Arturo Ballesteros got up for school Wednesday knowing it’d be a big day no matter what.
Getting dressed, he decided to throw on his University of Chicago T-shirt for good luck — the Hyde Park school was going to let early applicants know by late afternoon whether they would be admitted or had to make other plans.
Ready for whatever news was coming, Ballesteros went to school at Back of the Yards College Prep and midway through the morning walked over to the main office. His guidance counselor had called his parents in for a meeting to go over the next steps in the college application process.
Minutes later, Ballesteros and his parents were in tears — and a few teachers might have gotten watery eyes, too. The university had sent admissions staff to the high school to surprise the senior — and his parents and teachers — with an acceptance letter and a full-ride scholarship.
The value of such an aid package is $77,000 per year, officials said, and covers tuition, fees, housing and meals, plus a paid summer internship and funding for study abroad in the future.
It turned out Ballesteros didn’t need any luck, and the shirt just ended up being a nice touch for photos.
Arturo Ballesteros hugs one of his teachers who were there to support the UChicago-bound high school senior.Nader Issa/Sun-Times
“Thank you to all of you guys,” a tearful Ballesteros told the room full of his teachers with his parents and counselor by his side. “This wouldn’t have been possible without any of you.
“When I was in 8th grade there was a lot of pressure from that administration to aim for a selective enrollment high school. But I saw something in Back of the Yards that I belonged here,” he said.
That sense of belonging is what Ballesteros found at UChicago, too, when he spent the last three years in the university’s Collegiate Scholars program that helps high-achieving, underrepresented Chicago Public Schools students get into highly selective colleges.
He lived on campus three straight summers, took classes and got a feel for what would become his new home. And now, he knows exactly what he wants to study there: education.
“As I was starting to think about colleges and writing those supplements, just overall thinking about where I am today, I realized that none of it would have been possible without my teachers,” he said. “And I have such great teachers here and they really do contribute positively to the lives of their students, and I want to be like that. They’re very selfless and agents of change in the community.”
Specifically, he wants to stay in Chicago and teach at a high school like his own that serves students of color who come from low-income families.
Ballesteros’ parents immigrated to Chicago from Mexico, and he’s the first in the family to go to college. He was also one of only 100 students in the entire world last spring to ace the Advanced Placement Spanish Language and Culture exam, and he’s been at the top of his high school class since freshman year.
Arturo Ballesteros poses for pictures with his parents.Nader Issa/Sun-Times
Still, he doesn’t take any of the credit — in his eyes, all of that goes to his parents and teachers.
“It’s great because my parents are immigrants, and part of the reason they came was so they could give their future children a chance for a better life than they had,” Ballesteros said. “And so getting accepted into such a prestigious university and one that I know I’m going to perform well in just reassures me that I’m going to be able to give back to them everything they’ve sacrificed for me.”
That humility is why his counselor, Juan Carlos Salinas, feels so good for his prized pupil.
“Knowing the work that his parents put in, I think that’s where the joy comes in,” Salinas said.
“When I was meeting with the parents right now, they were saying, ‘I know we don’t make it to all the meetings, I know we don’t do all this because of work.’ And I’m like, we know what’s being done because of what he shows here. And for them, who work daily, six days a week, to come in and see that — this is their hard work, and this is what paid off.”
Salinas said there were very few hiccups along the way, and sometimes it seemed like he was more nervous than Ballesteros, like when this fall’s teachers strike ended the same day early applications were due to UChicago.
“I remember coming off the strike, Nov. 1 was the deadline, it was a big concern about that first big deadline with the early action,” Salinas said. “We came in and I checked in and I said, ‘Are you OK?’ And he goes, ‘Yea, I know what I’m doing.’ I said great, just let me know when you submit.
“It was one of those where for me I was just like telling myself not to mess it up,” he said. “The truth is he needed little guidance because he knew what he wanted to do.”
Salinas added that Ballesteros’ standout, example-setting school career “shows that there’s a high school here, it’s a diamond on the South Side.
“It shows that there’s a lot more happening in Back of the Yards besides the regular cycle.”