Jurl Vinegar plans to get money to the places and programs that matter.
Jurl Vinegar
Jurl Vinegar

In Chicago, the high school application process is intense. Most of the best-performing public schools in the city are selective-enrollment schools. This means students need sky-high grades and test scores to receive a spot and must start thinking about high school from the moment they enter middle school. Unfortunately, says Jurl Vinegar, MPP’19, that doesn’t always happen. 

To help remedy the gap, in 2016, Vinegar worked with the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute (UEI) on a program to ensure that high school conversations began in sixth grade and that students, families, and educators knew the importance to the selective-enrollment process of attendance, grades, and testing–information he never had as a student growing up in the city. 

Vinegar was doing good work that helped kids. But suddenly, the funding stopped. 

“We didn’t have the money to continue a really great program,” Vinegar explains. “Everything ended. It drove home how finance, public policy, and education intersect. I started to think about how I could help get money to programs that matter.”

Having worked only buildings away from the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy while at UEI, Vinegar decided applying to Harris was the perfect next step toward making a difference. 

“Harris is the place to gain the quantitative skills to do data-driven policy work,” Vinegar says. 

Although Vinegar had grown up near the University of Chicago, he says that when he was a teenager, “as a first-generation college-goer and a black man from Chicago,” he never imagined himself there.

“Thinking about college and where I was going to go was not high on my priority list at the time,” he explains, adding that he had little guidance from programs like the one he worked on at UEI. “I went to three different high schools. I lived in eight or nine homes with different family members or friends. I had other things on my mind.”

At a college fair, Vinegar found his undergraduate home through the nonprofit 100 Black Men of America, the most extensive network of black male mentors in the nation, which provides mentoring to youth from underserved communities. It was here that Vinegar heard about the University of Missouri; the school was waiving its application fees. For a young person from a cash-strapped background, that made all the difference. Vinegar graduated from the University of Missouri with a degree in math and economics and a minor in philosophy.

Reflecting on the life-changing programs and initiatives for young people that good public policy and municipal finance could fund, Vinegar decided to enroll in Harris. He says he was welcomed there before the school even received his form. Vinegar recalled the level of care, attention, and support he received from the Harris admissions team. “They were great about reaching out to me, inviting me to events, answering my questions, and immersing me in Harris before I even applied,” he says.

Now in the second year of the Master of Public Policy program, Vinegar says he feels part of a community that never wavers in its support. Besides being a full-time student, a teaching assistant, an intern at the Office of the Mayor of the City of Chicago (funded by a stipend from Harris), a husband, and a father, Vinegar is also in his sixth year as a member of the Illinois National Guard. To complete service time, he must take short leaves, for which, he says, Harris has been “incredibly accommodating.” Vinegar added that not only is the school supportive of military service members, it’s also a place where every student understands the notion of service and giving back.

Surrounded by peers who share a passion for making positive change, Vinegar is thriving at Harris and ready to take his quantitative toolkit, hands-on internship experience, and strong Harris network into municipal finance.