As far back as Dayana Centeno can remember, STEM was something she “loved to geek out on.” Through her classes at Harold Washington College and various work-based learning experiences, she’s had plenty of opportunities to do just that.

Dayana grew up on the Southwest Side of Chicago and attended Thomas Kelly College Prep. She graduated with the Class of 2020 in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, which made her feel uncertain about her next steps.

“I was scrambling to figure out what I wanted to do with my future,” Dayana said.

She decided to start her college journey at City Colleges, but due to unforeseen life circumstances, she unenrolled from her courses and instead took a gap year. When Dayana was ready to get back to class in 2021, the Advancing Chicago’s Education—or ACE—Scholarship was waiting for her. The ACE Scholarship was designed to help CPS graduates from 2020 and 2021, including those who had taken a gap year like Dayana, pursue their college education at City Colleges.

“I was so surprised something like that existed,” she said. “The ACE Scholarship was amazing and helped me so much.”

Dayana decided to take classes at Harold Washington College and pursue an Associate in Science degree. One of the chemistry classes she took led to an opportunity to conduct chemistry research with Professor Thomas Higgins. Through that opportunity, she’s been working to create accessible lab manuals for other students.

This summer, Dayana participated in a One Summer Chicago internship with Everyone Can Code Chicago. Though she had no prior coding experience, it seemed to align with her other STEM interests. During the six-week program, participants worked on projects related to coding and augmented reality, among other areas. Inspired by some of the research she had worked on with Professor Higgins, Dayana decided to create an interactive lab using augmented reality that could help other students prepare for the real thing.

Dayana described that the augmented reality project would work like a Snapchat filter, something her classmates would be familiar with. She even brought the idea back to Professor Higgins.

“Working on my Everyone Can Code Chicago project definitely added to my skillset. I even proposed using augmented reality to my professor, who thought it was a great idea,” she said.

Dayana was selected to be one of the youth emcees at the Everyone Can Code + Create Summer Showcase, which took place at the Apple store on Michigan Avenue. At the event, she introduced other members of her cohort who were presenting their projects, as well as notable attendees like Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson.

“It was so cool,” Dayana said. “A few years ago, I would have never guessed that I could speak in front of hundreds of people. But if you let go of your hesitation and jump into things, you get such a rewarding experience.”

Seeking out new opportunities to advance her skills has become second nature to Dayana, which she partly attributes to supportive professors and help from the Harold Washington College Wellness Center. She’s utilized the free counseling services there to help facilitate a healthy work-school-life balance.

“The mental health services at City Colleges are amazing,” she said. “Even when I was doing fine, counseling was such a great way to be introspective.”

Dayana plans complete her final semester at Harold Washington College this fall and graduate with her associate degree. After that, she wants to continue her education in the sciences and is considering going to dental school one day. Already having amassed plenty of work-based learning experience, including as a dental assistant, there’s no doubt that Dayana will be prepared for whatever STEM career she decides to pursue.