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NIU’s Parent University helps to build community

Parent University participants enjoyed a cooking class at Northwestern Medicine Kishwaukee Hospital in DeKalb.
Parent University participants enjoyed a cooking class at Northwestern Medicine Kishwaukee Hospital in DeKalb.

DeKALB – 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 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 Northern Illinois University College of Education and became the Parent University coordinator.

Parent University founder Susana Das Neves said, “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 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.

While Parent University provides presentations on various topics chosen by the families – from resume building and financing a home to applying for college and financial aid – Lopez Zavala said 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 said in a news release. “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 said 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 said. “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 earned 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.

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 said. “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.”

Lopez Zavala hopes to do 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 meet one Saturday a month to guide students and parents through the transition to college or university.

For information, email or call 309-706-3915.

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