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Chicago (CNN)Death first stared at Sonia, straight in the eyes, when she was only 10 years old.
“I was wondering, ‘When is it going to be my last day?'” Sonia told CNN. “I wasn’t living. I was surviving.”
The ruthless gangs in her native Guatemala had her in the crosshairs during her early teenage years, she said, following her and threatening her in the street. Sonia, who asked CNN to change her name because she fears for her safety, said they threatened her mother, as well.
“They told her, ‘We are going to rape your daughters,’ ” Sonia said.
As menacing messages followed, her parents fled north to the United States. Sonia and her two younger sisters were put up for adoption at an orphanage.
At 16, she made her own desperate decision to journey from Guatemala to the United States.
“My father, he almost died in the desert and my mother got kidnapped in Mexico, and I still decided to take the risk,” Sonia said.
Surviving the six-month voyage, some of it by foot, from Guatemala City to Chicago only strengthened her determination to achieve her American dream. She wanted to become the first in her family to earn a college degree, she said. But as she prepared to graduate from high school with a4.1 GPA, Sonia’s heart sank at the realization that as an undocumented immigrant she would qualify for little to no college financial aid.
“I’m Christian, so I was always praying,” she said.
Sonia received a college acceptance letter signed by a Jesuit priest, Father Stephen Katsouros, who is an “Olivia Pope,” of sorts, for marginalized students in Chicago. Olivia Pope is the fictional crisis manager played by Kerry Washington in the hit series “Scandal.”
Katsouros is the dean and executive director of Arrupe College of Loyola University Chicago, the first Jesuit community college in the world. The mission of this new two-year college, which just began its second year, is offer a liberal arts education to “a diverse population, many of whom are the first in their family to pursue higher education.” Many of their students struggled in high school, but have the drive and desire to transfer to a four-year university.
Sonia’s story and the Arrupe education model is resonating with universities and colleges around the country which look to narrow the post-secondary education gap between the wealthy and the marginalized. Eight universities and colleges are looking into duplicating the Arrupe model, said Katsouros. The University of St. Thomas in Minnesota is the first to publicly announce its intention to replicate the Arrupe model at its Catholic school campus.
University of St. Thomas President Julie Sullivan said that her team is planning to open their two-year-program by the fall of 2017, given that they “have preliminary approval” from the board of trustees. But before the new college opens its doors, Sullivan said, more needs to be done to secure funding for scholarships and a work program for students.
While the University of St. Thomas would tailor its Arrupe-model college to meet the local needs of its community, the overarching goal, said Katsouros is to “provide [the students] with the confidence and the skills to be successful in a four-year college, and to be successful in the workplace.”
Arrupe’s next challenge, according to Garanzini, is making sure that students transition seamlessly into a four-year university.
“We need to keep up with them because they need a year of transition,” he said. “They need to know that someone is watching, asking ‘How did the first semester go?’ Or we need to partner with the universities or colleges that they go to.”
“I have the best gig in higher ed,” Katsouros said. “To be a part of this extremely innovative, compelling, relevant, educational model that we believe will be the leader of a new movement is most exciting.”
‘My friends keep dying’
While Sonia is overjoyed about being part of the inaugural class of a trailblazing post-secondary education model, she reflects on the violence that surrounds her childhood friends still living in Guatemala.
“A lot of my friends keep dying. They are killed,” Sonia said as her voice cracked. “I have this feeling that I’m here safe and they are still there dying. I really feel really bad.”
While Sonia’s future in Chicago is still insecure, she counts her blessings and vows to pay it forward. She feeds the homeless at a soup kitchen, visits hospital patients and elderly people in nursing homes as a chaplain. She also lobbies at the Illinois state legislature for the rights of undocumented immigrants.
“It makes me feel really good because I’m doing something for this community,” she said. “They are giving me something, so I’m going to give back.”