Inspiring grads: Lincoln Laureate finds passion in giving back to community

Mariel Rancel

Serving others is “the nature of being human,” says Mariel Rancel, a senior in biological sciences and the Honors College. (Photo: Jenny Fontaine)

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For UIC senior Mariel Rancel, service is part of being human.

“I think service comes from the recognition that because you are a human, you intrinsically need to depend on others,” said Rancel, a senior in biological sciences who is in the Honors College. “It’s that concept of interdependence. It’s the nature of being a human.”

Rancel is the 2018 recipient of the Lincoln Laureate award, which honors an outstanding senior at each undergraduate institution in Illinois. Service is a major component of the award, and Rancel’s tremendous record of service spans back to her experience volunteering for the Girl Scouts in seventh grade.

“My job was to help out the camp counselors, teach the girls about wilderness, fire safety, to be really goofy, and it was so fun,” she said. “I loved every second.”

Her experience with the Girl Scouts, combined with her passion for service, inspired her to pursue a career in education. She has guaranteed admission to UIC’s master’s in science education through the GPPA program.

Her love for serving others has taken her down many paths. Rancel has volunteered at the University of Illinois Hospital and Rush University Medical Center; served as mentor in the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) program; and was a participant in the Urban Public Policy Fellowship program, where she helped women in Englewood learn about nutrition.

As much as Rancel has given back to the community, UIC has given her a stronger understanding of herself. As an albino Puerto Rican woman who is visually impaired, Rancel has found communities on campus that have contributed to her growth.

“I think my disability politic really flourished here because when I was growing up, I always felt like it was burdensome to ask my teachers for accommodations,” she said. “But once I told people, I didn’t like the paternalistic treatment I got. I wanted the ability to self-determine when I needed help — and so I internalized these issues of ‘I’m different.’”

However, minoring in disability studies proved to be an enlightening and empowering experience for Rancel.

“Every time I went to class I was like, ‘Holy cow! I went through that!’” she said. “I didn’t understand how big of a part being visually impaired is in my life, and the role it played until I unpacked that in class. But now it’s like, ‘Yeah, I’m disabled.’ And this isn’t a negative thing.”

Rancel also found another home for herself in the Latino Cultural Center.

“I remember going to one event as a freshman, and it ended up with me going to 90 percent of their events,” she said.

“I finally know (Latino) people who aren’t my family. And I’ve always struggled with that because I’ve never looked Puerto Rican.

“On the inside, I’m a disabled brown person. On the outside, I’m an able-bodied white person. It’s funny how society doesn’t tolerate variance very well. We simplify, simplify, simplify, and it then leaves people like me who don’t fit into one category, and it makes you feel conflicted in my life. But I’m Puerto Rican. And it feels so good to be able to connect with that.”

Rancel feels like she’s just getting started with her service.

“Winning this award is nice, but I’m not done,” she said. “The work hasn’t even started. I’m not a teacher yet, so what service have I really done? We’re at like 5 percent, man.”

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