DeKALB – Mateo Avila cultivated a passion for sports as he grew up in the Little Village neighborhood on Chicago's southwest side – basketball was his favorite.
“I was really oblivious to what Little Village was like. As a kid, I didn’t really understand," Avila said. "I knew the whole, ‘People say it’s violent and people say there’s gangs,’ but I didn’t see it for a while.”
When Avila was in his early teens, his parents gave him a bit more freedom. He would play basketball, but that meant spending much of his time around gang members.
"I was just around gang members because they were the only ones playing the sport I loved," Avila said.
Now a 21-year-old junior at Northern Illinois University, Avila is in a place he never expected to be growing up in Little Village – on the verge of obtaining a degree and making plans for a career. He said he never could have done it without the close bond he shares with his family and the help of mentors he met along the way.
One key source of guidance was Bottom Line, a Chicago-based nonprofit that helps students from low-income backgrounds attending Illinois universities, including NIU.
When Avila saw many kids in his neighborhood joining gangs, he focused on basketball and turned to his parents for support. Gang members could sense when he was going through a rough patch and would try to lure him in, Avila said.
He was shot at multiple times and has even had a gun held to his head during a robbery, he said.
“It was rough. I think it shaped me," Avila said. "I’m definitely blessed to still be here.”
Avila played basketball for three years at Greater Lawndale High School for Social Justice and performed well in his classes, but never considered college as an option.
“I kept trying to use, ‘I’m just some dude from the 'hood; no one’s going to want to help me out,’ ” Avila said.
But his high school counselor, Ana Herrera, helped him apply anyway, as deadlines rapidly approached. His older sister, who attended DePaul University, also urged him forward. Avila was admitted to four of five schools to which he applied. He chose NIU.
“For me, when college became a thing, it very quickly became, 'Well, I have to leave here,' ” Avila said.
Herrera also told him about Bottom Line, a nonprofit organization that strives to "transform urban communities by producing thousands of new career-ready college graduates."
"Through access to intensive, one-on-one support from our full-time, trained counselors, Chicago's low-income, first-generation students are more likely to enroll in a four-year college and successfully cross the finish line with a college degree," a fact sheet for the group reads.
Individual mentors helped him with resumes, but also asked him about his day-to-day life, Avila said. One mentor, Hannah Lee, especially helped him stay on track.
“She was definitely the one who righted the ship for me in college,” Avila said.
Lee would meet with Avila once a month at NIU, which is one of the universities the nonprofit serves, and helped him solidify his desire to pursue journalism. He is now has a double major in journalism and communications.
“I think he’s really personable. When he graduates, I don’t worry about him in the working world," Lee said. "He has so many skills – it’s just the degree he needs support in getting.”
The group does not provide students with financial aid, but does assist them in renewing their aid packages.
"Students like Mateo deserve the opportunity to be successful," Lee said.
Avila is the associate producer of Top Shelf Sports, an NIU sports-focused program that occasionally delves into Chicago athletics, through the Northern Television Center. He also reports and produces some of the TV center's news coverage.
He was grateful to have had the opportunity to cover the 10th anniversary of the Cole Hall shooting this past week and said he just wants to tell stories.
His dream job would be to work for ESPN, and that he hopes to stay in the Chicago area after graduation.
“I prefer sports, because I’m more passionate about sports, but the news – I’m getting there," Avila said. "Things like board meetings I’m still adjusting to.”