Paving the way to college
Cassandra Gaddo helps young women become confident, college-bound, and career-focused
By Daniel P. Smith
Cassandra Gaddo (JFRC Fall ’03, BA ’05) remembers the moment she got hooked. It was a Saturday in 2008 when she walked into a downtown Chicago office and saw about 20 young women filling out college applications, writing essays, and working on financial aid forms. Alongside them were a group of professional women who had chosen to spend their Saturday helping the group of high school juniors and seniors navigate the complex process of applying to college.
For Gaddo, herself a first-generation college graduate, it was a light bulb moment. “This was my cause,” she says.
That day in 2008 was Gaddo’s first experience as a volunteer for the then-fledgling Chicago chapter of Step Up, a national organization dedicated to helping teen girls from under-resourced communities fulfill their potential in college and beyond. Gaddo was quick to sign up as a regular volunteer, corralling friends and co-workers to join in her efforts to empower young women around Chicago.
“Here was my pay-it-forward opportunity to help other young women find their way into college,” she says.
Gaddo, a Minnesota native who attended Loyola on a presidential scholarship, discovered her passion for addressing academic inequity during her college years. She became more attuned to social justice issues and aware of how one’s place of residency often dictated their access to higher education. Still, she didn’t expect it to become the focus of her career.
After graduating from Loyola’s School of Communication, Gaddo embarked on a five-year run as managing editor at the since-shuttered magazine Today’s Chicago Woman.
Gaddo’s energy for social involvement intensified as she penned stories of women leading noble civic causes. She learned that only a fraction of the nation’s fundraising dollars support programming for women or children, and Gaddo felt called to do more to make a difference. “I began asking myself how I could use my skills to impact the areas I was passionate about,” she says.
That self-examination prompted Gaddo to move from Step Up’s volunteer ranks into its leadership team in 2012. As the Chicago chapter’s managing director for the last five years, Gaddo has guided every aspect of office operations from youth development programming and fundraising to communications and staffing.
Step Up, which also has chapters in Los Angeles, New York, and Dallas, currently deploys its four-year curriculum in six Chicago schools. The curriculum’s first two years focus on developing confidence, while the final two years cover college and career activation. By 2020, Step Up plans to be active in 10 Chicago high schools, serving upwards of 800 students.
The program has a proven track record of success; more than 98 percent of Chicago students involved have graduated high school and been accepted to college.
“All of these girls have the potential inside of them,” says Gaddo. “So it’s about giving them the tools and resources to advance on this journey.”