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NIU graduate student helps to build community through Parent University

November 20, 2019

Araceli Lopez Zavala first attended Universidad para Padres (Parent University) in 2016 to see if she could help out as a volunteer. The bilingual Sycamore resident, who has an undergraduate degree in social work, was not aware of the many community resources and other benefits that Parent University provides to Latinx parents in DeKalb County. Lopez Zavala appreciated the support the parents provided one another and she soon signed up as a participant in this free community outreach program. After two years as a participant, she enrolled as a graduate student in the NIU College of Education and became the Parent University coordinator.

 Parent University founder Susana Das Neves says, “When I was presented with the opportunity to lead the state Migrant Education Program and could no longer coordinate Parent University, I couldn’t think of a better person to coordinate Parent University than Araceli. She had been a participant, knew the parents and their kids, and had an understanding of the parents’ needs. She has demonstrated sensitivity to parents’ experiences and the challenges of navigating life in the United States, and she’s also connected them with community resources.”

The DeKalb area Parent University was founded in 2016 with the goal of empowering mothers, fathers and even grandparents to take active roles in their own personal growth and their children’s academic success. Over the past three years, the program has helped to support more than 80 families as they’ve learned to navigate the school system, take advantage of local resources and advance their education. The group currently meets three Monday evenings out of each month at DeKalb High School, and new visitors are welcome to attend at any time. Free childcare is provided. (Contact [email protected] or call 309-706-3915 for more information.)

While Parent University provides presentations on a variety of topics chosen by the families – everything from resume building and financing a home to applying for college and financial aid – Lopez Zavala says the most important resource it provides is the chance for parents to connect with others who are in a similar situation.

“Parent University is that safe place where parents can come and learn and develop positive feelings about themselves,” Lopez Zavala says. “Parent University is the platform, but the most important thing is the relationships the parents have built and the way they rely on one another. When I came to Parent University, I felt empowered because we’re there together and we share what we’re going through, and it normalizes our concerns and our issues.”

As a mother of three who immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico, Lopez Zavala has much in common with the other parents. Like them, she joined Parent University as a way to better understand the school system and support her children. But along the way, Lopez Zavala says she and the other parents discovered that Parent University is focused not just on their children’s academic success, but also on their own education, growth and self-advocacy.

“Parent University was founded to be focused on personal growth, on the parent as an adult learner,” Lopez Zavala says. “When I joined Parent University, I wanted to be resourceful and I wanted to learn for my children, but then the opportunity came for me to continue with my education.”

Lopez Zavala is in good company. A number of other parents from the program have gone on to earn vocational degrees or certificates from local community colleges, several have completed their GEDs, and at least one other participant is preparing to apply for graduate school.

“It’s really amazing, and I always praise them for that,” she says. “Because as adults, as parents, we have so many other commitments, and we wonder how we’re going to juggle it, but they still find the time. When parents go back to school and they make that commitment, that’s very powerful.”

“‘Pay it Forward’ is the motto that guides my personal and professional life,” says Das Neves, “so I was very intentional in including on the Parent University application a question asking parents to share their level of education and their educational goals. As a Latina pursuing an advance degree, I want to pay it forward, to mentor others as I have been mentored and to encourage others to further their education. During this hard time of uncertainty among our immigrant community, we must support each other and encourage the value and pursuit of education at all levels.”

Thanks in large part to the encouragement of Das Neves and fellow participants in Parent University, Lopez Zavala decided to return to school to earn a graduate degree. She is now enrolled in the master’s program in school counseling in the NIU College of Education, and she coordinates Parent University as a graduate assistant in the NIU Center for P-20 Engagement, where Parent University is housed.

Much of Lopez Zavala’s motivation to support Parent University stems from her experiences when she first came to the U.S. as a junior in high school.

“I didn’t speak English, so I had to learn that,” she says. “But besides that, my parents weren’t as involved as the parents at Parent University, not because they didn’t want to be, but because it was just so completely new to them. It was difficult for me to navigate the school system on my own.”

“I am hoping that other kids don’t have to go through what I went through because it’s very difficult,” she continues. “We need to, hopefully, close that gap, even by a certain percentage, between the school system and parents.”

Lopez Zavala hopes to do even more to close that gap in her future career as a school counselor.

Parent University will meet at DeKalb High School at 6:30 p.m. on Mondays, Dec. 2, 9 and 16 and will return Jan. 6. The College Boot Camp will also meet one Saturday per month to guide students and parents through the transition to college or university. For more information, contact [email protected] or call 309-706-3915.