On June 1, the Latin American and Latina/o Studies program welcomed to campus Ms. Maribel Díaz, Spanish teacher at Joliet West High School, as part of an event organized under the auspices of the Communities of Belonging and Success (COBAS) initiative. Díaz has been a teacher in Joliet for 11 years, with six of those years spent at Joliet West High School developing a program for heritage speakers. These are students who have grown up speaking and listening to the Spanish language but have not been instructed in academic Spanish.

Joliet West High School proved to be an excellent venue to establish this curriculum because 44 percent of its population identifies as Latino. Díaz said that although most of the Latino population in Joliet is of Mexican descent, she includes Puerto Rican, Colombian, and Dominican cultural aspects in her lessons. This growing curricular tendency incorporates culturally relevant teaching into the classroom, and students who have taken these courses also perform better in reading and writing scores in English. In short, a greater understanding of their first language, leads to an increase in verbal skills in general.

In terms of course content, Díaz has experimented with strategies for what works best for her students. Her courses give Spanish heritage speakers a place to cultivate their Spanish skills, from whatever degree of fluency they find themselves, with significant cultural content, first drawing from Mexican history and “leyendas,” and then incorporating history and politics from other Latin American countries.

Ms. Maribel Diaz at the front of the classroom explaining her experiences.
Ms. Maribel Díaz describes her strategies and experiences to an audience in Williams Hall.

Faculty, students, and colleagues from various departments in the College of Arts and Sciences, the College of Education, University College, and the Center for Integrated Professional Development met in Williams 314 to listen to Díaz share her experiences as a first-generation student now working to provide success in the classroom and beyond.

COBAS is the brainchild of Dr. Maura Toro-Morn’s work in Latin American and Latino/a Studies and Dr. Jim Pancrazio’s efforts with First Time in College Students (FTICs). Specifically, the program redesigned LALS 109, the Introduction to Latino Studies course, with a heightened awareness on community building and academic success during the first semester of college to avoid academic probation, which is all too common among FTICs. At the end of their first attempt teaching this redesigned class, only one of the students who took the class ended up on academic probation. COBAS seeks to engage students through content-specific topics (Latino Studies and Spanish for heritage speakers) to transform learning experiences by community building and cultivating the skills that will better serve them during their first year in college and beyond.  

Dr. Pancrazio at the front of a classroom
Dr. James Pancrazio explains some of the reasons behind the need for COBAS.

Díaz also spoke informally about her own experiences as a first-generation student, leaving home in Cicero to attend a predominantly white institution in Northern Michigan. She was one of five Latina students on a campus of over 6,000. Building social relationships was key to her success. Her experiences also shaped her teaching heritage, and her courses are rooted in success and transformative goals. One of the major outcomes for her students is gaining a vision that was missing from their experience, which is the opportunity to learn about the creation of generational wealth.

“Progress has been made in becoming more aware of the needs of diverse students on campus; yet work is still needed,” said Professor Jordan Arellanes, appointed to Latin American and Latina/ Studies and the Psychology department. “We can create change by developing more effective ways to get students to feel included from the first day they show up on campus and training them on how to be a college student, make friends, and provide better access to resources.”

Pancrazio, from the Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures, indicated that “outreach to first-generation Latino/a students and their families inevitably involves an element of code-switching and cross-cultural communication. It is typical for Midwestern families to see sending their children off to college as a rite of passage, a type of launching toward independence and adulthood. This concept, however, doesn’t translate into Spanish or Latin American culture because it involves rupture and often teenage rebellion. Adulthood among Latino/a cultures is defined often by taking on responsibility and providing for the family. Hence, redefining the notion of ‘launching’ as ‘advancing’ will make more sense in these efforts.”

Political Science Professor Mike Hendricks was happy to see a diverse set of stakeholders voicing their ideas and concerns on what can be improved as a “collectivist community” at Illinois State.

“I am excited that ISU has COBAS and look forward to seeing what it can do to help our students succeed and form this community, so many of us want,” Hendricks said, “I know that there is still a lot of work to be done, but yesterday’s conversations demonstrated that we are on the correct path moving forward.”

“COBAS offers faculty intervention points to begin to address the experiences of freshman, first-generation students from Latinx and other minority communities,” said Toro-Morn, director of the Latin American and Latina/o Studies program. “COBAS helps those of us teaching general education courses recognize how these courses are the building blocks for building a sense of community and belonging.”

She added that one huge takeaway from Díaz’s presentation was “the deepening awareness that high school students who will transition to college in the next two years have been through a pandemic where although they were not physically in the classroom, they were learning important lessons about life.

“The institutional value of building community needs to be redefined as it is evident that we will need to help future and current students navigate a new world reconstituted by social forces beyond our control. Another point for me is the recognition that success and belonging are not processes that just happen. We (entire institution) need to work at helping students be successful and create a sense of belonging. How do we create a sense of belonging? This is a process that is both academic and non-academic; thus both types of units on campus must be involved.”