contagious.
“Esme is an inspiration to all of our students,” said Mason. “Esme has shown that if you are dedicated and work hard you can receive the funding you need to pursue your education, your dreams. She is a dynamic young woman who is really an asset to our school and to our community. She knows the value of education and through her hard work she’s really displayed that.”