An Oak Park and River Forest High School graduate is raising money to stay in school, after transferring universities and being overwhelmed by the high cost of living and an overloaded course schedule. Jabria Smith, whose father also operates Pit Zone BBQ in Forest Park, said she has until mid-January to pay down the $2,800 she owes to St. Xavier University in Chicago — otherwise she will not be able to register for classes. 

“My mom says college should be free because there are people who are actually out here and they’re trying and they’re struggling and there aren’t that many resources,” Smith said. “If some people could just help me out, I wouldn’t take it for granted.”  

Smith, who graduated from OPRF in 2016, was inspired to follow in the footsteps of an advanced placement (AP) English teacher she had when she was a junior. 

OPRF instructor Avram Lessing guided Smith through a year-long ethnography project about being the only African-American student in her AP English class. Before moving to Oak Park for high school, Smith said she lived in Chicago, where she was always surrounded by people of color. But when she arrived at OPRF, she started noticing that “I was the only African American in my honors and in my AP classes,” she said. When Lessing mentioned it, he “shined a light on it,” which led Smith to question many of the aspects of life at OPRF. 

“Why do we create these boxes for us to live in?” Smith wondered. 

The following year, Smith graduated from OPRF and enrolled at the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC), where she studied sociology with the eventual goal of teaching high school juniors — just like Lessing. 

“It was going to be free unless I lived on campus,” she said of UIC. So she lived at home in Oak Park for two years. During that time her father, Obidise Smith, also opened Pit Zone BBQ in Forest Park 

“He’s been doing this for over 10 years; he used to drive back and forth; he’d call them ‘Rib Runs.’ He’d go out south and let people know he was there and they’d come buy barbecue from out of the back of the car,” Smith recalled. 

Her father participated in Forest Park’s annual Ribfest competition for about six years, which convinced him to pursue his dream of opening a restaurant in the village. Smith said she had never spent much time in Forest Park before but felt immediately welcomed by the murals she’d see driving to her dad’s place over the Circle Avenue bridge. 

“It’s so beautiful, it’s one of my favorite things to see. There’s just so much love there; that’s one of my favorite things about Forest Park,” she said. 

In addition to driving to her father’s restaurant, Smith continued to commute to school but always felt she was missing the real college experience. At the same time, her sister had a child, and the growing family continued to live in the Oak Park family home. 

“I just feel like I needed that sense of being on my own because I’ve never done that before. I have four sisters; I always have someone there,” she said. “Home is getting kind of difficult as I’m growing up because my older sister still lives there, too, and she just had a baby. It’s just not ideal for me to stay there.” 

This summer, Smith transferred to St. Xavier University, where she chose to live on campus for the sake of freedom and “so I could use the resources.” She pays for the venture by working as a part-time desk officer for public safety at the school, where she watches who enters and exits buildings and checks students’ IDs. 

“The library is there, I have quick access to my professors if I need to run over and ask them for help. … It’s ideal for me to work somewhere where I don’t have to drive back and forth,” she said. 

But the university only employs Smith about 15 hours per week, which she said equates to about $500 per month. 

“When I have to pay tuition, that doesn’t really make a difference,” she said. She also had to enroll in 18 credit hours per semester — the average student takes 12 — in order to graduate on time next year. Despite the heavy course load and part-time work, Smith said her grades are fairly high.

“Last semester, I got a 3.0,” she said. 

Smith will work as a resident advisor during her senior year at St. Xavier next year, which will allow her to cover all her costs. This winter break, she had two jobs lined up to pay down her remaining debt, but they fell through. 

Smith was supposed to return to school on Jan. 12 but didn’t have the funds to register for classes. That day, “as a last resort, desperate, just thinking of what I could do,” she started a Facebook fundraiser titled, “Keeping Jabria in School: Spring 2019.” Nearly 15 residents have donated about $600 to the fundraiser, but Smith needs to get her account balance down to $450 before she can register for the second semester of her junior year. 

“I just would really appreciate some assistance,” she said. “I’m not going to take the money and just not get good grades. It’s not like I’m not trying.”