With Uniquely Eureka Promise, Kerri Berry Found a College That Rightfully Believed in Her
Eureka College’s Kerri Berry becomes first "Promise" student to graduate with honors
By Blake Baxter
EUREKA, Ill. – For Kerri Berry, a unique and rewarding academic journey recently came to an end at Eureka College’s commencement ceremony.
When she walked across the stage of Becker Auditorium on Saturday, May 15, she officially became the first Uniquely Eureka Promise student to graduate with Magna Cum Laude honors, and from the Honors Program.
“The moment was definitely surreal,” said Berry, a 27-year-old mother of four from Peoria. “I didn’t realize that being a Promise student and graduating with honors would be a big moment at first, but then it hit me.
“I’m proud of myself for being able to navigate college and succeed in a way I never thought I could, especially with the adversities I faced throughout my college experience.”
In order to understand the magnitude of that moment, you have to know about the path that led her there.
Berry grew up in Peoria and attended Peoria High School. She had her first child when she was 15 years old, and by the time she was ready to graduate, she had been a teen mom for nearly two years. Berry said that taking on that responsibility at such a young age was a “humbling experience” that made her “grow up a lot faster.”
After graduating from Peoria High School in 2011, Berry enrolled at Illinois Central College as a part of the Peoria Promise Program. She started out in the CNA program, but she eventually found herself drawn to other interests and switched tracks. In 2015, she earned her associate’s degree in general studies.
However, she didn’t have plans to continue her education beyond that any time soon.
“I knew I couldn’t go on anymore because I couldn’t afford to,” Berry said. “I just kind of waited for an opportunity to come along.”
And so, for the next few years, she spent most of her time as a stay-at-home mom, quietly holding out hope in the back of her mind that when her kids were older, she’d be able to afford to go back to school and start a career.
Her thought process changed after a fortuitous series of events occurred in 2018. While she was pregnant with her fourth child and her husband was out of work, she saw a news story about Eureka College’s Uniquely Eureka Promise. This scholarship program offers academically successful students with an associate's degree from an accredited Illinois community college and who are in financial need an opportunity to attend Eureka College tuition-free. It immediately piqued her interest.
“I thought I would always be unable to pay for college,” said Berry, who also spent time as a breastfeeding peer counselor for Women, Infants and Children during her wait. “This is what I said internally – that something would have to happen, someone would have to believe in me for me to go back, so when I saw it, I thought that might be my opportunity.”
She soon reached out to Chris Robinson, who was then Eureka’s Assistant Director of Transfer Admissions. He gave her more info and helped pave the way for her return to college.
“I consider being a small part of the Uniquely Eureka Promise, working with eligible students, and helping them find this path to their bachelor's degree both a highlight and privilege during my time in admissions,” said Robinson, who is now the EC head cross country coach. “Among those students, Kerri really stood out. Her personality and professional demeanor made it clear to me she would not only succeed here at Eureka, but she would do amazing things along the way. She did not disappoint.”
Always interested in social work and community advocacy, Berry quickly found her academic niche as a psychology/sociology major at Eureka College. Berry said that at Eureka her focus improved and she started getting better grades than she had at ICC. Her strong performance in the classroom qualified her to join Eureka College’s Honors program.
“The teachers were awesome,” Berry said. “They provided me with so much information that I had not known before. They helped me reach it (my potential) by providing content that made me think deeper.”
It wasn’t always easy, though, particularly during the pandemic when Berry had to juggle helping her kids with their remote schoolwork while keeping up on her own studies. In her last semester, Berry’s family had to weather a series of COVID-19 exposures, quarantines and, eventually, positive cases.
In the end, though, Berry and her family came out on the other side of this trying time healthy and intact. It was another struggle survived, more adversity overcome. Every day, she was closer to reaching her goals.
Berry’s educational experiences at Eureka ultimately helped open the door to her professional field of interest.
While working on her honors thesis (“Racialized Education Disparities in Urbanized African-American Communities: Causes, Consequences and Attempts to Address Them”), Berry connected with an early learning organization that supports primary practices in providing well-child and adolescent care called Bright Futures. Soon, she was volunteering for the organization, and by the end of the semester, she had a job offer.
Berry was able to start her career right after the last day of classes. After all she had been through, it couldn’t have worked out much better than that.
“The Promise program has offered me the opportunity to continue my education without having to worry about being able to afford it,” Berry said. “It has also given me the ability to see my potential.
“It’s definitely given me so many different avenues to go off and venture into.”