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Illinois Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon invites sophomore nursing student Noemi Rodriguez to breakfast

February 14, 2013
Noemi Rodriguez, Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon and Emily Prieto

Noemi Rodriguez, Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon and Emily Prieto

Before Noemi Rodriguez began classes at NIU, she interned at Children’s Memorial Hospital.

“I fell in love with the nurses at Children’s Memorial. I admired their work,” says Rodriguez, a sophomore nursing major from Chicago. “There are some respectable nurses, and there are bad nurses, and I will become a respectable nurse. I love the way they work with their patients, and what I want to do is work with children.”

That was the summer of 2011.

Last summer, Rodriguez again went to work – to earn enough money to return to NIU.

“The thought of not being able to come back next year for financial reasons is always in the back of my head,” she says. “I’m trying really hard to find ways to pay for my school. I’m applying for scholarships. I apply for programs that provide any type of stipend.”

Rodriguez, who is an honors student, is typical of many of her classmates.

But some of her friends have dropped out of college because they could not afford the costs – a problem across the state.

Noemi Rodriguez

Noemi Rodriguez

Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon invited Rodriguez and Latino Resource Center Director Emily Prieto to a Tuesday morning breakfast event at the Union League Club in Chicago, where the lieutenant governor released her report on the bleak situation many Illinois college students face.

Affordability is the “most significant barrier to students seeking degrees at public universities,” Simon says.

Her “Game Changers” report spotlights reforms, including the “reverse transfer program” NIU piloted last semester with Waubonsee Community College.

“Students who transfer from Waubonsee to NIU prior to receiving their associate degree can attain the degree retroactively, using credits earned at NIU,” the report states. “Careful transcript examination results in agreement between the institutions that the students have actually earned the appropriate credits for the associate degree. In this way, students earn both credentials while completing the bachelor’s degree. NIU plans to extend this option to community college students across their region.”

Simon also suggests targeted income taxes waivers for students who earn bachelor’s or advanced degrees and choose to live and work in Illinois post-graduation.

“We need to make sure that our high school students are ready for college and complete certificates and degrees on time and with less debt,” said Simon, Gov. Pat Quinn’s point person on education reform. “The return on educational investment is proven for graduates seeking living-wage jobs and a state seeking high-quality employers. College is worth it.”

The report follows Simon’s fact-finding mission last fall, when she traveled to community colleges and all 12 public universities in Illinois for a first-hand look at the tuition challenges.

When her travels brought her to the NIU campus Nov. 16, she met Rodriguez.

“Every semester, Noemi struggles to pay her tuition. She’s from the South Side of Chicago, Back of the Yards. Her family struggles greatly,” says Prieto, who began mentoring Rodriguez when the sophomore was in junior high school. “Noemi’s done everything right, and the lieutenant governor was really moved by that. She met hundreds and hundreds of students, and something just special happened when she met Noemi. Their relationship is going to continue.”

Emily Prieto

Emily Prieto

Simon has stayed in steady contact with Rodriguez since the November visit, Prieto adds.

“I can’t tell you how much this means to Noemi. They’ve bonded. Even today, she connected Noemi with Rush Hospital about internships there,” she says. “Lt. Gov. Simon is really trying to increase Noemi’s access to social capital, to move her that much closer to her academic and professional goals.”

“The lieutenant governor invited me for breakfast because she admired how dedicated, hard-working and committed I was to my education and my future, even though I have to work to pay for school,” Rodriguez says. “The lieutenant governor told me that she has very high expectations of me, of positively contributing and improving our nation’s health issues.”

But Tuesday’s breakfast was about more than a reunion between politician and student. Its true purpose was to make an impact on the state’s power brokers.

Without an educated workforce, Simon says, Illinois will become unable to attract and retain employers that require highly skilled workers to fill current openings and sustain their future growth.

“Lt. Gov. Simon has a limited budget and not a big staff. But what she does have is a platform and access to people in power,” Prieto says. “What I’m hoping – and what I know she’s hoping – to get out of these types of discussions is that other people will be called to action to rethink things they’re doing at their institutions or diversifying their resources to help students.”