MEF mentor prepares Chicago at-risk youth for college for 16 years

Volunteer Spotlight: Dr. Jorge Pena 

Chicago — We at Midtown Educational Foundation often use the phrase A. V.I.P. to describe the youth development model Academics, Virtues, Individual Attention, and Parent involvement at Midtown for boys and Metro for girls.

But for now, at the heels of January's National Mentoring Month, we want to recognize our very own V.I.P. Dr. Jorge Peña, a generous man who has dedicated thousands of hours as a mentor and role model for at-risk Chicago boys at Midtown Center since 1998.

Fulfilling a Need in Chicago

When Dr. Jorge Peña began volunteering at Midtown, he realized no program existed for high school seniors. So he did something about it. He received approval to develop a College Seminar course to help at-risk Chicago male seniors learn the ropes toward college admission. Launched in 2002, the program lives on today. During the fall semester, seniors focus on the college application process. In the spring, they cover financial aid, scholarships, affordability, and adjusting to student life from an academic and social point of view. 

"I see these really transformative changes. They come from neighborhoods that often do not have high levels of expectations for learning, because the academic achievement of students in those neighborhoods tends to be depressed and very low. We emphasize college admissions, college enrollment, and graduation." 

Looking back on Dr. Peña's influence at Midtown, it is no surprise that Midtown Educational Foundation celebrates 100% high school graduation rate and 100% college enrollment for the last 14 consecutive years. "Currently, out of our senior class, 2/3 will be the first in their families to go to college." In a recent survey of over 900 alumni, 91% are still currently enrolled or are college graduates. 

Giving Back 

Where did this inspiration come from? "My mom was a teen mom, and I had struggles with the college application. A Yale medical student would come to my house with his typewriter and helped me with my applications and edited my essays." Growing up in a neighborhood exposed to gangs and drugs, the students at Midtown relate to Dr. Peña, as he can truly relate to them.  

Not only does he come back each week to teach the College Seminar, he also goes out of his way to provide the same opportunity for his own nephew.  "I work downtown. Every Monday night I drive past 115th St. to pick up my nephew and bring him back north to Midtown. I value the program and see how much of an impact it's making on him in different ways." Apparently many dedicated families commute 30-40 minutes or more to attend Midtown and Metro each week as well. 

"'l'll be honest, it's not easy to's becoming more challenging...but knowing that resources may be scarce at most schools (1100 or more students to one college access counselor)...and receiving student emails asking me to review their college essays -- that's what brings me back is my own experience as a high school senior."

Choosing Midtown for over 16 Years

"As a doctor of education, I began to really look at how well Midtown is having an impact on these students...because it put in students' minds that regardless of your surroundings, this is the path towards life's success." It's this kind of support that "helped me escape my adversarial conditions."

So what keeps Dr. Peña coming back each year? Why MEF? Beyond his passion for helping students and giving back to what was once given to him, Jorge identified three additional reasons:

Exposure to various cultures - Students have a chance to meet other 4th-12th graders outside of their neighborhoods from over 100 schools across Chicago.  "A hidden value is that our students are exposed to those who are not like them and they get the opportunity to learn how to interact with young professionals." 

The A. V.I.P. Model - "It truly permeates throughout the entire organization. I've seen the evolution of the Academic programs here; in the summer, it functions like a school! I get to talk to my nephew about the Virtues he's learning. The series of one-on-one interactions with the advisor promotes Individual attention. And it's the Parent component I find often missing from other programs...That, I believe, is the cornerstone of the program. It really convinces me and continues to inspire me to come back."

- Persisting High Quality Programs - "I've seen different program managers and directors come and go through the years, but what is consistent is the strength of the program quality that we offer. The programs are incredibly well developed and structured."

Education: A Long Term ROI

"Education is one of the only fields you don't see an immediate return on investment. It's long-term."

Fortunately, Dr. Pena has been around long enough to witness the ROI on his students. A former student at Midtown who struggled intensely with math recognized Dr. Pena years later. "You taught me Physics right here at Midtown in 1998. I was so excited about Astro Physics, Physics, Quantum Physics - it was my first time exposed to it, and I turned my math grades around. I graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Physics at Illinois Institute of Technology. Now, I am exploring PhD programs in Astrophysics, and I volunteer as a mentor at Midtown because of the impact it had on me." 

It's the gift that keeps on giving.

Thank you, Dr. Peña, for your dedication 
and commitment for more than 16 years at Midtown!

Dr. Jorge Peña served as the Assistant Principal at De La Salle Institute for 12 years and is currently the Director of School Improvement and Catholic School Accreditation at the Archdiocese of Chicago. He leads the accreditation process for 206 local elementary schools, in addition to Chicago area Catholic high schools.