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Five years later, Marquise Linnear still remembers exactly how it happened.

The attack came out of the blue. As the 14-year-old walked home from an after-school dance practice on Chicago's west side, a boy behind him asked for the time.

Linnear was texting and didn't turn around as he answered — a mistake he realized even as it was happening.

Three other boys suddenly came up and grabbed his phone. He tried to get it back, and the boys jumped him, hitting him and stabbing him in the right shoulder.

He stumbled to a nearby house for help, where an older woman called 911 and then his mother.

Linnear wasn't badly hurt — though he found out two weeks later he had a fracture in his shoulder — but the experience shook him.

"It made me petrified to go outside, around the neighborhood or anywhere in Chicago," said Linnear, now 19 and a University of Illinois math major.

But it also made him more determined to focus on his education, as his dad had taught him. The next day, over his mom's objections, he insisted on going to school.

"My face was kind of messed up. But I didn't really let that get to me," he said.

As it happened, he had a math quiz that day. He scored 90 percent.

And over time, his confidence grew. He paid more attention to his surroundings, looking up, not down.

"It made me realize more about myself," he said.

Now in his second semester at the UI, Linnear found the resolve to overcome a traumatic childhood in order to honor his late father, to prove that someone from one of Chicago's roughest neighborhoods can make it at a top university, and to fulfill his dream of being a mathematician.

He also landed substantial grants and scholarships with help from Bottom Line, a nonprofit founded in Boston that helps first-generation students from low-income backgrounds graduate from college. While research shows fewer than 1 in 5 Chicago Public School freshmen earn a bachelor's degree within 10 years, 97 percent of Bottom Line students in Chicago have been accepted to college. Nationally, 81 percent graduate from college within six years.

Linnear wants to be financially stable, so he can help his mother and younger brother and sister, "to show them I went to college, and they can, too."

"There's not a lot of people like me really showing that you can do it, especially for African-American boys and girls. I want to make sure everybody can do it," Linnear said.

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The attack in Garfield Park wasn't his first exposure to violence. Growing up near Austin and Lawndale, he heard gunshots almost every day.

His father, a mechanic and auto-parts store manager with a knack for engineering, was murdered at a party one night in February 2012. He was shot several times by a man "who had a problem with him," Linnear said. He never found out what.

A cousin ran home and told Linnear's family. His mom and older brother rushed to the scene. They came back to break the news to the three younger kids.

"At first, I didn't know how to handle it," Linnear said.

The family struggled, but an uncle stepped in and acted as a father to the younger children.

Linnear tried to emulate his father and honor his expectations. Stern at times but with a caring and calm demeanor, he had always emphasized education.

"He was always finding solutions to problems. He made sure we had good grades. He made sure we were on top of everything," he said. "That's why it's motivated me to do even better, to keep focused and stay focused."

His father had held him to a higher standard, knowing the young man's passion for math and hoping he would inspire his siblings and others in the neighborhood.

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Linnear's love for math started when he was very young. By fourth grade, he was asking his dad to get him a library card so he could check out extra math books.

At Westinghouse College Prep Academy, he was on the honor roll, won an algebra award and competed for Chicago Mathletes and the Chicago Debate League.

During his sophomore year, he started working several hours a week with a counselor from Bottom Line's "Access" program on college essays, applications and interviews. If not for that help, he said, he'd likely be at a community college.

Bottom Line's Chicago office, which opened in 2014, is working with 1,000 students this year and 11 partner colleges, including DePaul, UI Chicago, Illinois State and, for the first time, the UI's Urbana campus. Forty Bottom Line students are attending the UI this year.

Linnear was accepted to colleges in New York but chose the UI because it was more affordable and closer to home. It also offered better programs and more resources for students in math, including research opportunities and career support, he said.

"They can really help you get a job instantly out of graduation," he said.

He is hoping to pursue a concentration in actuarial science, the study of risk assessment and management. With community service in mind, he'd like to work at a hospital or insurance company to help people figure out their health benefits.

So far, so good. He achieved a 3.44 GPA for his first semester, including a B in Calculus 2. Several advisers had cautioned him against taking it, but he knew he was prepared.

* * * * *

He's also found time to pursue his second love: dance. He was on "every dance team available" in school, from ballroom dance to hip hop. It's been an important outlet for him, especially after his father's death. Next month, he will perform at the Central Black Student Union's "Cotton Club" showcase at Foellinger Auditorium.

He's continued to get support from Bottom Line's "College Success" program. A new counselor, Maribel Zagal, helped him prepare last summer and checks in with him periodically to help with financial-aid issues, academics, career planning or other "life obstacles" that are common for students who are the first in their families to attend college.

"Marquise is a very confident student. You can tell he really believes in himself. He's very optimistic about what the future holds," she said. "I think he just refuses to let people stereotype him or put him in a box. He just knows that he's capable of so much."

Linnear, who wants to graduate in 3-1/2 years, hopes his experience will inspire others from his neighborhood.

"It's been a stereotype that I have people say, 'Oh you are from this part of town, you must be no good,'" he said.

"It doesn't matter where you've been. Where you live doesn't define who you are. If somebody gives you an opportunity, you should get out there and do it.

"Show them you're motivated. Strive for the best. Get the highest education. Be the most successful person you can be."

Julie Wurth blogs about kids and families and covers the University of Illinois for The News-Gazette. Leave a comment below or contact her at 217-351-5226, or

3 things to know

— Founded in 1997 as a small nonprofit supporting 25 high school seniors in Boston, Bottom Line now works with 6,200 students in Massachusetts, New York and Chicago.

— More than 1,600 first-generation college students have already earned their bachelor's degrees through the program.

— In its first year, 2014-15, the Chicago office recruited 156 low-income students from more than 50 neighborhoods; all 79 seniors were accepted to college, and 96 percent of the 77 college students persisted into their second year.


Julie Wurth is a reporter covering the University of Illinois at The News-Gazette. Her email is, and you can follow her on Twitter (@jawurth).