DeKALB – Christopher Gatrel was active in several sports and had solid grades in high school, but he was rejected from 11 of the 12 colleges to which he applied.
He figures it was his low ACT score.
But, after being admitted to Northern Illinois University through the CHANCE Program, he’s graduating with a degree in kinesiology and was offered a job Wednesday at the high-end gym where he has been an intern. The CHANCE Program, which offers relaxed admissions standards and extra support for students who show academic promise, also led to Gatrel receiving a scholarship his sophomore year after his loan options fell through.
“Finally, I am able to pursue my passion for helping others get the most out of life,” Gatrel said. “Even with doubts going through my mind constantly, I knew that one day, all my hard work would pay off. I was the first person in my family to attend college, like many other CHANCE students.”
Gatrel was among the handful of success stories NIU officials shared Friday at an awards ceremony celebrating the 45th year of the CHANCE Program, an acronym for counseling, help and assistance necessary for a college education. The program grew from 56 students, including nine transfers and four GED students, in January 1969 to routinely admitting about 500 students a year.
The program grew out of the civil rights movement, according to a history Leroy Mitchell, former director of the CHANCE program and co-pastor at New Hope Missionary Baptist Church, read at the reception. About a month after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April 1968, black NIU students upset about the lack of minority representation on campus staged a sit-in at Lowden Hall. At the time, less than 300 of the university’s 18,000 students were black.
“The black students produced a list of seven demands for the president,” Mitchell said. “One was a request for a waiver of the usual admissions standards for black students who have the potential to succeed in college but lack the test scores and high school rank for consideration for traditional admission.”
On Friday, leaders recognized those who have supported the CHANCE program over the decades, including retired Illinois State Senate President Emil Jones Jr., retired NIU Executive Vice President Eddie Williams and U.S. Congressman Danny Davis. They also offered awards to NIU Executive Vice President Raymond Alden, Vice Provost Anne Birberick and Deputy Provost Earl Seaver for supporting diversity on campus.
In recent years, program leaders have worked to improve the program’s image, bolster graduation and retention rates, strengthen on-campus support and better help students before their first day of classes, said Denise Hayman, director of the CHANCE program.
In 2011, program leaders received a five-year grant from the National Science Foundation to encourage more students, especially minority students, to study science, technology, engineering and math. CHANCE students, as well as students recruited as part of the NSF grant, take a special math seminar before starting their freshman year. The classes meet in Naperville or downtown Chicago, and often are taught by minority instructors, Hayman said.
Hayman concluded the ceremony Friday, which itself was another effort to strengthen the program’s image, with a video detailing current students, their backgrounds and their goals. These students embodied the program’s potential, and its success, Hayman said.
“In this day and age when money is tight, sometimes these programs aren’t always given the credit they deserve,” Hayman said. “When you talk about the larger goal of providing access to everyone, this model is actually a national model.”