UIC’s Latino academic support wins national awards

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UIC, now with an undergraduate student body more than a quarter Hispanic, earned two national awards for supporting Latino student success.

In the 1970s, community members joined faculty and staff at the University of Illinois at Chicago to advocate for specialized Latino student service programs aimed at recruitment and retention.

Administrators responded to the appeal with the 1975 launch of a new department, known today as the Latin American Recruitment and Educational Services (LARES) program.

One year shy of its 40th anniversary, LARES is the largest academic support unit at UIC, where now more than a quarter of undergraduates are Latino, and this month the program earned national recognition for improving Latino student success in college.

Excelencia in Education, a national nonprofit whose mission is to accelerate Latino student success in higher education, named LARES as its 2014 Example of Excelencia award, as the nation’s top program for increasing achievement for Latino students in the undergraduate category.

The award, presented in collaboration with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, recognizes the evidence-based program or department that most effectively boosts Latino enrollment, performance and graduation.

Hugo Teruel, director of LARES, will accept the award and a $5,000 check in support of LARES tonight during a ceremony in Washington, D.C.

LARES will also receive an Outstanding Institutional Advising Program Award from the National Academic Advising Association (NACADA) at its annual conference in Minneapolis next month. The award recognizes programs for best practices in academic advising.

“We are proud that our work on behalf of the students and the community we serve has gained distinction from national organizations,” Teruel said. “The recognition is vindication that we have a good program and provide innovative academic advising.”

UIC’s six-year graduation rate for full-time Hispanic freshmen who entered in fall 2008 is 56 percent, up seven percentage points from the year before and 16 points since 2010. The five-year graduation rate for the new Hispanic transfers who entered in fall 2009 increased three points, to 74 percent.

“There is always work that needs to be done,” Teruel said. “Among college-bound youth, the Latino population is the only group expected to grow.”

LARES helps students, particularly first-generation college students, navigate the admission process through various workshops, including financial aid acquisition.

The LARES advisors are also recruiters, who serve as UIC’s liaisons to high schools and prospective students. Teruel says the dual role is a “vital component” to the unit’s success.

“Students make that connection, develop that rapport with an advisor, and vice versa — the university makes a connection with the student,” he said. “By the time they step foot on campus, they see a friendly face.”

During orientation, LARES staff co-advise incoming students along with the various colleges’ advising staffs. Individualized counseling, career and graduate school guidance, tutoring and other academic services are available.

LARES also offers students a leadership program, featuring civic engagement opportunities, speakers, workshops and the opportunity to attend a national leadership conference.

In partnership with the Hispanic Center of Excellence in the UIC College of Medicine, LARES offers a summer academic enrichment program for incoming first-year pre-medicine students. The Latino Health Science Enrichment Program gives participants the opportunity to engage in pre-health workshops, develop chemistry, math and English skills and also learn about college transition and resources on the UIC campus.

LARES’s external outreach includes collaborations with the Chicago Public Schools, the City of Chicago, and the State of Illinois Latino Family Commission.

UIC’s 2.7 percentage point growth since last year in Hispanic/Latino undergraduate enrollment – now 26.4 percent of the student body – qualifies the campus to seek designation as a Hispanic-Serving Institution from the U.S. Education Department.

“The designation is important, and it sends a message to the university, to higher education, and to the community that we need to focus on graduating Latino students,” Teruel said. “For educational purposes, becoming a HSI allows us to apply for some funding that could really help in terms of retention and graduation.”

As a Hispanic-Serving Institution, UIC would be eligible for federal grants for student support services, classroom equipment, construction or renovation, faculty development, tutoring and counseling, and other academic offerings. UIC will submit its application — which also requires data on affordability, graduation rates and financial aid — in 2015.

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