From GED to college graduate, one determined student engineers a successful path

How a specially trained ICC Student Success Advisor helped her student navigate a course to a better life

From the time he was eligible for kindergarten through what would have been his sophomore year in high school, Derek was homeschooled. And, as he puts it, even that was done “untraditionally,” with him doing coursework by himself during the day and his mom helping with any issues he had later at night when she got off work. “When I was 16,” he continues, “I quit in order to go to work so I could pay bills. My family had always been poor, so financial reasons determined that I would quit earlier than I should have.” So how did Derek end up in college? And what role did his ICC Student Success Advisor play in his journey?

A chance encounter sparks a new direction

Derek had always wanted to be an engineer, a career with “practical value.” His dream job would be to design and test robotic systems. When Derek had to drop out at age 16, that dream seemed to be fading away. According to him, he had likely achieved high school equivalency in a few areas. “But,” he notes, “I hadn’t finished pre-algebra or learned any science.”

Karen Giesler was a Student Success Advisor at Illinois Central College. She remembers the day she went to support her team at an ICC workforce expo on campus. While she was there, she chatted with the GED prep group and one of the instructors pulled her aside. “I’ve got this student,” she explained. And thus began her long association with Derek. “After he earned his GED in 2019, he followed through in meeting with me. Since he didn’t complete high school in the traditional way, he had to complete several prerequisite classes to get him up to speed for the rigor of the engineering track.”

As part of ICC’s partnership with InsideTrack, Karen received in-depth and ongoing training on InsideTrack’s evidence-based, research-proven coaching methodology. So she was well prepared to help Derek with his goals, academics, struggles and successes. “No two students are the same, so working with them one-on-one creates a challenge in how to best reach them. The structure, methodology and process provided by InsideTrack helps navigate this best and has validated my beliefs in success coaching. During peak enrollment, it can be easy to get off track with coaching. Having the InsideTrack ‘tool box’ helps to get back on track, using ‘summarizing’ — my favorite — to move forward with the student.”

Taking student success seriously

Once Derek met the requirements and enrolled in ICC, he enjoyed his time taking structured classes. When the pandemic forced everything online, Derek says it actually made it easier for him to focus on learning, even though his “work schedule made things challenging.”

He continued working with Karen throughout his studies. “Derek could pretty much hold his own with academics while working 30-40 hours per week. He would reach out to me to tell me what was going wrong and we would work on solutions.” Then came spring of 2021, with Derek’s job pushing him to work even more hours — and the load became too much. “Derek ended up withdrawing from two courses. During this time, he was working late hours, then staying up until 4 or 5 a.m. to complete homework before going back to ICC for classes.” After that, Karen says they had a good meeting where they assessed his goals, identified how he could get his employer to understand how important his academics were for his career, and discussed ways to get caught up with Calculus II, “a bear of a summer class” during the next term.

The next time the student and Student Success Advisor met was several months later. “When I asked Derek why he needed to work so much, his answer was ‘because I have bills.’ Most often when we hear this response, it relates to the cell phone, car insurance, and other typical young adult expenses. But when I took a deeper dive and asked Derek ‘what bills,’ his reply shocked me.”

“Rent, utilities, food… he said. This unveiled his situation and helped explain things. He was providing the bare living necessities for him and his mother.”

Using a special scholarship to simplify the schedule

Karen immediately contacted the ICC scholarship director for advice and found the Frank and Kathleen Home Education Scholarship. “Since Derek was homeschooled until his sophomore year in high school, the scholarship was a serendipitous find,” she says. She gave the information to Derek who took it from there, ultimately earning the scholarship.

Derek says that having Karen as his advisor was extremely helpful. “She helped me schedule the correct classes in a way so that the coursework didn’t become too overwhelming. She also helped me obtain a scholarship which allowed me to work fewer hours at my job, and, in turn, helped improve my grades.” And making an already overtaxed schedule work was key. “Balancing everything isn’t easy,” said Derek. “I worked full time while taking classes full-time as well. It was difficult to balance but I made time for studying late at night. Fortunately, after getting the scholarship, I was able to cut my work schedule to part-time.”

To graduation and beyond

So what’s next for Derek, who earned his Associate in Engineering Science degree following the Summer 2022 term? “I’m headed to Bradley University to finish my engineering bachelor’s degree.” And what does success look like to this hard-working young man who never thought college was in the cards? “For me personally, success is staying on the path I’m on now. I honestly didn’t see myself having this opportunity, so I’m excited to keep trying. I had a great time at ICC and really enjoyed learning from all the professors here. I’m grateful for the chance to study engineering.” And the compassion and tenacity of his Student Success Advisor, Karen, played a key role in that.

As for Karen, it’s all part of a day’s work — in a job she loves. “It’s the success and the words of appreciation from students that keep me focused on being an integral part of their academic journey.” For Derek, that journey now moves forward to the next step.

The partnership between Derek and his Student Success Advisor is emblematic of the impact between Illinois Central College and InsideTrack. The collaboration includes a 14.7 percentage point jump in student satisfaction with ICC advising after the first year of the advising redesign.


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