Nazhah Khawajah shares her experiences navigating the Chicago school system as a young adult and finding fulfillment in her career, as well as in her personal life. Her story is one of risk-taking, intuition, and self-advocacy.
“I was born in Chicago, Illinois, right here in the city. I remember a lot of play. We are a family of four, so I have three other siblings, and we spent a lot of time outside and we spent a lot of time with kids on the block, kids from the same building. I remember creating and kind of coming up with our own games; every day we wanted to try something new. I remember a lot of that creative thinking and kind of trying to have fun as a child.
I went to school at Kilmer first, and then Stone Academy. Seventh grade is when you start to apply to different schools, and I had just applied to my neighborhood schools because I didn’t know the system and I didn’t know that there was an option of actually applying to these different magnet high schools or academies. So, when I turned in my applications we needed references from teachers or we needed teachers to write a little blurb about who we are, how we do, and what they think of us as students. I remember going to my social studies teacher, Mrs. Coney, and she asked me where I was applying and I told her and she was the one who was like, “you have other options, and you should try because your grades are high enough, and why not venture out a little bit?”
I talked to my mom about it and she was pretty nervous; the teacher had given me a list of a couple other schools that I should look into. I showed it to my mom and kind of told her where [the schools] were located, and she was pretty nervous about me having to take public transportation to high school at such a young age. But in the end, she said, “let’s just apply, let’s just put in the application and see what happens.” So, after my initial applications, I did put in an application for Whitney Young, for Northside College Prep, and for some other different high schools. Whitney Young was definitely my first choice, and so getting that acceptance letter just meant everything at the time.
The foundation of Whitney Young…it’s important to understand the history and why this school was built. It was built for the community that was not being addressed—the community that was being purposefully ignored. The location is key too, for Whitney Young. So, understanding that history and understanding the integrity of the purpose for opening up the school for gifted kids who otherwise would be rejected or ignored because of certain demographics. That just spoke volumes to me—and it still does.
At the end of my high school career, everyone was just like, what are you going to do? How are you going to make money?! How are you going to make money?! Right? Like, that’s important! And I’m like, what? I’m just going to get a job, but it’s like: no, you don’t need a job you need a profession! What’s your profession going to be? You know family members, uncles, aunts…every time they see you, they’re just like what profession have you thought of? And I’m like, I don’t know I just want something respectable and I want to be making an okay amount of money. My uncle suggested accounting: he was like, well accountants make a lot of money and it’s a office kind of job where you’re not doing crazy things, and I was good with numbers so I was like okay. It sparked interest enough for me to apply to DePaul’s College of Commerce and I was accepted to their Expedited Accounting program.
It’s interesting to understand how much you are able to do when you are put into a situation. I would never have believed that I could be a mother and working, or you know, still trying to keep my individual identity present. And it’s a struggle sometimes. It’s a struggle to keep a balance of all of those things that make you who you are but parenting just gives you this patience and faith in yourself that you would never have believed existed within you.
I would say do you. Do you the way you want: don’t listen to anyone else, do not listen to other people and what they want you to do. Be respectful of your community. Be respectful to yourself first and foremost. Have integrity, be honest, be good, and do you.”