It was the first week of college and DeAndre Butler was nervous, tapping his fingers against the cold, hard chair.
A few weeks prior, he hadn’t even pictured himself as a college student, and now, he was here.
There were rows of other students lined up around the room. Finally a speaker from Northern Illinois University’s CHANCE program took the stand to address the large group of eager freshmen.
“Take a look to your left. Take a look to your right,” Butler remembers the woman saying. “Some of you will not be here to graduate. It’s your job to make sure you’re not one of those students.”
It’s been more than ten years since he heard that speech, but Butler remembers how passionate and driven he felt afterwards. He was going to prove everybody wrong – that even though he was a low-income, first generation student, he could still earn his bachelor’s degree and become successful.
It was that moment of inspiration that drove Butler to the position he holds today: the director of Project Achieve at Joliet Junior College, a program just like the one Butler was a part of as a student at NIU.
At JJC, Project Achieve helps first generation and low-income students stay in college, graduate and transfer to four-year institutions to successfully complete their bachelor’s degrees. The federally funded program offers free professional tutoring, counseling, and a supportive atmosphere of staff members and dedicated students who want to achieve their goals.
Butler knows firsthand a program like this can be the difference between a college graduate and a student thinking about giving up.
“As a high school graduate from a low-income family, I didn’t know about community college and didn’t ever think about going to college in the first place,” Butler said of his own experience. “It wasn’t until an acquaintance talked to me about NIU and their TRiO program that I thought: ‘I want to prove a point and show others that I can do this, that I can succeed.’ I quickly filled out my application and they accepted me for the fall semester.”
At home, Butler’s family members weren’t so sure he could get a degree, since they’d never attempted to.
It was the counselors in NIU’s CHANCE (Counseling Help and Assistance Necessary for a College Education) and TRiO/SSS program that really motivated him to succeed. Fueled by their passion and positive impact on his life, Butler chose to pursue a sociology degree because he wanted to help others succeed, too.
When he graduated, Butler had done what he set out to do from day one: prove that he could, as a first generation and low-income student, receive a bachelor’s degree and be successful.
Now, six-and-a-half years later, Butler helps motivate others – students who were just like him – at JJC. He is living proof that programs like TRiO and Project Achieve can produce successful graduates.
“Getting to work here at JJC was a life changing moment. Before I became director of Project Achieve, I was first hired on as academic support specialist with the program – and I was so excited to get the job,” Butler said, reflecting back to what it was like being 24 years old, just barely out of college. “And now, especially as the director, I get to do what I was meant to do – help encourage and motivate students, and give them the opportunities that were given to me as a student. In the TRiO community, we like to say ‘TRiO’ stands for ‘Transforming Roadblocks into Opportunities’ and that is exactly what happened in my case.”
In addition to his college education, Butler credits his success at JJC to his former boss, the late Jewell Dennis. Her influence and guidance as the previous Director of Project Achieve still has an impact on him as he runs the program today.
“The JJC Project Achieve staff have made this office feel very family-oriented and genuine. It’s a loving, caring and supportive environment for students. We love assisting, advising and mentoring our students; being there for them through their struggles. I have such a passion for working at JJC and working for our students.”
Butler believes one of the most important things about his job is to be available to students when they need him. On average, Project Achieve staff meets with students three or more times a semester.
Butler works hard to make the Project Achieve office a comfortable place for students, almost like a second home. He often opens up about his own experience because he wants students to know that they’re not alone.
Listening to their stories, providing advice and making them aware of opportunities at the college is a big part of his job, but the most rewarding part is watching them graduate. He also enjoys bumping into JJC graduates outside of work.
“Whenever I see graduates of the program after their time here at JJC, they’re always so excited to tell me about their success. It’s so great to see the rewards of the program – how well they’re doing, how they’ve made it to the next level.”
This hits close home for Butler, because he knows exactly how they feel.
Project Achieve is a grant-funded program at JJC that focuses on retaining the allotted number of students each semester and assisting them to graduate or transfer. For more information about Project Achieve, visit www.jjc.edu/project-achieve or contact Butler at email@example.com or 815-280-2303.