Skip to content

‘I Had to Choose Myself’: A First-Gen Story

About This Project

This photo essay is part of a yearlong Chronicle visual series that highlights the challenges facing first-generation students and others. The series is part of the Different Voices of Student Success project, which is supported by the Ascendium Education Group.

The photo essay was created by the Chicago-based freelance photographer D.W. Johnson, with narrative by the Chronicle senior editor Alexander C. Kafka. The senior photo and media editor Erica Lusk edited the photographs. The photo and media editor Michael Theis and the senior web producer Carmen Mendoza assisted in the production of the video. The editorial-events coordinator Luna Laliberte coordinated interviews.

Selena Bush, 26, is a senior at Roosevelt University, in Chicago, where she is majoring in biology. She’s had false starts in her college education and heavy family and financial burdens, working as many as 60 hours a week in multiple jobs on top of her full-time studies.

But Bush has also received financial and academic support from Roosevelt, she says, and key encouragement and flexibility from an employer. As a science peer adviser at Roosevelt, she seeks to help others in similar circumstances navigate the logistics and culture of college life. In that role, she explains, “I can talk to the students who waited to go to school and reassure them that this was a good decision. I can let them know that there is no right time to get a higher education, only their time.”

Bush as a toddler
Bush as a toddler

Bush grew up poor in a rough neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago, she tells The Chronicle. Her father had primary custody and raised Bush and her brother, who is one year younger. She has three half-sisters too — one older, two younger — but was not raised with them. When Bush was a toddler, she says, her mother lost visitation rights, and Bush and her brother “didn’t hear from her or see her or anything like that for 14 years.” She and her brother sneaked looks at Facebook to learn more about their mom, and when Bush was 16, her mother “got in contact with us through that.”

Bush visiting her childhood home on Chicago’s South Side
Bush visiting her childhood home on Chicago’s South Side

Bush and her brother went to live with their mother when Bush was 17. Her dad “was really controlling,” she says. “Growing up with him was really hard, so we wanted out.”

“We kind of ran away to her house and refused to go back — at least, I refused to go back,” Bush says.

Left: Bush in her mother’s lap; Center: With her brother Dennis; Right: Bush, far right, with her brother Dennis, and half-sister Alexis, before Bush’s senior year of high school.
Left: Bush in her mother’s lap. Center: with her brother, Dennis. Right: Bush (far right) with her brother, Dennis, and half sister Alexis, before Bush’s senior year of high school.

After she graduated from high school, Bush enrolled at Illinois State University, about two hours southwest of Chicago. She left after her first year there. Her parents both had some college education but didn’t complete a degree, she says. “I was pretty ill prepared,” she recalls, and “pretty much on my own in terms of financial support.” Studying psychology, she also worked in a cafeteria and tutored students at area schools. She walked to the tutoring jobs, some of which were two miles or more away, she says.

Bush returns a book at the library near her childhood home. She would frequent this library with her grandmother as a little girl.
Bush returns a book to the library near her childhood home. She had frequented the library with her grandmother as a little girl.

“It was just really hard,” she says of that year. “I went out there, and I didn’t have anything. I really relied on my friend at the time, her family, to kind of get me different little things to just have in my dorm” — $40 worth of school supplies and a suitcase of clothing. By the end of that year, she says, “I was exhausted and kind of decided school wasn’t for me.” She had worked so hard at her jobs that she “couldn’t get to class sometimes.”

“I just felt,” she says, “like I failed myself.”

“I was just so down on myself at the end of that experience,” she says about being on her own for the first time. “I never thought about how hard it would be to survive.” Her grandmother told her that it was not the end of her education, Bush remembers. “Eventually you’ll go back,” her grandma said. “You have cousins who it took them 20 years.”

A Chicago South Side mural is reflected in Bush’s eye.
A Chicago South Side mural is reflected in Bush’s eye.

Bush left Illinois State at 19. She tried taking some courses at Harold Washington College, part of the City Colleges of Chicago, but then her father became seriously ill from kidney failure. “I’m really like the family caretaker,” Bush says, “so there was no room for me to continue my education.”

One day, her father was rushed to the hospital. She and her dad hadn’t spoken in a year, but she missed work to be with him. Her dad was scared. “He fought sleep, so I didn’t sleep.” Her brother had to get back to college in Michigan for a test, and “I didn’t want my dad to be in the hospital by himself.”

Bush (second from left), with her siblings Erika (far left), Dennis, and Akire, on the first day of Bush’s senior year of high school.
Bush (second from left), with her siblings Erika (far left), Dennis, and Akire, on the first day of Bush’s senior year of high school.

“Everything just fell on me to run around and get all this stuff for my father.” She bought his groceries and helped coordinate his dialysis. At Harold Washington College, she says, “I didn’t know how to withdraw from classes, so I just stopped going, to take care of him. … I just worked and barely slept. There was no real help.”

After a while, however, she and her dad started arguing. “Dad was upset with me” over expectations, she says. “I had to choose myself. I had to save myself.” Now, again, she says, they are not on speaking terms.

During that period, Bush worked for four years as a nanny for a family that at the time lived in Chicago’s South Loop before moving to North Carolina. The parents are doctors. The mother, an Indian American oncologist, was going to speak to a group of older Black Chicagoans about opportunities to join clinical trials. Bush talked to her about Black Americans’ historical mistreatment by the medical establishment and how mistrust has been passed down through the generations. “People are scared, and rightfully so,” Bush explained, and that helped the doctor’s approach to the meeting.

Bush visits Chicago’s South Side.
Bush visits Chicago’s South Side.

“You should go back to school,” her employer said. “You’re so knowledgeable and so smart about this stuff.” Bush’s knowledge came, she explains, from independent reading and study. “Calling attention to the health disparities that Black and brown people face is something I’m really passionate about.”

The conversation got Bush thinking. She recalled that when she’d first applied to colleges, she’d chosen Illinois State to get out of Chicago, but that Roosevelt had offered the most financial aid.

Bush reviews her homework at Roosevelt University in Chicago.
Bush reviews her homework.

The employer told Bush to pick her classes and that she could schedule her nannying around them. “You don’t have to leave,” the doctor said. “We love having you here.” That’s what Bush did. “That family was really supportive of me.”

At Illinois State, Bush had been run too ragged to know whether she even liked the field of psychology, but she’d always been good at math and science, so at Roosevelt she shifted to biology.

Bush working in the biology lab at Roosevelt University in Chicago
Bush working in the biology lab at Roosevelt U., in Chicago

With her employers’ encouragement and a better financial situation, Bush’s studies at Roosevelt have gone much better than they did at Illinois State, but it’s still been difficult at times, and exhausting. There’s her courseload: immunology, microbiology, histology and ultrastructure (“kind of like anatomy,” Bush translates), plus an independent study on the history of gynecological treatment of African American women. And on top of all that, Bush puts in hours at her Roosevelt peer-advising job and another job as a receptionist at a spa, Massage Envy.

Bush at her job at Massage Envy in downtown Chicago
Bush at her job at Massage Envy, in downtown Chicago

After graduation, she hopes to get a lab job, perhaps as a Howard Hughes Medical Institute program assistant. In the longer run, she’s interested in forensic science in the criminal-justice system. Her brother, she says, is now a sonar technician in the Navy.

Bush remains in touch with the oncologist whose kids she nannied. The doctor still sends Bush articles about health disparities, updates her about the children, and tells her when family members will be in Chicago. Bush anticipates seeing them this spring.

“They’re planning on coming to my graduation.”