28 Days of Black Excellence: Cecil Curtwright
Cecil Curtwright retired from UIC in 2012 as the associate vice provost for academic and enrollment services after a 40-year career at the University of Illinois. He was the creator and director of the Minority Engineering Recruitment and Retention Program in the College of Engineering at UIC for almost a decade and was elected president of the National Association of Minority Engineering Program Administrators in the late 1980s. Curtwright then worked for the central administration where he directed the University of Illinois System President’s Leadership Program which raises funds for merit scholarships and provides leadership opportunities for minority undergraduate students representing the university’s three campuses. In 2004, he returned to UIC as the associate vice provost in academic and enrollment services where he was responsible for some aspects of community college articulation and partnerships, relationships with the Chicago public schools, as well as working on undergraduate readiness and retention. In addition, Curtwright taught at UIC as a member of the Honors College faculty.
Tariq El-Amin 00:01
Welcome to Black Excellence at UIC Office of Diversity, Equity and Engagement with Dr. Aisha El-Amin
Recording of Dr. Martin Luther King 00:09
[Applause] Believe in yourself and believe that you’re somebody.
Clips from 1995 movie “Panther” 00:17
That we study and master a bunch of different things.
Why are you here?
Study and master a bunch of different things.
I’m proud to introduce our new Minister of Information
Aisha El-Amin 00:26
I’m Dr. Aisha El-Amin
Tariq El-Amin 00:29
Welcome to Black Excellence.
Aisha El-Amin 0:36
Hello, hello UIC family and friends and welcome to UIC’s “28 Days of Black Excellence.” I am Dr. Aisha El-Amin, UIC’s associate vice chancellor for equity and belonging. It is my great honor to celebrate the history of Black excellence at UIC with powerful, inspiring and informative conversations with UIC’s alumni, past faculty and past staff. So each day, a new guest will share their story and today I am so honored to introduce our guest, Mr. Cecil Curtwright. He has been a long… If you’ve been around UIC, you probably know Cecil. He has actually been here since 1970 as an undergrad student, and has done so many things since that time. And, so I’m just going to hand the microphone over to him and ask him to tell us about his journey from 1970 to today.
Cecil Curtwright 1:33
Alright, thank you so much. And, thank you for having me and having an opportunity to be with you today and talk about my journey at UIC. I started at UIC as an undergraduate student in 1970. I actually did not finish at UIC, I was a dropout. I dropped out of college and started going to another college called the U.S. Postal Service [Chuckles] and was at the U.S. Postal Service for two years. And, through some interesting kind of circumstances, ended up leaving the post office literally being told by some older Black gentleman there that I needed to go back to college when they found out that I had dropped out of college in my junior year. They changed my job, which was very good, and put me down on the docks with some of the hardest work and what have you and said, you know, “You can do better than this and you need to go back to college.” So I ended up going back to college after a couple of years and graduated from SIU.
I started working at, what was then, Circle Campus in 1977. I started in a program called the Educational Assistance Program, a program that had been on campus, I think, since 1968. It was a program — a extremely comprehensive program — for Black, Latino and Native American students. At that time, there wasn’t a AAA and there was no LARES (Latin American Recruitment and Education) program. It was just one big program. Had 58 staff members, had three people teaching mathematics, had a staff of I believe was nine or so composition instructors. There were four reading instructors and the rest were counselors and advisors and recruiters. So it was a pretty comprehensive program. So that’s where my career at UIC began.
I started working with students in general and then through some interesting circumstances I was asked to be the assistant to the dean in the College of Engineering. And it was a situation where I was half time in the educational assistance program and half time in the College of Engineering. After a few years that changed where I was full time in the College of Engineering. And then about a year or two after that, I started a program in the College of Engineering which is known as the MERR program, the Minority Engineering Recruitment and Retention Program. I did that for about 10 years. As it turned out, I ended up becoming the national president of an organization called NAMEPA which was the National Association of Minority Engineering Program Administrators. It was made up of colleges of engineering all over the United States, and particularly those that had minority engineering programs.
Because I was in that position for about a year and a half I sort of lived out of airports because I was flying all over the country to various campuses. The good thing about that, I got an opportunity to see how people were doing things differently in different locations, and was able to look at a Purdue, look at a University of Minnesota, look at what they were doing at Berkeley, at Stanford, at Texas A&M, and look at the kind of programs that they put in place to facilitate the matriculation of minority students. So I just learned a lot from that and brought as much of that as I could back to UIC and the College of Engineering. Some other kinds of things started to happen. I was working with a group of individuals, many of whom were affiliated with the Urban Health Program at the time and one gentleman in particular, Phil Roberts in the College of Dentistry.
We were pushing the administration to start looking at trying to bring in Black students who were doing particularly well in high school. There was a lot of conversation at the time that those students would never come to UIC or Circle Campus at the point. And we were the ones who started the Salute to Academic Achievement, which is a program which I believe still happens in the U of I System where you identify students based on their test scores etcetera, etcetera, bring them to campus, try to introduce them to what’s going on. Out of that program another program was started called the President’s Awards Program. That program made money available to Black and Latino students at the Chicago campus, the Urbana-Champaign campus and, later in time, the Springfield campus. Then programs were built underneath that I was asked to participate in that is well, and I was, in a sense, kind of transferred out of UIC into the central administration. I worked in the vice president for academic affairs office for the entire U of I System. There, I was asked to develop another program called the President’s Leadership Program, which again, was a program for those Black and Brown students who were part of PAP … .
One of the things I oftentimes talked about, and we oftentimes talked about, was we know that a lot of these students are going to historically Black colleges. And we know why they’re doing that. Are there some things we could do at the U of I similar to what they’re doing at historically Black colleges? We know that one of the things that they do is that they are producing a leadership elite. I mean, that’s been part of their historical mission, you know, going back to the 19th century. Or are there some things we could do at the U of I, similar to that to put these young people in leadership positions or what have you. So hence the name of the program, the President’s Leadership Program. This is a program for the students who are doing well on the three campuses. We will provide internships for them during the summer. All kinds of programs for them during the academic year. We did a program called Law Map, which identified Black and Brown students who wanted to go into law. And this is a program that started in their junior year. We worked with the top law firms in the city of Chicago. And we had this program where these students during the summer, even though they were still undergrads, they would work with … Each student was assigned a partner, okay, in the law firm, and they got to work with first-year law students even though they were juniors, and undergrad. And again, this was a program to give them an opportunity to see what corporate law was like, what that lifestyle was like and what have you. So we ended up doing a number of things like that.
There was a change in administration of presidents and what have you. Some things were changed during the central administration, and I was asked to come back to UIC. When I was in the central administration, I actually reported to Sylvia Manning, who later became the chancellor at UIC. So she sort of brought me back and sort of dropped me into academic and enrollment services, and in a sense, asked me to do my thing, you know, it’s to create programs. I mentioned to her … I can’t remember the name of the provost under her at the time, but he asked me, you know, “What are you interested in?” And I said, my primary interest is the retention of minority students, the success of students on campus. I think recruitment is important, I think it’s very, very important, but I value retention more. Students don’t come here to be here just for a couple of years, and then leave, I mean, they come here to graduate. Anything that we can do to facilitate that process, that’s what I’m primarily interested in.
That’s the work that I’ve sort of dedicated my professional career to is, what can we do to, yes still recruit … I still think that’s very, very important… but once we get them here, what can we do to make sure that the students are successful as possible in such a way so that they can take the next step, which is graduate in a professional school, if they so choose, that they have the requisite GPA, and experience, so that if they want to go on to grad school that’s available to them. That’s sort of been my life work and it’s been my focus. You know, in a sense from the beginning, it’s been about retention and what can we do programmatically, that will enhance the positive experience that young students of color have on the campus. That’s been my driving, kind of energy and focus almost from the beginning. And let me say one other thing about that. Part of that has come from having an opportunity very early in my career, to visit other campuses. When I started at Circle Campus in 1977, five weeks into my tenure there, I was sent to CUNY University in New York, to the City University of New York, to look at their programs, and get a sense of what they were doing at another campus. CUNY had a huge commitment to underserved communities in New York. And a lot of those communities were Black and Brown. And they were doing a number of things to recruit those students. But once they got there to make sure that they had the kind of support networks, so that they could be successful there. They had faculty members publishing books about this, looking at curricular change, different kinds of pedagogies, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. I mean, it spanned the humanities and the social sciences, and what have you.
Part of what drove me and got me really excited, was traveling to other places and talking to people. I was in my 20s when I started, but I was talking to people who had been in the game already 20 years and 25 years and just learning, kind of sitting at their feet, and just, how do you do this? And what do you do when this happens? And how does this work? And you tried that? Did it work? I was just trying to soak up as much information as I could and then bring it home. To me, the campus was home.
Aisha El-Amin 13:52
As you soaked up that information, you have started so many programs is that have benefited Black and Brown students at UIC for generations, and will for generations to come. You are truly a trailblazer. I sit at your feet and learn from all of the things that you’re doing and try to absorb your time, anytime that I can. It is a privilege. Oh, and I would love for you… Because you’ve been at every level of the university from student to staff to executive… What are some pieces of advice that you would give to students to staff members that want to be in leadership roles, to leaders that are in those roles and struggling now? What’s some sage advice that you can offer?
Cecil Curtwright 14:41
For undergraduate students, and it’s something that I’ve said at various kinds of orientations, I’ve suggested to students that they choose their friends wisely. That they choose who they’re going to associate with wisely. And that they have good friends. I oftentimes tell a story of one of my students who went to your alma mater, CVS. And he came with a group of young men and women who went to that same high school. And they kept up with one another, and what have you, and this this one student in particular, who was in the College of Engineering at the time, and his best friend was in pre-dentistry. And I remember once his best friend asked him, he said, “So when did you change your major?”
The guy said, “Excuse me?”
Said, “Yeah, when did you change your major?”
Said, “I haven’t changed my major.”
He said, “Oh, well, I thought you had because the kinds of things you’re doing, aren’t going to get you a degree in engineering. And I thought we were friends. And you should have told me that you’ve gone in another direction.”
That’s a good friend. That’s a good friend who will tell you, look, your goals were this. Are you still on track to achieve them? I will say that at the professional level as well. Whatever success I might have had at UIC, in whatever capacity, I never did that by myself. Never, ever. I always had colleagues around me. And more importantly, I had mentors above me.
So, advice? If you’re a staff member, find a mentor. Got to do it… You can learn so much by listening to people who have done it before. By modeling your behavior after those who are in the position you want to be in, asking them questions about how did you get here? I mean, I think that that’s critical. I believe in group achievement. You know? I know that there are singular geniuses and this that and the other and, you know, that’s fine and whatever. If you want to be a singular person, play tennis. But if you’re a team player — basketball, football, baseball, volleyball, hockey, whatever — that’s a team thing and you do it in collaboration. And I think that students, particularly what I’ve seen, is that students of color do best when they do it collaboratively, when they work with one another, and when they support one another. You know, when they set up study groups, and what have you, and anything that the university and staff and faculty can do to facilitate students doing these kinds of things, I think, is awfully important and it’s absolutely critical and it’s a beautiful thing to see. That’s the other thing, it’s just a beautiful thing to see a group of young people kind of working together and solving problems and congratulating one another. I mean, it’s just a wonderful kind of thing to see and appreciate and sort of take in. So, I am a big supporter of group effort and people working with others, and ideas coming from any number of places. That may be a long-winded answer to a question but, yeah, I think group effort and surrounding your yourself with people who are positive and have positive goals. That’s my advice.
Aisha El-Amin 19:23
I think that is truly sage advice. I appreciate you. I thank you for paving the way and for AARERI and for PAP and for and for and for — like, the list will keep going on — and being part of UIC’s legacy and part of this series. So I thank you, and I look forward to continuing to learn from you.
Cecil Curtwright 19:46
Well, I continue to look forward to learning from you as well [Laughter]. You know this learning goes in both directions, but thank you for having me. Anything I can do to be of help and support to you and the people who may be seeing this this video. I’m available. Thank you so much.
Aisha El-Amin 20:09
Tariq El-Amin 20:12
[Music] Thanks for joining us find more inspiring and informative conversations with UIC alumni, faculty and staff at blackresources.uic.edu. That’s blackresources.uic.edu.