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Raising the Bar: The University of Illinois at Chicago Earns 2020 Seal of Excelencia

Diverse: Issues In Higher Education and Excelencia in Education have partnered to exclusively release names of the institutions that have earned the 2020 Seal of Excelencia, a national certification that confirms an institution goes beyond enrollment to intentionally serve Latino students. The following school, The University of Illinois at Chicago, is one of five institutions to earn the 2020 Seal of Excelencia. To learn more about the seal, visit

Administrators at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) see the Seal of Excelencia as not only recognition of the university’s decades-long commitment to Latinx student success, but as motivation to do even better moving forward.

In its second year of being issued, institutions committed to Latinx student success have sought Excelencia in Education’s Seal of Excelencia, seeing it as clear affirmation of their missions. Excelencia in Education CEO Seal Of ExcelenciaDeborah A. Santiago says the crux of the Seal is “fulfilling the social contract an institution has with a student about their educational success.”

To be eligible to apply for the Seal or to earn it, an institution does not necessarily need to be an Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI) with an undergraduate student population of at least 25% of its full-time-equivalent students being Latinx. Santiago says that intentionality, data and strategies are what matter.

“We’re looking for institutions that have programs that are explicit and effective in serving Latino students,” says Santiago. “What stands out about University of Illinois-Chicago is that this is a Carnegie-designated Research 1 (R1) institution, and they’re focused on how to improve faculty representation, not just for UIC, but nationally. That shows a bigger vision and value.”

“Student success is at the core of the university’s mission,” says Dr. Nikos Varelas, vice provost for undergraduate affairs and academic programs. “We are using data extensively in developing and assessing programs.”

Dr. Michael Amiridis, UIC’s chancellor, says evidence-based tools are essential to a diverse and inclusive institution. “You have in place benchmarks that are available to facilitate and also to monitor the progress of the institution,” says Amiridis, who is committed to leading by example in embracing the commitment to Latinx student success. “Also, removing barriers.”

History of commitment

UIC’s Latin American Recruitment and Education Services (LARES) program was established in 1975 to assist in recruiting Latinx students and to provide them with academic support. It has grown from originally serving around 100 students to its present enrollment of more than 3,300. 

LARES has developed numerous initiatives over the years that address the needs of Latinx students, including academic advising, financial information, tutoring and the Academic Skills Programs (ASP) in English and math. There is also information about scholarship opportunities, leadership initiatives, resources for undocumented students, career development, internships and fellowships. 

Dr. Nikos VarelasDr. Nikos Varelas

Advisors remained available online after the office closed due to COVID-19. LARES Executive Director Hugo Teruel says he and his staff are continually trying to provide more services to meet the changing needs of UIC’s Latinx students. 

Santiago says the long history of LARES shows there has been institutional engagement with the community. Teruel has increased the marketing of LARES to facilitate funding and to share best practices as well as let current and potential UIC students know what is available for them. Alumni of LARES have become enthusiastic recruiters and helped build its network. 

“I would say that the university wouldn’t be where it’s at for Latino education without the LARES program,” says Teruel. “We’re advocates for students. We’re very vocal when it comes to policies that will impact the Latino community.”

Varelas says UIC mirrors Chicago’s racial, ethnic and socioeconomic diversity with Latinx students comprising approximately one-third of the undergraduate student population. From 2014 to 2019, the number of first-year Latinx undergraduate students doubled. During that time there was also a 40% increase in the number of Latinx transfer students. 

“UIC is part of the community,” says Varelas. “It partners with schools with significant Latinx populations and community-based organizations.”

UIC representatives go into high schools and forge relationships. Should those students choose to attend UIC, they maintain those connections. There are multiple scholarships for Latinx students.

The Flames Leadership Network (FLN) is a four-year program with coaching and other supports that seek to empower students to reach their full potential. FLN includes one-on-one meetings with a dedicated coach for support and skill building, a career advisor, support in finding on-campus employment, monthly academic enrichment workshops and a program stipend. Latinx students comprise 65% of participants, 86% of whom are first-generation college students.

Range of programming

LARES and the African American Academic Network have a partnership with UIC’s Institute for Policy and Civic Engagement to run the Urban Public Policy Fellowship program. Students are paired with community organizations and do research about public policy and civic engagement during a paid internship.

“They’re working in a field in which they have an interest as well as getting research opportunities and experience,” says Teruel. “They also get the opportunity to present their research at one or two major conferences.”

LARES program scholarsLARES program scholars

UIC’s Latino Cultural Center has many cultural offerings as well as support services. Among the programs is the Latin@s Gaining Access to Networks for Advancement in Science (L@S GANAS), funded by an HSI STEM grant from the Department of Education. The program focuses on the recruitment, retention and graduation of Latinx students in STEM fields.

“Through that program we have seen great success,” says Varelas. “Students are retained at a higher rate. We identify students who early on want to go into graduate programs and provide them mentorship and support in addition to research opportunities. The program provides a conference allowance so they can present their research.”

UIC has a robust health education and healthcare delivery system, says Amiridis, noting “We are the flagship of the state of Illinois when it comes to the health sciences and we have the only state hospital and a set of clinics.”

Together with the University of Illinois College of Medicine, there is the Hispanic Center of Excellence, which endeavors to strengthen the pipeline and increase the number of Latinx applicants pursuing healthcare careers. The program provides research support, mentorship and community outreach. 

“Our College of Medicine over the last three decades has recruited and graduated the largest number of Latino physicians in the country,” says Amiridis. Diverse: Issues In Higher Education has ranked it at number one for Latinx graduates.

Eye to the future

“They are part of our community of common cause,” says Santiago. “We share what they’re doing with others.”

Santiago praises UIC’s intentionality in trying to develop more Latinx faculty and its willingness to collaborate rather than compete, describing it as a critical sign of leadership. Amiridis, who serves on the board of the Hispanic Association of Colleges & Universities, reaches out to the 13 other R1 HSIs, and UIC is leading an initiative to create a consortium to support Latinx students who want to pursue advanced degrees and join the professoriate. 

Dr. Michael AmiridisDr. Michael Amiridis

“I want to bring these powerhouses together on the national level to address the pipeline issue in the profession,” Amiridis says.

The number of Latinx faculty, administrators and staff at UIC has increased over the past decade. Being intentional in furthering diversity and inclusion, UIC’s diversity office provides training for search committees, offers faculty mentoring and develops retention efforts. There is also the Underrepresented Faculty Recruitment Program. 

Among the programs that UIC has pioneered is the Pipeline to an Inclusive Faculty Program, which provides financial support, professional development and mentoring for underrepresented graduate students who are committed to careers as faculty. There is also the Bridge to the Faculty program, which recruits underrepresented post-doctoral scholars into two-year positions with the goal of having them join the UIC faculty. There are currently 10 post-docs in this program, half of whom are Latinx.

“We also have the Faculty-Administrator Leadership Program that’s led by the provost, which helps faculty learn about what it takes to become an administrator,” says Varelas.

Varelas’ office also pursues funding to research student success initiatives. Results are disseminated nationally. 

When the campus closed down due to COVID-19, UIC kept residence halls open for those students who had nowhere to go. For those heading home, laptops and hotspots were provided to students who lacked sufficient equipment for online learning. There were also emergency grants. Despite the disruption, Varelas says there has been an increase in both retention and graduation rates.

“We have an obligation to share the experience of our most successful student success programs … like LARES, the Hispanic Center of Excellence and L@S GANAS,” says Amiridis. “They have really contributed to closing the achievement gap. We have the obligation to share the experience of our Latin American and Latino Studies department, which has been extremely active, as well as our Latino Cultural Center. 

“They have helped prepare students for professional careers and are in the community,” he adds. “The Seal is motivation to continue expanding and enhancing our work in new directions.”  

This article originally appeared in the October 1, 2020 edition of Diverse. You can find it here.


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