Bryan Lantz joined the Upward Bound program as a sophomore at Larkin High School. The college prep program for potential first-generation college students gave him his first contact with Elgin Community College.
Upward Bound offered after-school tutoring and support, Internet availability and study rooms to give students like Lantz a quiet space to do homework.
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"It basically just took away all the distractions of anything and everything around me so I could focus on school and course work," Lantz said.
With his 2010 high school graduation in sight, Lantz planned to attend Southern Illinois University but changed his mind in favor of ECC. He said it was a better financial choice and it gave him the opportunity to live at home, save money and be near his mom, who is battling her fourth bout of cancer.
Lantz, 21, and his brother Taylor both graduated with associate degrees from ECC in December. Lantz was the student speaker, sharing his story with the gathered graduates and their supporters.
Growing up in a low-income family, dealing with the emotional roller coaster of watching his mother fight and beat cancer only to be re-diagnosed again and juggling work and school commitments meant college was never easy. But Lantz said in his speech that the hardships only made him and his brother "better players in this game we call life."
"Just like a game of cards, we are all dealt a hand when we are born," Lantz said. "To some, their hand is set to win. To others, they must create a strategy. In the end, it all depends on the player. It is on us to win no matter what hand we are dealt. We make the choices. We choose what cards to play. We all have a chance to win."
Lantz plans to spend another semester taking extra classes at ECC before starting at Judson in the fall. He is working on his application now. He wants to study sociology, get a master's degree in counseling and then a doctorate in something like student development. His ultimate goal is to be president of a college one day.
Going to Judson will mean Lantz can continue to live with his dad and brother. His mom lives at Asta Care Center in Elgin.
One of Lantz's main goals for his education is to get through without too much debt. The cost of ECC was a large component in his decision to start there. But Lantz said indecisiveness about his career path also factored in. In high school, Lantz thought about being a doctor, surgeon, physical therapy assistant, sports trainer, professional speaker and nurse, among other options.
He recommends ECC for students like him -- but for those with more direction, too.
"If you know what you want to do, it'll save you money," Lantz said. "If you don't know what you want to do, it'll give you time to figure out what you want to do. ECC has definitely helped me a lot."
And even though it was a struggle at times, Lantz made it through, ready for his next challenge.