WATERLOO — The environment you grow up in doesn’t have to be your destiny, Chiquita Loveless told a group of students Friday.
The military and veteran student services coordinator for the University of Northern Iowa spoke during the Educational Opportunity Center’s annual student achievement luncheon. The event, at UNI’s Center for Urban Education, recognized about 30 EOC program participants who received at least a 3.0 grade point average in their college studies during the past year as well as those who graduated this year.
A range of services are provided by the program. Its primary focus is assisting students with the admissions and financial aid process, providing career and academic counseling, and helping with defaulted loans.
Loveless told attendees that she grew up in the Chicago projects, living in a 16-story high rise apartment building with her family. Theft, drug use and domestic abuse were among the troubling activities she saw regularly in the neighborhood. Her mother made it clear those activities were not what Loveless and her four younger siblings should be about.
“She would instill in us that we were better than our environment,” said Loveless. “I chose not to become a product of my environment. My outlet was the Boys and Girls Club, where I played volleyball and became very good at it.”
After high school, family concerns caused her to turn down a scholarship to play volleyball for the University of California at Los Angeles. Loveless initially signed up for a plumbing apprenticeship that would keep her in the community, but changed course to enlist in the U.S. Navy. She was deployed numerous times and did two tours with the Navy SEALs.
Loveless spent 23 years in the military, working in communications and rising to the rank of chief warrant officer.
“You must tell yourself that your past doesn’t predict your future,” Loveless said to the students. “Take the high road and keep the vision for your life.” As students identify upcoming education or career opportunities, she simply urged them to “go for it.”
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At UNI, she advocates for 300 military veterans as well as their spouses and children. The veterans are sometimes dealing with family concerns, money shortages and other types of adversity.
“Most have been in a war zone and college becomes very challenging to them,” said Loveless.
Attendees also heard from two East High School graduates who turned to the Educational Opportunity Center to get their college careers back on track.
Gary Crawford went to Minnesota State University in Mankato, Minn., to study business after graduating from East in 2009. He decided to change course a year later and came home to enroll in UNI’s teacher education program.
With the assistance of the EOC, Crawford discovered his parents income disqualified him for further financial aid, putting his plans on hiatus. He returned to school at age 24 to earn a degree in elementary education once his parents income was no longer a factor in the financial aid.
Charles Mhoon, a past participant in the program who is now an educational counselor at the center, graduated from East in 2008. He headed to Ellsworth Community College but left after a year due to the pregnancy of his girlfriend. Mhoon enrolled at Hawkeye Community College for a semester before his daughter was born and then took a break for 1-1/2 years.
His return in 2011 was aided by the EOC, which helped find resources like child care. Mhoon graduated from UNI in 2016 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology.
“I believe so much in this program that I now work here,” he said.