Hayley Himmelman and Jasmeen Wellere have several things in common. They're perceptive, industrious 18-year-olds who just started college. They grew up in the Chicago area and excelled in their high schools. Both were raised in homogeneous communities.
They have their differences, too. Hayley is outgoing, Jasmeen reserved. Jasmeen hopes to go into law, Hayley into entertainment.
Perhaps their biggest differences stem from those homogeneous communities. Hayley's is rich and white, and Jasmeen's is poor and black.
Hayley tells me her parents "had a big struggle deciding if they wanted to live here." We're in a coffee shop in Hayley's hometown, Glencoe, a suburb on the North Shore. Hayley is fair-skinned and blue-eyed, and has long brown hair. It's May, a month before her graduation from New Trier High in neighboring Winnetka.
Her parents wanted to live in Glencoe "because it's such a safe, wonderful community, great education, great people," Hayley says. "But they said it was a big risk of me turning out to be a selfish, spoiled brat. So they worked really hard to make sure that didn't happen—that I was privileged in some ways, but wouldn't be selfish about it. They'd still protect me from certain truths, but they'd also let me know harsh realities, let me see the outside world a little more than other kids here."
For example, she says, in the summer of 2011 she was in a Civic Leadership Institute that focused on urban poverty. The three-week program (with a tuition of $3,175) was sponsored by Northwestern University, but she and the other high schoolers who participated stayed on the campus of the University of Illinois at Chicago, on the near-west side. Most of the participants were white but there were some minorities, and she made her first black friend, a girl from Georgia. "I was like, 'Finally, I'm meeting people of other races.'"
Hayley and her peers talked about poverty and visited homeless shelters and other agencies that helped the poor. But Hayley's most vivid memory was an episode on a CTA bus. A woman with a deformed face, who was "messy and dirty," stood up and begged for money or food. The teens had lunch bags in their backpacks—but the program leaders had warned them earlier not to give anything to beggars. Hayley, the rest of her group, and the two teachers on the bus "just sat there in silence."
That upset her. "Here we were talking about how we want to do stuff for these people, and we're presented with a live opportunity, and we did nothing. Someone could have just handed her food. And me too!"
The more Hayley thought about the episode that day, the angrier she got. Back on the U. of I. campus, "I was the one who said, 'We need to talk about this.'" Not much came of the discussion—the teachers said the situation was more complicated than it appeared. But Hayley was glad she'd at least raised the issue.
Jasmeen Wellere has experienced harsh realities more directly. She grew up on the south side, in neighborhoods where homelessness and street crime are common. When she was 12, her family was living in an apartment on 82nd, near Woodlawn Avenue. One spring morning she awoke to a chill in the flat—the living room window had been shattered by stray bullets. Gangs were fighting in the neighborhood, and bullets came through the windows on two other occasions that year.
Now her family lives in west Woodlawn. Jasmeen sometimes sees "crackheads" dozing on corners near her apartment, she tells me. "I haven't had any problems because when I'm going somewhere I'm minding my business. I go home and back, home and back."
Jasmeen has a slight build and wears dark-framed glasses under arching eyebrows. She often wears her hair in Senegalese twist extension braids. We first meet in a coffee shop in South Shore, a few blocks from Hirsch Metropolitan High, where Jasmeen is the number-one senior.
A week later, Jasmeen stands before members of Hirsch's small graduating class at their commencement, held at the Illinois Institute of Technology. Whereas nearly all of Hayley's peers at New Trier graduate and attend college, only a little more than a third of Jasmeen's graduate. In her valedictorian speech, Jasmeen asks her fellow grads to be humble. "I know we're all receiving praise today, and we deserve to be proud of ourselves," she tells them. "However, we must not put anyone down because they did not make it here with us. Instead we must give them encouragement that they can make it here as well."
She adds: "As you move on to whatever you'll be doing next year, whether you're in college, the military, or a job, do your best and never settle and do less than what you're capable of. Do not allow this graduation to be your last accomplishment."