Kharisma Thomas said she spent thousands of hours on Illinois State’s website. A bit of an exaggeration, but she’s that excited about starting her first year on campus.

It wasn’t an easy path from her Chicago neighborhood of Austin, which has a reputation as being one of the deadliest neighborhoods in the city.

“My neighborhood to me is beautiful but to everybody else, it’s ‘Oh, people get shot there,’” she said. “I took it into my own hands to go to a good high school so I could go to a good college and make an impact.”

Kharisma graduated from the highly competitive Jones College Prep school in Chicago and first heard about Illinois State after a friend visited campus and couldn’t stop talking about it.

“She said it was this amazing school and it would be cool if we went together. I checked it out to see if it fit my criteria. I needed a college that was reachable with my academic profile and economic profile.”

After spending a lot of time scrolling through Admissions and Financial Aid information, she applied for several grants and scholarships, following up with staff she came to know on a first-name basis. But all that paid off. She was awarded $19,000 in financial aid, including the Illinois State University Access Grant, and the Redbird Academic Scholarship.

“I have a responsibility for those who’ve gone through the same things I have.” —Kharisma Thomas

Nancy Vasquez, assistant director in Admissions, was happy to take Kharisma’s calls.

“I had really good conversations with her,” she said. “She had questions and topics she wanted to explore, and I’m so glad she decided to become a Redbird.”

Kharisma attended Redbird Ready last spring, a one-day program for admitted students who identify as underrepresented and/or first-generation. By the time she arrived for Preview, she was already a member of the African Student Association dance team. She also plans to join the Black Student Union, would like to start a slam poetry team, and hopes to get a lot of workouts in at the Student Fitness Center.

“I want to be healthier in my body and my mind,” she said. “I’m pretty excited.”

Although she considered journalism or history, she’s chosen to major in psychology, with the goal of returning to her old neighborhood as a high school counselor. She moved into Watterson Towers with the friend who first told her about Illinois State, Elonya Walsh, also of Austin.

“There’s power in education,” Kharisma said. “I want to work where there’s a need. My neighborhood needs to be recognized for something besides crime. I have a responsibility for those who’ve gone through the same things I have.”

The oldest of three, she was raised by a single parent and hopes to teach her brothers the value of a college education.

“As the oldest and seeing how hard my mom worked and how worried she was about everyone around her, I have to get excited about college for my younger brothers, and I am.”

Kharisma is one of five new Redbirds featured this week on Meet our other freshmen:

Apply now for fall or spring 2017, or set up a visit to our campus.

Kate Arthur can be reached at