A debt-free college for students who struggle most

Father Stephen Katsouros, right, is dean and executive director of Arrupe College of Loyola University Chicago.

Story highlights

  • Arrupe College of Loyola University Chicago is the first Jesuit community college in the world
  • The school recruits minority students who struggled in high school but want to get to a four-year university

Chicago (CNN)Death first stared at Sonia, straight in the eyes, when she was only 10 years old.

"I was wondering, 'When is it going to be my last day?'" Sonia told CNN. "I wasn't living. I was surviving."
    The ruthless gangs in her native Guatemala had her in the crosshairs during her early teenage years, she said, following her and threatening her in the street. Sonia, who asked CNN to change her name because she fears for her safety, said they threatened her mother, as well.
    "They told her, 'We are going to rape your daughters,' " Sonia said.
    As menacing messages followed, her parents fled north to the United States. Sonia and her two younger sisters were put up for adoption at an orphanage.
    At 16, she made her own desperate decision to journey from Guatemala to the United States.
    "My father, he almost died in the desert and my mother got kidnapped in Mexico, and I still decided to take the risk," Sonia said.
    Surviving the six-month voyage, some of it by foot, from Guatemala City to Chicago only strengthened her determination to achieve her American dream. She wanted to become the first in her family to earn a college degree, she said. But as she prepared to graduate from high school with a 4.1 GPA, Sonia's heart sank at the realization that as an undocumented immigrant she would qualify for little to no college financial aid.
    "I'm Christian, so I was always praying," she said.

    Prayers answered

    Sonia received a college acceptance letter signed by a Jesuit priest, Father Stephen Katsouros, who is an "Olivia Pope," of sorts, for marginalized students in Chicago. Olivia Pope is the fictional crisis manager played by Kerry Washington in the hit series "Scandal."
    Katsouros is the dean and executive director of Arrupe College of Loyola University Chicago, the first Jesuit community college in the world. The mission of this new two-year college, which just began its second year, is offer a liberal arts education to "a diverse population, many of whom are the first in their family to pursue higher education." Many of their students struggled in high school, but have the drive and desire to transfer to a four-year university.
    Arrupe College is located at Loyola University in downtown Chicago.
    Katsouros picks apart and solves the real-life emergencies Arrupe's students face every day. When he found out one of his students was homeless, his team placed the student in a safe home, he said.
    Another time, when a student walked the halls with a swollen face, Katsouros asked, "What happened to you?" The student had an abscessed tooth, but hadn't gone to the dentist because of a lack of insurance, he said. Katsouros put him in contact with a Loyola donor who happened to be a dentist. The student was back in good health in no time.
    When Katsouros learned his students didn't have laptops, his team raised money and provided computers. And when he figured out most of his Arrupe students had qualified for reduced or free breakfast and lunch in high school, they rolled out a free breakfast and lunch program at Arrupe. Needs like eating don't go away just because you're 18, Katsouros said.
    And while Katsouros' has handled many crises, he can't say "It's handled" just yet.

    The higher education gap

    The students' stories of poverty and homelessness shed light on the litany of personal setbacks that some have to overcome to get a post-secondary education. Another factor pulling down many black and Hispanic youth: violence. With an average of nearly 82 shootings per week, the city will likely pass last year's mark. Chicago averages nearly 82 shootings per week.
    The higher education gap in Chicago is divided along racial lines. In 2014, between 6% and 16% of African-American and Latino students attained a college degree, while 27 to 36% of white students earned a degree, according to a study by the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research.
    Father Michael Garanzini named the college after Pedro Arrupe, a Jesuit priest.
    "These students are not strangers to failure," said Father Michael Garanzini, the mastermind behind Arrupe. "These kids, they struggle. Because they struggle and because they are motivated, I'm going to put my money on them."
    The goal, Garanzini said, is to give low-income students who would otherwise not attend college an opportunity for a two-year degree, debt free -- and the preparation to continue on to a four-year college.
    "There's a new feeling among the Jesuits that we have to be careful that we don't become too elitist, where we are educating the wealthy and the well off only," said Garanzini, who named the college Arrupe, after Pedro Arrupe, a Spanish Jesuit priest who promoted the alleviation of poverty and eradication of racial discrimination.
    Call it academic social justice, Jesuit-style, or social justice period. Students with a high GPA, like Sonia, are the exception at Arrupe. The inaugural class, which just started its second year at Arrupe, has an average high school GPA of 2.8 and an average ACT score of 18, according to Arrupe records. The student body is 68% Latino, 21% African American and 4% white.
    Program directors at community colleges in Chicago warned Garanzini that the student profiles he was looking to help were "not going to finish" college unless they were hand-held through a very structured program, he told CNN. Indeed, according to a study conducted by Complete College America, 5% of full-time students pursuing a two-year degree graduate on time.

    Defying the odds

    Sounds like a job for the Jesuit "Olivia Pope."
    Katsouros embraced the challenge to help his students defy the odds. He proudly says Loyola created a very "intrusive" program that "provides a lot of structure, a lot of predictability, a lot of routine and not many choices."
    "When they are accepted we send them a [picture] frame," Katsouros told CNN. "And I tell the students 'right now you can put a picture of yourself [in there]. A selfie. I don't care; but hang on to this frame because two years from now you'll put your diploma from Arrupe College and Loyola University on this frame'."
    Sonia said she decided to keep the picture frame empty and use it as a form of motivation to keep striving for her goal.
    But, indeed, students have few choices to make at Arrupe. At the beginning of the first year, students choose from three concentrations, Arts and humanities, business, or social and behavioral sciences. Sonia chose business. The average classroom size is 23. Students take two courses in eight-week terms, with five terms a year, and attend classes four days a week from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., with most of the homework completion done inside the classroom. The students also get access to a counselor, social worker and tutors.
    Arrupe students participate in a summer enrichment program at the Loyola University campus in Woodstock, Illinois.
    "These are the students that often time the higher-ed culture doesn't invest in [because] their grades are too low," Katsouros told CNN. "They don't get the same opportunities that other students get. So we are saying 'you are worthy of our investment and I think you can do this. And we are going to walk with you through the first couple of years of undergrad. We interviewed you and you showed us that you have what it takes'."
    The Arrupe model appears to be working, Katsouros said. Among the students, 86% are on track to finish their associate degree in two years, compared to the 5% national completion rate for students at two-year colleges. The retention rate for the inaugural year, he said, is 91%.
    "I think they respond to people believing in them," Katsouros said.
    "Everyone comes here with a dream," Sonia said. "We are here to show the world that even though we don't have the same opportunities, we can be someone. I think this support makes you feel comfortable and makes you do great things."

    One more rule: 'No borrowing'

    To make sure that the dreams of Sonia and her classmates are not shattered by the daunting student debt problem in the United States, Garanzini said he added one more rule to Arrupe's already structured post-secondary education program.
    "No borrowing," Garanzini said.
    To make sure that Arrupe students earn their two-year degrees debt free, Garanzini said that Arrupe pays for most of students' educations through donations. Students are only responsible for about $10,000, per year, he said. It's mostly covered by financial aid. In addition, financial aid counselors also help students fill out private scholarship aid applications, which usually covers remaining costs. Students are also encouraged to work one day a week.
    However, for the 34 undocumented students, including Sonia, coming up with $10,000 is more challenging. Undocumented students don't qualify for many types of financial aid.
    When Sonia learned she couldn't apply for certain student aid because of her legal status, she realized what it meant to "live in the shadows" in the United States, she said.
    Arrupe student Vanessa Mora at the Loyola University campus in Woodstock, Illinois.
    It means "that you don't have the same opportunities that everyone else has, despite how hard you work," Sonia said.
    Despite the setback, Sonia said she wasn't discouraged. She applied for scholarships with no citizenship requirement, and was awarded more than $35,000 for her first two years of college, and another $15,000 if she continues on to a four-year college or university.
    Even though her college bills are paid for the foreseeable future, she said she is "still scared" about getting deported to Guatemala.
    "I tell my sister, 'When will we have a normal life?' " she said. "I just want to be a normal girl. I just want to be normal."

    The next challenge

    Even Katsouros can't help Sonia with her legal status; that's up to US immigration authorities. Sonia said her immigration case is pending. For now, she's looking forward to her second year of schooling getting underway.
    "My dream has come true," Sonia said. "I'm [a] first generation [college student] and I just finished my first year. I have straight As."
    Arrupe recruits minority students who have the drive and the desire to transfer to a four-year university.
    Sonia's story and the Arrupe education model is resonating with universities and colleges around the country which look to narrow the post-secondary education gap between the wealthy and the marginalized. Eight universities and colleges are looking into duplicating the Arrupe model, said Katsouros. The University of St. Thomas in Minnesota is the first to publicly announce its intention to replicate the Arrupe model at its Catholic school campus.
    University of St. Thomas President Julie Sullivan said that her team is planning to open their two-year-program by the fall of 2017, given that they "have preliminary approval" from the board of trustees. But before the new college opens its doors, Sullivan said, more needs to be done to secure funding for scholarships and a work program for students.
    While the University of St. Thomas would tailor its Arrupe-model college to meet the local needs of its community, the overarching goal, said Sullivan is to "provide [the students] with the confidence and the skills to be successful in a four-year college, and to be successful in the workplace."
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    Arrupe's next challenge, according to Garanzini, is making sure that students transition seamlessly into a four-year university.
    "We need to keep up with them because they need a year of transition," he said. "They need to know that someone is watching, asking 'How did the first semester go?' Or we need to partner with the universities or colleges that they go to."
    "I have the best gig in higher ed," Katsouros said. "To be a part of this extremely innovative, compelling, relevant, educational model that we believe will be the leader of a new movement is most exciting."

    'My friends keep dying'

    While Sonia is overjoyed about being part of the inaugural class of a trailblazing post-secondary education model, she reflects on the violence that surrounds her childhood friends still living in Guatemala.
    "A lot of my friends keep dying. They are killed," Sonia said as her voice cracked. "I have this feeling that I'm here safe and they are still there dying. I really feel really bad."
    While Sonia's future in Chicago is still insecure, she counts her blessings and vows to pay it forward. She feeds the homeless at a soup kitchen, visits hospital patients and elderly people in nursing homes as a chaplain. She also lobbies at the Illinois state legislature for the rights of undocumented immigrants.
    "It makes me feel really good because I'm doing something for this community," she said. "They are giving me something, so I'm going to give back."