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Alumni Spotlight: Elk Grove grad on debt-free path to nursing career

When Yennifer Velazquez decided to become a nurse, the Elk Grove High School junior knew she was looking at years of education—and debt. Then she heard about District 214’s innovative Middle College program with Harper College.

Today, Velazquez, who graduated from EGHS in the spring, has already completed her first year of college and isn’t carrying any student loan debt, thanks to Middle College.

Velazquez heard about Middle College from a friend who was in the program. Middle College at Harper College, now entering its third year, allows students in District 214’s Health Science Career Pathway to spend their senior year taking dual-credit prerequisite courses for nursing at Harper while saving money and earning college credits. The District has a similar program for Business Management and Administration Career Pathway students with National Louis University, funded in part by a generous donor through the District 214 Education Foundation.

For Velazquez, the program sounded ideal. “I have always been passionate about helping others,” she says. “With Middle College, I was excited about starting early and getting ahead—and definitely saving money.”

“I have always been passionate about helping others. With Middle College, I was excited about starting early and getting ahead—and definitely saving money.”

— Yennifer Velazques

Students in the Middle College program for Health Science attend Harper during their senior year and take all prerequisite courses for the college’s nursing program. Starting this fall, two required dual-credit courses will be taught at each student’s home school to help them remain involved with their classmates.

To qualify for the program, students must meet certain requirements, says Erin Torrisi, Early College Program supervisor for the District. She recommends all interested students work with their counselors. Applications must be submitted between Nov. 1 and Feb. 1 of the student’s junior year.

“If students know they want to go into an allied health profession and plan to attend Harper, Middle College is the right program for them,” Torrisi says. “What I love about our program is that it gets the students through all their prerequisites, and they're ready to start the nursing program afterward. It really jump-starts their college career in their senior year of high school.”

The program also gives students an advantage in getting into Harper’s limited-enrollment nursing program. “When I'm talking to parents,” Torrisi says, “I always want to stress to them that the student is trying to get into a highly competitive program, and through Middle College they have the support of both District 214 and Harper, which is incredible.”

The cost for students is minimal, paying only a $50 per course fee rather than the $133.50 per credit hour that Harper currently charges. Velazquez, who already had earned six credits for her junior-year Certified Nursing Assistant training, earned 26 credits for eight courses during her senior year and an additional three credits over the summer. That worked out to a total of $450 for 29 credit hours, rather than almost $3,900.

In addition, the program covers the cost of required textbooks. Velazquez said that represented a huge savings; her anatomy book alone cost $250.  

Taking all her courses at Harper was a challenge, she says, but one she welcomed.

“I learned a lot about myself, and it really prepared me for nursing school because I learned how to manage my time and manage my work schedule,” she says. “My test-taking skills definitely improved. And it was the freedom that I loved because I was able to learn more about myself that I didn't learn in high school.”

Velazquez maintained her ties to high school through involvement in sports. 

“Being involved in cross country helped me have that connection with my friends,” she says. “I love cross country. That was my favorite sport, and it definitely kept me sane.”

With one year of college already completed, Velazquez will be a licensed practical nurse by next summer. After that, she plans to complete two years at Harper under District 214’s Harper Promise program, which guarantees participants two years of free tuition when they meet set requirements, to become a registered nurse -- with no debt.

“I want to become a nurse because it offers a lot of room for growth and specialties,” says Velazquez, who worked this past summer as a CNA at an assisted living facility. “I like to be moving around and seeing different things every day, and that’s what nursing is. I have also always wanted to be a teacher, and I hope to someday teach what I learned from being a nurse to other nursing students.”