In the late 1960s Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU) Hispanic students proposed the idea of a learning and study center to be established in the community to provide Hispanic main campus students an opportunity to teach English as Second Language (ESL) to Spanish speaking migrants and immigrants within their own community. Under the leadership of Rose Brandzel, Coordinator of Community and Public Services at Northeastern Illinois State College (Now known as Northeastern Illinois University) obtained funds from the U.S. Department of the Education Title I of the Higher Education Act and the Illinois Board of Higher Education to fund an English Language project in an urban progress center.
¡Aqui Estoy! [Here I am] 1969-1972
In March 1969 with the support of students, faculty and administration NEIU opened ¡Aqui Estoy!, a tiny storefront operation located at 2712 ½ West North Avenue to serve the Hispanic community of West Town and Humboldt Park. Rosa Hernandez, NEIU student and English language volunteer became the first director. The programs offered in this location consisted of GED and ESL programs for adults and youth counseling and tutoring.
The C.L.A.S.E.S. Concept 1973-1974
In 1972 funds ran out and ¡Aqui Estoy! was placed in a holding pattern. In 1973 Miguel Velasquez was hired to revive ¡Aqui Estoy!. The plan was to grow the program to include educational offerings and other support services for students. In addition to ESL and GED classes the idea was to add university college credits and basic skills in typing, drafting, stenography, etc. The implementation of a major concentration in the study of “Urban Latin America” was also proposed. Aqui Estoy! was now to be called C.L.A.S.E.S. (Comunidad Latina Adelantando Sus Estudios Secundarios). Between 1973-1974 progress was made to grow C.L.A.S.E.S. For instance a new and bigger facility was leased at 2434 West North Avenue. However, because of conflicts between the director and Union of Puerto Rican Students (UPRS) students who felt they had not been consulted in the development of the program, C.L.A.S.E.S. never became operational.
MISSION EXPANSION 1975-1979
By the Fall of 1975 there was a strong division between various Latino student groups based on their political ideologies, some of these students supported a formal education commitment for a new academic facility and were willing to cooperate with the administration to find a new director. The new academic facility, named El Centro de Recursos Educativos [Center for Educational Services]. This satellite extension of the university within the Hispanic community was housed originally in the office of Academic Affairs. A permanent Advisory Council consisting of university faculty members, student members and members of the Hispanic community at large (from various organizations like ASPIRA Inc. of Illinois, the Latino Institute and the Spanish Action committee) was appointed by President James Mullen under the direction of Ann E. Smith, Vice-President for Academic Affairs that was charged with the responsibility of establishing a community based academic program for college credit in the barrios of West-Town and Humboldt Park areas of Chicago. Jose A. Acevedo was hired and appointed Coordinator by the university to direct, organize and develop a curriculum with the assistance of the Advisory Council. According to Acevedo (1995) “It was under the atmosphere of commitment, cooperation and collaboration that the planning and implementation of an educational program for academic credit was created.
El Centro targeted the adult returning Hispanic student population from its inception. El Centro admitted and enrolled ten Hispanic students in an evening program from 6:00pm to 9:00pm. Monday through Thursday, at a storefront facility, 2434 West North Avenue in the Winter Trimester 1976. The initial curriculum offered the following selections: two English Language Program courses, Intermediate Spanish, and a course in Sociology conducted bilingually. Subsequent curricula evolved and was adapted from the Basic Program of 30 credits hours offered from 1976 through 1987, and from 1987 through the present (2010) for students to fulfill the 39 credit hours core requirement of the General Education Program. While at this location, two separate fires (March 3, 1976 and April 11, 1976) in the second floor of the building caused a brief interruption of services.
UNEXPECTED SETBACKS 1979-1986
In 1979 the need for additional space prompted the University to move El Centro a few blocks north to 2524 W. Altgeld, a catholic school owned by the Achidioses of Chicago. According to Miguel Velasquez, this facility was going to be donated to the University. Initially El Centro occupied the first floor of the building. The space was appropriate for the programs and services it offered at the time. However, shortly after the owners in need of space moved El Centro to the basement of the building therefore resulting in a 50% space reduction which meant less course offerings and other programs.
REBUILDING EFFORTS 1987-1990
In 1987, El Centro moved to a bigger facility a few blocks away to the corner of Western and Fullerton (2400 N. western Avenue). In this location, El Centro occupied the second floor. During the three years in this location, El Centro began to rebuild the program it once offered back in 1975. While at this location, El Centro lead in the city and perhaps the nation in the promotion of bilingualism in education as a pedagogical tool or instrument in a bilingual setting with the offering and the conducting of many classes in Spanish to several thousand students from the Caribbean, México, Central and South America. In addition, it created a cooperative and culture sensitive environment. As a result, adjunct scholars and main campus faculty provided quality instruction throughout the years.
EXPANSION AND GROWTH 1991-PRESENT
In 1991 El Centro was moved to its current location of 3119 North Pulaski. While at this location the University has invested significantly to the infrastructure of the building as well as on its programs and services. The last 19 years, this facility been site of expansion and significant progress for El Centro. Beginning in 1996, El Centro has undergone three major expansion and construction projects all to address the needs of our students and the community we serve. The last construction project completed in 2004 provided and opportunity to increase our course offerings including the general education program of the university. Additional undergraduate courses in social work and several graduate courses from the college of education began to be offered. As a result El Centro made history in the fall 2009 when it enrolled over 1,000 students. In addition, it allowed us to offer additional academic and co-curricular programs for students and increase our community outreach activities in the areas of ESL, computer literacy, health and wellness, housing and financial literacy for the Latino community. In 2002 NEIU partnered with ASPIRA Inc. of Illinois to assist inner city high school students to graduate from high school and prepare them for college life and beyond. Since then we have expanded our partnership to house the Antonia Pantoja High School, coordinated the opening of ASPIRA Early College High School and created the Future Educators of ASPIRA Association. Furthermore, El Centro lead the University in identifying and securing an International Partnership with the University of Guanajuato in Mexico.
The success story of El Centro can be briefly described as an historical evolutionary process reflected in four stages of development. Each particular period represents its own distinctive characteristic: (a) humble beginnings from 1969-1972, (b) expansion of mission from 1976 through 1979; (c) considerable growth with difficulties and setbacks from 1980 through 1986; (d) rebuilding and expansion efforts since 1987. Over the years, El Centro has admitted 1000 plus students, several thousands have enrolled in classes or courses offered, and many have graduated with bachelors and masters degrees from Northeastern Illinois University.
NEIU-El Centro Campus Today
Today, El Centro has evolved into a comprehensive campus providing a wide array of academic course offerings, recruitment and admission program, academic support and co-curricular programs for students and outreach programs for the Latino community. As an entity of Northeastern Illinois University, El Centro campus is poised to continue to provide access and educational opportunities to the Latino community and thus serve as a resource and a bridge for students and community members to develop their human capital, nurture a self esteem, and prepare for the professions in a multicultural and diversified world of the 21st century.