Student Stories

Student Stories

Abdiel Dominguez
Design Lab student/ Class of 2023 at UIC College Prep

Abdiel Dominguez has found a home at CHICAT. Abdiel started coming to CHICAT’s ASM (After School Matters) programs in the Fall of 2020 and has not missed a session since. He is now a junior at UIC College Prep and has done 4 sessions in CHICAT’s Design Lab and 1 session in CHICAT’s Maker Lab. It is clear Abdiel has learned a tremendous amount from his experience at CHICAT, but it impossible to get him to talk about CHICAT without him mentioning how CHICAT has allowed him to be himself. When asked “What have you learned at CHICAT?” Abdiel didn’t immediately answer that he has learned how to sculpt clay, or code, or create a self-portrait – but he has learned all of those things here. What he does say, without hesitation, is “There are people that are just like me. They have the same interests. I don’t have to pretend to be somebody I’m not. I can be myself.” Abdiel also points out that he has made new friends here and again speaks on how he feels allowed to be his true self in our programs. Abdiel will be back for our summer programs, and while he will learn more design techniques from our Design Lab instructor, Kristen, he will be also be learning and teaching something just as important – especially for teens – you can be your true self and still make friends.

Natasha Huff
Food Lab Quality Graduate

Natasha found CHICAT when she was in tough spot – directly following a divorce at the unemployment office. Natasha, the mother of 5 children between ages 4 and 16 didn’t know what to do. Her youngest was too young for her to work full time right away but she needed to provide for her family. The woman working at the office showed her CHICAT’s flier and through Natasha’s hard work and CHICAT’s classes, Natasha says “her life and her career were changed”. After 6 months in the Food Quality Lab (Quality Assurance), Natasha, a diligent student, graduated in May of 2018. CHICAT introduced her to Gold Standard Baking and set up an interview. Natasha was ready because she had been practicing interviews with her instructor and CHICAT’s Pathways Coordinator, but she was also nervous because she had no previous experience in quality control. She nailed it.  By July, Natasha had a job at Gold Standard Baking making $16/hour. Because of her CHICAT certifications, trainings, and her hard work Natasha got a promotion only 6 months later! Not only, this, Natasha tells me, it stands as the biggest pay raise/promotion in Gold Standard Baking’s history. Natasha went from a Quality Assurance Technician to a Production Supervisor. She went from hourly to salaried and doubled her annual income! 3 years later, Natasha says her training is still paying off. She was promoted again and again her salary nearly doubled! As the Assistant Manager of Quality Assurance, Natasha supervises a team of 6 and is second in command of that division. As the Assistant Manager, Natasha often recalls what she learned at CHICAT to help her and even reviews her notes at times from her time in class at CHICAT. When asked what about CHICAT was special to her Natasha talks at length and exudes gratitude. “6 months made a difference right away”. She says “I wanted to learn and I knew my children needed it.” CHICAT improved the life of my children, “there is no limit to my career and I will always have a job. People always need food.” Natasha describes herself as “grateful, so grateful, honored and really appreciates” the programs at CHICAT. She wants CHICAT to thrive and grow because it has changed her world and the world of her children. She wants that opportunity for everybody. When hard work meets the opportunities and care that CHICAT provides it is truly world changing.   

Bryan Armour Maintenance Mechanics Graduate

Curiosity and a way to save money to pay for his last year of college brought Bryan Armour to CHICAT. Bryan was attending Jackson State University in Mississippi when COVID hit and forced him back home. He planned to return in August of 2021, but COVID lingered.  So, he started looking for a job. He attended a CHICAT workforce program orientation and the instructor, Maurice Anderson, followed up and convinced him to enroll in the Advanced Maintenance Mechanics program.  Six months later, Bryan completed his classwork on April 8th and has a job offer pending already as a Level 1 Maintenance Mechanic. Bryan is thrilled about the opportunity. He would work 40-60 hours a week for $28/hour and get paid weekly. Bryan is excited about the possibility for advancement that can come with more experience and on-the-job training. He has the potential to earn up to $52/hr at this company. Bryan’s long-term plan is to finish his college degree. For now, he plans on having a nice dinner for his mom and maybe even getting a 2015 Jeep Gladiator which he will customize himself using some of his new skills.

Jeslyn Williams Design Lab Student 2022/ Class of 2023 at Whitney Young Magnet High School

Jeslyn enjoys school, structure, and art. As a studious junior at Whitney Young, Jeslyn enjoys the routine and structured time CHICAT provides for her to create. Going through high school as a focused student in the time of COVID, Jeslyn’s main outlet and extracurricular activity is coming to CHICAT. “I enjoy the routine of coming here 3 times a week to focus on art. I pretty much go to school and here [to CHICAT] and then home. I don’t go anywhere else.” She enjoys the space and time to create. “The teacher sets us up to work and we have time to create with all of the different mediums she has and then if we have any questions, we can go to her and get help.” She also enjoys the small classes and the people she has met.

This last semester Jeslyn saw an opportunity to grow, so she applied to be an ASM ambassador at CHICAT. CHICAT is proud to have given her that opportunity.  “My time at CHICAT has taught me the beauty of abstract art, a style which I previously dismissed. I realized how things as small as brushstrokes and choices in color can drastically alter the quality of a piece. I’ve had a lifelong passion for visual art but never pursued it until this past year through ASM and an art course at my high school. Being a student ambassador gave me an opportunity to return to an environment I love, while learning more about one of my biggest passions along with other artists. I enjoyed the practice that leadership opportunities gave me with explaining things to others, presenting myself in a professional manner, staying calm under pressure, and staying organized. As an ambassador, I had the chance to improve my art knowledge and leadership skills at the same time.”

CHICAT is proud to be a part of Jeslyn’s journey and to provide an opportunity for her to grow as an artist and a leader. Jeslyn will be applying to college next year and plans to study social work and/or psychology while continuing to create and lead along the way.

Shekeita Webb Senior Director of Education Excellence

Meet our Senior Director of Education Excellence, Shekeita Webb. Shekeita was hired in November of 2022

What is your “why” or your inspiration for this type of work?

I have dedicated much of my personal, educational, and professional journeys to helping secure adequate and equitable educational experiences to marginalized communities. My biggest inspiration is my experiences growing up on the west-side of Chicago and experiencing many deficits which align directly with those from marginalized communities. I have a valid empathy that frames my “why” for continually choosing this type of work.

You have tremendous experience. What is your career journey?

My career journey started twenty years ago when I fought to become a substitute educator after dropping out of high school and later receiving a GED. My decision to be a substitute educator was based on two major realizations: 1. I was in my third year of undergrad and a dedicated member of the teacher education program – I was well engulfed the pedagogy. 2. I was living and learning in a district where the schools I subbed/performed educational clinicals at were culturally shocking – I was the only non-Caucasian student/professional in most of my experiences. This culture shock made me look to the non-white, K-12 students who were in those situations with me and build more empathy. Although my initial idea was to teach in the K-12 environment, I found the imbalance in higher education more astonishing. After being trained in dropout prevention, I furthered my education so that I could profess my skillset and empathy in the higher education arena; this allowed me to tackle the attrition rates of non-white students with more validity. My master’s thesis research helped to further confirm my journey. I knew that I was going to be a life-long learner and educator after achieving this credential. With my mission in mind, I have scaffolded many students in higher education – as both an adjunct and a fulltime professor. In the midst of my journey, I dedicated 6+ years to working with students who dropped out of school and returned to earn a GED – instilling in many returning students the reality that anyone can be successful with adequate and equitable scaffolding and motivation. As of late, I have reached a point in my career in which I carry a leadership title that I am using to train other educators on how to help the marginalized population of students; I have dedicated my recent journey to researching and implementing interventions and strategies that foster student success.

Aside from a lot of hard work, what do you think has been the key to all your success?

The biggest key to my success was my initial failure. Not graduating high school and later having to return for a GED molded my understanding of the value of education and the realization that anyone can be successful with adequate and intentional scaffolding and motivation. Also, I wanted to make my father proud and continue the legacy of possibility which he instilled in me before he passed away – he was the only college graduate I knew growing up.

In your first few months what has impressed or surprised you about CHICAT?

I am very impressed with the skillset of the instructors and staff we have here. I am also impressed with Strickland’s hard work and dedication to the students he has made it possible for us to serve.

I was surprised by the care taken in creating and preserving the high tech and modern environment for the population of students we serve.

Marilyn E Medical Billing and Coding (AHIMA)

Marilyn E. was in our 2022 Medical Billing and Coding (AHIMA) cohort and graduated in December. She enjoyed her time so much that she convinced her daughter to join. Here is a quick insight into her journey.

How did you find out about CHICAT and its classes?

I recently retired from a 27-year career. I was looking for the next career option. While doing research on tuition-based billing and coding programs, a friend mentioned a free program–CHICAT. I visited the beautiful facility. The staff were all very friendly. The program included all study materials and a transportation pass. I also loved that the pace was just right for students who haven’t been in school in years.

Why did you decide to take the course?

I wanted to do billing and coding for many years. Even as a teenager, I was specifically fascinated by medical terminology.

What did you appreciate most about CHICAT and its approach?

The program is fast paced but, it only focuses on 1 topic at a time. In typical university, trying to focus on 5 specific classes at once, can be daunting.

What was the hardest part about the class?

As an adult, life gets in the way. In fact, when I first started CHICAT, it was during COVID, and the only instructional option was to attend virtually. Though for some, this would be a great option, for me, in-person was best. I found that method most engaging. As a slightly older student, the online books weren’t a good fit. I later attended in person. This made a huge difference in my learning retention and confidence.

What was the best part about the class?

The best part of the program is that it is thorough. If you put in the work, you will learn a lot. After completion of the program, you immediately become more marketable. The pay scale for this career is great.

What advice would you have for someone thinking about taking any of the courses at CHICAT?

I would strongly encourage a person to take this program. The timeframe is short. In most instances, 6-9 months. The instruction is solid but, you must put in the work. The certificate is not given to you. You must earn it. It is imperative that you study, study and review. Also, I would encourage you to find YOUR PEOPLE. Find likeminded classmates who are just as passionate and serious about completing this program.

Finally, I know your daughter has joined this cohort for HIT. Can you share how that came to be? What were the conversations that you had with her about it?

I strongly encouraged my daughter to consider the HIT program. My daughter was a college student. She wasn’t confident in her future academic objective. While she tried to decide on next steps academically, I suggested that she acquire a sustainable skill. She could always go back to the university after completing HIT. She will not acquire any debt. She will find a great paying job.

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