Stephanie Berryhill was standing in a classroom at Englewood High School wondering why all of the students were laying their heads on their desks.
“They all had their heads down during the class day and I didn’t know why. I asked the teacher about this, and the teacher told me that a lot of them couldn’t read even though they were seniors in high school,” said Berryhill.
“So I went to them after and asked them ‘What do you want to do after high school? Do you want to go to college?’ and they said ‘No, people like us can’t go to college, so we have no plans for that.’ I grew up in a similar situation. I was like ‘Look at me. If I can do it, you can do it.’ I felt like I could use my own experience to help them.”
She didn’t know it at the time, but that volunteer effort started her on the path of dedicating her college career to help and teach others.
“I am a first generation high school graduate and college student in my family,” said Berryhill, a native of Chicago’s Portage Park neighborhood. “I juggled between two different majors when I first got to DePaul, but I ended up settling on education. I love how DePaul is community oriented and very focused on the students, so that drew me here.”
After four years in the program, Berryhill is graduating with a Bachelor of Science in education.
Berryhill especially enjoyed the close relationships she had with her professors and fellow students.” If you need help with something, the professors will help you with things that don’t necessarily have to be related to school. I’ve always felt our professors aren’t just teachers. They’re friends as well,” she said.
“You also go through the program with the same people. Everyone collaborates, meshes ideas and bounces things off of each other. I love that community aspect. We’re all in this together.”
New York influence
Berryhill’s commitment to education was cemented during her sophomore year on a service emersion trip to the Bronx in New York. “The primary focus was on education. We went to different kinds of schools: charter schools, private schools and public schools in New York,” she said. “Their education system is on average five years ahead of Chicago’s, so we wanted to use our experiences from the trip to improve the education system back home.”
During the trip, Berryhill visited a school in one of the poorest congressional districts in the United States, which is right next to Yankee Stadium. “The staff showed us how they can teach students to reach for the stars even though they grew up below the poverty line,” she said.
“We later stood on a panel where we talked to kids about preparing for college and careers. Then they gave us a panel about growing up there. The trip had a big influence on me. It was my second year, when I first started in the College of Education. It reaffirmed that I wanted to be there.”
Volunteering and service
Berryhill’s compassion is not limited to just the classroom. She volunteers at several organizations during her college career including Refugee One, an organization that helps refugees become acclimated to Chicago.
“I actually worked with a former refugee who now helps run the program,” she said. “She told me how she stayed at the organization for 10 years and asked about everyone’s jobs, which led to her working for them and eventually becoming a co-director. It was awesome hearing about how you can work your way up from a bad situation.”
Berryhill also has worked to help Chicago’s homeless population with the Back On My Feet program. “It starts off with a focus on healthy living. It teaches them how to live a healthy lifestyle through exercise and eating right, and moves up to living a well-rounded lifestyle,” said Berryhill.
“We teach them about career development and finding opportunities. We coach them through the interview process, help them make resumes, and find companies that have job openings. We also sometimes have them job shadow. One of them shadowed me in my classes once to see what it’s like to be in a university.”
Berryhill also was a founding member of BAILE, a dance team that performed at several campus events, and the Sigma Lambda Gamma sorority. “That’s where I found my home. At first I didn’t feel like I fit in at DePaul, but I met a lot of cool people who grew up in similar situations as me. They became role models, which helped me find home,” said Berryhill.
“That’s how I found a lot of the service events I was in. I met a lot of people who gave me opportunities,” she said. Berryhill also volunteered to help plan three of DePaul’s annual Vincentian Service Day events.
Desire to return where education began
After graduation, Berryhill wants to find a job with Chicago Public Schools.
“I’m a 12-year alumna of CPS so I want to go back where it started. I want to teach either middle school science or early childhood,” she said. “I want to start some kind of youth program that focuses on career and college development even from elementary school because if they don’t have the foundation to build on there, they won’t have the foundation to build on in high school.”
One in a series of stories about graduates from the Class of 2015