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Latino students at Northeastern Illinois University get new permanent home

Northeastern Illinois University’s Hispanic students are getting their first permanent home after ground broke on the new El Centro campus in Avondale Thursday. 

The center, expected to open in Spring 2014, will offer expanded academic and social programs to the university’s nearly 4,000 Hispanic students and reinforce the school’s commitment to diversity. 

“I came to Northeastern Illinois University because of the programs,” said senior Alejandra Tafoya, “and the environment is great. There is a majority Latino population at El Centro.” 

A first-generation American citizen, she will be the first of her five siblings to receive a bachelor’s degree when she graduates in the spring. 

“Being first generation, I didn’t want to go away” from her family’s Little Village home, Tafoya said. “I was a bit scared to leave the nest. But I identify with the Latino population here.” 

The human resource development major said the university’s Latino-centered campus offered opportunities to its students to connect with the community, including a mentoring program and internships. 

“I feel it’s preparing me a lot,” she said. 

Northeastern Illinois University was recognized by Newsweek magazine as one of the most diverse universities in the U.S., and is designated as a Hispanic-Serving Institution by the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities. 

Although El Centro is open to all students – traditional first-years as well as adults continuing their education – the focus is on the Latino community. 

According to a report by Rob Paral and Associates and based on U.S. Census data, the Latino population in Illinois grew from 1.5 million to 2 million between 2000 and 2010. 

Addressing the 60 or so in the crowd at the groundbreaking ceremony, Gov. Pat Quinn emphasized the importance of creating access to education for all students. 

“It’s so important to make sure that we have institutions that know how to reach out to all of our population,” he said. “We have to be diverse in Illinois.” 

Latinos represent more than 15 percent of the traditional 18- to 24-year-old college-age population in the U.S., but just 36 percent enroll in college, according to the ENLACE Leadership Institute at Northeastern Illinois University. The group works to close this gap and encourage enrollment and retention among Latino students. 

“The impact that this facility will have on future generations in providing access to educational opportunities is beyond measure,” said Maria Luna Duarte, interim director of El Centro. 

She said the new location, “like the current one, will be a second home where all students feel welcome.” 

In the more than 40 years since it was founded, El Centro’s student body has grown from 300, and the numbers keep growing.Of the university’s more than 11,000 students, Latinos make up 32 percent of the community, just behind the 40 percent of white students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. 

El Centro currently leases a space at 3119 N. Pulaski Road; the groundbreaking marked the first time the campus will have its own permanent home. 

“This is symbolic of the fact that we are being acknowledged in a public and concrete way,” said El Centro board member Marcelo Ferrer of the Logan Square Neighborhood Association. 

The new campus has been in the works for three years, he said, and its expanded programming is "a serious approach on how to retain Latino students." He said the groundbreaking, as well as Tuesday’s “historic” elections, are indicators of larger political change and a growing acceptance of the Latino community. 

“It’s a turning point, in a way,” he said. “It says, ‘We are here to stay.’”

Keywords: Avaondale, El Centro Campus, Northeastern Illinois University

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