Kenwood seniors

(Left to right) Kenwood seniors Samiya Johnson, Courtney Burress, Makylah Hill and Winifred Ofori-Manu outside Kenwood Academy High School, 5015 S. Blackstone Ave., on Friday, May 19, 2023.

This year’s graduating Kenwood Academy class was awarded a record-breaking $69 million in college scholarships, the highest in the school’s history.

As graduation nears, several Kenwood seniors say pandemic restlessness and student independence fostered at Kenwood left them well-prepared for their college careers.

“For me, the pandemic actually made me want to go out there and do more for myself,” said Valedictorian Winifred Ofori-Manu. In August, she will head to Harvard University on a full ride scholarship to study computer science.

“Coming into freshman year, I wasn’t the most shy person, but I did not talk,” she said. ”When we did have the opportunity to come back to school (after Covid-19 shutdowns), I made it a point to make sure that I developed relationships, that I put myself out there to be more involved in the school community.”

She has been part of Girls Who Code, a Kenwood chapter of the national computer science education organization run by the University of Chicago graduate students. Ofori-Manu, who commutes to school from Uptown, said the most important considerations for her when choosing a college were academic rigor, the community, and available resources for first-generation, low-income and minority students.

She intends to minor in African American studies and economics, and plans to join the National Society for Black Engineers, Tech for Good and the African Student Association, as she is Ghanaian. Her plan is to become either a software engineer or product manager, “whichever one I like better,’ she said.

Daniel Few, who transferred to Kenwood in fall 2020 from St. Rita of Cascia, an all-boys Catholic school on the Southwest Side, said he used to think he would go in-state for college, but the pandemic made him expand the search.

“Chicago is an amazing place, but every city has its strengths,” said Few, a captain of the boys volleyball team. “(But) Covid-19 helped me want to go farther and expand my horizons.”

He will attend North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, a Historically Black College and University (HBCU), where he intends to double major in pre-med and sociology, with plans to pursue psychiatry. Few was awarded a February One Scholarship, a full-ride scholarship named in honor of the four university students who led the Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins in 1960.

He said he wants to use his degree to open a nonprofit helping young queer kids of color to understand their different intersectionalities before reaching high school.

Courtney Burress, vice president of the student council, talked about the importance of community once he arrives at Columbia University in New York City.

“In most cases Ivy Leagues do lack a sort of Black community, but because it’s in the city of New York, I have other options to continue to find people that I can connect with,” Burress said. “New York is a huge city, and I can use its resources, whether I need it professionally or socially, as I go through the next four years of my life.”

With a Wentcher Scholarship, Burress plans to major in biochemistry and pre-med to become an oncologist. He added that he already met people in a Black pre-medical student group when he visited the school earlier this year and plans to pledge to a Divine Nine fraternity, a Black greek-letter organization.

Makylah Hill is one student who is staying closer to home. She will attend the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as a Gates Scholar, a full-ride undergraduate scholarship, where she plans to study education and also pursue interests in journalism and cosmetology. “I’ve always had a passion for (art) and my mom’s makeup,” she said. The biggest factors in choosing a college was its location, as well as job and internship opportunities.

“I wanted to stay close to home to be able to help my grandparents, and my mom and my siblings,” she said.

Some seniors also noted the difficulties of returning to in-person learning after a year of pandemic isolation.

“I was always a social butterfly, but when I came back, I found myself being afraid to raise my hand,” said Samiya Johnson, a captain of the cheerleading team who will be interning at the Field Museum this summer. “I almost forgot how to talk to people.” Johnson will attend Trinity College as a Posse Scholar, where she intends to major in environmental science and minor in oceanography, to pursue marine biology.

Three years into the pandemic, Kenwood’s Principal Karen Calloway said students are beginning to rebound academically and socially. “We are seeing some fallout … but we have been quick to support those through the post (secondary) process who are still struggling.”

Data collected by the school show that during years affected by the pandemic, college enrollment declined significantly. In 2019, more than 85% of students enrolled in college. In 2021 the number dropped to 67% of students, but rose to 75% last year. Assistant Principal Sherry Ball said the school is still collecting 2023 data, but already knows that this class will surpass these percentages.

Seniors also talked about the pressures they faced in the college applications process, the realities of finance and how they coped with rejections and learned to give themselves grace, noting that they’re often all applying for the same scholarships.

“This year, I really had to reevaluate a lot of my values and my belief systems. Because sometimes there’s that pressure to be good academically, that you start to move in a way that’s like you need that academic validation,” Ofori-Manu said. She asked herself, “Would I care more about getting into this school, or do I care more about the memories I’ve made with the people who are here?”

“Also just talking, talking to a counselor, talking to your friends, talking to yourself,” Few added.

After rejections, Ofori-Manu said “You have to come to school and still do work, and still grind and work on other applications.” She added, “It was a lot, but we made it.”

Looking back on the year

Kenwood seniors already have a good deal of independence. Upperclassmen are allowed to go off-campus for about an hour for lunch and named Five Guys, Wingstop and Roti as favorite eateries.

Many seniors are also enrolled in dual enrollment classes at Harold Washington College or the University of Chicago, which take them to another campus in the afternoon. Others participate in internships alongside coursework, such as those through the Urban Alliance. Students also noted connections to the Obama Foundation and Polsky Center.

In September, a 17-year-old student was shot and killed off campus during the school’s open lunch. In the aftermath of the shooting, Calloway worked to treat student trauma, address campus security and decided on keeping the school’s open-campus policy.

“A lot of us were off campus when it happened,” Few said. He said that students told Calloway that “to help us to actually feel safer, we should have a reminder app, or some type of app, so that if anything happens, and we’re off campus, we’re notified. So we’re not sitting in confusion.”

“You’ve got to remember that you’re in a major city, you’ve got to be aware of your surroundings,” Burress said, noting that it’s easy to get desensitized to violence in the city.

When asked about what they remember the most, students recalled homecoming, sporting events, spirit week and Calloway’s tradition of “Freebie Fridays” — where on certain Fridays they get free food. Hill recalled the excitement of going to Kenwood’s girls and boys varsity basketball city championship games.

Regarding the transition, Burress said he’ll miss the community, and is aware of the change of going from Kenwood, which Few termed “an HBCU but for high school,” to a predominantly white institution..

“Kenwood has definitely prepared me professionally and socially to be comfortable in spaces where I can be comfortable within myself, or have to assert myself within people that don’t look like me,” he said. “I’ll try to either make my own community at the school, or try to model the experience and community I’ve had here.”

Burress said that graduation will mark the end of six years at Kenwood for him, as he came to the school in seventh grade as part of the school’s Academic Center. “It’s been a good ride,” he said.

“Kenwood culture is so real, it’s so thick that you can feel it,” Johnson said. She added that she’s proud of the bonds she’s built with teachers during her time at Kenwood, and the affirmation she’s gotten from them in her work. “It just feels good to be around people who also enjoy being here. I feel like this is the epitome of Black excellence, so I’m gonna miss that.”

Some seniors also expressed excitement for their family members to see them walk across the stage. “I’m the first in my family to graduate from the U.S., so it’s kind of a big deal, even though it’s just high school,” said Ofori-Manu.

“My sister was class of 2020 … my mom didn’t get any of that,” Few said. “I’m finally happy to give her the graduation that she rightly deserves.”

Several seniors plan to work internships this summer. While they won’t be completely devoid of work, they also plan to take some time to relax.

“During the summer, I’m really just trying to have fun and relax,” Ofori-Manu said. “This year has just been a lot of academics … so just being able to get that break to do whatever you want and explore your interests outside of academics, I’m excited about that.”

staff writer

Zoe Pharo is a graduate of Carleton College. She was recently an editorial intern for In These Times, and has also written for Little Village and Chapel Hill Magazine. 

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