Mother. Business owner. First-generation college student.

Mother. Business owner. First-generation college student. And now, PepsiCo Foundation S.M.I.L.E scholar.

City Colleges of Chicago alumna Ashley Moncrief has persevered to get to where she is today, and she’s not done yet.

Ashley first became a City Colleges student while she was still in high school. Through the Early College Dual Enrollment program, she enrolled in a computer course for college credit but never thought about attending after high school. She had her sights set on a four-year university. But while attending that four-year university, Ashley realized she could no longer afford to be a student there.

So, she returned home to the West Side of Chicago and worked for the post office. She thought about going back to school, but it had been five years since she was a student, and she owed her previous university $10,000. Her transcripts wouldn’t be released unless she paid.

Ashley didn’t let any of that stop her from achieving her dream of becoming a college graduate. She returned to City Colleges for a second time. At the end of her first semester at Malcolm X, Ashley checked her student account at her previous university. She only owed a penny. She was able to get her transcripts and continue her education at Malcolm X.

Ashley’s also grateful for the helpful nature of all City Colleges employees. She recalls a security guard at Malcolm X giving her advice about how to put her resume together.

“He didn’t know me from a can of paint,” she said. “But he even called someone to help me find a job after graduating.”

While the COVID-19 pandemic made some aspects of her educational journey challenging, Ashley discovered the flexibility of completing her courses online at all seven of the City Colleges. She took the majority of her courses at Harold Washington College and graduated in 2022 with her associate degree in business finance.

In addition to her studies, Ashley learned she was pregnant, gave birth to a baby girl named Alaina, and started her own business during the pandemic. Even as she and her daughter caught the virus themselves, she still earned all As and was honored as a presidential scholar.

During her recovery, Ashley kept seeing information about the PepsiCo Foundation’s S.M.I.L.E scholarship. She only had time to apply for one scholarship and wasn’t sure she’d get it, but she applied anyway.

After graduation, Ashley was still awaiting news about the scholarship. She wouldn’t be able to afford another four-year university without it, so she began looking for work. Then, in June, she got a message that she was a finalist and was selected for an interview. She cried reading that email, knowing it was the only scholarship she applied for. If she got the scholarship, she could receive up to $50,000 for two years for tuition and living expenses. It was an amount that would not only change her life, but her entire family’s.

During her interview, Ashley talked about the penny on her previous student account, having her baby, getting COVID, and persevering through it all.

“When I learned I got the scholarship, I cried like a baby,” she explained. “I cried so hard because I knew this scholarship was meant for me.”

In the fall, Ashley will attend UIC’s School of Business to continue her studies in business finance.

“I’m ready to go to school and not only make a difference for myself, but for my daughter Alaina and my family forever,” she said.

Eventually, Ashley wants to work at a Fortune 500 company and become a financial analyst. For now, she’s proud to be a first-generation college student setting an example for her entire family, and, most importantly, her daughter.