New program brings high school students to UIC campus to earn college credit

Aremu Smith, a UIC PhD student, teaches Introduction to Black Studies to high school students. (Photos: Jenny Fontaine/University of Illinois Chicago)

When the high school students walked into the Introduction to Black Studies class at the University of Illinois Chicago recently, they were greeted by instructor Aremu Smith, who began class by discussing the history of hip-hop music and comparing it to different and sometimes opposing schools of Black thought.

Smith, a UIC PhD student teaching the introductory class, was able to compare the various regional identities in the music — New York vs. Atlanta vs. California — to topics such as abolitionism, Black radicalism and double consciousness.

The students are part of a new dual enrollment program that is the first to bring high schoolers onto the UIC campus to earn college credit. The pilot program, which has been extended to the spring semester, offers students a free opportunity to take either an Introduction to Black Studies class or an Introduction to Public Health class for college credits while attending their high schools. Students have the opportunity to take the other class during the spring semester.

Left to right: Arianna Fisher, Edward Minor, Destiny Freeman and Kenneth Nwanze participate in group discussion. Photography by Jenny Fontaine
Left to right: Arianna Fisher, Edward Minor, Destiny Freeman and Kenneth Nwanze participate in group discussion.

“I’ve seen such a dynamic, diverse group of students of all talents and backgrounds come together and really contribute to the class mission, which is to make more sense of the Black lived experience,” Smith said.

The dual enrollment initiative is coordinated through UIC’s Office of High School Development, the Office of Community Collaboration and the Office of Student Success and Belonging to bring high school juniors and seniors onto campus to earn college credit. In the first round this fall, about 40 students from eight high schools in Chicago took part in the dual enrollment classes.

While the UIC Office of High School Development previously had offered high school students opportunities to take courses online, the idea to bring students to campus was championed by Aisha El-Amin, executive associate vice provost for student success and belonging, as a way for students to see themselves thrive on a college campus.

“The students, like me, are from underrepresented and underserved communities where higher education is sometimes not an option,” she said.

Bringing the students to campus shows them they can be successful in a college setting, El-Amin said.

“This ensures that students know that they can succeed because they are already on a campus, they are taking college courses, and they are in high school,” El-Amin said. “If you can do it while you’re in high school, why wouldn’t you be able to do it once you’re finished with high school?”

The two introductory classes were chosen after discussions with Chicago Public Schools officials and students who wanted courses they could relate to, said Keith Lewis, senior director of community collaboration.

Edward Minor, a senior at Austin College and Career Academy High School on the West Side, said the Black studies class has given him tools to help him learn about himself.

As part of the Black studies class, students wrote about a topic they learned about. Minor focused on W.E.B. Du Bois’ theory on double consciousness, which the legendary scholar wrote had burdened African Americans and other oppressed groups with having to look at themselves through the eyes of white society.

Felix Castillo, (left) transition coach for the Academic Center for Excellence speaks with Edward Minor during the academic support class.

“That’s something I personally deal with because as a Black American it really affects me, and I’m learning about topics that really affect my life,” Minor said.

A campus experience

The students attend classes at UIC five days a week. They leave their high schools in the afternoon and either get rides or take public transit to make it to UIC on time.

The week is divided up so that students attend either the Black studies or the public health course on Tuesdays and Thursdays between 2 p.m. and 3:15 p.m. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, students jointly meet for academic support seminars where they work in computer labs, meet with writing coaches, get tips about applying for financial aid, hear from alumni and speak with admissions officials who provide information about applying to college.

“It’s helping students see themselves as college-ready,” said James Lynn, executive director of the UIC Office of High School Development. “We’re really trying to layer in some academic supports and also some experiences on campus to build a sense of connection and to support them academically.”

Yasmin Ameen, a junior from Kenwood Academy High School on the South Side, said attending classes at UIC has helped her look forward to attending college, and she has learned so much from the course and from the interactions with the professor. While the class has been rigorous, it has made her more confident in herself and has helped her see herself succeed in college.

“The way it is set up in general has made me feel like I’m actually in college and has made me look forward to it even more than I was,” Ameen said. “I was already considering going to college before, but this has just given me the extra push. I am thinking about UIC — the campus is beautiful and it’s a very good environment.”

Joshua Burke, a senior at Leo Catholic High School in Auburn Gresham, said that while he really enjoyed learning about Black history in depth through the rigorous college-level course, what he really appreciated was discovering that he had the “grit” to know he could handle college full-time next year after he graduates high school.

While taking the class this past semester, he had a full load of high school classes, played on the school’s football team, ran track and served as a tutor and volunteer.

Arianna Fisher takes notes while Joshua Burke listens in class.

“This has taught me that I want to be organized, I have to be organized in order to accomplish my necessary goals,” Burke said. “I know when I give all my focus to college courses on a college campus, it might be even easier.”

Anna Vallejo, a senior at Lane Tech High School on the Northwest Side, said she signed up for the public health class because she wants to study biomedical engineering in college. While her first choice is the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, UIC also has become a contender for her after her experience on the UIC campus.

“It’s been really nice to meet kids from other schools, especially considering that’s the kind of experience you’re going to have once you actually get into college,” Vallejo said. “I have a hard time getting used to new environments, so pushing myself into a situation where I was in a completely new environment was definitely something that is going to be useful once I get into college.”

More information about the classes is available online.

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