“Dedicated” would be the word that best describes Austin resident RioChanel Taylor.

The Dominican University graduate walked nearly two miles from her school to do volunteer work for at-risk teens at an Oak Park middle school. For the 21-year-old, not having a car or money for transportation was no reason not to help out.

Taylor mentored teens in the Youth Connects program, which offers after-school activities at Percy Julian Middle School, 416 S. Ridgeland. Dominican University is located at 7900 W. Division Street in River Forest.

“I still wanted to help young people, so I’m not going to make excuses … for things that I don’t have. I just find a way to make do,” said Taylor, who graduated from Dominican earlier this month.

For that dedication, the university awarded her its coveted Rising Star. The school gives out the annual award at the end of each school year to a student who exemplifies excellence in leadership.

“I feel honored to get the award because they just don’t give it to anyone,” said Taylor, who has a degree in criminality and sociology. She’s heading to Loyola University in the fall for her master’s in social work.

Taylor began volunteering as a freshman through the school’s service learning program. She saw it as an opportunity to get practical experience in social work. She tutored students at San Miguel Middle School in Austin, before volunteering at Youth Connects. Taylor mentored young girls there, often becoming their sounding board.

Her life mirrored the girls she mentored. She and her brother were in foster care in Compton, Calif., until her aunt and uncle got them and raised them as their own.

Taylor cites her experience in foster care as a reason for pursuing a career in social work. But she credits her parents, Jackie and Leon Williams, for instilling the value of community service.

“When I came to Chicago in 1995, I wasn’t able to read or write. I was really behind,” said Taylor, who graduated with a 3.63 gpa. “The state told my parents that my brother and I weren’t ever going to be able to learn. They never gave up on us.”

Taylor also credits her faith, which she says became stronger in college, for inspiring her to work with at-risk youths. She said people quickly give up on kids, but she wants to provide them with “opportunity so there won’t be any excuse.”

“I feel that this is what God wants,” Taylor said. “I think that is very important, especially in your career. I feel we should all take that into consideration, not just what we want, but what God wants for us. If you put God first, everything else will fall into place.”

Emma Mims, Dominican University faculty administrator, nominated Taylor for the award. She said Taylor fit the bill, volunteering freely, not expecting any pay or school credit – and she walked to where she volunteered her time.

Not that many college kids would act so selflessly, Mims said. While many students see college as all fun and games, Taylor was the exact opposite.

“I was very impressed by that,” said Mims, who has known Taylor since her sophomore year at the university. “I have a daughter who is growing up, and I want her to see that we do have these African-American young ladies who actually value their time and what they do.”