It’s not always enough to just read about community college scholars so each year, One Million Degrees enlists the help of a different sense—taste—to connect and celebrate its students, alumni, and supporters at its 8th Annual Food+Wine Tasting. With over 500 people in attendance, under-recognized Chicago students were celebrated in a venue filled with supportive guests eager to meet them and learn about their personal stories.
CEO Paige Ponder sees the impact that community colleges have on students each day and
honored City Colleges of Chicago Chancellor Cheryl L. Hyman with the One Million Degrees Civic Award for her leadership in serving Chicago’s community college students. The collaboration between the organization and city colleges is yielding beneficial results. In fact, scholars who are a part of the program graduate at over three times the rate of unsupported community college students.
“Community college can be a launching pad, an on-ramp to post-secondary education,” says Ponder. “Every day, I see how incredibly talented and driven the students we work with are and I hope that people here can feel a personal connection with them. 65 percent of them are first in their family to go to college and all of them are low-income. They are an incredibly driven group of people who have successfully navigated through challenges and for us to be a part of this really pivotal moment in their lives as they get their degrees, plan their careers, and launch their futures, to me, is the most exciting aspect.”
In addition to helping the organization raise approximately a quarter of its operating revenues every year, guests also have the opportunity to meet One Million Dollar Degrees scholars who receive needed assistance from the organization in a number of ways. Scholar ambassador Homira Wardak is an example of how community colleges can play a huge role in helping people in reaching their ultimate dreams. While studying pre-med at Harper College, Wardak receives support from One Million Degrees in her journey toward becoming a physician.
“I feel very honored to be a scholar with the program because I have access to support systems that other students may not have. I feel like the mentoring, coaching, and tutoring—in addition to the financial support—is also very helpful,” explains Wardak. “The program has done a lot for me. I’m very grateful and once I graduate, I plan to come back to give that same support to other students who will be in a similar position.”
In addition to raising awareness of current scholars and their achievements, the charity event will actually help a number of students who have not yet experienced the support that One Million Degrees provides. Currently, the organization is committed to furthering its reach through exponential growth and increased partnerships with city colleges.
“We are really focused on expanding the number of students we serve. Last year, we helped 130 students, this year it’s 250, and next year, we’re going to serve 450. We’re trying to double every year. We are also forging new partnerships with particular city colleges. We have a program now at Kennedy King College in Englewood and our new college partnership is with Olive-Harvey College, where we have staff onsite to work closely with larger groups of students.”
For the food lovers in the audience, the evening was filled with culinary delights from the area’s top chefs. Chefs Thomas Lents of Sixteen; Matthias Merges of Yusho, Billy Sunday and A10; Mauro Mafrici of Pelago Ristorante; James Kozak; Sandra Holl of Floriole Café & Bakery; and Ji Yoon of Acadia provided exquisite dishes and decadent desserts while sommelier Dan Pilkey of Champagne Cattier expertly paired each course with the perfect wine.
“Any time that we can actually do something that makes a difference in the world and that helps people, I want to be a part of it,” says Chef Lents. “The effect is visceral—you can see the difference that it makes in people’s lives. It really means a lot to me to be included.”
The cuisine was undoubtedly extraordinary in taste, but had a much deeper meaning for the
night. One of the dishes served was colcannon—a traditional Irish dish, which Chef Lents thoughtfully prepared and discussed with each guest. “This dish was taught to me by my grandmother, which I took and changed it a lot. It’s a very simple dish, but given the right treatment and care, it can be made into something greater. I think that it fits the theme of the evening.”