By Matt Hawkins
Two years ago, junior Jessica Caraos’ life revolved around class, homework and college life adjustments. Now, the early childhood education major from Bartlett, Illinois, can’t find a free minute as she is busy finding ways to encourage others.
The personal transformation blossomed from sophomore year challenges that pushed her toward people she didn’t expect to meet. New friends, a new major, adventures in student organizations and time as a mentor in Bradley’s Exceptional Minds Mentoring program shaped her cheery, caring spirit into a positive force on campus.
“It’s been a wild ride, but it’s been good preparation for the real world,” she said. “I learned how to be more open to ideas and how to be a better friend to people around me. I’ve always been outgoing, but Bradley challenged me to become a different person than even my high school friends would recognize.”
Caraos quickly found a close-knit group of friends and enjoyed freshman-level health science courses as she prepared for a physical therapy career. That comfort disappeared a year later, though, when new friends pushed her to get more involved on campus. Prodded by those peers, it didn’t take long for Exceptional Minds, student government, intramurals, admissions office work and other activities to fill the calendar.
Exceptional Minds made the most significant mark on Caraos’ expanding world. The mentoring program, coordinated by Bradley’s Academic Success Center, pairs students who have disabilities or are struggling to adapt to college life with peers. The experience made Caraos more sensitive to classmates’ struggles. It showed her how easily college students could hide real concerns in effort to fit in with the crowd. It also reminded her of her passion for helping others.
“We all put on facades, but there’s more going on than we want to show,” she said. “We have to look deeper and think about things from different perspectives. Exceptional Minds showed me how to connect with people and work with them wherever they are in life.”
Mentorship built on Caraos’ years of summer jobs as a camp counselor and swim instructor. She enjoyed those jobs, especially when she helped children with disabilities learn new skills.
This background also prepared her for a career shift. As much as she enjoyed the thought of helping others through physical therapy, she discovered the science emphasis wasn’t a good fit. Teacher education proved to be the path that maximized her passions and natural skills.
“I’m excited to become a teacher,” she said. “I’ll forever be a kid at heart, plus I’ve had so many opportunities to connect with different people I know I’ll be able to make a difference in many lives.”
Caraos credited the Bradley family for expanding her horizons. Though she may have been content in the circles she initially formed, she would have missed out on personal growth that will benefit her future.
“Bradley fit the ideal image of college I had since childhood,” she said. “It’s a place where everyone wants you to grow. If you fail, people pick you up. When you succeed, people are there to celebrate with you.”