Edgar Florentino was skeptical that he would be successful in life. He came to the U.S. from Mexico at the age of two with his entire family and grew up in the Back of Yards neighborhood. He stopped-out of high school because he didn’t feel safe. Sometimes he got into trouble. He floundered for a while before he came to the realization that he needed to change, and that he needed to go back to school and earn his high school diploma. If not for himself, for his father. “I enrolled at Malcolm X College and applied myself. It took about four months, three days a week, but I did the work and finished high school, earning my diploma,” said Edgar. “My dad was so proud of me and I was proud of myself.” A little more soul-searching and Edgar realized he felt a deep connection to nature in the form of flora. Today, Edgar is a community gardener brightening up the neighborhood he grew up in by landscaping streets where “there is a lot of community violence. This work gives me joy and peace,” he shares. Most of his work is along 48th and 49th street in Chicago's Back of the Yards neighborhood. Beautifying the residential streets and intersections is Florentino's way of helping people feel safer. For this work, he was recently profiled on ABC 7 Chicago’s show “OUR CHICAGO: NUESTRO SEGUNDO HOGAR.” He also created a bilingual gardening group on Facebook called Jardineros Y Jardineras De Chicago to provide a space for local Spanish-speaking gardeners to get inspiration and seek advice from one another. “I’m going to graduate in December from my apprenticeship with Green Corp and I hope to get a position working with flora.” Edgar would like to keep his future education and career path in the green industry.
For as long as she can remember, Joserik (Josie) Figueroa-Duran has been fascinated by airplanes. She spent a good amount of time at airports growing up as she traveled to visit her family members in Mexico.
These days, Josie has been spending more and more of her time at airports for a different reason—to meet with c-suite executives at aviation companies and explore her career options in the industry. The recent high school graduate is one step closer to that career now that she has completed the Aviation Maintenance Technician program at Olive-Harvey College.
Josie started the program during the winter of her junior year at Whitney M. Young Magnet High School—a period when she says she was desperately seeking motivation. Josie’s experience as an underclassman had been difficult. The COVID-19 pandemic had upended her freshman year, and the loss of several family members due to the virus made focusing on school feel impossible.
“At that point, I thought I was going to graduate from high school and do nothing,” Josie recalled. “I thought my life was falling apart.”
But Josie says the Aviation Maintenance Technician program rejuvenated her interest in both school and her future. The program is part of City Colleges’ Early College program, which allows eligible Chicago high school students to take college credits for free during their junior and senior years. Josie’s classmates were students from other CPS high schools, and her instructors were airplane mechanics with decades of experience in the field.
“It’s really cool because the instructors tell you about their real-life experiences,” she said.
The program was also hands-on, which Josie enjoyed, but she even found herself wanting to soak up every piece of knowledge in her textbooks—something she couldn’t imagine being interested in just a few years ago. Outside of the classroom, Josie and her classmates took airport tours with some of the largest airlines in the industry and got a behind-the-scenes look at different careers in the field.
“We met a lot of important people,” she said. “We were introduced to directors and presidents of companies, and we got to see how everything works in real life. You could see the enthusiasm the executives have for airplanes, and they also want to see diversity—new people like me—coming into this field.”
As a Latina, that means a lot to Josie. She grew up in Brighton Park—a predominantly Latinx neighborhood—and will soon attend an additional aviation maintenance training program at the Aviation Institute of Maintenance (AIM), which is just fifteen minutes from her house. Through a partnership between AIM and Olive-Harvey, the credits she earned through the Early College program will transfer to her credential at AIM. She also received a grant through Olive-Harvey that will pay for the remainder of her program at AIM.
While Josie is still deciding if she wants to become an airplane mechanic or a pilot, she’s certain of one thing—that she wants to continue going to school to enhance her skillset. The Aviation Maintenance Technician program at Olive-Harvey helped her realize that.
“This program fast-tracked me into something I’m passionate about,” Josie said. “It might sound dramatic or cliché, but this is what I was born to do.”