More than 1,000 Chicago high school students gathered at McCormick Place Tuesday for college interviews with 185 institutions of higher education. Some students, like UIC College Prep senior Sydney Perez, were admitted on the spot.

“It felt amazing, like it had all been worth it,” Perez said of her admittance to Milwaukee’s Marquette University, one of several schools she is considering attending. Perez would be the first member of her family to attend college.

Tuesday’s event was hosted by college-access non-profit Chicago Scholars, and most of the student attendees had been selected to receive mentoring and training through its college access program. Chicago Scholars works with promising low-income students in the city. The rest of the students were brought to the site by other community organizations with similar missions.

For her peers, Perez said, the college process could seem daunting. But the work she has done with Chicago Scholars since being admitted to the program in May has made it seem doable.

Ivery Marquez, who attends Von Steuben High School and lives in Jefferson Park on the Northwest Side, said her work with Chicago Scholars gave her the confidence and knowledge to look at schools across the country.

“I was terrified” about the college admissions process, she said. “I was completely terrified. I did not know anything. My parents did not go to college, so I’m a first generation college student. My school, although they have many resources, it was really hard to find the time to make relationships with your counselors, and to really get the information to get those college applications done.”

Marquez added: “I think if I did not have this program, I would not be in the place where I am right now.”

Miaa Cheeks, who attends Kenwood Academy in Hyde Park and lives in Roseland, felt more confident going into the admissions process after seeing her older sister successfully complete it.

“I’m like, ‘Maybe I can do it, maybe it’s not that hard, maybe people are being dramatic.’ But it’s that hard,” Cheeks said. “If I wouldn’t have been in Chicago Scholars, I would have been overwhelmed.”

Students had sent applications to five schools in advance of Tuesday’s interviews.

When Cheeks sat down with Georgia State University, the school’s admission officer gave her a folder to open — revealing her acceptance letter.

“That was pretty, like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ I did not know it was going to be that easy,” Cheeks said. “I came in kind of nervous, but after doing the first two [interviews] I was, like, ‘You got this.’”

The students admitted Tuesday will have their college acceptance before many of their peers have filed their first applications, putting them ahead in a game that can seem rigged in favor of the well-to-do.

“If you are poor in this country, the short answer is that it is almost impossible to get a college degree. Only 9 percent of poor people actually will graduate by age 25. [In] our program, those same students, 86 percent of them are graduating,” Chicago Scholars CEO Dominique Jordan Turner said.

Students stacked up 718 on-the-spot admission offers and offers of $32.3 million in financial aid at Tuesday’s event, officials said. Chicago Scholars spokesman David Viggiano said they expected both numbers to rise as news of additional offers come in.

A spokesman for Chicago Scholars said students and admission officers at the event conducted 5,347 interviews | Adam Thorp/Sun-Times

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