Eleven students from Austin are among 575 high school seniors who’ve been selected for the Chicago Scholars program.

Natalia Bautista, a first-generation Mexican-American, heard about the program from some upperclassmen at her school and applied in the spring after attending an information session.

“This program has not only introduced me to other students who are in the same position as me and who want to navigate the college process, but it has also allowed me to build a mentorship with some of the mentors in the program,” said Bautista, a rising senior at George Westinghouse College Prep.

“I knew with this program I would get the support and guidance necessary for me to not only navigate college but also succeed.”

The Chicago Scholars helps rising high school seniors throughout their college acceptance process, as well as additional support during and after college when those same students are going out into the work force.

In the beginning, scholars are matched with a college counselor for eight one-on-one sessions that guides them through a curriculum of workshops and places them in a mentoring cohort with about four experienced adult mentors and seven or so other Chicago Scholar peers.

From there, scholars submit up to six college applications while working with some of the program’s roughly 200 college partners that come to Chicago for their annual admissions forum in October where scholars complete one-on-one interviews with admissions officers, receive early admissions decisions and scholarships.

Getting chosen for the program is no small feat.

“They actually submit an application that looks a lot like a college application, and … they go through a pretty rigorous evaluation process,” said Rachael Accavitti, vice president of programs at Chicago Scholars.

This academic mentorship continues throughout the scholars’ college career and post-college when those same scholars are starting their careers.

Chicago Scholars was founded in 1996 as a scholarship-granting organization and now has about 900 college graduates. Each year, about 1,500 students apply for the program, with less than half being accepted.

The 11 Austin students accepted into the program include; Natalia Bautista, Justin Berryhill, Darian Gomez, Mahogany Martin, Cherish Tate, Zaniyah Taylor and Taylor Watts. (The other four students did not want to share their names.)

To apply, students must be a junior in high school, live and attend school in Chicago and demonstrate academic ambition to attend a four-year college. They also need a minimum GPA of 3.0 and a minimum ACT score of 20 or PSAT score of 1020.

Students submit their applications in the spring; applications must include referrals from community partners as well as recommendations from their high school teachers and/or guidance counselors.

The program looks for students who are first-generation and/or from low-income households.

“Systemic change in our country cannot happen until more people of color from marginalized communities are in positions of leadership,” Accavitti said.

“We really believe that one of the first steps in that process is making sure Chicago’s talented students have access to our country’s best institutions, and they’re surrounded by the support they need to thrive once they get there.”

This year interviews were held virtually during April – amid the COVID-19 pandemic – by 485 volunteers across the city. Chicago Scholars received about 1,300 applications.

As Bautista prepares to start her last year of high school, she’s leaning toward a career in the medical field, possibly a pediatrician. She’s most interested in attending Vanderbilt University, University of Chicago or University of Illinois at Chicago.

“I just really want to thank the program for the opportunities that have opened as a rising senior, and I really recommend this program to other students who are looking for that guidance or are unsure about the college application process in general,” Bautista said.