For Proviso Math and Science Academy seniors, college decisions are looming. In the fall, application essays were written and spit-shined, letters of recommendation written, FAFSA financial aid applications filled out, campuses visited – and now there’s nothing to do but wait.

“It worries you. You hope for the best,” said Jerry Berndt, father of graduating PMSA twins Gabriela and Laura. “They have been working really hard to find good universities and the financial part will have a big impact on their decision. We’ll find out in a month or two.”

With the help of counselor Christine Jandak, seniors and juniors at PMSA navigate the complicated world of higher education. Twenty-seven PMSA seniors are from Forest Park. The academy draws students from all over Proviso Township.

“We find a time to meet and discuss what the individual needs are and where they think they will learn the best,” said Jandak in an email. “There is a 100 percent college acceptance rate at PMSA – 98 percent go to college and the remaining 2 percent go on to a military branch.” Jandak’s caseload is 350 juniors and seniors. Students narrow down their college choices by fall. November is early admissions month and then other admission applications are due Dec. 1 and 15 and Jan. 1. Jandak sees her role as providing resources. But some of her Forest Park seniors are among the best.

Holly Quirk aspires to be a forensic psychologist or criminal profiler. “Those are the kind of shows that I watch on TV,” she says. She hopes to major in psychology and has received $360,000 in scholarships from Loyola University, Elmhurst College and the University of Dayton.

“She’s been driven since she was a little girl,” said her mother, Tammy Quirk. Holly has a sister attending Trinity High School in River Forest and a brother at Walther Lutheran in Melrose Park. “As far as picking colleges, Holly did that. The counselors at PMSA were helpful with essays, applications and recommendations. She’s changed her mind a couple of times about majors.” Holly was recognized by the Illinois Student Assistance Commission (ISAC) as an Illinois State Scholar, achieving ACT and SAT scores in the top 10 percent of all students in the state.

Looking back over high school, Tammy Quirk credits Shawn Tracy, the band teacher, for Holly’s best experiences at the school. “The most difficult thing at PMSA was being bused to play sports at other schools [Proviso East and Proviso West]. But she met lots of girls through soccer.”

Gabriela and Laura Berndt have been in school together all through Field-Stevenson and Forest Park Middle School, but they’re looking at different colleges: Gabriela at the University of Chicago, Concordia University or Reed College and Laura at the University of Illinois in Springfield, Augustana College and Valparaiso University. Combined, the twins have more than $124,000 in scholarship aid. “[The college application process] was stressful,” said Laura. “I never had to write an essay about myself before.” Gabriela is also an Illinois State Scholar award winner.

“Borrowing is fine, but I don’t want them to end up with their bachelors with a huge debt,” said Jerry Berndt, an immigrant from Argentina. “In today’s job market, they will have a hard time paying it back.” Band and jazz band and a free ACT Saturday review class were highlights of high school, he says. But the loss of a beloved social studies teacher due to budget cutbacks and principal turnover makes him wonder about the direction of PMSA. “In a certain sense, I’m happy that they are about to finish their high school. Budget issues seem to be having a big impact – getting rid of good teachers and hiring those who are less expensive,” he said. “There can’t be enough said about how big of an impact a good teacher has on a student. Like French with Ms. Delaney for Gabriela.”

Senior Brandon Buchanan aspires to be a forensic anthropologist. He hopes to attend Roosevelt University, Western Illinois University or Northern Illinois University, and has earned $20,000 so far in scholarship money. “I want to major in biology and then go into the police academy,” he says.

Karthika Nair wants to be a doctor or a physician’s assistant and has been active in PMSA’s PULSE program, a partnership with Loyola University Hospital’s Stritch School of Medicine. She hopes to attend Loyola and has earned $56,000 worth of scholarships. Her mother and grandmother are both nurses. Karthika won the Illinois State Scholar award as well.

Karthika’s mother, Anitha Nair, an immigrant from southern India, works at MacNeal Hospital. “Even with a scholarship, going to Loyola is going to cost a lot of money,” she said. “I’ll just have to work my butt off.” Anitha says her daughter learned to appreciate the United States’ education system while living for two years in India during 4th and 5th grade. “She didn’t like the culture there for people with money; there’s a different attitude. [In the U.S.] it doesn’t matter if you have money. We’re all kids and we’re all friends and that’s just the way it is.” Anitha said her daughter loved the robotics club at PMSA, and she made sure Karthika had “a lot of support at home.”

“This is really the best country to get an education,” she said. “If you’re focused and if you really want it, you can achieve anything you want over here.”

Jean Lotus loves community journalism. She covers news, features, two school boards, village council, crime, park district and writes obits for Forest Park Review. She also covers the police beat for...