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First generation students’ path to college aided by D214 Foundation

College was an enigma to Serena Bekteshi. There was a point when the High School District 214 senior, who will be a first-generation college student, didn’t quite understand the nuances of applying or what grants were and couldn’t quite figure out how scholarships might work.

Then came a turning point: the Next Generation Pathway to Completion, a donor-funded program created by the District 214 Education Foundation in partnership with District 214’s Student Services department. Bekteshi was part of the inaugural cohort of the program—a nationally unique offering providing support and guidance to first-generation students and their families beginning in students’ junior year of high school and continuing through college completion.

Now Bekteshi could ask her questions in a safe place and seek support from those in the know. She learned about standardized testing and how to prepare for her academic future. The results paid off: She’s been accepted to Marquette University and is completing other college applications for more options.

“When my family sees me walking across the stage with my diploma in my hands, I want them to think to themselves that it was worth it,” said Bekteshi, who plans to study biology and business and open her own orthodontics clinic. “All the pain and hardships we have come across, it was all worth it.” 

To date, all 12 students in the program’s initial cohort—who signed letters of intent and shared their stories at an induction ceremony last fall—have been accepted to college. Some have received scholarships.

They’ve also reported the good news to Kathy Fox, a retired Buffalo Grove High School college counselor who has overseen the program in its initial years. Fox regularly visits with the students, ensures they’re staying on track with applications and financial aid forms, educates them on the basics of college and provides them and their families with support.

The group now will be matched with mentors for their college years, while District 214 welcomes in its second cohort of first-generation students, representing every school in the District.

The program got its start several years ago, when college counselors reported a desire to have first-generation students attend college visits with their parents and turned to the Foundation for support. It was a success, with students saying they better understood the workings of the college process and felt comfortable asking even the most basic questions in that setting. 

“We knew we could, and should, do more for these students,” said Erin Holmes, executive director of the Foundation. “Higher education can be complicated for everyone, and for those who have no experience with the system in America, it can prove discouraging. It is so inspiring to see these students beaming with pride and knowing they have the support to make it work.”

The Pathway to Completion is funded by donors through the Foundation, with community partners also offering to assist with things such as mock interviews and summer job or internship placements. Students in the cohort will receive scholarships and laptops for college, and the mentors will guide both them and their families.

Those interested in funding the program can contact Holmes at or 847-718-7688 or visit for further information. There are opportunities to sponsor students, college visits and entire portions of the program, or make other contributions.

Hundreds of District 214 students are considered first-generation, with their parents either having never attended college or attended in another country. The Foundation plans to slowly grow the cohort, always with the intent of involving the entire family in the support process.

“This program is truly life-changing,” said Matt Liberatore, who oversees Student Services and, in that role, assists with the college guidance portion of the Pathway program. “We talk all the time about ensuring our students are college, career and life ready, and that is exactly what this program is doing for students who show so much promise and just need someone to believe in them.”