Our American Dream

A Better Chicago Grantee Story: One Million Degrees

Written by - Paige Ponder, Chief Executive Officer

If you’re like me, you’ve been spending more time than usual reflecting on what it really means to be an American. My core belief is that being American means that anyone – regardless of the circumstances of their birth – can, through their talent, grit and, hard work, build a better life for themselves and their families. But over time, I’ve added to my definition.

As Americans, we should feel confident in our opportunity and right to “make it.” All of us possess remarkable talent and hustle to build a better life for ourselves. I also believe we have a responsibility to ensure that our fellow citizens have the same rights that we have ourselves. Being American is more than a personal identity; it is a collective one.

I can draw a straight line from this definition to the 700 community college students One Million Degrees has the privilege to serve. We match remarkable young people with what we know are the key services that boost the chances for graduation: tutoring and mentoring, internships, networking, personal and professional development, and financial support.              

The difference maker in these students’ experience is the guidance and care they receive. We cultivate their confidence and sense of belonging and capability so they can begin charting their own course to success. As an OMD Alumna recently told me, “OMD changed my mindset. I went from thinking, nobody’s going to do anything for me to someone cares about me. And that made the world of a difference.”

Every single day, we see talented, tenacious, incredibly hard-working students clawing their way to their degrees and towards the promise of well-paying, fulfilling jobs that are challenging and purposeful, and that will enable them to provide their families with safety, stability, and the opportunity to live without fear. 

We see students who attend school during the day, work at night, and sleep very little as they struggle to pay the bills, aspiring to get ahead – to position themselves for upwardly mobile employment. They embrace the promise that community colleges provide the best pathway to future success, especially for low-income students. These One Million Degrees Scholars are striving for the American Dream.

Alongside these American strivers is a robust community of over 500 volunteers who sign up to be coaches with One Million Degrees. These are professionals and retired professionals who, by most people’s definitions, have already achieved the American Dream. They work at notable organizations across Chicago, many with advanced degrees in high-earning jobs. But they realize that being American does not only mean they had the chance of achieving the American Dream; they understand that they must also support their neighbors in achieving their American Dream. This is very much a two-way street. We regularly hear from these volunteers stories about the impact they are making on their Scholars’ lives. Just as important, we hear that these interactions are changing how our volunteers live and work.

At the end of every coaching session, all our Scholars and coaches gather together for “Scholar Good News,” a chance for Scholars to share their accomplishments – small and large – with the OMD community. Last month, one of our scholars at Kennedy-King College shared how positive and encouraging her coach has been. That coach, a consultant at a large firm in Chicago, was brought close to tears. “My Scholar is a foster child—the first in her family to go to college. Everyone had told her she couldn’t go to school, but here she is,” her coach explained. “It made me appreciate that not everyone is coming from the same place, the same types of support systems. It made me thankful for my family and the opportunities I have been given. It made me want to give her those same opportunities, too.”

Community colleges are engines of social and economic mobility in our country. They are truly the most inclusive, the most democratic of higher education institutions. As such, we believe that both the institutions and the students – the strivers – who attend these colleges deserve our support and our investment.

At One Million Degrees, providing the crucial support our Scholars need to transform their dreams and potential into their own reality is truly our American Dream. Our Scholars and coaches work toward this goal every day. 

As we like to say at OMD, when community college students succeed, we all win. Because when community college students succeed, we know the American Dream is still alive.