By KARIN RONNOW | Sonia Shah Organization | 17 April, 2017
When Zuleyma Cordero was 19, she started college in Chicago’s western suburbs. Excited and determined, she knew a college degree was necessary for her to achieve her dreams of a business career.
“Education can have enormous personal benefits for those who acquire it, but it also has external benefits to the rest of society.” – The New York Times
Neither of her parents had gone to college. Her mom worked at a fast-food restaurant. Her dad juggled two part-time jobs at a restaurant and a retail store “so we can make ends meet,” Zuleyma said. Despite the family’s strained finances, both parents supported their daughter’s college ambitions, proud of her grit and academic success.
“Then my mom got really ill and she stopped working,” Zuleyma said. “Being the oldest of my siblings, I made the decision to stop going to school and work to help my dad out with bills at home. I did not want my younger siblings to stop their education and start working.”
Such a turn of events is all too common, especially given the soaring costs of higher education in the United States. More than half of students who leave college before graduating cite the “need to work and make money,” according to the Public Agenda organization.
Four years later Zuleyma was still working. Her family’s financial situation had improved, but not by much. “I thought I could go back to school whenever I wanted, but it’s never as easy as it sounds, especially when we are paying off medical bills,” she said.
Then she heard about Sonia Shah Organization’s (SSO) new scholarship program, which helps underprivileged young women in Chicago earn college degrees. She applied and was accepted into the program. Her prayers were answered.
Zuleyma, 24, is now in her second semester at Harper Community College in Palatine, Ill. Single and “with no children — yet,” she still works while studying accounting and business, but maintains a high grade-point average and hopes to finish with a double major.
If she had not received the scholarship, which covers tuition, fees and books, she said, “I would probably have had to keep working trying to save up for school.”
Equal opportunity to education
SSO’s scholarship program, like all of its endeavors, grew out of Sonia Shah’s dream of a world where all girls have the same access to education as she did.
Sonia, who died in car accident two days before beginning her freshman year at The College of William and Mary, embodied the “pay it forward” philosophy during her too-short life. In a college-application essay, she wrote: “It is only through the work of the women who came before me that I don’t live in ignorance and isolation.” Other girls deserve the same opportunities, she wrote.
SSO needs your help to fund college scholarships for Zuleyma and other needy young women. Our 2017 Scholarship Campaign goal is $10,000. All money raised will go to students.
“Given the chance, there is no limit to what these girls can do,” Sonia said. Research shows that a college degree increases a woman’s earning potential, improves her health (and her family’s), empowers her with critical-thinking skills, and increases her self-esteem. But that’s not all.
“Given the chance, there is no limit to what these girls can do,” Sonia said.
“Education can have enormous personal benefits for those who acquire it, but it also has external benefits to the rest of society,” the New York Times reported. “Workers with more education are more productive, which makes companies more profitable and the overall economy grow faster.
“But the great national crisis” is that too many “young adults are not going to college or, if they do, don’t graduate, in large part because they can’t afford it,” the Times reported.
After a decade of double-digit price increases, the average annual cost is now $8,000 at a two-year college and $49,000 at a private four-year college.
Few students have that kind of money. In fact, 83 percent of students at public four-year colleges received financial aid in 2012.
“Higher education is and should be the aspiration of every girl,” said Iram Shah, Sonia’s mom and SSO chairwoman. “The U.S., unlike many developed countries, does not guarantee that opportunity and the cost of college is out of reach for many deserving and hard-working young people. We as citizens must step up to help the next generation. Please donate to the Sonia Shah Scholarship Program and change someone’s life!”
‘My dream job’
For Zuleyma, the SSO scholarship has made all the difference. Her angst about the cost of college has been replaced with hope.
This determined young woman grew up in the Chicago suburbs, where she attended elementary school in Mount Prospect, and graduated from Rolling Meadows High School in 2011. She is the oldest of the family’s three children. “I have two younger siblings, a 21-year-old sister and a 22-year-old adopted brother.”
Her mom’s health is better, although her illness took a toll. “She had cysts in her uterus that caused her extreme pain and those cysts later spread to her ovaries,” Zuleyma said. “She had to get a partial hysterectomy and later a full hysterectomy.”
But Zuleyma sees a brighter future for herself and her family. “When I graduate from Harper College, I want to transfer to Northern Illinois University and receive my bachelor’s degrees,” she said.
Her ultimate goal is “to have a secure job to offer my family financial stability and have an opportunity to make a difference in my community,” she said. “My dream job would be working with a great company where there is an opportunity to someday become CEO, or even open up my own business.”
Sonia’s legacy provides constant motivation, she added.
“I think of what a great inspiration Sonia was and still is to this day,” Zuleyma said. “I like to reflect on how she is changing lives of young girls, including myself. And that it all started with the passion she had, and with the idea of making history. She didn’t give up at the sight of any difficulty, she pressed forward to achieve her goal.”
Please join SSO in helping Zuleyma and other disadvantaged young women pursue their passions and dreams. Become a part of these young women’s stories.