By Dianna Douglas
Photo by Robert Kozloff

It means a lot to me that I’ll have the freedom to learn here—not just what I need to know for my future career, but purely for the love of learning. ”
—Warren Mui
First-year student

Warren Mui had a connection with the University of Chicago since he was a kid. He grew up just a few miles north of the Hyde Park campus and started taking Biology classes at the University as a junior in high school.

“I feel that the school is defined by a love of learning,” he says. “I always liked the liberal arts curriculum.”

During his senior year, Mui was called into his school library at Kenwood Academy High School for a special announcement. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and University President Robert J. Zimmer announced at the public high school that the University was launching UChicago Promise, a program that would make it easier for students like Mui to go to college. It was one more factor in Mui’s decision to attend UChicago.

Mui, who graduated as the valedictorian of Kenwood Academy, is among the first wave of students to benefit from UChicago Promise. The initiative offers a no-loan pledge for Chicago students who are admitted to UChicago, as well as a wide array of support and mentoring programs for all students in the city of Chicago who aspire to attend college. Under that umbrella are programs such as the University’s successful Collegiate Scholars Program, which provides extensive support and a peer network for promising Chicago Public Schools students to gain admission to the nation’s top schools and universities.

The UChicago Promise program’s first year attracted a growing number of accomplished young Chicagoans to an already impressive incoming class of students in the College. The Class of 2017 includes 73 students from the city of Chicago—a 59 percent increase over last year—in addition to students from every region of the United States and from dozens of nations around the world.

“The University has long been an active partner with the city of Chicago and the local schools,” says John W. Boyer, dean of the College. “UChicago Promise builds on that partnership to keep a record number of the best students from Chicago here in their hometown.”

Touching every part of the city

Students from many city neighborhoods were energized last year when they learned about UChicago Promise’s no-loan pledge and the waiving of application fees for students from Chicago. At Morgan Park High School in the southwest part of the city, the announcement reassured another valedictorian that a University of Chicago education was within reach.

“I was happy to read about UChicago Promise because it was telling me that I could afford to come here if I got in,” Kayla Moore says.

And up on the North Side, Sara Kuse learned that her top choice was also affordable. “I was nervous that going to college would wipe out my mom,” Kuse says. She applied the same day the University announced UChicago Promise.

“Our commitment to bringing top students to the University of Chicago, regardless of their ability to pay, has resulted in an exceptional incoming class this fall,” says James G. Nondorf, vice president and dean of College Admissions and Financial Aid.

Kuse, a graduate of the selective Northside College Prep public high school, had a University connection through her work over the past two summers as a research assistant for Steven Levitt, the William B. Ogden Distinguished Service Professor of Economics. She recalls that Levitt once found a glaring mistake in her organization of a data spreadsheet for one of Levitt’s projects—but he would not tell her what the mistake was until she found it herself.

To find it, “I knew that I needed to think through the method and not the results,” she says.

More than embarrassment, she recalls being stunned that a university professor would care about this teaching moment with a junior in high school. Kuse says it was deeply satisfying when she finally found the error and turned in the data spreadsheet again.

“That was the moment when I knew that I wanted to come to the University of Chicago,” she says. “It’s an entire community that cares about answering questions and about the method for getting there.”

A bridge to college

Warren Mui’s interactions with UChicago faculty were equally memorable. Mui tried to keep a low profile in the various courses he attended through College Bridge. The program allows advanced Chicago Public Schools students to enroll in rigorous UChicago courses, with funding from the Office of Civic Engagement. The campus was a short bus ride from his high school, but seemed like a different world. “I was really intimidated at first,” he says.

Konstantin Birukov, associate professor of medicine, taught a cardiopulmonary biology section that Mui attended. During one lecture, Birukov asked his class about the surface area of the small intestine. No one responded, so Mui raised his hand. “Excellent,” Birukov said, when Mui answered correctly. “What is your major?” Mui confessed he didn’t have a major yet because he was still in high school. With his cover blown and his classmates and instructor treating him like a peer, Mui decided he wanted to stay.

“I was very impressed with the two high school students in my class, and how they absorbed the information and were able to answer questions,” Birukov says. Now as a first-year in the College, Mui is deciding whether to focus on biology, psychology, or philosophy.

“It means a lot to me that I’ll have the freedom to learn here—not just what I need to know for my future career, but purely for the love of learning,” he says.

Thriving in her hometown

A hunger for learning meant a lot of travel for Kayla Moore. Like many students in Chicago, she attended school far from where she lived and spent hours crisscrossing the city to get the education she wanted.

At Morgan Park High School near her grandmother’s house, Moore took a staggering load of International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement classes. She also was the president of the drama club, captain of the dance team, a leader of the Sassy Intellectual Sisters mentoring program for younger girls, and an active member of the knitting club—all opportunities to learn from the people around her. “Education is everywhere,” she decided.

Availing herself of every opportunity that came her way, Moore spent her summers at local colleges, studying at STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) summer camps, and preparing for her application essays at college prep camps.

Moore finally settled on the diversity essay on the common application and used the opportunity to explore the deeper meaning of diversity. “I showed that my diversity came through my interests and activities,” Moore says.

Attending UChicago fulfills her own dream that began years ago on a school field trip, when she connected with the architecture of the libraries and residence halls. It also has made her Chicago family ecstatic that she will be nearby for the next four years.

“I wanted a great education, and I wanted to stay close,” she says. Thanks to UChicago Promise, Moore can realize both of her goals.

Originally published on September 30, 2013.