Dropped out of high school to work

Marnee became a full-time janitor before they were 19.

Icon of a person reading a book

Enrolled at Harold Washington College

HWC was close to their downtown job.


Began the Night Student Advocates

Marnee developed an advocacy group for evening students, working students, and parents.

Icon of a person standing in front of a building

Transferred to UIC

Marnee transferred to UIC to study sociology and philosophy.


Received TheDream.US and Voyager Scholarships

Their scholarships cover 100% of their books and living expenses.

Persevere. It’s what Marnee Ostoa has always done. This principle not only allowed them to complete their education at Harold Washington College and transfer to UIC, but it also helped them survive.

Reaching those educational goals was not easy for Marnee. They dropped out of high school, became a full-time janitor, and entered an abusive marriage all before they were 19 years old. At 19, Marnee enrolled in classes at Harold Washington College. It was an easy commute for them since they worked downtown.

When Marnee enrolled, they didn’t know it would take them eight years to graduate. They started in the spring of 2014 and graduated in May 2022 with an associate of science.

“I dropped classes, but I didn’t let that get in the way of my dreams,” Marnee said. “I kept trying and kept getting back on my feet.”

Marnee is undocumented and had to pay for their education out of pocket. Sometimes, they would have to stop taking classes to save more money before re-enrolling. Eventually, they did receive the Local 1600 CCCTU HW Chapter Scholarship​, the Thomas J. McBride Scholarship, and the Friends of Harold Washington Scholarship to help ease their financial burden.

During their time as a Harold Washington student, Marnee also faced other difficulties. They supported their husband who was battling cancer, went through a divorce, and became a legal guardian to their niece. After every hardship, they returned to a place where they had developed a support system: Harold Washington College.

Despite so many setbacks, Marnee gained a sense of community and purpose through connections with their peers and instructors. Their relationships with English professor Jeffrey Daniels, social sciences professor Larry Lesof, and Transfer Center director Ellen Goldberg were all instrumental to Marnee’s success. If Marnee’s instructors hadn’t heard from Marnee in a while, they weren’t afraid to check in.

“They really invested in me and my personal life,” Marnee said. “They believed in me more than I believed in myself at the time. They really care about me, not just as a student but as a person.”

The care and support Marnee received at Harold Washington made them to want to ensure every student felt the same. This led Marnee to develop the Night Student Advocates in 2017, an advocacy group for evening students, working students, and parents. If Marnee needed to see their advisor, they would have to take off work and come in the daytime. Through the Night Student Advocates, advising hours were extended to 9:00 p.m. twice a month, many instructors agreed to extend their office hours, and transfer and scholarship workshops were offered in the evenings.

Soon, Marnee’s mission wasn’t just to receive their degree, they wanted to enact real change. Their peers encouraged them to run for Student Government Association President. They were elected two years in a row. They were a representative for the Women’s Empowerment Club, which held book drives for women in prison and organized self-defense classes. With faculty help, they helped bring a Paris study abroad program to City Colleges and created an emergency fund for food and housing-insecure students. They also helped students receive free weekly CTA Ventra passes, provided free tampons and pads, and purchased freezers for Harold Washington’s food pantry.

“Being at CCC, I really transformed my pain into helping students,” they said. “Part of my healing process was getting motivated by other students’ amazing stories.”

After graduating, Marnee transferred to UIC to study sociology and philosophy. TheDream.US Scholarship for undocumented students covers Marnee’s entire UIC tuition, so their only focus now is on their future. In addition, Marnee received The Obama-Chesky Scholarship for Public Service, also known as the Voyager Scholarship, which covers 100% of their books and living expenses.

In addition to their studies at UIC, Marnee has a small interior design business and big plans. As a part of being a Voyager scholar, Marnee will receive a scholarship to participate in a summer voyage that will allow them to travel. For now, Marnee is thinking about traveling the country to collect data and stories from DACA recipients. Marnee’s long-term goals include getting a master’s degree in sociology or education, pursuing their Ph.D., and becoming a president at the place that has given them so much: City Colleges of Chicago. Wherever life takes them, they just want to help people like those at Harold Washington helped them.

“I’m so grateful,” Marnee said. “I wouldn’t be here without Harold Washington or City Colleges.”

Photo credit: Jenny Fontaine – University of Illinois Chicago