High Expectations: How LINK Unlimited Supports Chicago Students


Together with the National Partnership for Educational Access (NPEA), the Cooke Foundation is currently accepting nominations for the 2017 NPEA/Cooke Foundation Award for Excellence in Educational Access. For the second year, we are sponsoring this award to recognize an NPEA member organization, program, or school with a $5,000 monetary award for excellence in supporting underrepresented students on the path to and through college.

Below, we speak with last year’s recipient of the award, LINK Unlimited Scholars, to learn about their comprehensive programs for supporting economically disadvantaged African American students in Chicago. After 50 years of service, LINK has thoughtful insights to share with other mentorship and scholarship programs.


Tell us a bit about LINK Unlimited Scholars. How does your program help support economically disadvantaged students transition to higher education opportunities?

LINK is Chicago’s only college and career success program focused solely on African American youth. LINK’s mission is to connect economically disadvantaged African American high school students with mentors, resources and foundational skills required for success as they advance into, through and beyond college. We accomplish this mission by supplementing the high school experience with year-round programming that provides academic enrichment plus a Summer Learning Program that lasts four consecutive summers, along with leadership and personal development — including 1:1 mentors, and college and career success training.


How are goals like academic rigor balanced with the development of leadership and critical thinking skills?

We have a minimum unweighted GPA expectation. When scholars fall below that mark (or come close to that point), our staff counsels them to reinforce and cultivate positive academic behaviors as well as challenge their view of self. We offer private tutoring services and a Leadership Development Institute where scholars develop and practice their leadership skills. This year’s culminating project was the delivery of personal and essential items to a teen housing center in Chicago.

In addition to collaborating with successful leaders in Chicago to serve as speakers and panelists, we blend into each of our programs elements of socioemotional learning, which create space for scholars to reflect on how they view themselves and view others. These experiences build confidence and cultivate a sense of intellectual curiosity with the scholars.


Now that LINK Unlimited Scholars is in its fiftieth year, what are some of the biggest success factors your organization has identified for high school mentoring and scholarship programs?

High expectation is a crucially important aspect of youth programming. Our parents, mentors, high school partners and staff must believe and demand that the scholars excel in all of their pursuits. We work hard to maintain an open and welcoming space where coming to the LINK office feel less like a requirement and more like a place to be with family. We also work to be open to scholar voice and input. Their feedback has helped us evolve programs and policies over the years. This combination of efforts builds a connection with the organization that has brought many LINK alumni back to serve as mentors and contributors to the LINK of today.


What program changes or enhancements do you hope to focus on in upcoming years?

There are grave implications to entire communities when the professional environment is not diverse. Even when occupation and experience are equal, according to researchers, minorities are still less likely than their white counterparts to occupy leadership positions within their employment environment. For the upcoming years, we will focus additional efforts to expand our impact here in Chicago by implementing our Pipeline to Professions program (P3). P3 is executed in five phases.  Phase 1 (Education) and Phase 2 (Exposure) were launched this school year. We will execute subsequent phases over the next year. LINK’s goal is to increase college graduation rates and provide the career exposure and immersion experiences that will stop the cycle of poverty prevalent among black youth.  Additionally, P3 programming aims for all scholars to be gainfully employed – not underemployed – in a service field or in graduate/professional school within six months of degree obtainment.


What kinds of partnerships is LINK Unlimited interested in?

We are especially open to collaborating with universities and corporations who can help us create additional immersion opportunities to expand the options for our scholars. Anyone interested in collaborating with LINK programming can contact Alpachino Hogue, Director of Educational Programs.