Cheryl Hyman (CS ’96), the new chancellor of City Colleges of Chicago, would tell you that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. But there was a time in her life when she did accept the generosity of a home-cooked meal, a shoulder to lean on, and a bed shared with her maternal grandmother.
Even at the age of 10, when she pounded out a letter to President Ronald Reagan in protest over the firing of thousands of striking air traffic controllers, Hyman aspired to run the world not just differently, but better.
“We’re born with a certain spirit that will help to carry us to where we need to be,” says Hyman, still expressing some disappointment that she learned only a few years ago that her letter was never mailed.
That spirit-and, she would later acknowledge, something “much higher than anything on this Earth”-carried her through the tough times that began when Hyman realized her mother was sinking further into drug addiction and her stepfather into alcoholism. She began spending less time at home and more time in her car, where she tried reading her school texts while parked under a streetlight. Angry and searching for stability in her life, Hyman left her home on the West Side of Chicago.
She also left Orr High School during her senior year and took a full-time job at Kentucky Fried Chicken. Hyman was able to afford the rent on a studio apartment but soon realized that nothing would take the place of a high school diploma and college degree. She turned to a friend’s mother known for her generosity and kindness, who offered Hyman a place to live, a balanced environment, and the chance to return to school. She graduated from Orr at 19 and moved in with her grandmother.
“If you really want to do something, be willing to walk away from your glorious life and put yourself into the solution.”
Being reunited with a strong and comforting member of her family gave Hyman a feeling of security, allowing her to explore her educational interests further. Although her exposure to computers had been minimal, Hyman was drawn to technical subjects. She took a few vocational courses in computer science before speaking with an admission counselor at the local university she had heard was the best in her discipline of choice-IIT.
“One of the things I dearly would like is to learn the name of that counselor, to personally thank him for his help,” says Hyman, about the staff member who suggested that she first attend a two-year college. “He could have very well looked down on me, but he instead encouraged me to go to a community college first to ensure that it was a proper bridge.”
Hyman followed his recommendation and enrolled at Olive-Harvey College, one of the institutions she now oversees. After transferring to IIT, she quickly excelled, working with computer science faculty member George Smith to design laboratory tutorials on the C++ computer-programming language. She also obtained a position running a computer laboratory at the nonprofit Boys and Girls Clubs of Chicago, which would inspire her to become involved in community service work one day. Her heart began to open widely enough to even forgive her mother, Katherine McMurty, who came knocking on the door of the new apartment Hyman lived in while she was still an IIT student. With her daughter’s support, McMurty kicked her drug habit and saw Hyman graduate on December 15, 1996.
The next day, Hyman began a career at ComEd that lasted for the next 14 years. From her initial position as a development analyst responsible for maintaining and enhancing nuclear-related legacy applications, Hyman advanced to external affairs manager, director of government and legislative affairs, and vice president of operations strategy and business intelligence. Along the way, she added to her academic credentials, earning an executive M.B.A. from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and an M.A. in community development from North Park University.
Throughout Hyman’s corporate climb, her desire to give back to her community only intensified. She established a mentoring program between ComEd and the Boys and Girls Clubs; ComEd also earmarked money for the purchase of laptop computers for at-risk students and expanded a computer laboratory at one of the clubs. She left ComEd for one summer as part of an executive-on-loan program and helped to obtain nearly 1,000 seasonal jobs for low-income youth in the Chicago area.
“Cheryl is a smart, hard-charging executive who takes nothing for granted,” says John W. Rowe, chairman and chief executive officer of Exelon Corporation, parent company of ComEd. “She is driven by her passion for results and her even larger passion for the community.”
While she also reached out through volunteer work at organizations such as The Night Ministry for the homeless and The Black Star Project for excellence in education, she became increasingly discontent with giving just a few hours of her time each week to a few select causes. Hyman spent her last year at ComEd in spiritual contemplation of what she felt was missing in a life that was seemingly full and complete. Then Mayor Richard M. Daley invited her to consider the chancellor role. She knew what her answer would be.
“If you really want to do something, be willing to walk away from your glorious life and put yourself into the solution,” says the forthright Hyman, about her decision. “I’ve never had such a big challenge, yet never felt so spiritually fulfilled. We get to a certain place in our lives and think that we are not obligated to help fix humanity’s problems. We put it on the police or on the legislators-we put it on everybody but ourselves. If anybody thinks they’ve been brought out of a situation like mine just for the sake of his or her own benefit, they are sadly mistaken.”
Hyman endeavors to have City Colleges of Chicago serve as both an academic entry point and source of vocational training for students. She maintains that in its dual role the system-which comprises seven institutions with an enrollment of more than 120,000 students-has the capability to be Chicago’s economic anchor. While she acknowledges enrollment is important, Hyman believes that numbers are not the only indication of success. What also matters is the time that individuals at the colleges can give to truly listen to the diverse needs of students and how well the institution has responded.
“Did the students complete what they came here for and did it fulfill their purpose? Did their lives improve?” Hyman poses these questions as qualitative benchmarks of success. With no less expectation for herself, Hyman also sets forth a personal gauge, one she will eagerly monitor.
“How much further do I need to go to help a student? I can now do everything I’ve ever wanted to do to change the life of a student. My job is the ultimate in service work,” she says with a broad smile. “I am doing what I love.”