Hayley Himmelman and Jasmeen Wellere have several things in common. They’re perceptive, industrious 18-year-olds who just started college. They grew up in the Chicago area and excelled in their high schools. Both were raised in homogeneous communities.
They have their differences, too. Hayley is outgoing, Jasmeen reserved. Jasmeen hopes to go into law, Hayley into entertainment.
Perhaps their biggest differences stem from those homogeneous communities. Hayley’s is rich and white, and Jasmeen’s is poor and black.
Hayley tells me her parents “had a big struggle deciding if they wanted to live here.” We’re in a coffee shop in Hayley’s hometown, Glencoe, a suburb on the North Shore. Hayley is fair-skinned and blue-eyed, and has long brown hair. It’s May, a month before her graduation from New Trier High in neighboring Winnetka.
Her parents wanted to live in Glencoe “because it’s such a safe, wonderful community, great education, great people,” Hayley says. “But they said it was a big risk of me turning out to be a selfish, spoiled brat. So they worked really hard to make sure that didn’t happen—that I was privileged in some ways, but wouldn’t be selfish about it. They’d still protect me from certain truths, but they’d also let me know harsh realities, let me see the outside world a little more than other kids here.”
For example, she says, in the summer of 2011 she was in a Civic Leadership Institute that focused on urban poverty. The three-week program (with a tuition of $3,175) was sponsored by Northwestern University, but she and the other high schoolers who participated stayed on the campus of the University of Illinois at Chicago, on the near-west side. Most of the participants were white but there were some minorities, and she made her first black friend, a girl from Georgia. “I was like, ‘Finally, I’m meeting people of other races.'”
Hayley and her peers talked about poverty and visited homeless shelters and other agencies that helped the poor. But Hayley’s most vivid memory was an episode on a CTA bus. A woman with a deformed face, who was “messy and dirty,” stood up and begged for money or food. The teens had lunch bags in their backpacks—but the program leaders had warned them earlier not to give anything to beggars. Hayley, the rest of her group, and the two teachers on the bus “just sat there in silence.”
That upset her. “Here we were talking about how we want to do stuff for these people, and we’re presented with a live opportunity, and we did nothing. Someone could have just handed her food. And me too!”
The more Hayley thought about the episode that day, the angrier she got. Back on the U. of I. campus, “I was the one who said, ‘We need to talk about this.'” Not much came of the discussion—the teachers said the situation was more complicated than it appeared. But Hayley was glad she’d at least raised the issue.
Jasmeen Wellere has experienced harsh realities more directly. She grew up on the south side, in neighborhoods where homelessness and street crime are common. When she was 12, her family was living in an apartment on 82nd, near Woodlawn Avenue. One spring morning she awoke to a chill in the flat—the living room window had been shattered by stray bullets. Gangs were fighting in the neighborhood, and bullets came through the windows on two other occasions that year.
Now her family lives in west Woodlawn. Jasmeen sometimes sees “crackheads” dozing on corners near her apartment, she tells me. “I haven’t had any problems because when I’m going somewhere I’m minding my business. I go home and back, home and back.”
Jasmeen has a slight build and wears dark-framed glasses under arching eyebrows. She often wears her hair in Senegalese twist extension braids. We first meet in a coffee shop in South Shore, a few blocks from Hirsch Metropolitan High, where Jasmeen is the number-one senior.
A week later, Jasmeen stands before members of Hirsch’s small graduating class at their commencement, held at the Illinois Institute of Technology. Whereas nearly all of Hayley’s peers at New Trier graduate and attend college, only a little more than a third of Jasmeen’s graduate. In her valedictorian speech, Jasmeen asks her fellow grads to be humble. “I know we’re all receiving praise today, and we deserve to be proud of ourselves,” she tells them. “However, we must not put anyone down because they did not make it here with us. Instead we must give them encouragement that they can make it here as well.”
She adds: “As you move on to whatever you’ll be doing next year, whether you’re in college, the military, or a job, do your best and never settle and do less than what you’re capable of. Do not allow this graduation to be your last accomplishment.”
Cook County has the ingredients for rich racial diversity in its schools. In the 2010-2011 school year, the county’s combined enrollment in elementary and high schools was 33 percent Hispanic, 30 percent black, and 30 percent white, according to figures from the National Center for Education Statistics. Subtract the private schools and the enrollment was still tri-ethnic: 36 percent Hispanic, 31 percent black, 26 percent white.
But the white kids are clustered in suburban schools, and most of the minority kids in Chicago.
Pronounced racial segregation isn’t limited to Cook County. School segregation has long plagued much of the nation, and newly released research shows it’s been worsening.
A study published last month by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA found “persistent and serious increases in segregation by race and poverty” in schools throughout the country over the last two decades. In most of the 25 largest metro areas, black students are concentrated in predominantly minority schools. In 11 of these metro areas, most black students are attending schools that are “intensely segregated” (90-100 percent minority); in metro Chicago and Detroit, nearly half of the black students are in schools with “apartheid conditions”—they’re at least 99 percent minority.
The study’s lead author, Gary Orfield, observed in the report that the nation seems to be returning “to the ‘separate but equal’ philosophy that so clearly failed the country” before the Supreme Court declared racially separate schools inherently unequal in 1954.
Segregated black and Hispanic schools offer students “profoundly unequal opportunities,” wrote Orfield, who’s been researching school segregation for 40 years. “Millions of black and Latino students, but only a tiny fraction of white and Asian children, go to schools where almost everyone is poor,” he wrote. “More educated and powerful communities almost always win the competition for the most critical limited resources, such as the best teachers and administrators.”
In metro Chicago and Detroit, nearly half of the black students are in schools with “apartheid conditions”—they’re at least 99 percent minority.
Segregation also hurts white students. Orfield pointed to census data showing that minorities now constitute a majority of U.S. births. Success as a multiracial nation will entail “learning to work together across lines of race and ethnicity,” he wrote. “Figuring out how to have successful multiracial schools and communities is not a minor concern.”
The lack of exposure of white and minority children to each other is especially stark in Chicago. The enrollment of the Chicago Public Schools last year was 91 percent minority, according to CPS figures—and 87 percent low-income. According to our analysis of those figures, 56 percent of the city’s black students attended schools that were at least 99 percent minority. Almost a third of the city’s schools—214 out of 683—were without a single non-Hispanic white student. Chicago, Orfield observed, “is noteworthy for its extremely unequal schools and virtually no effort to offset the problems.”
Last month, as soon as the Chicago teachers’ strike ended, Mayor Rahm Emanuel proclaimed that the settlement brought “a new day and new direction” for the city’s schools. But as long as low-income and minority students are overwhelmingly segregated in Chicago, the new day probably will be like the old day (although a little longer).
Emanuel said that new specialty schools and charters will give Chicago’s parents more choices. But parents still won’t be able to choose for their children an education in an economically and racially integrated environment.
Research in the 1970s blamed the inferior performance of low-income minority students on their poverty and family background—not their schools. But a meticulous reanalysis of the evidence, published in 2010 in the journal Teachers College Record, strongly indicted segregation. The authors, University of Wisconsin professors Geoffrey D. Borman and Maritza Dowling, found that “going to a high-poverty school or a highly segregated African American school has a profound effect on a student’s achievement outcomes, above and beyond the effect of his or her individual poverty or minority status.” That effect was harmful enough to “deny African American children equality of educational opportunity,” the authors concluded.
Significant desegregation could still be achieved, Orfield wrote in his report, through methods such as the expansion of local and regional magnet schools and the federal funding of transportation costs for students whose voluntary transfers would enhance diversity. But the political leadership for any form of desegregation has been missing, he wrote: “There have been no major positive steps from the Obama administration to alter these patterns.” Obama has pushed for the expansion of charter schools—”the most segregated sector of U.S. public education, particularly for African American students,” Orfield noted. (Chicago’s charter school enrollment is 98 percent minority.) Like the four presidents before him, Obama has focused on testing, competition, and accountability, he added, “with little recognition of educational problems rooted in race and poverty.”
Jasmeen’s brother initially outdid her in school. She recalls an awards ceremony on her last day of first grade. Her brother, who’d just finished second grade, “was racking up these awards, and I didn’t get anything.” She went home in tears. Her mother told her that if she tried harder, she could get awards, too.
Jasmeen took that to heart, and at the end of second grade, she got a trophy for her schoolwork. She didn’t think her father had made it to the ceremony—but when she walked up to receive her award, there he was, with a bouquet of purple flowers. “After a while, it wasn’t about getting a trophy,” Jasmeen says. When she did well in school “my mom was happy and my dad was happy, and I just liked the feeling. I wanted to please them, and I wanted to please myself.”
On her parents’ advice, she peppered her teachers with questions when she didn’t understand something. “I wasn’t one of those nonchalant kids—’Whatever, who cares?’ Kids are scared to ask; they’re scared to sound stupid. Well, it’s OK to be wrong at one point, but not to keep being wrong.”
Jasmeen’s parents never married or lived together. She was raised by her mother, but she saw her father often as she grew up, and says he’s always been supportive of her. She’s the youngest of five, and was raised with two nieces as well. The family subsisted on public aid and child support from Jasmeen’s father, a postal worker. She wasn’t in any camps or out-of-school classes or programs when she was in grammar school, and she never traveled—her family couldn’t afford it.
Like most schools filled with students from poor families, her schools fared badly on standardized tests. When she was in third grade in 2002, at Carter elementary at 57th and Michigan, only 23 percent of students were meeting or exceeding standards on the Illinois Standard Achievement Test—compared with 40 percent of students citywide, and 63 percent statewide. From fourth through eighth grade, she attended Avalon Park elementary, at 80th and Kenwood. When she was in eighth grade, 40 percent of the school’s students were meeting or exceeding standards on the ISAT, compared with 64 percent citywide and 79 percent statewide.
One day when Jasmeen was a seventh-grader at Avalon Park, she saw something unusual in the lunchroom: a blonde, blue-eyed white girl. She apparently was a new student. “Everybody was like, ‘Wait a minute—where’d she come from?” Jasmeen never spoke with the girl, who was younger than her. The girl’s time at the school was brief, but she got Jasmeen wondering about her school’s composition. “I was like, ‘Why aren’t there more of her around here?'” But she figured she knew the answer. “I just assumed that they had the money to live somewhere nicer. I’m sure if we had the money, we would have lived somewhere nicer.”
When Jasmeen was in eighth grade, a friend of hers was attending Senn High School in Edgewater, on the north side. Senn has long been one of Chicago’s most ethnically diverse schools, and when Jasmeen’s friend—who is African-American and Mexican—showed her the Senn yearbook, Jasmeen found the diversity appealing. “I thought, I want to go to a high school where there are all these different kinds of people.”
She knew that the selective-enrollment high schools were among the most diverse of the city’s public schools, and that was one reason she took the entrance exam for them. But her score wasn’t high enough to qualify. She was disappointed but not surprised: her success in grammar school was due to hard work, not brilliance, she tells me. She’s a slow reader, which hurts her on timed tests. So she ended up at her neighborhood school, Hirsch.
Hayley’s father is a doctor and her mother a psychologist. She has one sibling, a sister six years older who Hayley modeled herself after. Her sister sang and danced in shows Hayley went to when she was small, and Hayley wanted to do so too. She took ballet and tap-dance classes starting at age four. In grammar school and junior high, she was in hip-hop classes and took voice lessons, and was in acting classes in Wilmette and at the Piven Theatre Workshop in Evanston. The classes and lessons “helped shape the person I am,” she says. They also convinced her she wanted to be an entertainer.
In the two elementary schools and the junior high Hayley attended in Glencoe, 95 percent of the students were white and only about 4 per cent were from low-income families. Year after year more than 90 percent of the students in these schools met or exceeded state standards. Hayley did well in school from the beginning. She loved reading, which seemed to be the norm among her peers, she says.
When she was about ten, she started going to “enrichment” classes for gifted kids at Northwestern University on Saturdays. There was more of a racial and ethnic mix among the students in these classes than in Glencoe, and she noticed. “I was like, where do they come from, where am I coming from, and how does that make us different?”
The enrollment of Hirsch High, at 77th and Ingleside, shifted radically in the 1950s and ’60s. The neighborhood changed from white to black, and so did the student body. The school had more than 2,000 students in the 60s, but its enrollment has withered recently; at the beginning of last year there were only 390 students.
The student body was 99.5 percent black, 0.5 percent Hispanic, and 95 percent low-income. When Jasmeen was a freshman, only 4 percent of the school’s students met or exceeded standards on the Prairie State Achievement Exam; by last year, that had risen to 7 percent. In the class of 2011, the average composite ACT score, 14, ranked in the 11th percentile nationally.
On a scale of 99, Hirsch students and teachers surveyed last year gave their school a 28 on “supportive environment and ambitious instruction,” and a 13 on safety.
Jasmeen recalls walking through Hirsch’s halls her first days as a freshman and seeing half a dozen pregnant girls. She felt challenged in a few of her classes, she says, “but some of the teachers didn’t care, so they didn’t give us a heavy load.” She remembers a freshman algebra teacher telling the class, “I don’t care if you do your work, I’m still gonna get paid.” Another teacher “let people from other classes come to his class—it was like a hangout spot. People didn’t do much work.”
She wanted to transfer out of the “hangout” class, but that required a meeting with a counselor. There were only two counselors in the school, and when she tried to make an appointment, she was told they were busy helping seniors.
She says her classmates offered little in class discussions. “Some of them were smart, but they just didn’t apply themselves.” Many didn’t see college as a possibility. “It’s called learned helplessness. They don’t feel like they can do it, so they just don’t try. They don’t want to fail. They want to stay in their comfort zone.”
Jasmeen remembers a freshman algebra teacher telling the class, “I don’t care if you do your work, I’m still gonna get paid.” Another teacher “let people from other classes come to his class—it was like a hangout spot. People didn’t do much work.”
Her peers’ lack of self-confidence bothered her, but it didn’t surprise her. In the neighborhoods where she was raised, she says, “People get a lot of negative messages, and they’re hard to ignore. I know people who have family members who tell them, ‘You can’t do that—none of us did that.’ They’ll make you feel bad for doing something different.”
Why were people conveying negative messages? “There are people who want you to be down there with them, and they’ll do anything to get you there. When you go out and do something, they have a sense that you think you’re better than them, so they’re going to put you down.” She said she tried to keep such people out of her life.
She got all A’s all four years at Hirsch. This didn’t win her friends. “Sometimes I felt I didn’t belong,” she says, “’cause I didn’t really care about a lot of the stuff that other people cared about. Being cool was not important at all to me. I never kissed up to a teacher or anything, I just did the work.”
After-school tutoring from some of her teachers helped. She also seized opportunities that led her outside school.
Her freshman year, a teacher recommended her for a Law and Public Safety Academy that introduces students to careers in those fields. Hirsch and three other Chicago public high schools participate in the academy. This led Jasmeen to an internship one summer in the Cook County courts. In housing court, she saw people who were crying because they were losing their homes in foreclosures. “Some of them didn’t have lawyers, and I was thinking, ‘I wish I could be that lawyer to help you.'”
Jasmeen’s family had their own housing problems while she was in high school—they had to move when the gas in their apartment building was cut off. The building had changed hands without the tenants being notified; her mother ended up losing her security deposit. None of the tenants knew how to fight back. “People with formal educations know these things,” she tells me. “Knowledge of the law is power.”
She decided she wanted to become a lawyer who represents poor families. “I’m able to empathize with them,” she says. “People who haven’t lived in those situations aren’t going to try as hard to help. When things come easy to people, they don’t understand—and sometimes they don’t want to understand. They’re like, ‘Why are these people having these problems?'”
Jasmeen also got involved with Upward Bound. It’s a University of Chicago program that helps prepare low-income public school students for college. With Upward Bound, Jasmeen was able to travel for the first time—during spring breaks, the group visited colleges in New York, Washington, D.C., and South Dakota.
She also got tutoring through the program from University of Chicago students. She appreciated that, but it also meant an uneasy trip home from the U. of C. campus in Hyde Park. She was usually escorted by her boyfriend, who was also in Upward Bound. Jasmeen’s family had moved after their gas was cut off to an apartment on Eberhart near 63rd. Getting home from the U. of C. involved waiting for a bus on a perilous corner under the el tracks at 63rd and Cottage Grove.
They were accosted there one night by a young man who demanded money from Jasmeen’s boyfriend. Jasmeen felt sure the youth was part of a group lurking nearby, so she talked her boyfriend out of fighting back. They took shelter in a beauty shop near the corner. They didn’t bother calling police; in west Woodlawn, Jasmeen tells me, police respond slowly if at all. After a long, nerve-racking wait in the beauty shop, she and her boyfriend caught the bus.
Jasmeen felt she made the most of her high school years given her circumstances, but she wished Hirsch had offered her more. “I would have liked to go to a school that had all the advantages,” she says. “Those schools shouldn’t be just for wealthy kids.”
Like Hirsch, New Trier is public, but there the similarity ends. Founded in 1901, New Trier has long been regarded as one of the nation’s premier high schools. Noteworthy alum include Harvard Law School dean Martha Minow, former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, novelist and lawyer Scott Turow, actors Charlton Heston, Ann-Margret, and Rock Hudson, director Edward Zwick, former Playboy CEO Christie Hefner, singer-songwriter Liz Phair, chef Charlie Trotter, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
In the 2010-’11 school year New Trier had about 1,000 freshmen on a campus in Northfield, and 3,100 sophomores, juniors, and seniors on its campus in Winnetka. The student body was 85 percent white, 9 percent Asian, 3 percent Hispanic, 2 percent multiracial, and 0.7 percent black; 4 percent of the students were low-income. Last year, 90 percent of the students met or exceeded standards on the PSAE. In the class of 2012, the average composite ACT score, 28, was in the 91st percentile nationally.
Ninety-four percent of New Trier’s teachers have at least a master’s, and the average teacher salary is $104,000.
“I generally loved my classes,” Hayley says. “There were a couple of teachers that didn’t seem to care that much, but generally the faculty was awesome and challenging. Classes were hard for me, but no harder than I could handle.”
Her classmates were “extremely smart,” she says, and made classes with discussions invigorating. She and her peers would “bounce ideas back and forth”; she often felt she was learning as much from them as from her teachers. Math wasn’t her strong suit, and she found her AP calculus class senior year especially difficult—but a “genius” Yale-bound classmate helped her understand it.
The prevalence of bright students in the school “was almost a bad thing, because it puts you down when teachers are comparing you,” she says. “It’s cool to be able to work with so many smart students, but definitely here they pit us against each other sometimes.”
When I talked with Hayley in the spring, she’d recently read a 1998 Chicago magazine article in her AP psychology class on New Trier’s competitive environment. The author of the story, Cynthia Hanson, noted that many parents hired private tutors for their children, and that students often skipped lunch “so they can squeeze in another course or activity to enhance their transcripts.”
Hayley says the atmosphere is still highly competitive, and that she has mixed feelings about it. “Students are under a lot of pressure to be perfect—at sports, in theater, but mostly academically. There’s so much pressure to get it right or get the best grade. But I can’t totally complain about it because I think I’ve benefited from it. I have an advantage going into college and life with how competitive it was.”
New Trier no longer has class rank. Hayley was always on the honor roll, and she said her grade point average (on an unweighted 4-point scale) was about 3.7 or 3.8.
One of New Trier’s best features for Hayley, given her performing interests, was its advanced fine arts programs. She’s a “triple threat,” she says—she sings, dances, and acts, and feels equally skilled in each. She’s also interested in screenwriting and directing. “I’m realistic in not thinking I’m gonna just be some Broadway star or something,” she tells me. “I think I could be a writer of TV shows or of movies, or be a director.”
“Students are under a lot of pressure to be perfect—at sports, in theater, but mostly academically. But I can’t totally complain about it because I think I’ve benefited from it. I have an advantage going into college and life.”
She sees acting as “a sort of psychology. It’s the study of people, basically. If you’re studying a character in depth you’re going to naturally compare yourself to the character. You end up learning about yourself.”
She was in acting and singing productions throughout her four years, including the school’s annual musical lampoon. Her New Trier performing career culminated in March when she got her first lead—the role of Belle in Beauty and the Beast in the school’s major annual musical.
New Trier’s big musical is “really professional,” Hayley says. “The orchestra’s incredible. The direction is amazing. The set is perfect.
“I think Belle is the best part I could play,” she continues. “My mom raised me to be a feminist, and Belle’s a really strong female character, which isn’t common in musicals.”
Hayley says she didn’t hear much about race and class issues at New Trier except from one teacher she had both junior and senior year. “That’s the thing about this bubble of a community,” she says. “We don’t really think about what’s going on outside of New Trier or the North Shore.” The students are “mature when it comes to school—we take it very seriously. But in terms of knowing anything about other races or lower socioeconomic communities, a lot of us are ignorant.”
Jasmeen applied to a dozen colleges, among them Northwestern, Lake Forest, DePaul, University of Illinois at Springfield, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, DePauw, Xavier in Louisiana, and Howard in Washington, D.C.
She loved Northwestern’s campus and low student-faculty ratio (seven to one). “I was telling my teachers, ‘If I get accepted to Northwestern, don’t even ask me where I’m going, ’cause I’m going there.'”
She also liked Howard, which she saw on an Upward Bound trip. Its student body is 96 percent African-American. “It seemed close-knit, and I felt I’d be comfortable there,” Jasmeen tells me. “But I also wanted to be around different kinds of people.”
She got 19 on her ACT, which put her in the 41st percentile nationally. On a second try, she got an 18. The scores were a letdown, especially because she’d prepped so much for the test. “In Upward Bound we took it repeatedly—it was like ACT all day, every day. I’ve always gotten in the range of 16 to 19. I don’t know why I didn’t move out of that range.”
NU turned out to be the only school that didn’t accept her. Her mixed feelings about Howard became moot because that school didn’t offer her financial aid. She wasn’t wowed by SIU-Edwardsville, but decided to go there because the financial aid package made it the most affordable.
Jasmeen was awarded a $1,000 scholarship from the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and a $250 scholarship from Upward Bound. Late this summer, she won a Pullman Foundation scholarship, which will cover the remainder of her financial gap at SIU.
In August, shortly before leaving for school, she tells me she’s excited but also apprehensive. She’s nervous about heading into an environment where she’ll be a distinct minority. The town of Edwardsville, 275 miles southwest of Chicago, is 85 percent white and 8 percent black. SIU’s enrollment in Edwardsville is 75 percent white and 14 percent black. Fourteen percent is the national average of undergraduate African-Americans—but it’s quite a contrast with the near 100 percent African-American populations Jasmeen was used to in her schools and neighborhoods.
“There are gonna be more white people and a few Asians,” she tells me. “It might be awkward at first, but I think I’ll get used to it.”
She’s nervous about whether she’ll manage to keep up with college work, especially given how slowly she reads. “I’m not prepared to have enormously harder classes,” she says.
Jasmeen smiles. “But will I have to worry about gunshots when I’m on campus? I doubt that.”
Hayley applied to Northwestern, University of Illinois, University of Michigan, and Indiana University. She got a scholarship to Indiana, but when she got accepted on early decision by Northwestern, she withdrew her other applications.
She chose NU because of its renowned theater program, and because of her familiarity with the school from the programs she’d attended there beginning in fifth grade.
Living so close to home “at first was a big disadvantage for me,” she says. But her parents “assured me they’re gonna give me space. And I really love Evanston. I think it’s gonna be a whole different situation for me, even if it is 15 minutes from my house.”
She got a 32 on her ACT. It disappointed her, because her sister had gotten a 33. She took it a second time; 32 again. “That pissed me off because you’re supposed to get a couple points higher the second time if you’ve been studying, and I had been.”
Hayley tells me she’s eager to leave the “bubble” at New Trier. “Northwestern prides itself on its diversity, on having students from all over the world, of all different races,” she says. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, NU’s undergraduate enrollment last year was 55 percent white, 18 percent Asian, 8 percent Hispanic, and 5 percent African-American, along with smaller numbers of other groups.
Hayley allows that because it’s so expensive to attend NU—tuition is $43,380 this year, and with room and board the tab is $57,108—a lot of her classmates there “will still be privileged like the people in Glencoe.”
I talk with Hayley again in late September, near the end of her orientation week at Northwestern. She’s jubilant about her first days at the school. “It’s been exhausting and stressful, but really fun.”
NU is “definitely more diverse” than New Trier, she says. Then she laughs and adds, “I still have only been hanging out with the white Jewish kids, but I’m striving to make friends outside of that group.”
Classes begin in two days. “I feel like I might be a little out of my element because everyone here is so smart,” she says. “But I know that I’m very prepared, socially and academically.”
She tells me she thinks she’s at the perfect school to help her fulfill her dream of being “an admired actor or writer.”
She also hopes to have kids eventually, and when she does she wouldn’t mind settling down on the North Shore. “I’d have to be really strict like my parents were in not letting this area get to my kids’ heads,” she says. “But I do like everything else about it. I hope I’ll have the kind of money that you need to live here.”
But what about the “bubble” she’d talked about escaping? Hayley says she often thinks about using her “privilege” one day to help others less fortunate.
“It sounds kind of stupid, especially because I wanna be an actor, but I’ve always dreamed that whatever I do I will make a lot of money, so I can donate to causes I feel passionate about, or start some sort of foundation.”
She doesn’t worry much about supporting herself eventually, but sometimes she thinks she should. Her family’s income is “on the lower side” in Glencoe. “That doesn’t mean we’re not wealthy, but it means we don’t have an unlimited income I can live on forever. I just have a good feeling that while I may not end up extremely rich, I’m gonna figure something out as a job with a steady income.”
Jasmeen is already deep into classes when we speak again in late September—SIU started a month earlier than Northwestern. “I’m doing pretty well, it’s just a lot of work,” she tells me.
She says she’s “overwhelmed” by the “tons of reading and homework.”
“The teachers here give us big projects when we’re still doing other things, so I have to be careful about managing my time.” She’s taking five classes, and thinks she might limit that to four next semester to make sure she maintains “a very solid GPA.”
Being a lawyer is still her goal, but social work is her backup plan if she doesn’t get into law school, and will likely be her undergraduate major. If she does get to be a lawyer, she thinks the social-work training will make her more adept at representing low-income families.
She wants to help her family financially—her mom and her siblings, her nieces and nephews. “I don’t want my nieces and nephews to have to live that unprivileged life,” she says. “That’s something I worry about, because if I choose to be a social worker and not get my law degree, I’m not gonna make enough to bring everyone up from where we all are.”
But, like Hayley, Jasmeen is confident about earning a livable wage when she’s done with college. “I’m the kind of person who’s gonna go out there and make the connections to get a good job.”
Jasmeen says she hasn’t detected any racism at SIU, but she often feels isolated. She’s rooming with a fellow public-school south-sider, an African-American girl she got to know in U. of C.’s Upward Bound program. Jasmeen exchanged phone numbers with a classmate, a white girl, but they haven’t called each other yet.
Family weekend is this Saturday and Sunday, and Jasmeen isn’t looking forward to it. “My mom’s car is messed up, my dad’s car is messed up, and my sister has a job she can’t leave,” she says. “I’m gonna be one of the only ones without a family here.” And Friday is her 19th birthday. “Nobody’s gonna want to celebrate it with me because they’ll be with their families.”
Still, being away at college is a clear improvement, she says. “I feel a lot safer. It’s a big relief not to have to think about where you can walk and where you can’t. The only thing you have to be scared of here is the deer.” (Meantime, back in her Chicago neighborhood, a 17-year-old was shot to death last Saturday night a half block from her home.)
When Jasmeen settles down with her own family, it probably won’t be on the south side. “There are some parts that are OK. Hyde Park. Bronzeville, if you’re in the right section.” She’d like her family to be safe. She’d also like her kids to go to integrated schools, which are few and far between on the south side. “I want my kids to experience being around whites, Asians, Africans,” she says. “I want them to be comfortable with everybody. And I’d like to live where I don’t have to worry that if my kids go to a certain school, they won’t get as good an education as other kids.”
Jena Cutie helped research this story.