DIXON – Natalie Espinoza and her mom Kim stand together in front of the table for Culver-Stockton College, eagerly looking over brochures and pamphlets handed to them by the well dressed recruiter standing across the table.
Natalie is 15 and a student at Sterling High School. Her mother didn't go to college until recently, when she attended Sauk Valley Community College, home of the gym where they're standing.
Together, the two like to watch shows like "Law & Order," which, Natalie admits, sparked her interest in looking into the study of criminal justice. This is her first time attending a college recruitment event, but it's always been something on the horizon. Having Natalie attend college is a top priority for Kim.
"It's just me and her," Kim says. "That's my one thing. I want her to go to college. I don't want her to work in the factory like me. I want better for her."
This year's College Night, sponsored by SVCC and local high schools, brought representatives from 73 colleges, universities, vocational-technical schools, and the military from around the country to the Sauk Valley for anyone interested in wanting to learn about what opportunities exist after high school.
The event, this year coordinated by Sauk recruiters Taylor Jiminez and Sarah Partington, and administrative assistant Ella Payne, is an annual one — and very well attended. Last year, Jiminez says, 350 goodie bags were made and it wasn't enough. This year 400 were made, and by 6:10 p.m., 10 minutes after the event started, they're already running low.
On the other side of the gym from Kim and her mom is the table for The Art Institutes; it's drawing quite a crowd. The mother-and-son pair at the front of the line are Suzanne and Liam VanDeraa. Liam is 17 and a student at Bureau Valley High School.
His interests, clearly, lie in the arts: graphic design and photography, mostly. He spends a lot of his spare time designing album covers for metal bands from across the country and in Canada, he explains, and is enrolled at a program at Bureau Valley that allows him to spend half his day there and half his day at Whiteside Area Career Center, where he earns college credit for the courses he takes.
His mother didn't attend college, so Liam's doing so has always been important to her, she says.
At the end of the night, with all the students gone and brochures packed away, Jiminez says that the number of attendees hovered around 400.
"It's great," Jiminez says. "It's great for us. It's great for everybody."