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Northeastern Illinois University Program Seeks to Empower Hispanic Scholars

In Spanish, the word “enlace” is defined as a mechanism that unites two or more things or elements together. At Northeastern Illinois University, the ENLACE fellowship program is linking Hispanic scholars with each other and the community-at-large.

The brainchild of Dr. Santos Rivera, senior executive director of affirmative action and institutional outreach initiative at NEIU, the program is designed to increase the number of Hispanic students enrolling in Illinois’ graduate schools. In six years, ENLACE (ENgaging LAtino Communities for Education) has assisted 28 Hispanic students to earn master’s degrees, with 10 more slated to graduate in December.

Riding the wave of success experienced by K-12 ENLACE programs launched in seven states in 1997 to increase the number of Hispanic students enrolling in college, Rivera and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, through a $1.5 million grant, launched the first and only ENLACE program designed for graduate students. The Illinois Board of Higher Education has provided a Higher Education Cooperative Grant to ENLACE to maintain the program.

The two-year graduate program at NEIU finances the graduate educational endeavors of 10 fellows. The fellowship combines traditional curriculum with special courses on higher education policy and pipeline reconstruction as well as monthly professional development days. While enrolled in the program, students are required to perform community service. Before receiving master’s degrees in educational leadership or bilingual/bicultural studies, the fellows travel to study higher education systems in Latin America.

Despite 30 years of affirmative action, the faculty profile at the majority of American colleges and universities remains largely White. While first-time Hispanic enrollment in graduate schools increased 5 percent from 1996 to 2006, according to the Council of Graduate Schools, Hispanics still make up a small percentage of minority faculty. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, Hispanics made up only 3.4 percent of full-time faculty positions at four-year, degree-granting institutions nationally in 2005.

“We’re helping address the low representation of Latinos in graduate programs as well as the low representation of Latinos in higher education among the faculty ranks,” says Rivera, director of the program. “Our fellows are engaging in community-based initiatives that empower the entire community and strengthen the pipeline.”

One of ENLACE’s first graduates, 38-year-old Michelle DeValdivielso, attempted to obtain her master’s degree a few years before joining the program, but as one of the few women of color enrolled in the senior administration program at National-Louis University, DeValdivielso felt isolated and dropped out. Joining ENLACE in 2001, DeValdivielso had a completely different experience.

“Our cohort immediately bonded. We all had similar experiences because we were all Hispanic. In the spirit of collaboration, we shared notes and studied together. If someone became discouraged, other fellows stepped in to encourage,” DeValdivielso says.

ENLACE fellows find the monthly daylong professional development seminars, which feature scholars and researchers from the Latino community, especially helpful. Individuals conducting research on higher education issues, working for community-based organizations or working in the ranks of the foundation world are invited to make presentations.

Columba Myra Gatan-Morales, a 2003 ENLACE graduate, says the professional development seminars were the program’s greatest benefit.

“Being a first-generation college student, you’re not really aware of the career opportunities within higher education,” says Gatan-Morales, 32, who is currently pursuing her doctorate in higher education administration at Illinois State University.

While some appreciate the professional development seminars, others value the community service component.

“We worked with students and parents in the community and were able to make positive contributions. My role was to provide guidance and mentoring for those interested in college but unaware of the opportunities available to them,” says Milagros Acosta, who is currently pursing a doctorate in education from DePaul University.

All agree, however, that the trip abroad is a main highlight.

“Having an international experience is crucial because we’re becoming more and more of a global society,” says Rivera. “We are preparing students for higher education leadership for a global society.”

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