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One Million Degrees provides broad support to help low-income young people graduate from college, achieve professional dreams

CHICAGO (CBS) -- One Million Degrees is the only organization in Illinois, and one of a few in the U.S., providing complete support for low-income young people who are the first in their families to attend college. 

CBS 2's Suzanne Le Mignot showed us the life-changing work of the Chicago based organization on Friday.

One Million Degrees helped make LaCrese Smith achieve her dream of becoming a college graduate. 

"Sometimes it's not easy, but you have to keep pushing," Smith said.

Smith, who grew up in Englewood, is the first person in her family to earn a college degree.

"I feel extremely happy," Smith said. "I feel successful. I feel rich."

The Chicago-based organization provides students with coaching, mentors, tutoring, workshops, and financial assistance to help their professional dreams become a reality. The help doesn't end there.

"I never had a suit. So I was gifted a suit," Smith said. "One Million Degrees - they helped me with professional development. At first, I was shy. I really didn't talk much. I was scared."

Now, the once-introverted student, who attended Kennedy-King College and graduated from Morehead State University, works in the criminal justice field – and wants to be a federal judge.

One Million Degrees partners with 10 Chicago-area community colleges - among them seven City Colleges of Chicago. Once students complete their college degrees, they often transfer to four-year universities or get jobs.

Since the nonprofit started in 2006, they've had nearly 1,500 graduates.

"When you know and see somebody who got this degree, of course we know it changes their life and the lives of their families - but it also motivates and inspires their peers," said Aneesh Sohoni, chief executive officer of One Million Degrees.

Lura Buckley, a 2016 One Million Degrees graduate, grew up in North Lawndale. Buckley says she is a role model for her younger sisters.

"They can do it too," Buckley said. "They can do anything - and to me, that made me the most happy and very proud."

Buckley is a Harold Washington College and University of Illinois at Chicago graduate. She has a bachelor's degree in science and marketing.

She not only works for CNA Insurance - which donated to the organization when Buckley was a scholar – but she is also giving back to the nonprofit by mentoring the next generation of scholars.

"Everybody has really had an impact on my life, and that's something that I'll never forget," Buckley said.

One Million Degrees is supported through donations. Since this story aired, One Million Degrees provided us with updated financial information to show that since 2006 they have given out a total of $5.9 million in financial assistance to their students. To learn more about One Million Degrees and how you can apply for the program, or to donate, go to their website.

One Million Degrees was honored in 2017 by the Make It Better Foundation for their work in education and won the foundation's Philanthropy Awards.

The foundation is dedicated to amplifying the work of nonprofits in Chicago. CBS 2 Chicago is a proud sponsor of the Make It Better Foundation Philanthropy Awards.

Last fall, One Million Degrees also won the Evergreen National Education Prize – with a $100,000 award to recognize the impact on college success for low-income students.

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