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Harper grad discovered talent, self-confidence in Fast Track Program

Vanessa Jimenez NavaFor almost as long as she can remember, Vanessa Jimenez Nava has been working.

After her family emigrated to the U.S. from Mexico, Vanessa’s mother, a single parent, relied on her teenage daughter to help pay the bills. Vanessa’s four younger brothers went to school. She went to work.

In her 20s, while taking English as a second language courses at Harper College’s Learning and Career Center in Prospect Heights, Vanessa routinely handled 50-to-60-hour weeks as a manager of a fast food franchise. She went to work.

Vanessa’s experience with Harper ESL classes led to getting her high school equivalency diploma and then enrolling in the college’s Fast Track program to study business administration. She did coursework and homework on top of supervising 64 employees as the restaurant’s general manager. She went to work.

When Vanessa earned her Associate in Applied Science degree in Business Administration from Harper in spring 2021, the virtual commencement day was a popular date for local graduations. Many of the college and high school students employed at the restaurant requested the day off. Vanessa couldn’t tell them no. They celebrated. She went to work.

“It was sad. My dream was to walk on the stage and receive my diploma,” Vanessa said, acknowledging that with COVID-19 protocols, that wasn’t in the cards this year. “Still it was a great feeling to see my mom and how she was proud of me. All of those things I went through make me stronger.”

Hopefully Vanessa is better able to enjoy Harper’s Fast Track Completion Celebration, now available on the Fast Track webpage. After all, she was selected to record a speech for the virtual event, due to her academic achievements which include being named to the President’s List and Dean’s List. The celebration will honor all of the program’s spring and summer 2021 graduates who benefitted from the consistency, acceleration and cohort format of Fast Track’s courses.

As a full-time restaurant manager with major responsibilities at home and work, Vanessa appreciated having a set schedule. Her classes were always on Wednesdays, always at the same location (the Harper Professional Center in Schaumburg until the pandemic caused classes to be online). She remains thankful that she was able to work with the fast food franchise owner to arrange to always have that day off as a means to focus on her studies.

But her gratitude extends far beyond her boss. She’s thankful for the employees of the coffee shop who let her sit and study for hours, even when she didn’t buy very much. She’s thankful to the warm welcome she always received from Harper staff and faculty at the HPC.

“I’m the first one to go to college in my family,” Vanessa said, pointing to how important it was to have support from Harper employees. “It was scary for me.”

Her biggest confidence boost might have come as a result of a trip she made to the ESL office on Harper’s main campus. Even though Vanessa had passed Harper’s ESL courses and earned her HSE diploma, she remained self-conscious about her ability to communicate in English and take college courses.

Before enrolling in Fast Track three years ago, she thought she might take some extra ESL and math classes just to be safe. An ESL counselor helped change Vanessa’s mind.

“She said, ‘Are you sure? Your English is good. You should take college classes’,” Vanessa remembered. “She said, ‘I honestly think you should take the placement tests and see how you do.’ I listened to her. I took math and English at the Testing Center. I passed them! I did really good!”

Vanessa still had pangs of self-doubt, but as she continued to take Fast Track courses, her confidence improved. She knew she belonged. Even when online classes became a reality in March 2020, she worked through her insecurity about increased communication in written English and considered it an opportunity for growth. She also earned a business management certificate on the way to her degree.

In June, not long after graduation, Vanessa bought her own restaurant: Bread and Butter Café in Arlington Heights. For now, she’s still going to work at the fast food chain because “as a new owner, I need to make sure I can cover all of my expenses.”

And she’s not done with her education. Vanessa said she would like to earn a certificate in Human Resources Management, via the Fast Track program, and is exploring the option of getting a bachelor’s degree in business administration through Harper’s University Center. She likes the idea of taking classes at Harper to earn a DePaul degree.

“That’s my dream. I have to do this,” Vanessa said. “No matter what, Harper is always going to have a little piece of my heart. They gave me the opportunity.”

Last Updated: 3/14/24