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How a 17-year-old Chicagoan became a first-generation college graduate

Ozzy Ordoñez got his degree through the P-TECH program codeveloped by IBM.

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Chicagoans is a first-person account from off the beaten track, as told to Anne Ford. This week's Chicagoan is Ozzy Ordoñez, 17, the first-generation college graduate.

College never was really on my parents' mind. They were raised to finish high school and then get a good job and live comfortably like that, but of course times change. I'm a very education-oriented person. When I was growing up, college wasn't quite a dream; it was more of a fantasy. It was like, "Oh, man, I could end up at Harvard!," 'cause I thought that was the only college that ever existed.

In third grade, we learned about planets. That was amazing; I really liked that subject. The planets are so far away, and they're gigantic. I imagine that on every other planet, there must be something else that's interesting. Going on a spaceship, being in an astronaut suit—that sounded like the best thing to do in life. And I still consider Pluto a planet. Like people call it the Willis Tower, and I still call it the Sears Tower.

When I was in eighth grade, I had to apply to high schools, and my counselor recommended that I check out the Sarah E. Goode STEM Academy if I was interested in technology, which I was. I thought it was an ordinary STEM high school, but then they said, "We can get you your college degree through this thing called the P-TECH program, which was codeveloped by IBM," and I was sold on that. Essentially, you have to pass an exam, and if you pass, you're able to take dual- enrollment courses, so while you're completing your high school courses, you can also attend a City College of Chicago and get your associate degree. I attended Richard J. Daley College.

The model is a six-year program, but I completed it in four years. I just felt that if I could save two years of my life in order to be ahead, to achieve more in less time, I was all for that. It did feel like a lot of work, but I was very determined to do it. In the morning, I'd get to the high school around 7:15. Then I'd get to college at 9:30. My last class there would be around noon, and then I would go back to my high school to finish my normal school day. My very first college course was English 101, when I was a high school sophomore. It was intimidating, but once I was there, there was no reason to back out of it.

I graduated in May with my associate degree in Web development. I'm not one to cry, but I definitely had tears of joy, because of my achievement, and because of appreciation for my family and for this opportunity, because it's a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Now I'll be attending the University of Illinois at Chicago. I want to major in mechanical engineering. That sounds fun.

By 27, I hope to be in some type of management position at a car manufacturing company. I want to pay it all back to my family in any way that I can. I want them to be happy and live comfortably. That would be the least that I could do. Hopefully they can live comfortably, I can live comfortably, and I can have a branch that has great production rates, because I want my employees to have a happy life and be happy to work for me.   v

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