Susan Lopez was accepted to the Youth Leadership Academy at Elgin Community College when she was in sixth grade.
She started the program at the beginning of her seventh grade year and stuck with it through high school graduation, crediting the education-focused service learning organization with a share of her success in the years since.
Lopez, 24, graduated from Streamwood High School in 2006 and went on to the University of Chicago for Sociology. She leaves for UCLA law school next week and the premier race and legal studies program in the country.
Support from YLA mentors while she was in high school helped Lopez decide on her alma mater and get her application in order. For the Elgin teen, the support filled holes in her mom's knowledge about college applications.
"She didn't know what I would need to be competitive in the college admissions process," Lopez said. "It was really important to be in this program and have somebody talk to me about this."
Students selected for the Youth Leadership Academy are chosen in the second semester of their sixth grade year after an application process. Usually 20 students make up each cohort, meeting twice per month on top of special events and other field trips. The group focuses heavily on service projects and leadership skill building.
The community service component was Lopez's first introduction to volunteering. She said kids from low-income backgrounds like hers often miss the importance of volunteer work. Before School District U-46 started including community service in its curriculum requirements, Lopez had her eyes opened through activity with the YLA.
"I didn't know how much of an impact you could make through service to others," Lopez said. "I don't think I would be involved in public service if it weren't for those first few experiences."
After she graduated from college she worked for a year at the Renz Center, turning a passion for public service into a desire to look toward public interest law. Her time as a drug and gang prevention specialist allowed her to do coalition building in the community and focus on public policy issues related to the prevention work.
While she is looking forward to the program at UCLA and its emphasis on race, Lopez is already planning to return to the Elgin area.
"This is my hometown," Lopez said. "I really care about what's happening with the people here."
Lopez is wrapping up a summer coordinating an internship program for current YLA students. She reconnected with Executive Director Dianha Ortega-Ehreth during her coalition-building at the Renz Center and took advantage of the summer opportunity between a year abroad in Spain and her law school start. The internships are giving work experience to young high schoolers and teaching the responsibilities of holding a job while providing extra support to map out career paths.
Lopez said the YLA is a program more young people should have access to.
"Especially people who are first generation college students or the children of immigrants from lower income backgrounds," Lopez said. "It's really important to be exposed to these ideas early on so they can think about college and realize they have these options out there."
The YLA was founded on the belief that young people should have the opportunity to improve their lives through education. Alumni like Lopez are proof of its success.