Aaron Cortes works to give underserved students some of the advantages that privileged youth enjoy, things that he and many others who work with Northeastern Illinois University’s Center for College Access and Success, didn’t have when they were growing up.
“Many of us who come from underserved communities were never given opportunities to choose what we were going to do after high school,” said Cortes, who serves as the director of STEM Initiatives at the Center and who is also working as an affiliate of the STEM PUSH Network.
The Center for College Access, which is a department at Northeastern University of Chicago, seeks to ensure that students have choices.
That starts early.
In middle school, Cortes said the Center works to instill a “different mindset of learning” into sixth and seventh graders with various STEM and team-building activities. “We’ll support a teacher and have a team challenge with 25 young Latinas to learn about micro-controllers so that when they get to high school, they are competitive and interested in continuing learning,” he said.
High school continues the hands-on and team building activities with students participating in robotics and hackathons in their freshmen and sophomore years.
In students’ junior and senior years, there’s a concentration on involving students in national and global projects and taking students to other communities, including international trips, for STEM activities and competitions.
“We are trying to build a resume for our students,” he said. “When they graduate from high school, no one stands out like they do because they have done all of these experiences.”
When it’s time for the students to apply to college, Cortes said they have a true story to tell on their college applications and essays. “It’s not just one more story of a student coming from limited means. Unfortunately, there are many stories like that. This is about how they were able to be supported to make life changing decisions that required them to put energy and effort to be competitive and successful,” he said.
The key to success is to ensure that underserved students have some of the same advantages of their more privileged counterparts.
“They need to have people who will mentor them, who will tutor them, who will be concerned about their growth,” he said. “We can not allow ourselves to promote a perception that everyone finds success on their own by pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. We all need a support system to be the best version of ourselves.”
And then, once students are ready to apply to colleges, he said he is deeply concerned that colleges might not be ready to provide the necessary support systems to grow students who are low income and first generation college bound. Colleges need to be student-centered and able to foster equity, access, inclusion and diversity.
Cortes said this is where his organization’s affiliation with the STEM PUSH Network truly adds value, by elevating the status of pre-college STEM programs like his with college admissions officials.
Cortes said he has strong feelings about the college admissions process and is leery of universities that are enrollment-centered instead of being student-centered.
“If you don’t see the quality of the student, why would I send you students? You’re not going to support them anyway,” Cortes said. “It is imperative that we engage in dialogue and collaboration with colleges and universities to be better prepared to support the needs of the student population that we serve.”