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National CrossTalk Spring 2000
News Editorial Other Voices Interview

A Day in the Life
City Colleges of Chicago student strives to better herself

  .Nursing student Sandra Rowe
  Nursing student Sandra Rowe expects to finish her work at Truman College this spring and transfer to a four-year college in the fall.
IT IS 6:30 IN THE MORNING on a chilly March day, and inside her basement apartment, Sandra Rowe is trying to rouse Asia with gentle kisses. The one-year-old isn't cooperating -- she didn't get to sleep until three, which means Sandra didn't, either.

But motherhood never has stopped 29-year-old Sandra from pursuing her education. She was 14 when she gave birth to her first son, Antoine; 19 when she had her second, A.J.; and attended class until the day before she went into labor with Asia. And she doesn't plan on giving up now.

So Sandra has already showered and dressed -- today it's just a pair of black sweatpants, a black sweatshirt and a Malcolm X College baseball cap -- and walked four of her five dogs. She has to get to Malcolm X College early, so she can finish up some work before her 9:30 U.S. History class.

"I wanted better things for myself," she said, referring to the crime, gang and drug problems that are so prevalent in her poverty-stricken neighborhood on Chicago's West Side. "And I knew I needed a degree to get them."

Hanging on the wall at the head of Sandra's bed are half a dozen certificates, a framed chronology of her achievements at the City Colleges of Chicago. There's her basic nursing certificate (CNA), her practical nursing certificate (LPN), and her pharmacology certificate, all from Dawson Technical Institute, an arm of Kennedy-King College. There, too, are her perfect-attendance certificate from Dawson; a license from the National Phlebotomy Association; and her membership certificate from Phi Theta Kappa, the national honor society, at Malcolm X College; plus a certificate she received after serving jury duty.

The vast majority of Sandra's classmates at Malcolm X are looking at barer walls. Of 4,360 students enrolled in credit programs at Malcolm X in 1999, only 247 earned associate degrees. Another 68 students earned one-year advanced certificates. Twenty-five others earned basic certificates, which require about 20 credit hours. Transfer rates are also low, though improving: That same year, at least 345 former Malcolm X students transferred to four-year institutions, up from 180 in 1992, according to the school's own data.

Critics point to those low graduation and transfer rates as evidence that Malcolm X, like the other six City Colleges of Chicago, is failing. Malcolm X President Zerrie Campbell vehemently disagrees. She says you have to understand the context in which the school and its students operate, to appreciate its accomplishments. Eighty-four percent of the school's nearly 20,000 students are minorities (like Sandra, 58 percent are black, another 26 percent are Hispanic); 57 percent are women; 52 percent are between the ages of 21 and 39. Many, if not most, are parents. And like Sandra, two thirds of the students in credit courses receive financial aid. A high percentage of the students who come directly from the Chicago public high schools have to take remedial courses.

"They have so much confronting them…it's a wonder that they're able to complete a course, let alone a degree," said Campbell, referring to the financial, educational and social challenges that her students face.

"We've had students who have come in, and they're great students academically, but maybe they've ended up homeless. Or maybe they're victims of domestic violence," said Renee Suggs, senior academic adviser in the college's Advising and Transfer Services Center, and herself a Malcolm X alum. Suggs said that a statewide articulation initiative, combined with the availability of information on the Internet and a new attempt by her office to contact all students, regardless of whether they plan to transfer, has increased the number of students who decide to continue their education. But she said there are things that are beyond the school's control.

"To work in this kind of environment, you have to love what you do," said Suggs. "Because there are so many disappointments along the way."

Sandra Rowe is one of the bright spots -- an example of what the system can do for a student who has the ability to take advantage of what it offers.

Once Asia is fully awake, Sandra carries her up the back stairs of the graystone, past the first-floor apartment the family rents out, and up to the small, second-floor apartment where Sandra's parents live. Her father, a retired factory worker, is still in bed; A.J. and his cousin are asleep in a hide-a-bed in the living room; her mother is at the sewing machine in front of the television with Sandra's two young nieces, who live next door but come over every morning for breakfast. The state pays Sandra's mother, Lillie Rowe, to provide child-care for Sandra's children and five of Sandra's nieces and nephews.

Lillie Rowe finished tenth grade; Sandra's father finished seventh. Only one of Sandra's 12 siblings attended college, and he never graduated. If Sandra has her way, she will be the first in her family to graduate from college, and that pleases her mother. "I feel that she will be able to take care of her family in the future," said Lillie Rowe.

That's Sandra's hope, too. "The education that I have now -- at best I would be able to make 28, 30 thousand dollars a year," noted Sandra. "I got three kids. Thirty thousand isn't enough money."

In May, she'll complete her nursing prerequisites and earn an advanced phlebotomy certificate at Malcolm X College. In August, she will transfer to a nearby private college, which has offered her a $5,000 scholarship to complete her bachelor of science degree in nursing. She should finish by the fall of 2001.

For now, though, she spends her time commuting the three miles between her house and Malcolm X College on the city's Near West Side. Once located near the heart of a ghetto, Malcolm X's three-story glass-and-steel building is now on the edge of a rapidly changing neighborhood, the result of gentrification pushing westward from downtown. The United Center, where the Chicago Bulls play and Michael Jordan made himself a household name, is one block north; just south of the school is a large hospital district, where Sandra hopes to work someday.

For students like Sandra, Malcolm X is a godsend: It provides a low-cost, close-to-home education in a small, nurturing setting. She loves it. "I can give you a whole bunch of reasons why," Sandra said. "But mainly it's because everyone there is so friendly and down to earth. And they're really, like, close-knit. And if something is going on, everyone rallies together to try to help you solve that problem."

Sandra can pay her tuition with a federal Pell Grant ($1,500 per semester), and live off child support plus the $410 a month she earns working part-time in the school's public relations department. Thanks to the fact that she lives rent-free, this year she'll have enough left over to treat herself to a vacation.

At 7:30 am, Sandra is the first one in the college's administrative offices. She takes her seat at her desk beneath the poster of Malcolm X -- one of many reminders of the black activist for whom the school was renamed in 1969 (It had been founded in 1911 in another location as Crane Junior College). The most prominent monument -- certainly the most unique -- is Malcolm X's 1965 Oldsmobile 98, which is parked in the front hallway.

At 9:25 am, after two hours of office work, Sandra heads upstairs for her favorite class, U.S. History.

The history textbook is pretty standard-issue, but the professor, Zetta Cowsen, is not. "I hated history all my life. And now I love it, thanks to Professor Cowsen," said Sandra, who credits Cowsen with making history relevant and comprehensible. On this day, for instance, Cowsen takes off from the reading -- about the taxes the British imposed on the Colonies -- and starts a lively discussion among the dozen-plus students about how much federal control is desirable and appropriate.

  Sandra Rowe juggles college, a job and caring for her three children -- Antoine, holding Asia, and A.J. -- as she pursues a nursing degree.
  Sandra Rowe juggles college, a job and caring for her three children -- Antoine, holding Asia, and A.J. -- as she pursues a nursing degree.
Cowsen is retiring this year after 31 years of teaching at Malcolm X. Back when she started, she said, "everything was radicalized," and the curriculum was more culturally oriented, with lots of emphasis on black studies and community projects. Despite low graduation rates and harsh criticisms of the City Colleges, she remains convinced they're doing a fine job. "I'm not at all discouraged. It's been the greatest thing I could have done," said Cowsen, who also teaches a second U.S. History class that Sandra takes, as well as Economics and Politics, in which her students are learning about the stock market by mock investing.

After history, it's off to Biology 120, Medical Terminology, where about a dozen students are listening to their instructor and scribbling down the parts of the heart: veins, arteries, ventricles. The school prides itself on its healthcare training. One anecdote that college President Zerrie Campbell loves to tell is about the time she almost passed out in a faculty meeting and had to be transported to a local hospital. The two ambulance paramedics happened to be Malcolm X alums. So was the admitting nurse at the hospital. So, too, was the phlebotomist who drew her blood, and the radiologist who took her X-rays. And that wasn't all: Both the orderly and the licensed practical nurse who attended to her had applied to Malcolm X's registered nursing program.

"We're doing such wonderful things!" enthused Campbell, who said the school had a 90 percent employment rate for its healthcare training programs. "But we don't do a very good job of telling our story."

In the afternoon and evening, Sandra participates in two focus groups, part of an effort by the district administration to discover areas of satisfaction and weakness in each of the seven City Colleges. The overwhelming consensus is no different from President Campbell's: Graduation rates and criticisms notwithstanding, the school is doing a good job.

In the hours between the focus groups, Sandra finishes up the spreadsheet she had started that morning: an inventory of ads the college has placed in an effort to boost its sagging enrollment.

Sandra doesn't leave the school until after seven o'clock. She's already been awake for 14 hours, but she's not done yet: She heads to a kick-boxing class -- part of her weight-reduction program. By the time she gets home, Asia and her other two children have already eaten dinner. Sandra makes sure she is the last thing they see before they go to sleep, and then she has a few hours to herself before she goes to bed and gets up to do it all over again.

Sandra doesn't have much time left as a student at Malcolm X. But once she has completed her degree in nursing, she doesn't plan to go far: She wants to raise her kids in her old neighborhood, and hopes to work at Cook County Hospital, just across the expressway from Malcolm X College. It's a place, she says, where she can keep learning.

Most of all, she wants to be a good parent.

"I want to be a good example for my children. I want them to understand they have to work hard for anything they want in life," said Sandra. "Nothing comes easy."

-- Kathy Witkowsky
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